Extraneous prayers–for our country, for our congregation, and for the State of Israel

I’ve been away sitting on my ass too intently to post these last days, but I’m back.

To review, though I now go to school in New Jersey, I’m currently back in my hometown of Austin, Texas. While here, I’m attending services every Shabat at CBI, the congregation I grew up at.

While I was away, the ritual committee of CBI (of which I was once a member and my Dad is the current chair) apparently decided that in all of the prayers generated by our forbears, three topics had simply not been considered. There was apparently no way in our litrugical heritage to express three particular longings. OK, so to be fair, that’s not exactly true. The editors of the rather old draft of Mishkan T’filah that is still in use at CBI decided all that. The new development, I suppose, is that the CBI ritual committee decided that this congregation needed to recite these three prayers.

And what three prayers are these that have me in a tizzy? They are the “Prayer for our Congregation,” the “Prayer for our Country,” and the “Prayer for the State of Israel.” Let my complaints begin.

First of all, why did they write these only in English? They couldn’t even be bothered to title them in Hebrew. Second, I’m having trouble distinguish between the term “our country” and the term “State of Israel.” I feel at least as much ownership of Israel as I do of the United States. Why not the “Prayer for (circle one) Canada/the United States of America?” There are basically aesthetic complaints. I promise that I actually have some criticisms of substance beginning in the next paragraph.

The idea that these three topics need to be specially addressed outside of the established structure of the service seems absurd to me. I recognize the possibility that there are things that the service does not already address. What I find hard to believe is that these three no-brainers are within that category of “notions not yet expressed in the liturgy.” The “Prayer for the State of Israel” seems most unlikely to be in the category. Indeed, many have argued that the entire point of the service is to pray for the land of Israel! As for the other two, I would say that the topic of US/Canada is addressed during the Amidah in the prayer for just judges.

The “Prayer for our Congregation” is a tad more likely a candidate for the category of “notions not yet expressed in the liturgy,” but even here I take issue. If we are praying for the health of our co-congregants, we have a section of the Amidah that addresses healing. If we are praying for good leadership, I would refer again to the just judges thing as well as perhaps to the prayer for knowledge and wisdom located at the beginning of the middle section of the Amidah.

My overall point is this: I believe wholeheartedly in the idea that, whether through diving inspiration or mere accident, we have been handed a rich and deep liturgical tradition that is capable of being made to express almost anything we wish without the creation of new material. Things may need occasional and minor alteration, but the idea that there three ideas as big as these that have somehow been left untouched-upon makes no sense whatsoever. And if the editors of this draft of Mishkan didn’t think that, why did they, the inheritors of the repetition-abhorring Reform liturgical tradition, fell the need to create more of the same.

And above all, if you find that something is truly missing from the service, that’s what the silent prayer is for. To hell with Elohai N’tzor. If you find that something is missing, for God’s sake add it in place of that!


The ironic end of this saga is that on Saturday morning, while leading services, I was forced to lead all three of these.


8 responses to “Extraneous prayers–for our country, for our congregation, and for the State of Israel

  1. I just love it. The dual loyalty conundrums of the American Jew. First, they complain about having to worship Israel and then they complain about the Americans who question them or dare critisize them about their real loyalties, by branding them all “Nazi.” The Americans who once went to war against Hitler. Say one thing about the precious Jew anymore and he’ll curse you as such. All we have listen to anymore is Jewish insecurities and Holocaust drama! We’re sick of you belly-achers who’ve ruined the status of this country in the world and your little Tikkun Olam fantasy idealogies. Why the hell don’t you just move to Israel and be done with it?

  2. davidamwilensky

    So this is fun. I’m enjoying our new commenter, incogman. I like his little Casablanca picture. That’s about where my liking him ends.

    It’s interesting to think about how incogman whipped up this particular comment from what I said in this post. I see where the dual loyalty comes in, but there I cease to get it.

    I didn’t call anyone Nazi and I never do. I didn’t mention the Shoah either.

    Anyway, incogman, I’ll leave this post up for humor’s sake, but if you post here again, I’ll delete it.

  3. We’ll, I wouldn’t delete your comment. Actually, you got me there — I was too quick to cast aspersions. You have to understand, that I get that alot towards what I say, from your brethren. Jews are welcome to prove me wrong. Feel free to read any of my blog and comment on it.

  4. davidamwilensky

    Okay. To clarify, I don’t normally delete comments from people who disagree with me, but usually the disagreements are on-topic and so I welcome the discourse. Your intro comment here was not the opening up of discourse. It was an attack on me and my people.

    You can’t make generalizations about a group of people based on a loud minority. I would venture a guess that most Jews don’t go around bellyaching about the Shoah and accusing everyone of being Nazis all the time. Sure some do, but then some WASPy Americans leap to ridiculous biggoted conclusions and I manage not to hold that against the rest of the WASPy Americans.

    That being said, I won’t delete comments from you such as this most recent one because it is not an attack, but attack me again on this blog and I will delete those comments.

  5. Back on topic —

    Prayers for the congregation and country are not a new phenomenon, nor are they missing from traditional liturgy; The idea can be traced back to Jeremiah 29:4 and Pirkei Avot 3:2. (A short historical overview) The prayer for the State of Israel is (obviously) a post-1948 addition, but it is analogous to the prayer for the country. They simply disappeared from Reform liturgy and are now being reintroduced.

    On language choice: I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a prayer for the USA to be in English, and actually prefer it that way.

    The “traditional liturgy” preserves prayers for the leaders of the yeshivot (the Conservative prayer books dropped this one, for obvious reasons), and for the congregation in Aramaic, their vernacular.

    An additional Hebrew prayer for the congregation was added later. It concerns itself with people who contribute money and time to the congregation.

    The “traditional liturgy” version of the prayer for the country (הנותן תשועה) is quite old. There are numerous variants, although they follow a similar forumulation. (The Hebrew Wikipedia article shows some.) According to Elbogen, it predates the Ashkenazic/Sephardic split. Golinkin dates it to (at latest) the 15th century and attributes its prevalence to the printing press. It became the most popular prayer for the country until more recent versions were written, geared toward democratic governments. The Conservative Sim Shalom has essentially two different prayers, one on the English side and one on the Hebrew, which are not translations. Most Conservative congregations (and even some Orthodox ones who won’t admit to its source) use the English version (which is very well written for modern liturgy).

    Why did your (former?) congregation decide to write their own prayer for Israel? Did they not like the one written by Agnon?

  6. It wasn’t composed by members of CBI, but chosen for use from a particular draft edition of Mishkan T’filah (the new Reform sidur) that we are using until we can get our order of the final publication version.

  7. OK, so I guess the real question is for the people who wrote MT (One of the shuls I go to has copies of MT, so I guess I can see what they changed).

    The question for you is why you object to these [harmless and not-very-innovative] additions to the service?

  8. davidamwilensky

    My objection comes from the idea that I expressed in the post that the service says just about everything you could want it to and from the idea that repetition without purpose is silly.

    If you believe, as I do, that all the issues addressed by these additions are already addressed elsewhere, and you believe, as I do, that there is no point in reiterating the points again before Aleinu, then you would find these as objectionable as I do.

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