Thursday, December 25, 2008

"Bless this our country, the United States of America"

There is a near-universal practice, in traditional Orthodox synagogues, of blessing the local government and praying to Gd to provide it counsel and support. From East Asia to Russia to Europe to North and South America, in languages varied and with diverse texts, Jews call upon Gd to benefit the lands in which they live. (I'm not sure about Africa.) There are many motivations for this practice, including simple gratitude, a recognition that all citizens benefit from law and order, and a solicitous desire to demonstrate patriotism.

Our shul recites a version that appears in the siddur (prayer book) compiled by Rabbi David deSola Pool several decades ago. This prayer begins, “Heavenly Father, bless this our country, the United States of America.”

The “Heavenly Father” invocation is always jarring for first-timers, but it makes sense as a translation of Avinu sheBashamayim – and it is certainly less offensive to the Jewish ear than a more literal rendition: “Our Father who art in Heaven.”

The more jarring part of that opening line, for many, is the word our. If we term America “our country,” is that a demotion of Israel, and/or a rejection of the fundamental Jewish longing for the arrival of Mashiach and kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of Jews to Israel?

I've mulled and debated this question for the past seven-plus years, and overall I have made my peace with this dubious “our.” The word describes a relationship, yes, but not in an exclusive sense. In my view, our accurately describes both our relationship with Israel and our relationship with America.

If "our" described ownership, I would reject this our; there is only one Jewish land. But, to my mind, “our” is less a statement of possession than a statement of loyalty and responsibility. Our families, our homes, our lives, our careers, our friends – these are ours which are less about owning than about being owned, more about fealty than about property. In this sense, both lands are “our” lands, for both lands may rightfully claim our hearts and our powers.

Israel is “our” country in the sense that it is the only land which is truly attached to a Jew. It is the land in which our genetic and spiritual ancestors lived, loved, worshipped, were born, died and were buried. As we have been taught for millenia, it is the true locus for all that is Judaism, the theater where mitzvot have their greatest meaning as well as application, the earthly soil where a Jew can most fully connect to the Divine. Israel has been promised to us, and we have been promised to it; this land lodges a claim upon our lives as great and as permanent as our own claim upon its soil.

But America is also “our” country, in the sense that it is the land which absorbed us, which afforded us the freedom to live as Jews when no other polity would do likewise; which came, over the course of centuries, to recognize Jews as worthy of education and position and political authority; which bucked the trend of human history and divested religion of government imprimatur and military enforcement; which provided social and economic support for the founding of some of the most vibrant Jewish communities and Torah yeshivot in the world.

More: American values heavily influenced the founders of the modern state of Israel, and American ideology yet recognizes the kinship between the two lands; this connection is another strand in this “our.”

Certainly, my heart - and, one day soon, Gd-willing, my body - is in Israel.
Certainly, the relationship between sectarian Jew and universalist United States, and between America and Israel, is perennially conflicted and inherently insecure.
Certainly, not every government and governor has been as generous of heart toward the descendants of Avraham and Sarah.
Indeed, I am penning this essay on a day when the vast majority of my neighbors celebrate the birth of a man whose ideology I declare anathema, and whose theological descendants have massacred millions of my kin over the past two thousand years.
Still, for all of the reasons above, there is little doubt in my mind that America, even on the twenty-fifth of December, is “our” land.

And so I continue to bless “this our country.” When new people enter our shul, I continue to explain to them, to the best of my ability, why I agree with “our.” And when I spend Shabbos in a different community, one which does not verbalize an “our” in its prayer for the government, in my own mind this expression of loyalty and responsibility still attaches itself to the name of that more perfect union, “our country, the United States of America.”


  1. is there not something tortured in that rationalization of the national prayer? was it not based on our insecurity about being historically perceived as a disloyal outsider? i'm ignorant of such things, but could not this prayer just be omitted, rather than requiring an explanation? considering a man was just elected President of the United States whose pastor damned the country, perhaps the need for the loyalty oath has passed.

  2. Hi Michael,
    I think not. All three of the reasons I presented - gratitude, recognition of the need for government and a desire to prove ourselves - are solidly anchored in Tanach, Talmud and halachic writings.

  3. I think that we're faced with a couple of situations here that are practical and spiritual in nature.

    Certainly there is the spiritual need for all of us to make aliyah.

    But there is also the practical aspect in which we recognize that for some Jews the U.S. will always be "home."

    And there are practical reasons for us to be an integrated part of society. That is not to suggest complete assimilation, but a recognition of our need to participate in society as Americans and not outsiders.

  4. and besides the special prayer, i remind all synagogues to have an american flag (on the right, per the us flag code, and an israeli flag on the left, per the israeli flag code, no conflict in having the two) in front of the sanctuary. unfortunately, many (even modern orthodox) synagogues do not have them (sons of israel does)