Peoplehood in the Pews

Illustrative image: Temple Israel in Memphis via Wikimedia.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 25 – “Towards a Peoplehood Based 21st Century Zionism” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Amitai Fraiman

Every Shabbat, the “Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel” is recited in thousands of synagogues around the Jewish world. Composed in September of 1948 by the Chief Rabbis of Israel, this beautiful piece of liturgy reflects both an appreciation for the miraculous events of that year as well as an expression of hope for an even better future. In addition to praising G-d and the State, there are two additional components to the prayer. The first is an exclamation of the redemptive nature of the birth of the modern Jewish State. The second, which is an essential element of traditional messianic themes, is the explicit articulation of the ingathering of the exiles – also known as Diaspora negation. It is clear why rabbis, alive during the founding of a state rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, would use miraculous language to describe what they had lived through. It is also clear why they chose the language they did to describe the ingathering of the exiles. The authors witnessed a massive influx of immigrants to Israel, and imagining a reality of total elimination of Jewish life outside of Israel was no longer a fantasy. It is evident that this prayer, like many others, is both a vehicle for a relationship with the Creator and a reflection of values and a particular belief system.

Although some have chosen to revise the prayer, it remains foundational in the religious Zionist movement, and it is clear why it is recited in Israel. Interestingly, although this prayer became closely associated with religious Zionism, it is recited in synagogues around the world. It has become a beautiful way for those living outside of Israel to express a deep belief in the Zionist project and the support of world Jewry for Israel and its inhabitants. It is a sign of solidarity rarely seen in our Jewish community.

Even though this prayer is a reflection of deeply held beliefs in Zionism, one cannot ignore the shifts this ideology is undergoing. Indeed, over time, the idea of Diaspora negation has been eroded. That is not to say that it has been eliminated from the Zionist canon, but that it is no longer its driving force. While Diaspora negation has been at the heart of the Zionist ideology (from both religious and secular perspectives), it no longer carries the same weight it used to. More and more Israelis are choosing to live outside of Israel, and in terms of immigration rates, the waves of immigration seen as late as the ’90s are no longer happening. In fact, the last major Jewish concentrations outside of Israel are showing no signs of mass immigration. The role of JAFI is no longer described as immigration promotion. Moreover, research shows that the attitudes of Israelis towards Jews outside of Israel have also changed. According to the 2016 Pew study, for the first time in Israel’s history, nearly 70% of Israeli Jews believe that a thriving Jewish Diaspora is necessary. And 47% of Israelis now believe that Israelis should feel free to build a life anywhere in the world, versus only 46% who believe Jews should remain in Israel. A far cry from Rabin’s infamous description of Israeli emigres as a “winnowing of the weaklings.” In short, the sentiment conveyed in the prayer of Diaspora negation is no longer a dominant element of our communal ideology.
While the above most likely does not reflect a significant theological shift, but just an erosion, we still must ask ourselves what it means. Now that we no longer disparage Jewish life outside of Israel, is it time to take a more positive approach toward it?

What is our responsibility towards our brothers and sisters living outside of Israel? If, as the latest Ruderman Foundation research shows, 95% of Israelis believe the relationship with those living outside of Israel is of paramount importance, how might we convey that in our liturgy? How do we signal that they matter in a way that does not discredit their communal integrity? How do we relate to them in a way that does not view them as potential olim and part of a fulfillment of a belief system to which they might not subscribe? In other words, if Jews outside of Israel pray for the welfare of the state of Israel, should not Israelis pray for the welfare of Jews living elsewhere? Should we not respond to their display of solidarity with our own?
Jews in Melbourne, Brooklyn, Jerusalem, and Marseilles recite this prayer to demonstrate their solidarity with Israel and its people. It is unique because it is said weekly, regardless of current events, and affirms that their support for Israel is unconditional and unceasing. The issue is that there is no parallel prayer recited in which we, as a collective, convey our solidarity with our brethren living outside of Israel. The theme of Diaspora negation, so pronounced in our liturgy as well as in our core beliefs, has prevented us from vocalizing an appreciation of life outside of Israel. Our history has led us to this moment in time, and our failure to recognize the vitality of life outside of Israel seems ungrateful. However, if we view this prayer as a sign of solidarity and not only a reflection of our hopes and values, then we can perhaps consider another approach. That is, if we believe in the importance of the unity of our people and the role we all play in the unfolding story of the Jewish people, we must adopt liturgy that reflects that direction. We live in an unprecedented time in which we have two strong and vital centers of world Jewry, and until we resolve the theological ramifications of this reality, we need to do what we can to keep the different parts of our people connected. We need to do so in all realms of our life – public and private, cultural as well as liturgical. We need to do so in order to continue the conversation.

As part of the conversation, I offer a prayer I wrote after the Pittsburgh attack, which I believe is a step in the right direction.

A Prayer for the Welfare of Diaspora Jewry
Amitai Fraiman

Our Father in Heaven, Rock, and Redeemer of the People of Israel: Bless our brothers and sisters, your people, dispersed throughout all lands. Shield them with your love, spread over them the shelter of Your peace. Bestow upon them heavenly salvation, grant them security, health, and prosperity so that they may raise generations who seek out Your presence. Until the coming of redemption, strengthen the hands of their defenders in the merit of the high priest Aaron, lover and pursuer of peace. Grant wisdom to their leaders so that they extend goodness to all nations, the children of Israel and their local Jewish communities, for our peace is bound up in theirs. Fulfill for them the verse: Who are these that float like a cloud, like doves to their nests? The coastlands await me to bring your sons from afar, for the name of the LORD your God, For the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you. May it be Your will that we merit to see the redemption of Your people, speedily in our days, Amen Selah.

Amitai Fraiman is an Israeli/American Rabbi and entrepreneur. He is the founder of Interwoven, and the director of Z3. A Jewish Peoplehood enthusiast.

The complete set of essays comprising this edition is in the process of being published individually on eJP.