In one of the most quoted scenes from musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” a yeshiva student in a distinct Ashkenazische accent asks, “Rabbi! May I ask you a question?”
“Certainly, Leibesh!” responds the bearded rabbi.
“Is there a proper blessing… for the Tsar?” asks the student.
“A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!” responds the rabbi to the merriment of all.
On the eve of the inauguration of president-elect Donald Trump, this conversation could easily be reenacted in many Jewish communities throughout the United States, where religious leaders and others have protested the rhetoric and policies of the incoming administration.
In one community, that of Arizona-based Modern Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the scene from the Sholem Aleichem classic did come to pass, in a move that echoed not only drama, but history as well.
In a announcement that brought reactions as polarized as the American Jewish community, Yanklowitz, dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the cofounder of Orthodox social justice movement Uri L’Tzedek, said this week that “Because of my commitment to the integrity of prayer, starting this week, I can no longer recite or say amen to the Shabbat prayer for the success of the US President.”
Instead of “Hanoten Teshua,” normative liturgy recited for generations in most Orthodox synagogues for the safeguarding of the government, Yanklowitz has drafted a new prayer for Shabbat morning.
“If you also feel it’s important to pray for the US government but also feel you cannot pray for the success of this President, feel free to use this or adapt it as you please,” wrote Yanklowitz on social media.
His new “Prayer for our Nation” would serve as a reminder for himself “of the billions of vulnerable people who are at risk under his [president-elect Donald Trump] rule, and challenge myself each Shabbat to build up the strength for another week of spiritual resistance,” he explained.
In redrafting the prayer, though, Yanklowitz was actually tapping into the same idea that may have led to “Hanoten Teshua’s” original inclusion in the Orthodox prayer service.
A blessing — and a curse — for the Tsar
While living in abject poverty in their tiny shtetl, the residents of Anatevka almost certainly did indeed bless the Tsar through the prayer, “Hanoten Teshua.” Written in the late 15th century by Sephardic Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, the prayer eventually also spread through Ashkenaz and became a standard piece of Jewish liturgy in Orthodox synagogues until today.
According to historian Jonathan Sarna in his 1998 book “Moral Problems In American Life – New Perspectives On Cultural History,” Jews have prayed for the welfare of their non-Jewish governments since biblical times. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, said, “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”
According to Sarna, “The uniquely plaintive quality of many of these prayers, beseeching God to incline the heart of the sovereign to treat Jews benevolently, bespeaks the distinctive political realities of diaspora Jewish life.”
By the mid-seventeenth century, wrote Sarna, the “cleverly written prayer” “Hanoten Teshua” became normative.
But he also noted that the biblical verses quoted in the prayer “conceal hints of spiritual resistance, a cultural strategy well known among those determined to maintain their self-respect in the face of religious persecution.”
To the textually literate penitent, the seemingly innocuous verses taken from various passages in the Bible would key up their context, which often hinted at less than pacifist views.
“Simultaneously, then, Jews prayed aloud for the welfare of the sovereign on whom their security depended, and read between the lines a more subversive message, a call for rescue, redemption, and revenge. Based on past diaspora experience, both messages were fully appropriate,” wrote Sarna.
Unlike Anatevka of yore, it is arguably the established American Jewish communities’ relative safety that allows US Jews such as Yanklowitz to protest their sovereign government much more overtly and vehemently than at any other point in Jewish history.
“Religious life is only valid when it’s a force for righteousness and what we pray for is an expression of our deepest values. Rather than hide behind a radical isolationism that makes Judaism irrelevant in 21st century America, we must ensure that Jewish practice is responsive to the most urgent moral issues of our time,” Yanklowitz told The Times of Israel this week.
“The values of the Trump administration pose the greatest threat to American peace and justice and to global stability and our Jewish prayers must reflect that if they are to have any authenticity at all,” said Yanklowitz.
The 35-year-old rabbi is known for his earnest authenticity in promoting his causes. In addition to countless protests over issues such as animal rights (he’s a longtime vegan) and prisoner welfare, in a very physically altruistic statement, two years ago he donated a kidney to a complete stranger. Recently, he has actively promoted offering welcome hospitality to refugees.
‘Religious life is only valid when it’s a force for righteousness and what we pray for is an expression of our deepest values’
Now, with Trump on the horizon, for Yanklowitz, showing “Spiritual Resistance” is not a choice “but a sacred duty for all those ordained as a rabbi.”
His human rights crusades have not always won him friends in the Orthodox community. While he holds three rabbinic ordinations — from New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, from Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and a third private smicha from Jerusalem-based Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo — he is decidedly on the liberal side of Orthodoxy in terms of political outlook.
“One cannot remain in mainstream Orthodoxy and resist the Trump administration,” he said.
He tells an anecdote about an Orthodox rabbinic colleague who told Yanklowitz that “worse than declaring himself an atheist to his congregation would be to not stand and clap at an AIPAC conference every time the crowd does so.”
“In a strange turn, political dogmas around Israel and right-wing American politics have become more sacred than theological dogmas,” he said.
According to Yanklowitz, in the current Trump-era, progressive Orthodox Jews have four choices: “leave Orthodoxy, stay silent, get bullied, or move to one of the three congregations where there is diversity and tolerance,” he said.
“This is not politics but about the soul of American Jewry: Do we truly believe in the Torah that prioritizes the defense of the vulnerable?” challenged Yanklowitz.