A Quest for Dominion

September 1, 2010
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Meesh Hammer-Kossoy

Pray for the welfare of the government. If it were not for fear of it, people would swallow one another alive. Mishnah Avot 3:2

A few months ago, I changed the signature in my email to include the above quote. Its tone and message are not as uplifting or inspirational as other quotes I have used in the past. Indeed, friends questioned my choice. Governments are guilty of so much evil in our world — unnecessary wars, unfathomable corruption, waste. Why pray for their wellbeing?

Rabbi Hanina Reserve High Priest, who authored this statement — possibly as a response to witnessing the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the brutal and miserably corrupt Roman government in the year 70 C.E. — was not praising the Romans. Rather, his comments may have been aimed at the civil war he witnessed leading up to the destruction. The zealots in that war justified their rebellion under the rubric, “We have no king other than God.” (Josephus, JW II, 116, 433) The Romans may have been terrible, but they were better than anarchy.

A similar debate currently rages in the religious Zionist community. Many religious Zionists once saw the State of Israel as the “beginning of the sprouting of our redemption.” Now, in the wake of the disengagement, some religious Zionists have adopted a slogan of sectors within the anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox community: “We don’t believe in the rule of the heretics, but only in our Father in Heaven.”1

While the weekday amidah yearns for the restoration of the Davidic kingdom as a harbinger of messianic redemption, the passages about kingship in the Rosh Hashanah musaf amidah seem to scrupulously avoid invoking any earthly king. The authors of the liturgy explicitly speak about God alone as king, apparently adopting the position of the ancient zealots and contemporary ultra-Orthodox that any authority other than that of the King of Kings should be shunned. However, a closer look at the disagreement cited in the following Mishnah about the structure of the silent prayer of the Rosh Hashanah musaf service (charted here for easy reference) shows that the situation is more complex.

The order of blessings [for the Rosh Hashanah amidah] is as follows: One should say [the blessings for] the forefathers, the mighty deeds and the holiness of God, include kingship prayers with it but not blast. [One should continue with] the holiness of the day and blast, the remembrance blessing and blast, and shofar blessing and blast. One should then say the blessings for temple service, thanksgiving, and the priestly blessing. These are the words of Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri.

Rabbi Akiva said to him: If shofar blasts do not accompany the kingship prayers, why bother mentioning them? Rather, one should say the forefathers, the mighty deeds, and the holiness of God, and include kingship prayers with the holiness of the day and blast, the remembrance blessing and blast, and shofar blessing and blast. One should then say the blessings for temple service, thanksgiving, and the priestly blessing. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:5)

Blessing Blasts Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri Rabbi Akiva
Praise Avot
Kedushat HaShem Kingship
Kedushat HaYom X Kingship
Zikhronot X
Shofarot X
Thanksgiving Avodah
Birkhat Kohanim

A quick glance at the chart shows that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri disagree about whether kingship verses should be included in the third or fourth blessing. However, Rabbi Akiva’s verbal objection to Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri — “If shofar blasts do not accompany the kingship prayers, why bother mentioning them?” — does not seem to correspond to the adjustment he recommends concerning Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri’s order of prayer. If the kingship verses must be connected to a shofar blast, the natural response should be to trumpet the shofar in the third blessing. Why does Rabbi Akiva insist on moving the kingship prayers rather than the time of shofar blowing?

Apparently, Rabbi Akiva shares a set of assumptions with Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri that have not been made explicit. Both rabbis accept the now familiar three-part structure of the tefillah. The first section opens with praise: of God as the God of history (avot), nature (gevurot), and transcendence (kedushat Hashem), and the last closes with what is generally classified as thanksgiving: commemorating the temple service (avodah), giving thanks (hoda-ah), and the priestly blessing (birkat kohanim). In its core, where supplications are made on weekdays, the Rosh Hashanah prayer focuses on three blessings particular to the holiday: commemorating the holiday (kedushat hayom), recognizing the God of remembrance (zikhronot) and celebrating the shofar (shofarot); each is accompanied by shofar blasts.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri also seem to agree that shofar blowing must be restricted to the middle section of the tefillah, the section reserved on regular days for entreaty before the Almighty. Blowing the shofar in the first section is impossible, because the shofar blast is a plea rather than an act of praise. The shofar is our way of wordlessly beseeching God — a desperate crying that cannot be put into words.

If so, this is the essential distinction between these two sages. According to Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri, these prayers belong in the initial section of the amidah — exaltation. We laud God for God’s royal standing and majestic position that both transcends and controls the world. We join the angels in declaring God’s kingship. Just as they responded to our acceptance of the yoke of the kingship of heaven with the declaration of the Sh’ma by calling out “holy holy holy,” today we join their daily declaration with special aplomb.2

Rabbi Akiva seems less confident. No doubt that God reigns as the King of Kings, but sometimes the world gives the impression that the King has not taken control in the necessary ways. According to this model, we cry out to God, desperate for Him to reveal Himself and act as king over us, just as we begged Him and Samuel to appoint a human king over us 3,000 years ago. If God is in control, why, I imagine Rabbi Akiva crying, do the Romans appear to rule rather than Bar Kokhba? True dominion is something we yearn to experience. We long for a day of absolutes, when right and wrong are clear, and recompense is made. Only on that day, as it says in the climactic Aleinu prayer and one of the ten kingship verses, can God be One and His name One. (Zech. 14:9)

Our traditional liturgy integrates aspects of the thought of both Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri and Rabbi Akiva. However, the verses about malkhuyot, kingship, are found together with the shofar blasts in the fourth blessing (kedushat haYom), where we beg for a day in which God and true justice will rule alone. In the meantime, it seems to me, we best not give up on the centrality of the earthly government.

1 http://sf.tapuz.co.il/shirshur-264-125590284.htm

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Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy directs the social justice track and teaches Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, www.pardes.org.il.

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