Political Civility

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

In the present day “seething pot” of American politics I am confident there is one issue upon which Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Moderates and Conservatives can agree. Something has changed in our political discourse. The discord is at an all time high, regularly including character assassination of one’s antagonist. What has gone wrong and how can we get it right?

Rabbi Hanina, Assistant Cohen Gadol (High Priest) said: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the fear of it, men would swallow one another alive.” Ethics of the Fathers 3:2

When I served a Congregation in Canada, following the dictum of Rabbi Hanina, I was determined to offer the appropriate prayer for the government. As Canada is a Commonwealth Nation, that prayer would be for the well being of the royal family of England. Fortunately, a member of my congregation was flying to London to receive the Order of Canada for his exceptional work in community affairs. I asked him to acquire an English Siddur containing the appropriate prayer.

When he returned he handed me the Siddur along with a wonderful story. At the reception held at Buckingham Palace for all who were on the Queen’s list to be honored by Her Majesty, he was, as others, introduced to the late Queen mother. In the few moments he had with her he explained that his Congregation had recently hired an American Rabbi who had instructed him to purchase a prayer book which contained the prayer for the royal family so that it could be offered at our weekly Sabbath services. The Queen Mum, as she was affectionately known by her subjects, smiled and asked him to convey her gratitude to the Rabbi for keeping her family in his prayers.

The weekly practice I had in offering the prayer set me in good stead when I received the “call” to serve as the Senior Minister to an Orthodox Synagogue in the English provinces located in Manchester. Interestingly, it is common to find the prayer for the royals and the prayer for the State of Israel written on the eastern wall of English Synagogues on either side of the Aron kodesh (the Holy Ark).

Rabbi Hanina lived during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. A righteous and learned soul, he was continually passed over by the Romans when the position of High Priest was to be filled. Those appointed by the Romans were of questionable moral character and religious veracity. He remained ever the Assistant High Priest under these individuals. Moreover, the Romans were far from benevolent to the Jewish population of the Holy land. Their brutality is well documented by historians. Why then did Rabbi Hanina offer this sage advice to the Jewish People of his time and in the future? Additionally, in Hebrew he used the word eesh, man, as opposed to adam. Eesh usually denotes a sophisticated and cultured individual as opposed to adam, which denotes a person of more primitive tastes.

Jeremiah, the Prophet of the exile, exhorts the Jews to “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have banished you, and pray on its behalf to the L‑rd.”. The Talmud tells us that, “The law of the land is law.” Kesuvos 111A

It is evident that our tradition recognizes an inherent value in functional government no matter its attitude toward the Jew. For any government is better than men swallowing each other alive ‑ an obvious reference to anarchy. Indeed, a number of years ago I found a Russian siddur in my Synagogue dating back to the period of Czar Nicholas II. Sure enough, in spite of his anti‑Semitic nature, there was a prayer for the Czar and his family. Government is essential to the affairs of humankind. Not merely for the adam, Rabbi Hanina reminds us that government is essential even for the most sophisticated and cultured, the eesh who can as well become a “cannibal” swallowing his fellow man alive without effective government.

This understanding of the value of government must inform every action of those elected to political office. In our republican style of government we applaud diversity of opinion. We relish debate as a means to advance the cause of our American way of life for ourselves and in our dealings with those in other countries. The realization of the importance of functional government, however, must ever be in the minds of our politicians and our citizenry if government is to be effective. Using this as a touch stone, intelligent, sophisticated people (eesh) will find a method by which to reach consensus.

Sadly, in today’s political climate, the “slaying” of ones adversary seems to have taken front stage, relegating the importance of collective effort on behalf of society to but a minor role in the play of life. A day does not go by without recriminations against someone grabbing banner headlines in the press and on TV. The computer age allows us to savour each and ever gory detail at our leisure. Human imperfections abound providing a veritable treasure trove of juicy material to bring down the best of individuals.

But what of the vital role of government in the human condition? Society would do well to consider the importance of government as understood in Jewish tradition with those who are selected to lead, accepting the mantle of leadership together with their colleagues, ready and able to work in an atmosphere of mutual respect and accomplishment. Rather than the continuing growth of apathy among Americans today, the blanket condemnation of government and politicians as corrupt and worthless, each of us must be involved in assuring that government works and is effective. The alternative, anarchy, would see the best of persons swallowing their neighbor alive.