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Why We Need a Prayer for the Electorate

A Prayer for the Electorate allows us a moment in services to recognize that civic engagement can be religious engagement, that tzedek is often fulfilled through public policy.

I recently created a Prayer for the Electorate—intended to be said in the synagogue on the Shabbat before an election—composed using a variety of (mostly) biblical sources. As I am not a rabbi and hold no pulpit, I cannot actually make anybody say this prayer. Nonetheless, I’d like to make the strongest possible argument—even if you think Shabbat services are long enough as it is, even if this prayer isn’t the slightest bit spiritual—for why a Prayer for the Electorate should be mandated as a complement to the Prayer for the Government, which is already said in so many synagogues.

Here’s the argument: the Prayer for the Government was never intended for use in democracies. Yes, American Jews have modified some of its language—we pray not for specific individuals, but for offices and their holders—but still, in all of its forms (doggedly documented by Jonathan Sarna), the prayer begs assistance for officeholders without ever noting that the electorate has already embedded their desires for those offices by deciding who should hold them in the first place. While some versions of the prayer do recognize the concept of a social contract or even a Constitution, none embed the concepts of “mandate” or “platform” or “campaign promise,” and so the text still treats presidents (and, by the way, all versions still mainly focus on the highest echelons of government, not the governor or local school board) as fickle latter-day tsars, except now empowered and contained by the rule of law.

Perhaps there was a time when a republican but only quasi-democratic Prayer for the Government was about all that could be honestly said; after all, the disenfranchisement of women and minorities is still in living memory. But things are better now, and our prayers should reflect our progress. If we are going to ask God to do good through government at all, we should do so in a way that reflects our government, not government of the seventeenth century.

Even the most casual browsers of contemporary Jewish discourse will be aware of fraught, intractable debates about contemporary liturgy. To you I say: this is an easy one. The Prayer for the Government is not set in stone; it does not even bear the Prayer for Israel’s hefty theological assumptions. Rather than watch yet another piece of liturgy slowly ossify and become estranged from us, a complementary Prayer for the Electorate allows us the (rare?) opportunity to say in Hebrew something we might actually find instantly linked to our out-of-shul experience. More than that—it allows for a moment in services when a congregation can recognize what so many of us already know to be true: that civic engagement can be religious engagement, that tzedek is often fulfilled through public policy, and that the congregation exists not just as a spiritual space, but as a place for positive (and hopefully constructive) intellectual engagement and the fostering of virtue in the generation to come.

This particular American election season has given us an extended opportunity to meditate on the relationship between electors and their avatars and the responsibility the former bear for the latter. Despite this catalyst, I hope you will take this text as more than a one-off prayer and use it (or modify it as you see fit) in future elections, both “big” and “small,” that greet us in the months and years to come—both in America and in all the world’s democracies.

Read the Prayer for the Electorate. David Zvi Kalman is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. His website is davidzvi.xyz.

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