Last week something happened in the synagogue which I had never heard before. People laughed during the prayer for the government of the country.
Someone asked me ‘How long does one go on saying that prayer?’ I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about the Queen, whose devotion to public service is justly admired, but of certain members of Her Majesty’s Parliament whose wisdom and statesmanship are equally justly doubted.
There have been worse periods in history. One has only to think of the lines from Fiddler on the Roof: God bless the Czar and keep him – far from us.’ Nor, as we know, was the Czar the worst of tyrants.
Still, these are anxious times. Leonard Cohen famously sung that it’s through the cracks of imperfection that the light gets in. But it’s also true that through the cracks in democracy populism, corruption, deceit and tyranny get in.
This is a price the world cannot afford. When, as the New Year prayers aptly and frighteningly say ‘the earth hangs over the void’ and climate change places destiny of life itself in the balance, we need leadership.
Therefore, our prayers, which are addressed not to the wellbeing of specific public figures but to the very principle and practice of just and compassionate government, are all the more important.
The Jewish tradition of praying for our rulers is ancient. It begins with the pacts Abraham and Isaac make with local leaders. In the 6th century BCE, in a missive which must have shocked his contemporaries in beleaguered Judaea, Jeremiah instructs the exiles in Babylon to pray for the wellbeing of the cities to which they have been deported and where they must now rebuild their lives. Though well aware of the brutal side to Roman rule, in the 2nd century CE Rabbi Hanina directed his colleagues to ‘pray for the wellbeing of the government, because, were it not for the fear of its authority, people would swallow each other alive.’ (Mishnah, Avot 3:2) He comes close to Thomas Hobbes’s warning at the close of Leviathan that without a social contract life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.
As for us, privileged above virtually all other generations in history to live in an open democracy, we have a responsibility not only to pray for good governance, but also to hold our government to account.
Therefore it is important to know that there is an equally ancient tradition in Judaism of civil disobedience. It begins among women: the midwives in Egypt refused to obey Pharaoh’s command to kill all the male Hebrew babies. Moses conducted what may be regarded as the most successful strikes in history. He did so in the name of dignity and equality, sacred values which, then and ever since, God has commanded us to uphold towards every person, everywhere. Rabbi Akiva refused to stop teaching Torah during the Roman persecutions of the second century, paying for his dedication with his life. I imagine the spirits of these women and men walking invisibly alongside Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, Alabama.
However, it should not be concluded that Judaism advocates defiance, let alone anarchy; time and again it emphasises the importance of justice and – compassionate – law.
But there is something higher than fear of the powers-that-be: Yirat Shamayim, Fear of Heaven, awe before the presence of God, and the consequent commandment not to comply in silence with what is unjust, cruel and destructive.
Asked about the legitimacy of civil disobedience, Martin Buber wrote in 1963:
I know no other answer than that disobedience of this nature is legitimate when it is in fact obedience, obedience to a law superior to that which is being disobeyed here and now – in a word, when it is obedience to the supreme law.
As to when such disobedience is justified in specific situations, there are, he said, no general rules.
Climate Action Week begins today. I plan to participate in an interfaith service later today.
The climate emergency may lead to situations which warrant peaceful civil disobedience for the sake of specific, well thought-through goals. There can be no higher cause calling for disinterested commitment than the future of God’s world and the lives of the world’s children.
What is certainly not merely warranted, but commanded, is that we hold our leaders in government, industry, finance, religion, law and the media to account unless we do our utmost for the collective future of life.