Acknowleding American Exceptionalism: A Liturgical Proposal

RABBI JOSEPH H. PROUSER invites all admirers of the United States to add a new Harachaman to Birkat HaMazon

by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

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Among the familiar petitionary Harachaman prayers added to Birkat HaMazon, Grace after Meals, are blessings for prosperity, for the meal’s host, for those with whom the meal is shared, for Shabbat and festivals when applicable, for messianic redemption, and for the state of Israel. Many add an additional Harachaman for their country of residence, analogous to the prayer for our nation included in the Shabbat Torah service: Harachaman hu yevarech et ha’aretz hazot v’yishmereha (or, alternatively, veyagen aleha) – May the Merciful One bless this country and watch over (or guard) it.

As a proud and grateful American, I long have included ha’aretz hazot (this country) in my mealtime blessings. In fact Jews all over the world could recite this prayer in reference to their own nations. I have come to believe, therefore, that such a formulation does not adequately reflect the unique role of the United States, either in Jewish history or in current world affairs. Praying for ha’aretz hazot is, furthermore, rhetorically appropriate only while actually in your own country. While visiting, say, the state of Israel, or France, or Uganda (where the unique blessings represented by the United States come into eversharper focus), invoking God’s mercy on “this country” can hardly be construed as a reference to the United States. American Jews should seek God’s blessing on the United States even when (or, perhaps, especially when) they are abroad.

The United States alone is home to a Jewish population that exceeds even that of the state of Israel. The number of Jewish organizations and educational institutions, and the level and volume of Jewish scholarship produced in the United States, all contribute to the unique role the United States plays in the life of the Jewish people. The founding of the United States was (and remains) a revolution in the history of nations. The United States was conceived as a nation of outsiders, as a citizenry defined not by tribe or race or exclusive ethnic culture, but by law, by loyalty to a principle. This exceptional national ethos – inherited to a significant degree from the Jewish people’s own defining emphasis on identity as rooted in law – explains the unprecedented prosperity, welcome, and freedoms enjoyed by the Jews of America.

The United States’ leading role in establishing liberty and democracy beyond our borders is also central to its exceptional stature. In his 1862 address to Congress, President Abraham Lincoln memorably explored this principle: “My fellow citizens, we cannot escape history…. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” It is this sense of exceptionalism that I wish to reflect when I turn to HaRachaman – our merciful God – when we say Birkat HaMazon.

A Harachaman blessing crafted specifically for the United States should both draw upon the language of Jewish sacred literature and resonate with the cherished documents of American history. Such a blessing should be appropriate both at home and away. Even Jews who are tied to the United States neither by citizenship nor by residence, but who recognize the unique place of the United States in our experience, should be able to use it. To this end, I propose the following blessing:

May the Merciful One bless the United States of America that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Changing ha’aretz hazot, this country, to Artzot haBrit, the United States of America, reflects the unique status of this nation and the unique function of this blessing.

The phrase “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth” is familiar to us from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but it has a far longer and richer literary history that makes the reference particularly appropriate.

John Wycliffe (circa 1320-1384), the English philosopher and theologian, produced an unprecedented translation of the Bible into the vernacular, aimed at making knowledge of Scripture accessible to all. (Free access and study of the Bible had long been recognized as a birthright – indeed an obligation – of all Jews.) Explaining his desire to democratize knowledge of Scripture, Wycliffe observed in the General Prologue to his 1384 translation: “The Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.” Including this famous phrase in a Harachaman for the United States not only celebrates the uniqueness of this nation, but the formative impact of the Hebrew Bible on the founding fathers and on American democracy.

Lincoln’s concluding words, “shall not perish from the earth,” also are drawn from Scripture. In Exodus 9:15, just before the plague of hail, God commands Moses once again to instruct Pharaoh to free his Hebrew slaves: “For now I shall hold forth mine hand, and I shall smite thee and thy people with pestilence, and thou shalt perish from the earth,” it reads, in Wycliffe’s translation. By echoing this passage, Lincoln subtly framed the suffering of Americans during the Civil War in terms of the moral offense of slavery and the demand for emancipation. He presented the harsh consequences suffered by an intransigent pharaoh as the alternative to a renewed American embrace of freedom.

Principled recognition of the divine origins of human rights and freedom is a critical aspect of American exceptionalism, as laid out by the 20th-century successor with whom Lincoln had so much in common, John F. Kennedy: “The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

Lincoln reprised the founding American creed from the Declaration of Independence, that human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Incorporating Exodus 9:15 into our Harachaman effectively links the freedoms championed by the United States to their antecedents in biblical theology, as did Lincoln at Gettysburg.

This Harachaman is not a prayer exclusively for one nation. Rather, it asks God’s blessing on the United States in order to safeguard free governance and democratic institutions around the world. “May the Merciful One bless the United States of America,” so that as a consequence of its leadership and influence, example and vitality, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” will continue to flourish in other nations as well. Democratic freedoms “shall not perish from” anywhere on earth. A prayer reflecting American exceptionalism invokes God’s blessing on other nations and represents a more universal aspiration than our accustomed petition on behalf of ha’aretz hazot.

I invite my fellow Americans, as well as admirers of the United States among citizens and subjects of other nations, to join me in my prayer: Harachaman, Hu yevarech et Artzot HaBrit, shememshalah shel ha’am, al yedei ha’am, ul’maan ha’am lo tikached min ha’aretz.

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the spiritual leader of Baldwin Jewish Center in Baldwin, New York, and a member of the Conservative movement’s joint bet din.