Commentary Magazine


Topic: prayer

Can We Pray About Iran on Yom Kippur?

At sundown tonight, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day of fasting and prayer as the ten Days of Awe, during which Jews account for their actions in the previous year and atone for their sins, come to a close. The point is to think seriously about our own behavior toward others and to our relationship with our Creator. Though it is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur’s significance is not just theological. As it is the religious service that more Jews attend than any other, it has also come to be a day of communal gathering. As such it is the day when synagogues appeal for funds to maintain themselves and the community. But it is also fitting that amid the traditional liturgy and prayers, attention should be paid to the dire threats that hang over Israel and the Jewish people.

It is in that spirit that the Orthodox Union and that movement’s Rabbinical Council of America issued a call for prayer on Yom Kippur for an end to threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. This seems to me to be an utterly unexceptionable request. Why wouldn’t Jews, be they members of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or even those who style themselves Secular Humanists and don’t even believe in God, not wish to devote a moment to calling for removing the threat of extermination from the State of Israel? Jews may disagree on every conceivable political question but surely there is nothing wrong with asking the Almighty to either soften the hearts of the tyrannical Islamist regime in Tehran or to strengthen the resolve of the rest of the world to stop them? But, believe it or not, some people don’t think such a prayer is a good idea. Peter Beinart, the author and blogger who fancies himself the conscience of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, thinks the rabbis are “disturbing his Yom Kippur” by injecting what he considers a political appeal onto a day that the OU says should be apolitical. Is he right?

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At sundown tonight, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day of fasting and prayer as the ten Days of Awe, during which Jews account for their actions in the previous year and atone for their sins, come to a close. The point is to think seriously about our own behavior toward others and to our relationship with our Creator. Though it is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur’s significance is not just theological. As it is the religious service that more Jews attend than any other, it has also come to be a day of communal gathering. As such it is the day when synagogues appeal for funds to maintain themselves and the community. But it is also fitting that amid the traditional liturgy and prayers, attention should be paid to the dire threats that hang over Israel and the Jewish people.

It is in that spirit that the Orthodox Union and that movement’s Rabbinical Council of America issued a call for prayer on Yom Kippur for an end to threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. This seems to me to be an utterly unexceptionable request. Why wouldn’t Jews, be they members of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or even those who style themselves Secular Humanists and don’t even believe in God, not wish to devote a moment to calling for removing the threat of extermination from the State of Israel? Jews may disagree on every conceivable political question but surely there is nothing wrong with asking the Almighty to either soften the hearts of the tyrannical Islamist regime in Tehran or to strengthen the resolve of the rest of the world to stop them? But, believe it or not, some people don’t think such a prayer is a good idea. Peter Beinart, the author and blogger who fancies himself the conscience of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, thinks the rabbis are “disturbing his Yom Kippur” by injecting what he considers a political appeal onto a day that the OU says should be apolitical. Is he right?

Beinart has a point when he notes that liberal denominations have undermined their credibility by attempting to portray their secular political agenda as Jewish causes, to their detriment of purely religious pursuits. Rabbis, like clerics in other faiths, have often used their sermons to foist their personal political agendas on their captive congregations. But is removing the Iranian threat really a partisan issue?

Beinart thinks it is because of the dispute between the government of Israel and the Obama administration over the latter’s refusal to enunciate red lines that would trigger action against Iran rather than more empty rhetorical promises that only serve to help kick the can down the road until the point where it may be too late to do anything about the problem.

Reasonable persons may disagree about what should be done about Iran. But does that quarrel mean that any concern about Iran should be off limits in the synagogue. Beinart thinks so. While he doesn’t want us to think he doesn’t care about Iran, he does seem to mock the special concern about it by asking why this year rather than previous years and why the OU is not calling for prayer to solve other serious problems or potential calamities.

What he fears is that if Jews spend too much time worrying or praying about the possibility that a vicious, anti-Semitic regime will get a nuclear weapon they might not think poorly about Netanyahu’s insistence on action. They may also not regard the president’s stance with complacence. Thus, by definition it seems, prayer about the Iranian threat ought to be off limits.

In stating such a position, he seems to be telling us that he does not take President Obama at his word about his promise about refusing to “contain” Iran rather than preventing it from obtaining nuclear capability. But Jews and other people of good faith need not interpret the call for prayer about Iran as a partisan appeal. Indeed, Democrats may take it as an impetus to press the president to make good on his promises.

But parsing the words of the prayer isn’t the point. Contrary to Beinart’s point of view, there are some issues that transcend partisanship, politics and even religious issues. Preventing a nuclear attack on Israel from a regime that has vowed to eliminate it is one such topic. That Beinart wishes to treat it as being morally equivalent to a liberal appeal for more social welfare spending or conservative calls for support for their issues tells us more about him and his very public angst about Israel and Jewish peoplehood than it does about what is or is not an appropriate prayer on Yom Kippur.

We at COMMENTARY wish all of our readers who will observe Yom Kippur an easy fast. But we also ask them and other readers to read the OU prayer and to add their own amens to its appeal to our own. We’ll be back after the holiday.

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Jews worldwide spend the day in fasting, prayer and repentance. Yom Kippur is not a day for politics.

But Yom Kippur 5773 is different.

On this Yom Kippur – the world faces an evil regime whose leaders have publicly committed themselves to destroying the State of Israel and to harming Jews worldwide; in addition, the Iranians are a threat to the global community.

On this Yom Kippur – the leader of that evil regime will address the United Nations General Assembly and again preach his hatred;

On this Yom Kippur – the words found in the High Holiday prayer book, “God determines which nations shall face war and which shall enjoy peace,” prompt us to contemplate with anxiety the fate of the State of Israel and her people, of Jews throughout the world and, indeed, of civilization as a whole.

The threat is dire and demands our attention on our holiest day. Therefore, we call upon all congregations to dedicate a specific moment during their services on the upcoming holy day of Yom Kippur to pray for an end to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

On Yom Kippur, may Israel and its people be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of life and peace.

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