Shabbat Talmud Study: The Problem with Patriotic Prayer–Do We Do It?


In 1904, as only he could, Mark Twain nailed the problem with patriotic prayer. When we pray for victory over our enemy, when we ask God to crown our efforts with triumph, what are we really asking of God?  In The War Prayer, Twain points out that when we pray for victory, at the same time we are also praying for this:
O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of the wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst…
for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love…
Do we do that?
In the Torah, you bet. We are guilty of the sin of Holy War, thinking that God fights for us, and that God commands us to annihilate the enemy. There are passages in Deuteronomy we will study tomorrow that do not embody our current moral thinking.
How have modern Jews responded? On the one hand, we do want to pray for God’s love and support and protection for our soldiers. But how do we not cross the Mark Twain line into praying this War Prayer? Tomorrow we will see three different prayers for our Armed Forces composed by the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements, each of which tries to strike this balance in a different way, supporting our soldiers without praying that He Who is the Source of Love tear the enemy to shreds.
On this Shabbat of Memorial Day week-end, may our fallen soldiers be bound up in the bond of life eternal, and may God sustain and comfort their families as we honor their duty, service, love of country, and ultimate sacrifice.
Shabbat shalom,
Wes