Rabbi Chanina, says:
Pray for the welfare of the government, because if people did not fear it, a person would swallow his fellow alive.
Rabbi Chanina was an important administrator and rabbi toward the end of the Second Temple era – roughly the time of Jesus.
The Palace of Versailles has come to represent government to a wretched excess, government so bad that it generated the French Revolution.
We live in a time in this country where the role of the government is hotly debated and discussion can escalate to point of folks screaming at one another. More government / less government! More taxes / tax cuts! Help the poor / stimulate jobs! etc. etc. Our current political atmosphere is quite toxic to thoughtful persons (like you!) and this state of affairs is very unfortunate. Somehow we shall endure this time and hopefully move on to more fruitful ways of using our energy and brains – perhaps actually solving some problems?
The rabbi, I think, expresses appreciation for the fundamental role of governments in our world – the establishment of order.
Rabbinic teaching on this matter was established by a biblical verse: Jeremiah 29:7 “You shall seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and entreat God on its behalf”. That seems to ask quite a lot of an exiled people! Jeremiah referred to the Babylonian rulers. Rabbi Chanina lived under Roman rule. Both empires are responsible for some great achievements, both treated religious minorities reasonably well by the standards of their time.
It remains customary in Jewish sabbath services to offer a prayer for the government. The same is true in Roman Catholic services – at each liturgy there is suggested a prayer for leaders of governments. (It may be a prayer that said leaders change their minds or their policies – praying for them doesn’t mean that whatever the leaders are pushing or doing is OK.)
Doesn’t mean that all govermental types are equal – they are not. But the rabbi is not commenting on that. Doesn’t mean that all governments are good – they are not. But the rabbi is not commenting on that either.
Without government of some type and size our community life tends to degenerate into “survival of the fittest”. See “Lord of the Flies” for a literary reflection on this claim. It shouldn’t be this way of course – but it is.
A government establishes order in many ways – hopefully by getting citizens to actually choose and legislate the order they want to have. The citizens then ought to empower the government of their choice to enforce their chosen order. Rabbi Chanina suggests that it is primarily fear of the government power to enforce its rules / order that keeps folks in line.
Order provides the environment needed for business and farming to take place. Order provides the environment needed for having children, raising them, and educating them.
Order is not a “highest value”. There are times, when motivated by justice and love, where we may be called to interfere with the order of a society – in a nonviolent way.
Order is essential in order for us to conduct our everyday lives – which will include study and worship.