The central prayer of Jewish worship is the amidah, also known as ha-tefilah, also known as the shmoneh esrei. "Amidah" means "standing," because this is our chance to literally stand before God and offer the prayers of our hearts. "Tefilah" means "prayer," and this is The Prayer par excellence. And "shmoneh esrei" means "18," because -- in its standard weekday form -- this is a prayer which contains 19 benedictions.
Yes, "the Eighteen" has nineteen parts. (The chapter "How the Amidah Began: A Liturgical Detective Story," in the Amidah volume of Rabbi Hoffman's My People's Prayer Book series, sketches out a variety of theories about how exactly that came to be.) The weekday amidah is usually conceptualized as divided into three parts: three blessings of praise, thirteen blessings devoted to petitions of one kind or another, and then three blessings of gratitude.
In my liturgy class this week, we're focusing on those thirteen intermediate blessings, the bakashot (requests.) Last week Reb Sami asked each of us to prepare a short presentation on one of these. "Offer a summary of the development of the text and theme of the bracha," he said. "Interesting variants (ancient and contemporary) of the text. Important Biblical references. Spiritual insight. All with great eloquence, occasional wit, masterful brevity, abiding reverence -- and in 3 minutes!" It's that last bit that's the truly tall order. Hence this blog post, where I can natter for a few more paragraphs.
When we were asked to each claim a bracha to speak about in class, I chose #12 -- the blessing for, or more accurately against, minim, which is usually translated as "heretics." In my own davenen I'm often inclined to rush past this one -- and I figured, if there's something in me that wants to breeze past it, I should probably stop and pay some attention to how this blessing challenges me.
Here's the text of the blessing in its standard form:
Blessing #12: Minim (heretics)
ולמלשינים אל–תהי תקוה וכל–הרשאה כרגע תאבד וכל–אויויך מהרה יכרתו. והזדים מהרה תעקר ותשבר ותמגר ותכניע במהרה בימטנו. ברוך אתה יי שובר איבים ומכניע זדים
May there be no hope for slanderers, and may all wickedness instantly perish, and may all Your enemies quickly be destroyed. May You quickly uproot, smash, destroy, and humble the insolent quickly in our day. Blessed are You, Adonai, who smashes his enemies and humbles the insolent.
Rabbi Daniel Landes, who offers halakhic perspectives in the My People's Prayerbook Series [NB: most of the perspectives cited in this post come from the Amidah volume in that series] writes:
This harsh blessing, added during times of betrayal of the Jewish people by apostates, was composed by Shmuel Hakatan (Samuel the Younger), whom tradition remembers for being humble, noble, and devoid of personal enmity...
(Which immediately leads me to wonder: does that make this blessing palatable? Is it okay to pray for the destruction of God's enemies if we ourselves don't feel enmity? Does the bracha change in some qualitative way if we feel anger or hatred while saying it?)
Landes continues, "Note the wording: 'Wickedness' should 'instantly vanish,' not 'those who act wickedly.'" That's a pretty critical distinction for me. It's one thing to pray for an end to wickedness; it's another thing entirely to pray for the wicked themselves to vanish. (Who defines what it means to be wicked, anyway? Wicked by whose metric? Totally problematic.)
Biblicist Marc Brettler notes:
This bracha is curious, since there is no Biblical precedent for cursing malshinim ("slanderers") or, for that matter, whatever alternative reading might be suggested (e.g. minim, some form of "heretics.") Yet, the idea that God's enemies should be destroyed can be found, for example, in Malachi 3:19, which shares some vocabulary with some versions of this prayer.
Hoffman points out that this is actually a malediction, not a benediction -- quite a rarity in Jewish liturgy. This bracha is said to have been framed by Shmuel Hakatan at the behest of Rabban Gamaliel II in Yavneh, about 90 CE, at the time when the amidah was assembled and standardized in the form we recognize today. Ismar Elbogen calls this the "Benediction against the Sectarians," and says it was instituted to separate Jews from the nascent Christian church. In Hoffman's words, the bracha is a polemic sparked by "animosity toward the Romans (for the war just past) and against Christians (or Jewish-Christians specifically) who had left the fold and were writing their own scriptures that maligned the Pharisees and heaped animosity on the Jews."
The version of the bracha found in the Genizah fragments substantiates that reading -- and is quite a bit more challenging to my modern ear. It reads:
May there be no hope for apostates,
And may You quickly uproot the insolent reign in our day,
And may the Christians and heretics instantly perish.
"May they be erased from the book of life, and may they not be written with the righteous." (Psalm 69:29)
Blessed are You, Adonai, Who humbles the insolent.
It's a good thing this isn't the version of the bracha that has come down to us! The Renewal emphasis on "deep ecumenism," which presumes that there are truths in many faiths and that our cousins in other traditions are walking their own legitimate paths toward the One, would make those words utterly impossible to say.
But even in an earlier historical period, before this pluralistic understanding came into play, these words were problematic. They got us into trouble in the Middle Ages, even though the term "Christians" had already been edited out. Sometime after 1380, Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Muelhausen of Prague debated Peter the apostate on this issue, among others. He argued that minim can be read as "kinds" or "varieties" (as in the bracha "borei minei m'zonot", "Creator of many diverse grains") and that minim are those who vacillate between Judaism and Christianity, following two different kinds of religion simultaneously.
That defangs the bracha for me a little bit, but still not enough -- I'm not comfortable with the way this part of the bracha was framed. (Of course, the first century of the Common Era was a very different historical paradigm than the one we inhabit now; for that matter, so were the late 1300s.)
Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson points out that this has long been a problematic bracha for liberal Jews. "The imprecatory tone and content of this prayer has disturbed countless prayer book editors during the last two centuries," he writes. The Reform Gates of Prayer and the old Reconstructionist Daily Prayer Book omitted this bracha altogether (bringing the total number of brachot back to the auspicious 18!) The current Kol Haneshama restores the prayer's first line and concludes by praising God Who "subdues the evildoers." Conservative siddurim tend to keep the bracha as-is in Hebrew, but remove "who smashes his enemies" from the translation.
In Kivinu Kol Hayom, the Reform siddur that my rabbi assembled, we read:
Let all who speak and act unjustly find no hope for ill intentions. Let all wickedness be lost. May enmity be wiped away. May You quickly overwhelm and transform evil, soon and in our days. Blessed are You, Adonai, who subdues evil.
The Hebrew text matches the traditional text -- it's precisely what's in Artscroll, and what I cited at the start of this post. This tactic raises for me the perennial question of what it means that we daven things in Hebrew that we wouldn't say in English. For those of us who aren't fluent Hebrew speakers, it's possible to relax into the rhythms of the Hebrew without fretting about the connotations of word choice as we would in our native tongue -- an argument for changing our English text while preserving the original Hebrew. Of course, that's completely not helpful to Hebrew speakers. And it's not everyone's choice. In Mishkan Tefilah, the new Reform siddur, we read:
And for wickedness, let there be no hope, / ולרשעא אל תהי תקוה
and may all the errant return to You, / והתועים אליך ישובו
and may the realm of wickedness be shattered. / .ומלכות זדון מהרה תשבר
Blessed are You, Adonai, whose will it is / ברוך אתה יי
that the wicked vanish from the earth. / .שובר רשע מן הארץ
The Hebrew is heavily edited to match the English, which one the one hand seems really cool to me, and on the proverbial other hand feels weird. I like that the Hebrew is revised; that regardless of what language we pray in we're saying the same words out of that siddur...and yet I find that I stumble a little there, my tongue accustomed to the rhythms of the prayer as it's traditionally set. I like making the English more poetic and palatable, but I worry that doing the same for the Hebrew will trip up people who aren't as fluent in Hebrew as we could be. (Then again...how many people really fit into the category of "liberal Jews who daven the weekday amidah, and yet aren't comfortable with creative Hebrew"? Maybe this is a moot point.)
But my greater concern with the version that appears in MT is that the chatimah (literally the "seal," as in sealing-wax -- the last line, which seals the blessing) is difficult for me in both Hebrew and English. I return to what Landes noted about the traditional text, which I cited at the start of this post -- that we wish for an end to wickedness, not to the wicked per se. I wonder what moved the creators of MT to change that.
All in all, having spent some time researching this bracha in its assorted historical and present-day forms, I still find it challenging (though the current form is much less so than the version once used by the Palestinian community, recorded in the genizah fragments!) In general I'm inclined to argue, following in the footsteps of my friend Jay Michaelson, that prayer is not theology but poetry; it's okay, even valuable, to daven words that challenge us. To spend a lifetime learning to inhabit old liturgical texts, subtly changing them and being changed by them over time.
Of course, there are also times when liturgical change seems imperative to me. (Adding the foremothers to the initial blessing in the Amidah, for instance.) So I think there's an open question here: do the words of this particular bracha demand change? And which of the various changes that have been instituted actually work for us in the long term?