Arnold D. Samlan
Jewish Educational Leader, South Florida
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Jewish prayer needs to respond to public tragedies like Orlando massacre

An invitation to the poets and writers of liturgy to promote inclusion for those targeted by the same extremists who would harm Jews

The mass murders that took place in a club in Orlando occurred during the holiday of Shavuot. On the following day, synagogues throughout the world had these options available to them:

  • They could have recited the Mi Sheberach prayer, included on Shabbat and holidays on behalf of those who are sick or injured, and be sure to include those wounded in the attack
  • They could have recited Yizkor, memorializing those who have died, and specifically memorialized those murdered
  • Their rabbis could have tossed out their pre-written sermons and instead discussed hatred in the world, and how we need to spread a Torah of love
  • They could do little or nothing to note this tragedy

I’m going to guess that few did the first (Mi Sheberach), fewer did the second (Yizkor), some percentage did the third (re-writing their divrei Torah) and a significant number did nothing or next to nothing.

Admittedly, at least in traditional synagogues, doing either of the first two requires the type of creative thought and innovation that are often discouraged by congregations themselves. Many of the prayers, particularly in more traditional liturgies, are oriented primarily, if not exclusively, inwards, towards the Jewish community and its members. There is even a pretty good historical reason for some of that inwardness, especially since the origins of Yizkor’s recitation on holidays was connected to memorializing those who were murdered in anti-Semitic attacks that often were linked in time to these holidays.

Frankly, most of our prayers were written at a time in which the “us vs. them” mindset was understandable. While some elements of that type of societal view still exist, in communities in which most of us live, we happily interface in positive ways with those of other faith and ethnic communities.

Today, the showdown is less one of Jews vs. the rest of the world, and more one of forces of life and liberty (including Jews and most forms of Judaism) vs. those of death and oppression. And while we, as Jews may not support every political point of view or other life choices of others who support life and liberty, we had better acknowledge that they are our allies in the very real war against the forces of darkness.

If we fail to create liturgical approaches that express care and concern for others who are not of the Jewish people, we are missing the opportunity to show unity with others in our world who are being targeted by the same individuals and extremist groups that seek the harm of Jews and Israelis.

I am neither a poet nor a writer of liturgy, but I’d like to suggest what prayers, specifically for victims of terror, might look like, while keeping them close to their traditional forms:

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Mi Sheberach

May the God who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and who is the source of life who created all humanity in His image bless and heal those who are ill or who have been injured [specifics of terror incident may be inserted here]. May the Holy Blessed One in His compassion cause their health to be restored and their strength to be revived. May God swiftly send them complete and speedy healing of body and spirit, and let us say, Amen.

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Yizkor

May God remember the souls of those who have been killed [in defense of freedom / as victims of terror / etc.] who have gone to their eternal rest. In their memory I pledge to donate charity. Through my prayers and actions, may their souls be bound up in the bond of life with the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and with the righteous men and women of all nations who are in the Garden of Eden and let us say, Amen.

I sincerely hope that those who are more skilled than me will write their versions of these prayers and, more importantly, will promote the inclusion of all people who have been victims of violent hate crimes.

About the Author
Rabbi Arnie Samlan, Chief Jewish Education Officer of the Jewish Federation Broward County, Florida, Is a rabbi and Jewish educator whose work has impacted Jewish learners, community leaders and professionals across North America. All blog posts are his personal opinions and are not meant to reflect viewpoints of the Jewish Federation.
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