To what do we say Amen?

Amen. Jewish tradition takes that word seriously. Amen is related to the word Emet, meaning “truth.” Amen declares, “What you have said is true!” Amen delineates the boundary of community. In his Laws of Blessings (1:13), Maimonides writes, “One should not respond Amen if the person reciting the blessing is a gentile[1], an apostate, a Samaritan…” When I am with my Christian friends and they end their prayer, “in Jesus’ name,” I feel excluded from the community and I do not answer Amen. But if their prayer language is more general (“God” “Creator”), I answer Amen, grateful for their ecumenicalism and our religious common ground. The word Amen raises the issue: to what do we agree, consciously or unconsciously?

I recently saw The Book of Mormon. Without spoiling the plot, in one scene a group of Mormon missionaries arrive to Uganda and join a group of villagers who are singing and dancing to a song when, all of a sudden, one of them discovers that the words of the song curse God. What I remember is how, at the end of the number, the audience, myself included, applauded. As we clapped – a modern Amen – many questions ran through my mind: “What am I applauding? The music? The actors? Am I saying Amen to the villagers cursing God? Am I comforting the villagers by allowing the villagers to give voice to their suffering as they cry out to (against) God?” The writers of The Book of Mormon quite brilliantly use humor to provoke important questions in the audience about what we agree to, wittingly and unwittingly.

Jews will soon gather in synagogues to celebrate Purim and listen to the book of Esther in which the Jewish community is nearly annihilated. When the tables turn, “The Jews that were in Shushan gathered themselves together on the fourteenth day also of the month Adar, and slew 300 men in Shushan; but on the spoil they laid not their hand. The other Jews that were in the king’s provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of them that hated them 75,000 –but on the spoil they laid not their hand– on the thirteenth day of the month Adar, and on the fourteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness.” Slew 75,000 people?  Like a modern musical, the words of the megillah push us to wrestle with our self-assumptions: did we kill 75,000 people in righteous self-defense (after all, on the spoil, we laid not our hands), or perhaps, in killing 75,000 of our enemies, did we get carried away in the moment by violence and bloodshed? As we grog our groggers and feast in gladness, listening to the megillah challenges us to think about those parts of our history and our story to which we give our assent, wittingly and unwittingly.

Such “Amen” moments confront us continually. Two recent examples will illustrate. Just before the Super Bowl this year, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnie Eisen, pondered the ethics of watching the NFL:

The ethical issue is not viewers’ pleasure at the injuries, but our enjoyment in and support of professional football, knowing full well the damage done in the normal course of a game to players’ bodies and minds. Around the time the current season began, it was announced (Ken Belson, August 29, 2013, New York Times) that “The National Football League has agreed to pay $765 million to settle lawsuits brought by more than 4,500 players and their families, largely closing the legal front in the league’s battle against accusations that it concealed what it knew about the dangers of repeated hits to the head.” A judge recently threw the settlement into question, unsure that the money would be sufficient to cover the medical care required. The data on concussions seem irrefutable. All of us will be aware, as we watch Super Bowl XLVIII, that in [sports writer, William C.] Rhoden’s words, “The NFL brand of football is a particularly violent game, and every time it is played, people get hurt.” We accept that. We watch anyway.

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of millions of people watched the Winter Olympics. Fifteen year-old Russian figure skater, Julia Lipnitskaia, competed for gold. Her “signature piece” in the Olympic long program was set to John Williams’ theme from Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Holocaust drama Schindler’s List. But that’s not all: The routine featured Lipnitskaia skating as the film’s iconic “girl in the red coat,” a young Polish Jew who is killed by Nazi soldiers.” Writing about a long history of skaters incorporating Schlinder’s List motifs into their routines, Justin Peters asked in Slate magazine, “Why does something that seems so vulgar strike the figure-skating community as the best idea ever?” Peters notes that Lipnitskaia’s program was choreographed by Ilia Averbukh, a former Olympic ice dancing medalist who is himself a Russian Jew. Does that make a difference? An ice skating blog declares that “when she skates as the little girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List, Miss Lipnitskaia’s flaws become virtues that just work,” while USA Today called Lipnitskaia’s routine “spectacular but respectful.” But, Peters concludes, “The 15-year-old Russian skater is so beautiful and graceful on the ice, she ends up transcending material that she probably has no right using in the first place.” Why not?

Elie Wiesel once wrote, “[N]ot even the killers ever imagined that there could come a time when the merchants of images and the brokers of language would set themselves up to speak for the victims. The Holocaust has become a fashionable subject, so film and theater producers and television networks have set out to exploit it…They get a little history, a heavy dose of sentimentality and suspense, a little eroticism, a few daring sex scenes, a dash of theological rumination about the silence of God, and there it is: let kitsch rule in the land of kitsch, where, at the expense of truth, what counts is the ratings.”[2]

Lipnitskaia did not win gold, but ratings were predictably high. Millions of people applauded. What did they applaud? To what did we say Amen? To great figure skating? To the story of a Jewish girl’s death that inspired Schlinder to act and save others? Or did we allow ourselves to be manipulated into the cheapening of the Holocaust in public culture?

Amen moments surround us. Ancient stories and modern musicals. Violence and competition. Through humor and spectacle, moments holy and profane, we are asked to say, Amen!, urged to agree that what others say is true. How we respond is serious business.

[1] Rabbenu Asher (1259-1327, Germany/Spain) and Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520-1572, Poland) say that one should respond Amen to a gentile’s blessing as long as they are not known to worship any alien gods.

[2] Wiesel, Elie. From the Kingdom of Memory, page 167.

About the Author
Daniel Greyber is rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in Durham, NC and author of Faith Unravels: A Rabbi's Struggle With Grief and God. He recently served as USA Team Rabbi at the 2013 World Maccabiah Games and his articles have been featured in a wide range of Jewish publications.