The Challenge of “Amen”: A Young Rabbi’s Reflection on Taking Part in an Interfaith Prayer Service

Last week I had the opportunity to take part in an interfaith prayer service to support my town’s re-elected mayor who would be inaugurated the following day. It was an incredible moment for faith leaders of my town to come together in a moment of unity and collaboration and lend some of our tradition’s wisdom to our elected leaders.

I stepped up to the stage with my prepared words in hand, excited about the opportunity to share some Jewish words of prayer in a public setting. Yet at the same time, I carried some of the nervous anxiety that has been stewing for over 2,000 years. See–before I approached the stage in the YMCA, most of the words offered before me were offered specifically in the name of Jesus Christ.

They began and ended with phrases like “and unto Jesus Christ’s name do we pray.” As such, these prayers were not simply pieces of wisdom from their respective tradition; they were communal prayers. Creating a communal interfaith prayer space meant that there wasn’t a speaker and an audience; it meant that there was a preacher and a congregation. And for this young Jewish rabbi, participating in a Jesus-centered prayer space was an uncomfortable feeling.

One of the consequences of my profoundly Jewish upbringing (I have spent most of my life going to school and being surrounded by fellow Jews), is that I have developed a strong sensitivity to the usage of the name of Jesus Christ. I’ve always been told that the primary thing that separates Jews from Christians is that Christians believe in Jesus and we do not[1].  As such we must be careful to not accept Jesus in our lives even though, living in a Christian oriented society, the opportunities to accept Jesus are prevalent.

I remember being at a Jewish youth convention when my advisor took me away from a potentially difficult conversation with some young people who were trying to show that the book of Isaiah proved that Jesus was the son of God. I remember talking to some of my high school friends who had been approached by Christian missionaries, and wanting to have some of those conversations myself in order to prove the missionaries wrong. I also remember walking around New York with a different Jewish youth group and being approached by a Messianic Jew (someone who practices Judaism and believes in Jesus Christ as the son of God) who mocked us for following our rabbis. As such, how could being in a service in which Jesus was invoked as the son of God not bring about a certain level of discomfort and unease?

Yet more than simply unease and discomfort, there was another factor that made the situation more complex from a particularly Jewish perspective. Wedded throughout the Christian prayers were implicit and explicit calls for the congregation to say “Amen.” After certain phrases or stories the congregation would spontaneously say “yes,” or “amen,” or other sayings of agreement to what was being shared by the pastor.

I do not know enough about how the term “Amen” functions in a Christian worship setting, but in a Jewish worship setting, the term “Amen” (or אמן) has a particular ritual function.[2]  When one says “Amen” to a Jewish blessing they have fulfilled their obligation to recite that blessing.

Take the blessing over bread, known as hamotzi. All Jews are required to bless their food before eating it. Yet if you are at a communal table, especially on a Friday night, the blessing is only said once. You would think that if all Jews are required to bless the food then each person should say the blessing for themselves! Yet, that is where the ritual function of “Amen” comes in. When one individual recites hamotzi out loud for all people to hear, then it is possible for a Jew to fulfill his or her obligation of saying that blessing by reciting “Amen!”  More than simply agreeing to (at least some of) the premises of the blessing, the act of saying “Amen” is akin to saying the entire blessing for oneself.

That is why being in that prayer space in the YMCA was particularly challenging. Though I did not agree with everything that was said in that space, my presence admitted a certain acceptance of the content being recited, especially with the plethora of opportunities to say “Amen.” How could agreeing to take part in such a service not be an admission that, on some Jewish level, I was saying “Amen” to what everyone else was saying?

Yet with all of those feelings running through me I stepped up to the stage to perform a function that is both very difficult and extremely important and necessary. In the midst of an interfaith prayer service, in which each pastor was sharing the truth of their own path, I shared the truth of mine. I talked words of Torah, I invoked the messages of the rabbis through the centuries, and I described God in uniquely Jewish terms.

None of this was done to show up the other faiths that were present, but rather to raise the truth of my own path so that others could hear it and learn from it. I wanted to be in that setting that made me uncomfortable because that is where I believe my tradition needs to be heard.

If we remain in our own dalet amot, our own corners where we feel completely comfortable, then we will never be able to expand our comfort zone.  At some point later I hope to delve more deeply into what led me to believe that it is so critical to put ourselves in those uncomfortable spaces. Yet for now let me simply say that being in a space of “Amen,” can be one of the most powerful and life-enriching experiences you can have, even when you’re not sure you’re ready for it.

Photo by Leila Darwish, via FotoCommunity.

[1] My dear friend and local Episcopalian minister, with whom I debriefed after this event, reminded me that even within Christianity there is a wide range of feelings, attitudes, approaches, and types of acceptance of Jesus.  As such, it is overly simplistic to describe the primary difference between Jews and Christians as their acceptance (or non-acceptance) of Jesus.

[2] Perhaps in another post I will talk about how I have developed my own way of responding “Amen” in interfaith circles.  Yet, at this point it is important for me to note that I have an acute challenge for saying “Amen” in this circumstance.

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12 thoughts on “The Challenge of “Amen”: A Young Rabbi’s Reflection on Taking Part in an Interfaith Prayer Service

  1. Thanks for sharing the Jewish understanding of what the Amen means in worship. As a (Christian) writer of worship texts, I have been encouraged to ask whether the whole community could say an authentic Amen to my words. But the work I do is mostly within one religious community – trying to do it across religious boundaries is even harder. I hope we can find better ways to do interfaith ritual that don’t presuppose a Christian framework.

  2. Thanks for your response Margaret — I’m very interested to hear more about your work on writing worship texts in which all people can respond with an authentic Amen. It is certainly a challenge to say or write something that is open enough for all people to access yet is poignant, meaningful, and truthful to your tradition.

    Upholding the need to pray in an authentic manner is also one of my primary concerns in these spaces. While I am not shy about admitting my discomfort in this space, I do not want that discomfort to force someone else to pray in-authentically. It seems to me that these pastors could only pray authentically if they did so in the name of Jesus Christ. To ask them to do otherwise would be to infringe on their theological beliefs. And the fact of the matter is that being a part of a congregation with these prayers teaches me something new about myself and my beliefs which is part of the whole reason I love working with other faiths.

    As such I’m left with the challenge of being uncomfortable saying “amen,” yet wanting to expand my experience of faith.

  3. Hi Ari,

    Thanks for this post. I find myself in interfaith settings quite a bit–often, I’m the interfaith part of the equation, attending church services or just showing up for class at the Presbyterian seminary from which I’m about to graduate. In all cases, I want to respect the prayers and worship of the community I’m with, but it’s important that I be true to myself and my tradition as well.

    I’ve concluded that my best strategy is to be confidently awkward. That is, recognizing that I’m out of place and being respectfully quiet during others’ prayer and/or hymns, but not saying “Amen” or singing along (during Christian hymns, I’ll stand with the community but I won’t sing).

    In intentionally interfaith settings, though, I usually find that the Christian leaders I’m with don’t mind dropping the “in Jesus’ name we pray” part. Maybe that varies by person and denomination… I don’t know. I wonder if the Christians at the interfaith service you attended are even aware that just tweaking the language a little bit would help the non-Christians in their midst feel more comfortable?

    Blessings to you & on your work–I look forward to following your posts!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Yaira. It helps to learn how someone else in an interfaith prayer setting approaches questions like these. I especially like your term “confidently awkward” because it succinctly articulates the challenge of being in that space with the conviction that it’s a space we’re supposed to be in.

      In terms of approaching the other churches, I think at a certain point I might be willing to do that. However, at this time I’m still the new person on the block and trying to just get my feet wet in the faith community of my town. My hope is to be heavily involved in ecumenical work among the clergy and professional leadership and by doing so talk about these moments of “confident awkwardness” to brainstorm how we might approach them more collectively.

      I’m looking forward to following your posts as well!


  4. Being sensitive our religious neighbour is necessary in any interfaith functions. In a interfaith prayer meeting, we normally avoid terms and phrases that are specific to one’s faith, especially when the interfaith congregation is to take part in a response. Instead, we culd as well conclude a prayer by sying, “We pray in the name of God.” It is quite natural for Christians to say “Amen,” but does not matter. It is here that a space is given to a worshiper of a particular tradition to step into his/her “comfort zone.” While unity is maintained, its diversity too is appreciated.

  5. I think there is an impulse, when one is new to interfaith/multifaith gatherings to want to use inclusive language. In my early days I was more likely to say “We are all children of one Mother” than “We all come from the Goddess” which is how it would be how we would say itin a Wiccan context.

    I admire your desire to be authentic to your tradition and I think there is much to recommend it. As we get more comfortable working together being ourselves and representing our traditions in truth opens the way to truly working together to make the world a better place.

    1. Rowan and Vincent – thank you for your thoughtful responses. I’m replying to both of you in this same space because in reading each of your comments I am struck by a powerful dualism/tension that exists in interfaith work and, in particular, in interfaith settings. The dualism I’m referring to is that we must be sensitive to the presence of other faiths (Vincent) and open to truly working together (Rowan). Yet it seems to me that the tension between the two is that sensitivity leads to universal language (I.e.”pray in the name of God”) while being open to truly working together requires us to accept the particular language that makes our individual faiths/ethical practices unique (I.e. “Goddess” as opposed to “mother”). In other words, sensitivity to others and openness to different truths seem to be necessary, yet contradictory. As such, how are we supposed to proceed?

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful article. For the past 25 years, in grassroots interfaith settings, our language for prayer has been an issue, as you indicate. It is natural to think that you should not be specific but general; though even the general, praying to “God,” is specific, since God is not a word that some traditions find meaningful.

    So, the custom has developed to invite everyone to speak in their own language and terms, with the understanding that we know that your speech (and mine) is personal to each of us, something to share and not an insult to others from different traditions.

    Groups often publish their own attitude, when they are doing a lot of interfaith worship, and usually the advice is for all of us to speak from the heart in our own traditions.

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