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. 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
Ari Saks is a recently ordained rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a product of the various arms of the Conservative Movement. He is an avid believer and supporter of the benefits of "interfaithing" (faiths working and dialoguing together) and is particularly interested in how members of different faiths (even within one's own family) come together to do spiritually meaningful work. He currently serves as the Rabbi of Temple Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy, NJ.