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What happens when a problematic prayer is censored?
During a 2001–02 sabbatical, Boston College theology professor Ruth Langer spent three days a week, eight hours a day, in a drab and dimly lit basement room of Jerusalem’s Jewish National and University Library, poring over Hebrew-language manuscripts on microfilm. Langer, an ordained rabbi whose academic focus is Jewish liturgy, was researching a book about processions in which Torah scrolls are carried through synagogues. As she inspected the grainy images of handwritten medieval prayer books, however, she began to notice that some words in old, established texts seemed to have been blotted out with ink or smeared as though with the lick of a finger—signs of censors at work.
This occurred most often in a scattering of prayers known to reference “gentiles,” “heretics,” or “foreigners” (one, for instance, thanking God “who has not made me a gentile”)—prayers that could be construed as disparaging of Christians. Langer decided to shelve her orig-inal project and dig further; the case of the blotted words was both “more important” liturgically and more relevant to her work with Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning (where she is now associate director). The result is a book published last December by Oxford: Cursing the Christians? A History of the Birkat HaMinim.
The Birkat HaMinim (literally, “blessing of the sectarians”) is a staple of daily Jewish observance, now as in the Middle Ages. Three times a day, in groups or individually, devout Jews recite the Birkat HaMinim as part of a larger prayer of 18 blessings spoken while facing toward Jerusalem. Uncensored versions of the prayer retrieved by Langer from the medieval era take an invective tone, as in this 13th-century excerpt from the Rhineland:
May there be no hope for apostates;
and may all the minim immediately perish;
and may all enemies of Your people
speedily be cut off;
and may You speedily uproot and smash
and defeat the empire of insolence.
According to Langer, minim has always referred broadly to “kinds” or “sorts” of people, usually heretics. In the high Middle Ages, however (starting with the second millennium), the word took on added meaning as a malediction directed at baptized Jews and born Christians. The “empire of insolence,” she says, referred to Europe’s ruling powers.
Dating the Birkat HaMinim, which has evolved through the centuries, was one aspect of Langer’s investigation. Contrary to some scholarly opinion that traces the prayer to the late first century of the Common Era, she found no certain evidence of it until around the year 400, when Christian theologians began making note of it. Expurgation of the Birkat HaMinim seems to have started in the 1400s, when Christian authorities in Italy and probably elsewhere went house to house in Jewish districts, collecting handwritten prayer books and other texts, returning them sanitized of all references to Christianity. Censorship became more thorough in the mid-1500s, as printing became more widespread. By then, rabbinic authorities were self-censoring (in some instances leaving spaces blank, to be filled in by hand later) to get books cleared through Church-controlled presses.
Censors “could control the written words,” says Langer, “but people continued to recite the old words.” This happened for about 150 years until the late 1600s, she discovered. And then, during the 18th-century Enlightenment, assimilated Jews began revising texts voluntarily, moderating them with a view toward securing their place in society. In an afterword, Langer urges Jewish scholars to do as their Christian counterparts have increasingly done with their own “difficult” liturgical texts (for example, the Holy Week narratives of Christ’s trial and execution)—grapple with them for purposes of interfaith dialogue. Though the Birkat HaMinim‘s problematic language disappeared long ago (it now presents a fairly generic plea to God to obliterate evil), Langer points to a recent trend among strictly observant Jews and some scholars toward restoring pre-censorship texts. She writes: “The challenge facing the Jewish community today is to resist the temptation to restore the [Birkat HaMinim] prayer more fully and to teach appropriate interpretations of its prayers.”
Read more by William Bole