Christians and Jews: Praying Together with Integrity

By Rabbi Charles Arian,  of Kehilat Shalom, Gaithersburg, MD

POPE, RABBI AND SWISS CARDINAL PICTURED IN 2011 AT VATICAN

Pope Benedict XVI, Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, are pictured in 2011 at the Vatican. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Photo from Jewish-Catholic Dialogue 65 Years after the Founding of the State of Israel

 

Rabbi Charles Arian writes:

Despite the fact that interfaith prayer has been going on in this country and elsewhere for some time, it remains an area of some controversy. There are traditionalists in both Christianity and Judaism who will not participate in interfaith prayer. Others participate, but wonder how appropriate and meaningful such activity really is. Can Christians and Jews pray together in a meaningful way? Can they do so with theological integrity?

…One of the core principles of our work is respect for the integrity and legitimacy of both Christianity and Judaism. Because we are aware of the many issues surrounding interfaith prayer, participants at ICJS events often talk and study about prayer but our events do not, as a rule, include having the participants pray together.

….I want to limit my exploration tonight to the specific question of Christian – Jewish interfaith prayer. There are a number of reasons why this is a unique issue. First, the majority of Christians and Jews believe that both religious communities worship the same God. Second, they have certain sacred texts in common – what Jews refer to as the Tanach and what Christians refer to as the Old Testament….

Services that bring together Christians and Jews have been taking place in America for well over one hundred years. Throughout most of that time, the ground rules have called for a “neutral” service. The content of the prayers was meant to be something that everyone present could affirm.

This meant that Christians were expected to omit any Christological or Trinitarian references. Jews were often, though not always, expected to omit Hebrew …On a theological level, Jews were also expected to omit the many references in Jewish liturgy to Israel’s chosenness and the Jewish sense of a unique mission and destiny.

These neutral services may not offend, but what do they accomplish? Rabbi Donald Berlin, rabbi emeritus of Reform Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, notes, “I am invited (to participate in these types of services) because I am a rabbi but then I am told to say something which has nothing to do with the fact that I am a rabbi.”

Participants may leave the room feeling that they have done something positive in demonstrating good will towards people of other faiths. But is that what prayer is for? Is that even authentic prayer?

In other words, a neutral service requires Jews and Christians to check their distinctive identities, and their distinctive ways of praying, at the door to the sanctuary. Christians and Jews, under this set of ground rules, can pray together only by temporarily suppressing the fact that they are Christians or that they are Jews.

We have said we want to have Jews and Christians pray together, but in order to do so, Jews cannot pray as Jews and Christians cannot pray as Christians.

…What, in fact, makes a Christian prayer authentically Christian, or a Jewish prayer authentically Jewish? A couple of years ago, while spending a year studying the issue of interfaith prayer in depth, our Institute brought together a group of rabbis and Christian clergy of various denominations to help us examine some of these issues… the Christian participants identified the following characteristics of Christian prayer:

  • The prayer is offered in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Trinity. (This qualification is not mandatory, since the Lord’s Prayer has neither a Christological nor a Trinitarian focus.)

  • The prayer is informed by Christian theology and/or by the Christian story.

  • If the person praying the prayer is a Christian, then the prayer is a Christian prayer.

The rabbis who participated identified the following characteristics of Jewish prayer:

  • Prayer is communal (a minyan is required).

  • Prayer is commanded, and it is a response to the covenant relationship.

  • Prayer is time-bound rather than space-bound: It is commanded at certain times of the day and on particular occasions.

  • Prayer involves the establishment of a dialogue: Prayer speaks to God and bounces back to the community.

  • The formulation of the prayer makes it Jewish; it begins and ends with certain words. There is a set liturgy that involves actions as well as words.

  • There is a “uniform” for prayer: tallit and tefillin.

  • Prayer is not mediated.

  • Hebrew and Aramaic are used in prayer.

… it becomes clear that if certain of the characteristics are considered absolutely necessary for Christians or Jews to participate, then Christian-Jewish interfaith prayer becomes impossible. Jews, of course, will not participate in prayers that invoke Jesus or are Trinitarian. Most Christians are not conversant or comfortable with prayers in Hebrew. Moreover, I suspect a lot of Christians might be surprised and not a little bit hurt to discover that they are not included in the “we” or the “us” that most Jewish prayers contain: “Blessed are You O Lord our God, who has chosen us from among the nations and commanded us . . .”

So we are faced with something of a conundrum. We want to pray together, but we want to pray as Jews and Christians, not as generic human beings. There is something deeply unsatisfactory about the expectation that in order to pray together, we suspend our religious particularity and identity. …

…A relatively new innovation for interfaith services is the model which Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College, calls the “Service of Mutual Affirmation.” While this type of service contains some “neutral” prayers, it also makes space for specifically Jewish and specifically Christian prayers, which are meant to be said only by members of that particular community. During those faith-specific prayers, the participants are not praying together, but they are coming together to pray, or praying their own particular prayers in the presence of the other community.

I see this as having a distinct advantage over the older model of the neutral service. It does not require Christians to suppress their Christianity or Jews to suppress their Judaism. It allows members of each community to pray for at least part of the service in their own idiom and their own style. …

…For now, Christians and Jews who want to be involved in interfaith prayer have two choices: they can opt for “neutral” prayer which fully expresses neither community’s identity, or they can adopt Hoffman’s “Mutual Affirmation” model, conscience of its limitations. Liturgy that allows Jews and Christians to worship together as Jews and Christians does not yet, at least to my knowledge, exist.

See his full essay here:

Christians and Jews: Praying Together with Integrity – Rabbi Arian

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