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Cursing the Christians?

November 23, 2011

cursing-the-christians-a-history-of-the-birkat-haminimRuth Langer (Boston College) has written a fascinating piece of liturgical history: Cursing the Christians?:  A History of the Birkat Haminim.

This extensively documented liturgical history reviews an ancient (dating back to the first century of the Common Era) Hebrew prayer, Birkat Haminim – part of the silent prayer (Amidah) said at every traditional Jewish prayer service – that in its early form appears to have been a curse on apostates, Christians, sectarians, enemies of Israel (a reference to imperial powers) as delaying the appearance of the messiah.  This prayer became highly controversial, and was ultimately censored by Christian authorities during the early modern period.  The ethical implications also caused internal distress within Judaism.  Langer’s thesis is that increasing integration of Jews within European culture created tensions, and the evolution of the prayer over time reflects that.  Liberal Jewish movements have had a wide variety of responses to the prayer.

oa-langer-smallLanger examines the prayer in late antiquity, during the Geonimic period (drawing particularly on evidence from the Cairo Geniza, during the high middle ages, during the early modern period (facing Christian censorship), and then through the modern period; tracking particular responses on groups ranging from the Kabbalists and key members of the Hassidic movement to contemporary liberal movements.  The history occupies about 180 pages. A further approximately 70 pages documents changes to the prayer, documenting the Geniza texts, the Pre-Sephardic texts from the Muslim world, medieval European texts, censored texts dating from 1550 to the present, and texts of the liberal movements.  Documentation (notes,glossary, bibliography, etc.) fills up 120 pages. 

This is a fascinating microcosm of Jewish-Christian relations; I have reading my copy most of today and have found it hard to tear myself away even long enough to make this post.

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