In the last few weeks there has been a nasty kerfuffle in the orthodox Jewish blogosphere, started when a Rabbi associated with the same progressive group that has been striving to create leadership roles for women within Orthodox Judaism attempted to take a balanced position on bible criticism. Shouts of heresy resounded across the internet, with one positive outcome being an excellent response on the part of Prof. Jacob Wright which is worth reading and can be found here.

After all the name calling, the question remains whether religious faith is based only upon the empirical fact of a text supposedly emanating word from word from God, or is there a deeper set of meanings for which an evolving spiritual community provides a set of answers. In this week’s reading the subject of communal response is paramount, as we encounter, for only the second time in the Bible, the unusual word “Amen”.

Curious word, this Amen. What does it mean when we respond “amen“? Its previous mention in the Torah is in the rather unpleasant episode of the sotah, related to marital infidelity. In our text, starting at verse 27:11, the context isn’t exactly positive, either; it is linked to a series of condemnations of various offenses, mostly of a sexual nature, beginning with idolatry and ending with a curse against one who “does not maintain all the words of this Torah, to do them”. Responsively, the text tells us, the people answered amen. What does this word amen mean?

The Midrash takes this opportunity to list a series of positive teachings regarding the answering of amen, providing a linguistic analysis in which the word amen implies 1. an oath (as in the Sotah episode), 2. an act of affirmation (as in our perasha), 3. an act of belief, as in Kings I, 1:36. The multiplicity of midrashic etymologies usually suggests that the actual meaning of the word remains ambiguous.

However, it has become central to normative Jewish life from antiquity to answer amen as a positive affirmation, particularly after the recitation of a blessing (an interesting transformation from its textual use as a response to a curse). The answering of amen in response to a blessing, particularly during public prayer, became so central that the Talmud teaches in BT Berachot 53: and Nazir 66.:

Greater is one that answers amen to a blessing than the one who makes the blessing.

In other words, responding to the blessing is a recognized as being of greater devotional importance than actually reciting the blessing itself. How can the response be more important spiritually than actually reciting the prayer? What lesson does that teach us about the individual and the community?

In the early medieval period, the Hasidei Ashkenaz, an interesting mystical group in 12th century Germany explained the etymology of the word and its function in terms of mathematical quanta: the numerical value of the word amen in Hebrew letter values is 91, which is the value of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ names of God, which in esoteric circles refers to a positive relationship between the ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ elements in the Godhead, reflecting the ‘giving’ aspect of divine mercy versus the ‘demanding’ aspect of divine justice. According to Sefer Hasidim, the central text of Hasidei Ashkenaz, when one makes a blessing, only one form of God’s name is invoked, either the name corresponding to mercy, or the name corresponding to justice. The the one who answers Amen has, as it were, a two to one advantage over the person making the blessing, because the term subsumes within it a twofold aspect of the revealed nature of God.

On the other hand, the Maharal by prioritizing the amen response as per the Talmudic teaching, demands more from the responder than the one uttering the original prayer. In his Netivot Olam, Netiv Haavoda chapter 11, he explains that in order for the “amen” to properly function, the responder must deeply intend the amen, whereas the person making the blessing has fulfilled his obligation (to make the blessing) even without intentionality. Thus the one responding to the blessing with an “amen” needs to be more conscious in order to have his or her speech act become operational, whereas even unthinking reflexive action is adequate to fulfill the requirement in making a blessing.

A later kabbalistic reading from early modern Padua is given by R. Moshe Haim Luzzatto, the Ramhal, who also prioritizes the response to the blessing. He explains, using the Lurianic schemata, that the amen response serves to protect the intention of the blessing, the ‘spiritual quanta’ released by the act of blessing. Spiritual energy is, in this system, very tenuous, once released can veer off in any direction; by affirming it with an amen, one assures that it travels in the proper direction. The point is, if we may abstract the baroque symbolism, that communal affirmation may be more objectively positive than an individual act of prayer.

This bring us to the reading of the Sefat Emet, whose reading is the point of this essay. According to the Sefat Emet (in his notes for the year 1881), in line with the approach of Ramhal, the individual uttering the blessing or prayer has a specific, individual meaning to his or her prayer, within his or her prayer act is contained primarily their own conscious intentional activity. However, the communal response of amen, which shares the same letters as the word emunah, “faith”, represents an undifferentiated affirmation of faith open to all the possible interpretations that can be read into it, as though the community is saying “yes, to anything you might mean through that act of prayer”. In other words, the person making the blessing likely has a specific spiritual meaning or feeling which they are expressing at that moment; in a sense the activity is limited by that individual specificity. When the community answers amen, it is as if the community is adding all the potential spiritual affirmations that were or could be intended by anyone to that individual prayer.

The Sefat Emet’s reading is also valuable as an explanation for a textual concern. Why is this episode of communal amen introduced at this point in the textual narrative? According to the Sefat Emet, the communal nature of spiritual response was a critical moment for the people, who are about to embark on the adventure of creating a new spiritual society. This former band of slaves are about to enter the Promised Land, where their goal will be the formation of a novel and meaningful spiritual community. They will no longer be merely a wandering group of eremites, living in the “desert” of purely personal and subjective apprehension of a divine message; now faith will be reciprocally dependent upon the entire community’s history and spiritual development. It will reflect the community’s needs and responses as a whole, with concern for all the members of that community, not merely serve some individual high achievers who will then determine the Jewish faith; as we have described in earlier essays, this is Torah She’b'al Peh, the Oral Law, according to the Sefat Emet, which is meant to reflect a transformation of the divine word into the lived experience and striving for justice of the entire community, not just of ascetic holy individuals, but for the klal, the entire people with different needs and views.

Justice is by definition a social phenomenon, and religion in this light is meant to be the foundation upon which justice can be achieved- the ability to believe one another. Jacques Derrida in his recent book “Religion”, argues that “religion is the response”. “Religion” writes Derrida, from the Latin root of “religio”, a tying together, requires understanding of

“what responding means, and also responsibility…and no responsibility without a given word, a sworn faith…a sworn promise, taking immediately God as its witness…with God, a God that is present…all attestation becomes superfluous…God would remain then one name of the witness, he would be called as witness…present-absent witness of every oath or of every possible pledge”.

It is important to note, in our age, that this amen, this foundation of trust in one another which religion is meant to instill, is foundational of all interpersonal and communal interactions, not only of theology and social structure, but that of science and research as well.

Derrida points out that the if one wants to see a true faith community in contemporary times, one needs to think about the world of science and medicine. When I treat a patient with a potentially toxic drug, at a certain dose, at a certain interval, we choose to believe our medical colleagues, our teachers and researchers in the field, to affirm that what we are doing is not false or fraudulent. No individual practitioner can go back and test every drug in the lab, or redo every clinical or scientific study. For this reason, we by necessity have incorporated the ability to “have faith” in one another, that is, to answer “amen” to the collective set of works we call science and technology. We can drive a car or operate a computer because as a society we have accepted upon ourselves a set of beliefs, that we operate out of a common good, that science is not a lie, that technology is not a malignant fraud, and a progressive society will self-regulate to insure that our food is not poisoned, that the water we drink will not kill us.

In summary, the communal answering of amen to the prayer of the individual means that all of us take upon ourselves an acceptance and commitment to responsibility for the views and needs of the entire community. The greater emphasis upon answering amen over the individual prayer parallels the Talmudic focus on social law and justice overpersonal spiritual attainment or adherence to dogma. Answering amen is not only prerequisite for membership in a particular spiritual group, it is an act signifying respect for the full range of positive views, and is a necessary step towards achieving progressive good for all humanity.

A previous essay on this week’s Torah reading can be found here.


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