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Cursing the Christians?: A History of the Birkat HaMinim

jan peczkis|Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Cursing the Christians?: A History of the Birkat HaMinimThe Long History of a Jewish Malediction Against Christianity. A Call for Mutual Self-Examination. The HAREDIM's
This is a fascinating, technical book. The author traces the history of the BIRKAT HAMINIM from antiquity, through the Middle Ages, and to modern times. In recent times, this prayer has been softened, with removal of reference to enemies, and with the condemnation of evil, as an abstraction, having replaced the condemnation of sinners. (pp. 156-on).


 The Long History of a Jewish Malediction Against Christianity. A Call for Mutual Self-Examination. The HAREDIM's
This is a fascinating, technical book. The author traces the history of the BIRKAT HAMINIM from antiquity, through the Middle Ages, and to modern times. In recent times, this prayer has been softened, with removal of reference to enemies, and with the condemnation of evil, as an abstraction, having replaced the condemnation of sinners. (pp. 156-on).

TWO SIDES TO PAST JEWISH-CHRISTIAN ANTAGONISMS

Author Ruth Langer makes the following candid statements, (quote) For Jews engaged in dialogue, it has been much easier to identify the problems within Christianity than to turn that scrutiny back on our own heritage. Jews, after all, were very much the victims, not just of the Holocaust, but also of centuries of Christian anti-Jewish venom and oppression. Consequently, traditions developed among those studying in the WISSENSCHAFTLICH mode to obscure embarrassing elements of the tradition rather than to confront them. True dialogue, though, requires partnership, mutuality, and adjustment of attitudes on both sides…Thus, full Jewish participation in reconciliation with Christians requires that Jews similarly examine and take responsibility for their own traditions, especially where, as in the case of liturgy, these traditions affect daily life and are not simply dusty books on the shelf. (unquote). (p. 12).

(quote) By grappling with Jewish texts that appear xenophobic or racist…In my plenary talk at their conference that summer addressing this point, I suggest that while Jews do indeed need to be self-critical about their traditions of anti-Christianity; the possible methods of implementing change really do depend on where one stands within the spectrum of contemporary approaches to Judaism…There is no question that BIRKAT HAMINIM, for most of its history, is a text that for moderns engaged in Christian-Jewish reconciliation and dialogue is “problematic” or “difficult”. (unquote). (pp. 184-185).

HISTORY OF BIRKAT HAMINIM AS DIRECTED AGAINST CHRISTIANS

In the decades following the destruction of the temple in 70 CE (or AD), Rabban Gamliel called for the establishment of the BIRKAT HAMINIM. Langer comments, “All later evidence suggests that this BIRKAT HAMINIM, literally ‘a blessing of the sectarians’, was some sort of CURSE asking that God eliminate the “kinds” of people causing the rabbis trouble…MINIM…can apply to Christians, but it can also apply to various kinds of Jewish heretics who are not Christians.” (p. 4, emphasis in original. See also p. 24, 39, 354).

“This prayer, in its medieval European manifestation, was very much a curse of the Christians.” (p. 12; See also p. 66, 184). Moreover, Jews thought of it both in terms of Jewish converts to Christianity as well as those born Christians. (p. 83).

Among medieval rabbis, some of them, notably Rashi, understood MINIM to refer to gentile Christians. (p. 78). Furthermore, the Ritva (R. Tov ben Avraham Ashvili) added that both Christians and Muslims are MINIM, and cannot be considered among the righteous gentiles even if they obey the Noahide laws. (p. 79).

In contrast to the non-specificity of MIN/MINIM, the term NOZERIM, found in some versions of the BIRKAT HAMINIM, did refer specifically to Christians. (p. 66, pp. 198-199, 354. See also p. 189).

What about code words among Jews? Note that the Biblical Esau/Edom became identified with Rome and Byzantine Rome. (p. 82). Langer also affirms the fact that “Yeshu ben Pandira [Pandera]", in the Babylonian Talmud, clearly refers to Jesus Christ. (p. 287).

WORDS ARE ONLY WORDS…OR ARE THEY?

Nowadays, we think in terms of the premise that Jews could only utter words against Christians, while Christians could utter words and actions against Jews. However, in ancient and medieval thinking, the spoken word itself was a matter of gravity, and could by itself be very much a weapon of aggression.

Ruth Langer makes this clear. She writes, (quote) Why should it matter if Jews curse Christians? We live in a world today in which deeds, not words, are real, but this was not the premodern understanding. As in antiquity, medieval Europeans understand curses to be effective means to invoke evil (and coterminously, to remove blessing). In medieval Christian Europe, the Church gains significant political power through granting blessings, understood to protect the recipient in this world and the next, and by removing this protection through curses of various sorts. (unquote). (p. 67).

The author adds that, (quote) Cursing was also part of the vocabulary of the larger worlds in which Jews lived. As Anderson points out, significant parts of Ancient Near Eastern treaty documents consisted of curses designed to force compliance with the treaty. (unquote). (p. 38).

THE MODERN ISRAELI HAREDIM, AND ONGOING ANTI-CHRISTIANITY

Finally, author Ruth Langer touches on the persistence of old thinking among some Jews even today. She comments, (quote) In some cases, like the censored line of ‘ALEYNU, now widely printed in Orthodox prayer books, the community today is widely ignorant of why it might have been an object of sensitivity, and many find other interpretations for its words. Most Jews will never encounter the restored versions of Talmudic texts, but those who are most likely to, among the ultra-Orthodox community, are precisely those who are least likely to approach these texts with historical and critical sensitivity. One wonders about the relationship between this and recent incidents of spitting at Christians and desecrating Christian sites in certain areas of Jerusalem, to which the Jewish community’s leadership needed to respond. (unquote). (p. 259). Comment Comment | Permalink
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