Thursday, October 27, 2011

Christians and Jews: Praying Together with Integrity

I presented this lecture almost seven years ago at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. The "Driscoll Lecture" is a very distinguished annual lecture series on Catholic - Jewish Relations and I was honored to present this talk. It is scheduled to be published as a chapter in a new book on Catholic - Jewish Relations by the Paulist Press but the publication has been delayed for some time. So meanwhile, you can read it here!

Christians and Jews: Praying Together with Integrity
The Sixth Annual Driscoll Lecture in Jewish-Catholic Studies
Iona College, New Rochelle, NY
February 2, 2005

Rabbi Charles L. Arian

The desire to have Christians and Jews (and indeed, those of other religions as well) pray together is a distinctly modern phenomenon. For most of Western history, a person’s religious community was his or her community. True, Jews and Christians might trade and do business with each other. But friendships between those of different religions were rare if not impossible, and interreligious prayer was not high on anyone’s agenda. As Lawrence Hoffman writes: “historically speaking, worship has precisely not been in common with anyone but one’s own people.”# “One’s own people,” of course, were those who shared one’s religion.

But the American and French revolutions, and the subsequent spread of democracy, meant that people of any religion were now citizens and part of the larger community. Since the social and political order now embraced those of many religions, might there not be occasions when joint prayer was in order? Indeed, there are records of interfaith services held by Reform Jewish temples and liberal Protestant churches going back to at least the 1880’s, if not earlier.

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?
At the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, our exploration of this question two years ago was prodded by the controversy within the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod over one of its Regional Presidents’ participation in an interfaith service at Yankee Stadium in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Some of you may be familiar with this case, where a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor was suspended by his denomination for participating in an interfaith gathering together with Jews, Muslims, non-LCMS Christians and other “pagans” – even though, at this interfaith gathering, he offered an explicitly Christian prayer in Jesus’ name.
But our concern was much deeper than a mere response to a controversy in the news. 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. Our educational events do not start with an invocation, our meal events do not begin with grace, and our overnight programs for clergy and educators do not begin the day with morning services. This policy has been the occasion for comment and sometimes even consternation over the years.

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. For reasons, which will (hopefully) become apparent, interfaith worship that includes religious groups that are not explicitly monotheistic – such as Buddhists, Hindus, or Wiccans – introduces certain complications. It is for this reason that personally, as a rabbi, I have participated in Christian – Jewish and Christian – Jewish –Muslim services but not services that include leadership from other faiths that are not explicitly monotheistic or Abrahamic.

Why do we have communal prayer? Communal prayer is an expression of a group’s innermost longings. In prayer, a community dialogues with its God. The community expresses its needs, its desires, its hopes and dreams. It’s no wonder that the folk aphorism has it that “the family that prays together, stays together.”

But prayer is not only the expression of a group. Prayer often creates and defines a group. Groups by their nature are exclusionary; by defining who is in, they also define who is out. Whoever is called upon to craft a service, which expresses the identity and desire of the community, is forced to define the community’s boundaries. This is why participation in interfaith or even ecumenical services is such a “hot button” issue for more conservative religious groups and for those defined by their adherence to certain doctrinal interpretations. Interfaith services create broader boundaries of inclusion than these groups are generally comfortable with.

A number of years ago my friend Rabbi James Diamond, the (now retired) campus rabbi at Princeton University, wrote an article for the interfaith journal Cross Currents called “Liturgical Chastity.” He wrote that one should “understand the act of worship in terms phenomenonologically similar to those in which we understand the act of sex . . . both are private. They flow from the deepest regions of the self. They are connected to how we live out and express as individuals our most fundamental identities.”#

If this is so, Diamond writes, then interfaith worship has the character of group sex. Though at first it may seem “innovative and even exciting,” at the end of the day it is “trivial and inauthentic.”

Diamond’s comparison of prayer to sex may at first seem shocking. But prayer is indeed an intimate act, one that makes us vulnerable. Attending services of a group different than one’s own can make one feel very much an outsider or even a voyeur. Conversely, when a congregation is overwhelmed by a large number of visitors who are not familiar with the service and do not participate actively (either visitors of another religion, or guests at a life-cycle event), regular worshippers will often note that the quality of their own prayer experience suffers.

While I’m not certain that I agree with Diamond’s description of interfaith worship as “trivial and inauthentic” it is not without its problems. 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 (not because there is any theological objection to Christians worshipping in Hebrew, but because it was considered exclusionary and inaccessible.) 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.


Or can they? 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. At a Clergy Colloquium, 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.

These lists, of course, are neither exclusive nor exhaustive, but they do give some indication that Jews and Christians may well mean different things when they use the word “prayer.”
Moreover, 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. If we believe that, as the September 2000 “Jewish Statement on Christianity” Dabru Emet states, “Jews and Christians worship the same God” and that “through Christianity hundreds of millions of people have entered into relationship with the God of Israel”, why shouldn’t Jews and Christians be able to worship that same God together?
The question, it seems to me, is not merely about the identity of the God to Whom the prayers are addressed. Rather, it is also about membership in the community that is uttering the prayers. Members of a religious community are not merely a random group of people who happen to be, each as an individual, covenanted to the same deity. Rather, they are covenanted to each other as well. This is why Jewish communal worship requires a minyan, a quorum of ten adult Jews, and why many (though not all) Christian denominations have rules about who may participate in Communion.

Many Jews and Christians believe that their covenant does not merely require them to worship God; it requires them to worship God in a specific way at a specific time. Prayer that does not conform to these requirements will, indeed, seem inauthentic to such people, even if it is done with the best of intentions and with utmost care.

These types of issues don’t only arise, of course, when discussing questions of joint prayer for Christians and Jews. They occur even between Christians of various communities. About fifteen years ago I was the only campus rabbi in the entire state of Virginia, and I was helping to plan an interfaith student weekend conference. The question of our plans for Sunday morning arose, and the Protestants on the committee wanted something that would include all of the Christian and Jewish participants ---Muslims and others were not on anyone’s radar screens at the time. They asked me if there were any Sunday morning required Jewish rituals and I replied “bagels and the Sunday Times.” But the plan for joint worship Sunday morning ultimately foundered because of the Roman Catholic obligation to attend Mass. While the Catholic campus ministers had no theoretical objection to an ecumenical Christian or even Christian – Jewish service, that would neither fulfill nor override the obligation to attend a Roman Catholic Mass celebrated by a duly-ordained Roman Catholic priest, and in the end there was no way that our packed schedule could accommodate both a Catholic mass and an ecumenical or interfaith service in addition. So the Catholics went to Mass, the Protestants had Sunday morning prayer, and the Jews either slept in or had a very leisurely breakfast.

“Who is my partner in the covenant?” is an unresolved issue between Jews and Christians. Those Christians who believe that Judaism is also a legitimate religion tend to use Paul’s metaphors of “grafting” and “adoption” and believe that Jews and Christians are two parts of the same overall covenant. Judaism has generally held to a two-covenant model: the Covenant of Noah, which potentially embraces all humanity, and the specific covenant between God and the Jewish people which is known as the Covenant of Abraham. The idea that Christians might also be heirs to the Covenant of Abraham, though in a different way than Jews, is a difficult one for many Jews to accept. Even Dabru Emet, which is the first Jewish statement about another religion to move away from Noahide language, doesn’t specifically address the question of covenant. But if I am correct, that the issue of prayer involves not only the identity of the Deity but also membership in the covenant community, this may give us a clue as to why Christians often seem more eager than Jews to engage in interfaith prayer. It may also give us a clue as to why so many Christians seem so eager to adopt and adapt all sorts of Jewish rituals, from the seemingly ubiquitous church seders to the use of ram’s horns and tallitot in Christian worship. At any rate, the tendency of Jews to see Christianity as merely one among many non-Jewish religions while Christians usually see Judaism as somehow more intrinsically related to their own faith is an often-present but unarticulated source of some of the tensions and misunderstandings which arise.

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. It can, admittedly, sometimes be uncomfortable for Jews who object even to hearing Christological or Trinitarian language, but in my opinion this discomfort is inappropriate. We should have no objection when Christians pray as Christians; our objection should be only to the assumption that everyone in our society is or ought to be Christian, or to having prayers lead presumably on our behalf to which we cannot in good conscience say “Amen.”

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.
Although such a liturgy has not yet been written, perhaps the upcoming 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate provides the opportunity for Jews and Roman Catholics, in particular, to begin thinking about creating one. In order to do so, we need to take our theoretical cue from Dabru Emet and from Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s new book “For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity.” For Greenberg, Christianity is at least partial fulfillment of God’s call to Abraham to be a blessing to all of humanity. Judaism, as an intensely particularistic tradition that is tied very strongly to a particular ethnic identity and a particular land, could never become and was not intended to be, a universal religion. It was Christianity that brought the worship of the God of Israel, creator of heaven and earth and giver of the Torah, to millions and billions of people. Thus, Jews and Christians are related to each other in a special way, and it should be possible for us, acknowledging that we worship the same God, to pray together in some sort of meaningful way.
Nevertheless, though we do indeed worship the same God and are close to each other, we remain different and distinct religions. Recognition of this fact will help us to construct appropriate worship services and avoid some of the misunderstandings that have sometimes marked discussions about interfaith worship.
Because Jews and Christians remain distinct religions, it is only possible, in my opinion, for joint services to be supplemental and held on special occasions such as Thanksgiving or a commemoration of some historic event. My participation in a joint service does not and is not intended to fulfill my obligation for statutory prayer. A Catholic’s participation in a joint service does not fulfill her obligation to attend Mass. It would be inappropriate for a church to have a joint service instead of Sunday Mass or for a synagogue to have a joint service instead of its regular Friday night or Saturday morning Shabbat service – though it would be proper to have what Hoffman calls an “indigenous worship service with guests” on such occasions. When I was a pulpit rabbi, we would on occasion have a service where we had guests from a local church and their minister might even speak, or I and some congregants would go as guests to a church service and I might speak, but the services remained essentially what they would have been anyway, except perhaps with some more explanations and page announcements. But this is not what we mean when we talk of interfaith worship, and we should not try to turn a church or synagogue’s own indigenous service into something it was not meant to be.

So a truly interfaith, Christian – Jewish liturgy should be explicitly supplemental and not an attempt at fulfilling either community’s obligations to statutory prayer. Such a liturgy would have to follow several guidelines to have theological integrity. It should:

  1. Acknowledge that Jews and Christians worship the same God, but they do so in different ways.
  2. Acknowledge the legitimacy of each faith.
  3. Acknowledge and celebrate not only the similarities between the two faiths, but also their differences.
  4. Acknowledge, as Dabru Emet states, that “the humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.” It should also leave open the possibility that these differences are not meant to be settled at all and will persist even then.


Isaiah has taught us that in the end of days, God’s house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples. As Christians and Jews, we are called to work, individually and together, to bring that day to fruition. We do that, of course, through our own efforts, but we are also cautioned to remember that ultimate redemption belongs not to us but to God. Our desire to pray together is a sign of that future redemption; our difficulties in doing so, remind us that that day is not yet here.

2 comments:

Cal Lord said...

Great article Charles. I really appreciated your insights. I was reminded of our discussions a few years ago about our prayer at the Rotary meetings and whether or not we could pray together and still be faithful to our individual faith traditions.

I know I have always been conscious of our differences when we pray together. In interfaith or community settings I often end my prayers with "in your precious name," or "in the name of our almighty God." This may not be possible for our Catholic brethren or our more evangelical friends but I think God makes an allowance for that because of the covenant made with Noah.

Kate Braithwaite said...

I am studying this