Thoughts on Saying “Amen”
By Edward Hamburg
“Amen: The Final Word in Faith” was the theme of a recent retreat held by Sicha, an organization dedicated to promoting ongoing dialogues between classical Jewish texts and lived experience.
In his introductory remarks to the three days of discussion, Sicha executive director Rabbi Steven Sager observed that:
Amen is, after all, a response, not an opening. An amen that stands alone invites questions: What does this amen confirm? To what is it an affirmation? Would we add our own amen to an unheard claim or blessing? To what claims and blessings are we prepared to say amen? Under what conditions are we not prepared to say amen?
He explained how amen embeds the root of other Hebrew words expressing faith, trust, belief, dependability, and artful practice; how it is a word “so engrained, so ready on the tongue, so familiar to the ear that we overlook the ways in which the word forms and informs our lives as individuals who live in communities that are both constant and changing.” Sager also reminded us that while sages and poets have extensively explored the meaning of amen, “they do not have the final word as to its meaning, its use, or its place in building community.”
Indeed. Or perhaps better said, “amen.”
Like others at the retreat, I processed the presented materials within my own intellectual and experiential context. Our discussions resonated for me at the intersection of my academic training as a political scientist and experience as a member and lay leader in the American Jewish community. For the very first time, the word “amen” – saying it, how it is said, or deciding not to say it at all – struck me as an important way Jews respond to each other; that it represents an essential, tangible expression of Jewish citizenship.
While few Jews may actually think of themselves as being “citizens,” I believe citizenship accurately describes the relationship between individual Jews and the collective Jewish people. The term captures the reciprocal nature of this relationship, how it involves having rights and responsibilities that are understood and exercised very differently, with very different degrees of efficacy and intensity, by each of us, just like the rights and responsibilities we have as citizens of conventional polities.
When we become Jewish citizens by birth or election, we are presented with the rights to share a collective identity as well as participate in a liturgy, a host of traditions and conventions, a history, and a multitude of stories. How we decide to exercise the rights and accept the associated responsibilities of this legacy determines our position within the kaleidoscopic Jewish world that includes the disassociated and committed, the religious and secular, and the alchemical combinations in between. Among the ways we express these decisions is with the word “amen.”
Because amen is an affirmation; it is an expression of agreement and support.
But, as Sager asks, do we always know to what we are expressing agreement when “amen” departs our lips? Moreover, does the intensity of our expression – or our hesitation to express it at all – reveal the underlying truth of our convictions, if not the absence of agreement itself? Consider the following table describing very different ways in which amen can be expressed: a “Typology of Amens/Amenim.”
|Typology of Amenim|
|Agreement or Supportive||Perfunctory||Affirmative|
|Ambivalence or Not Supportive||Directed||Withheld|
In the upper right corner is the amen ideal-type: the intentional articulation of the word in an active expression of affirmation or support. This ideal-type is exemplified when we respond five times with “amen” to Jews as they recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. Some of us might be affirming the actual Aramaic liturgical statements confirming God’s sovereignty in the universe, while most of us are likely expressing our support for those who, with this venerable formula, are recalling the loss of loved ones. Prompted by faith, tradition, intellect, or emotion, these affirmative expressions are almost always made with active conviction, and the absence of such responses in a community is hard to imagine. Other examples of ideal-type “affirmative” expressions of amen might include our responses to the Shehecheyanu blessing said at rare and joyous occasions, or after hearing profound teachings from scholars, or even in reaction to occasional thoughtful statements made at congregational board meetings. Most importantly, affirmative amenim are expressions of efficacy and intensity emblematic of engaged Jewish citizens. They not only demonstrate considered agreement and support, but presence and commitment as well.
Complexity creeps in, however, as we move to the upper left corner of the table inhabited by “perfunctory” expressions of amen – when the word, “so engrained, so ready on the tongue, so familiar to the ear,” is said because, well, because it’s supposed to be said. Part of the reason for this is structural: amen at various points is actually embedded in the liturgy, as it is four of the five times we say it in response to the Mourner’s Kaddish. Yet more often than not amen can be a perfunctory response due to inattention, a lack of understanding, or simply the desire to go along with conventional thought and practice. Was my quasi-orthodox maternal grandfather really making an affirming statement when he said amen to the part of the traditional daily liturgy that thanks God for not making him a woman? Do I really understand what I’m affirming when I say amen to our regular requests for the coming of the Messiah or rebuilding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem? Do we ever think about to what we are assenting when we say amen to the various insertions increasingly added to Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals)? There is also a larger concern: how much of what is interpreted as agreement or satisfaction in Jewish communities is really drawn from collections of torpid, programmed, practiced, and risk avoiding expressions of support? Beware of the perfunctory amen. At best it may unwittingly perpetuate ideas and conventions in need of questioning or change; at worst it can make us accomplices to sophistry.
We confront even more complexity moving to the bottom left corner of the typology table containing exogenously influenced amens. Some clergy, for example, regularly conclude sermons with the familiar directive, “and let us say amen,” presuming that those in attendance actually agreed with or were positively moved by their remarks. While the amens they hear may in fact be expressions of genuine support, some of these directed responses may also come from congregants wrestling with confusion or disagreement. At Conservative synagogues in the United States, the prayers for the country and State of Israel also conclude with directed amens based on the presumption that congregants will affirm what is said in these passages. There are times, however, when many Jews struggle to articulate their faith in the nation’s “leaders and advisors,” as there are Jews unconvinced that Israel holds for them any “promise of redemption.” Beware of amens initiated by direction based upon presumption. At best they are expressions of affirmation in response to reminders or encouragement; at their worst they can dismiss the range of beliefs and opinions that often exists in increasingly diverse, independently-minded Jewish communities.
Finally moving to the bottom right corner of the table we find amens that are actively withheld, expressions that come from Jews who, if you will, say “amen” to Sager’s earlier question about whether there are conditions under which one might not be prepared to say it. These expressions are the inverse of the amen ideal-types above them in the table: they represent intentional decisions to respond to what is heard with silence in active pronouncements of ambivalence or disagreement. Yet withheld amens are also identical to their affirmative counterparts in that they too are expressions of efficacy and intensity emblematic of engaged Jewish citizens. They demonstrate considered ambivalence or opposition, and do so in a context of presence and commitment. They show that our right to withhold an amen can sometimes be as important as our responsibility to say it.
Maimonides maintains that “anyone who hears one of Israel offering any of the blessings, even without hearing the entire blessing from beginning to end, and without being obliged to make that particular blessing, is obliged to respond amen.” He also provides careful instructions on how amen should be said – never rushed, never truncated, never with hesitation – to express it with optimal effect and respect. And he stipulates exceptions to when it should be said: to blessings offered by heathens, apostates, children while learning, or anyone who materially alters the text, we are told not to respond with amen (“Laws of Blessings,” 1:13-14).
While there is much to be interpreted in these passages, I contend that one message of Maimonides is clear: that we should be mindful of what we affirm and how we express our affirmations, whether in our homes, among our families and friends, and in our communities. They should be expressed with courage and conviction; they should never become perfunctory, nor should we ever allow ourselves to simply affirm what others, regardless of who they are and whatever their intent, encourage or direct us to do. I further contend that we should be mindful that our ability to withhold affirmations is both a right and responsibility of empowered Jewish citizenship, particularly when expressed with courage and conviction.
Perhaps these are thoughts to which some will respond with an affirmative “amen.”
Besides serving as a corporate director of various high technology companies, Edward Hamburg sits on the boards of Sicha, the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, and Congregation Rodfei Zedek on the south side of Chicago.