I went to two Elie Kaunfer sessions at LimmudNY, both on liturgy. Elie likes liturgy, and it's usually fun to hear people talk about things they like.
We looked at two parts of the central prayer, the 18 Blessings Which Are Really 19. One, the part which asks God to do destructive things to people we don't like, and two, the part about We Can Haz Sakrifis?
This post's about the first one, Shmuel HaKatan and the Curse Against The Heretics - you can download a recording of Elie teaching it here
, and the sourcesheet is here
. You should listen to it - it's an hour and a bit.
The Curse (or Blessing) Against the Heretics is the one that goes something like this: And for the slanderers let there be no hope; and may all evil perish in an instant. And may all your enemies be swiftly cut off, and the evil sinners soon uproot, smash, throw down, and humble, soon, in our days. Blessed Are You God, who smashes enemies and humbles wilful sinners.
From the sources, it seems Shmuel haKatan didn't like the content of this Blessing much either - he was a bit of a liberal, one who cared about how people were feeling (!). But he said some form of it anyway, and that says to me he had a complicated relationship to this part of the liturgy.
I like this. It says to me that parts of the community have always found this blessing problematic; this isn't new. This is interesting because people don't usually keep doing things that are absolutely against their natures. Stuff that's really really vitriolic I think we tend to tone down over time, and stuff that becomes completely irrelevant we smooth out - since we still have it, the saying of this blessing is accomplishing something we're invested in. Shmuel haKatan and Elie between them prompt me to think about what it might be.
The words themselves are saying something we all want to say, if we're honest about it. There's part of all of us that wants to defend our communal boundaries, and reacts very strongly to people who challenge that. When one's (communal) identity is threatened, saying God, Please Squish People I Don't Like In Nasty Ways is natural enough.
However, I think the experience of saying such words and finding it icky is also doing something important, and that's possibly part of why we're still invested in the blessing. The icky feeling is reminding us that such ideas can be extremely destructive, that being on the receiving end of such sentiments isn't nice at all, that this Isn't A Very Nice Thing To Be Saying. That's why we find this text problematic, after all. We don't want to legitimise those feelings by having them in the liturgy.
From where I am, cutting out the words would, I think, be tantamount to denying that we all feel that way sometimes.* That would be comfortable, but leaving them in is perhaps more useful from a personal/communal moral development perspective. Saying the words and being disturbed by them acknowledges the undeniable sentiment and reminds me that I ought to be aware of it, and I ought to keep it in check. Embracing the ick forces me to stop denying that I have those sorts of defensive feelings, and reminds me that they're not very civilised, simultaneously.
So this helps me combine the icky feeling of those words with my reluctance to prune the liturgy, and helps me see it in a way that's useful to me. This I like very much. Cheers, Elie. :)
* Yes, I know some rites already have this cut. Don't go taking that as a moral judgement of intellectual dishonesty or something. I mean for me
, right now
, to deal with the discomfort by not saying the words wouldn't be quite right.