Mixed blessings

Illustration: Chris Sharp

What happens when a problematic prayer is censored?

The following appeared recently in Boston College Magazine.

During a 2001–02 sabbatical, Boston College theology professor Ruth Langer spent three days a week, eight hours a day, in a drab and dimly lit basement room of Jerusalem’s Jewish National and University Library, poring over Hebrew-language manuscripts on microfilm. Langer, an ordained rabbi whose academic focus is Jewish liturgy, was researching a book about processions in which Torah scrolls are carried through synagogues. As she inspected the grainy images of handwritten medieval prayer books, however, she began to notice that some words in old, established texts seemed to have been blotted out with ink or smeared as though with the lick of a finger—signs of censors at work.

This occurred most often in a scattering of prayers known to reference “gentiles,” “heretics,” or “foreigners” (one, for instance, thanking God “who has not made me a gentile”)—prayers that could be construed as disparaging of Christians. Langer decided to shelve her original project and dig further; the case of the blotted words was both “more important” liturgically and more relevant to her work with Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning (where she is now associate director). The result is a book published last December by Oxford: Cursing the Christians? A History of the Birkat HaMinim.

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