I really have no idea how the whole thing got started. Was it a Friday night reaction to a candle blessing? A random prayer when I least suspected he was listening?
Well, however it happened, the concept seems firmly entrenched now. For about the past five months, one of my 21-month old son Benjamin's first truly surprising and consistent displays of vocabulary has been the word "Amen." At first, he said it whenever he saw a candle. Then, he started saying in the synagogue, running into the Sanctuary, up to the bimah, and squealing "Amen" with delight. Now he says it on seeing a shofar, a yarmulke, or on even driving by the shul. When Julie tells him I am going to work, he now as often as not will say: "Daddy, bye-bye, amen." I'm sorry. I know I'm biased. But I still think it's pretty adorable.
What Benjamin probably doesn't get yet -- and many other people do not realize, either -- is that the word "amen" means, basically, "I agree." It comes from the same Hebrew root as the word "emunah," which means faith. It s exact meaning, in the context of prayer, is as follows: "someone has done or said something for you that you were also obligated to do; they have done so in public and on behalf of a group of people; they are allowed to do so because they were also bound by the same obligation; they have said the prayer or performed the act correctly, and you have faith both that the deed was done right, and that the doer of the deed is fit to represent you. You are therefore not obligated to recite the entire prayer or perform the act yourself; the other person has served as your surrogate."
All that... from one little word.
But, alas, whenever two or more people interact, there is power at work somehow. And where there is power involved, there is politics at play.
So what are the politics of the word "amen." It comes in two forms. First, the whole notion of women's equality in Judaism. And second, the issue of the authenticity of non-Orthodox Judaism.
In traditional Judaism, the question of leading certain acts on behalf of the community depends on a sense of mutual obligation. The reason that women cannot lead most prayers (or at least, cannot do so when men are present) is that for women, the recitation of the daily prayer service is allowed. It is even, perhaps, desirable. What it is not, however, is obligatory.
For women are exempt from (almost) all mitzvot (commandments) that have to be performed at a certain time -- and the prayer service is such a commandment. They had other (the rationalization was "higher") duties. They took care of children. And, of course, as I know all too well now, it is hard to stick to a schedule when dealing with young kids.
The logic, then, seems simple. Women are allowed to pray, but not required to do so. Men are obligated to do so, in specific ways. Since only one who is bound by the same level of obligation can exempt others, can lead others who, in saying "amen," will then be exempt from their obligations, that is why women cannot lead prayers in traditional Judaism.
So, you would argue, if there were a prayer that women were bound by, in the same way as men, then they could lead that prayer. In public. And men could say "amen." Right?
Wrong. As it happens, there is such a prayer. It is called the Kiddush, the blessing over the wine on Friday nights. Traditional Judaism has determined that men and women are equally bound by the obligation to recite this blessing. But. While acknowledging that, in theory, women could lead the kiddush, traditional commentators have said that it brings shame on a community if this happens. And so I at, least, come to the conclusion that the traditional argument fails its own test case.
In the end, I believe that all the fancy footwork and seemingly logical arguments about why men can't say "amen" to a prayer led by a women are just excuses. The secondary status of women came first. The "amen" explanation came later.
On to the second item. The issue of the ritual role of women is only one item in the creative (in the best sense) although agonizing (in that it leads to so much tension) dispute between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaism. There are other disagreements, the largest of which is about the very legitimacy and authenticity of the non-Orthodox movements. And in this issue, as well, our simple word plays a rather large role.
Slightly more than a decade ago, while a rabbinical student in New York, visiting the Lower East Side of Manhattan trying to find a particular Jewish bookstore that had not yet moved uptown, I stumbled across the largest group of traditional Jews I had ever encountered. As soon as I saw the crowds, I knew what I must be witnessing. I had come across the funeral of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
Rabbi Feinstein was one of the greatest Torah sages of our time. His stature was almost unequaled among Orthodox Jews of either the centrist or traditionalist camps. He found brilliant and creative answers to many issues. His loss left a gaping hole in Jewish scholarship and life.
And yet, I cannot help but recall a single one of his rulings. It was this. That for those who followed his rulings... it was forbidden for a traditional Jew to say "amen" after a prayer recited by a Reform or Conservative rabbi.
This stunning statement, in one, single sentence, is an attack on the very foundation of non-Orthodox Judaism. While I respected Rabbi Feinstein for his knowledge and his depth, I find it hard to get passed his delegitimization of everything that I write, or think, or pray, or say.
Part of what "amen" means is that we share an equal level of obligation. But the other part... is that we have faith in the person we are with, who does something for us. And, apparently, Rabbi Feinstein took on faith that he could not have faith is anything done by a non-Orthodox colleague.
Struggles, to figure out what it is that God wants of us. That, to me, is the essence of the dispute between different branches of Judaism. We share the same goal. We stand in the same place. We are bound together by a common past and what is still likely to be a shared fate in this world. I have faith in the honesty, in the integrity, in the spirituality and essential authenticity of other branches of Judaism, even where I disagree with particular practices (such as the secondary status of women). I only wish it were easier... to say "amen" to one another.
Faith. Trust. And a sense that we share not only a moment, an obligation, a burden. But a history. A way of looking at the world. A deep and profound connection. All this is found in the utterance of a single word, when felt from the heart. All this, in the word "amen."
As I look at both of my sons, as I watch them grow and try to figure out the world and their place in it... all I can do is utter a prayer in my heart. For their growth. For their health. For their safety, and happiness. For fulfillment in their quest to find wonder, and delight, and meaning in life. For theirs, and for ours.
Amen. And amen.