(JTA) — I often take solace in prayer: It gives me the opportunity to express my deepest longings to God, even if immediate results are never the goal. As the Israel-Hamas war has worn on, I have unexpectedly connected to a prayer I have long found difficult, one that deals with external political threats to the Jewish people — in terms that can feel uncomfortable.
The 12th blessing of the Amidah, the central prayer of every Jewish worship service, is actually a curse against enemies of the Jewish people. One line focuses on external enemies; it has expanded over the years, but the original curse (preserved in the siddur of Rav Saadia Gaon, a prayer book dating back more than 1,000 years ago) reads:
And the kingdom of insolence: speedily uproot it in our days.
This blessing is simple and straightforward. It identifies a political entity — signified by the word “malkhut,” or kingdom — that must be uprooted — “te’aker,” in Hebrew. Israel does not — and has never — existed in a world without enemies. The core DNA of our daily prayer includes a moment to recognize this threat and pray for our enemies to be neutralized.
And yet I have not always connected with this prayer. I grew up in an era in which I believed we were hurtling towards peace — with Communist countries, and with Arab nations. When I was younger, I often felt this line to be obsolete, even a little embarrassing. It seemed to represent an old view of reality, irrelevant in a world in which peace had broken out. At best, I could reinterpret this line (following Rabbeinu Behaye, the medieval Spanish commentator) as a reference to our own evil inclination, that we hoped to subdue.
In this challenging time, I have found that taking a closer look at the line and its journey throughout Jewish history has helped me achieve one of the central goals of prayer: to clarify our values through the words we say to God.
I am not the only one to have distanced myself from this line. As the Jewish studies scholar Ruth Langer has shown, while external authorities introduced censored versions of this blessing starting in the Middle Ages, already in the 19th century many Jews themselves were sheepish about reciting it and self-censored. In America, this blessing was removed from Reform liturgy for more than 100 years, and it never appeared in Reconstructionist liturgy. Following censored texts from the Middle Ages, Conservative and most Orthodox prayer books altered the “kingdom of insolence” to simply read “the insolent.” Over the years, I have heard prayer leaders recite this blessing in a subdued tone, saying it only out of obligation to tradition, while attempting to literally mute its message.
But we have learned time and again that a world of peace without political enemies is far from our reality. Indeed, the Reform movement restored this blessing in the 1990s, including the line asking for the “malkhut zadon,” the kingdom of insolence, to be smashed. After Oct. 7, I am reminded of the relevance of these words yet again. It is time we return to these words and say them with conviction and focus.
Our prayers are not meant to exist in a world divorced from reality; rather, they are meant to address the real lives we are living. Political entities always have attempted — and continue to attempt — to harm the Jewish people. Indeed, the reference text for the original “kingdom of insolence” in the Bible is the kingdom of Babylon that destroyed the First Temple. Later this “kingdom of insolence” was associated with Rome, which also destroyed our sovereign nation. The Amidah — our most central prayer —recognizes these real enemies, and offers us the opportunity to actively pray for their defeat.
Even as I connect to these words anew, I want to note what we are — and are not — praying for. The request is to uproot our enemies, based on Zephaniah 2:4 (understood in the Talmud to also refer to Rome). It is not a call for revenge for its own sake, or even outright death (although some later versions include harsher words). The 14th-century prayer book commentator Rabbi David Abudraham asks, “How can we offer curses in our Amidah?” In answering his own question, he notes that our blessing differs from a curse uttered to kill evildoers (forbidden by the Talmud), because, among other differences, our blessing does not call for explicit destruction.
We are not cursing our enemies with a call for their death; we are offering a prayer that they be stopped. To be sure, some Jews might view this prayer as a call for bloody and indiscriminate revenge, as some Israeli government ministers have recently called for in Gaza. I think that is a perversion of the spirit of the prayer. In fact, one 19th-century authority claimed that we cannot be praying for the death of evil people, because one is not allowed to do so:
The issue is not the destruction and wiping out entirely [of enemies] for one cannot pray for the destruction of sinners, only sins. (Iyun Tefilah of Tzvi Meckelberg)
So I pray that our enemies be thwarted. This includes waging war and other physical acts to stop this political entity. It may indeed lead to the death of our enemies; it may also include negotiated solutions. The specifics are not legislated in the prayer, but the essential message is that the kingdom be uprooted — rendered ineffective in its attacks on Israel. In these times, I invite us to reconnect to those words, and bring intention to our daily prayer: May our enemies be uprooted, speedily.
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Brown University Investigating Threats of Violence Sent to Hillel Officials
Two officials of Brown-RISD Hillel, a Jewish life center serving both Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, were sent “violent threats” early Sunday morning, according to a report by The Brown Daily Herald.
After being alerted of threats, which were sent via email, the university’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) conducted a search of Brown-RISD Hillel and determined there is “no evidence of any one-site threat.” DPS vice president Rodney Chatman told The Brown Daily Herald that “local, state, and federal authorities” are investigating the incident.
“This comes at an especially difficult time of distress on our campuses,” Brown University president Christina H. Paxson said in a statement addressing the incident. “Our students, faculty, and staff continue to grapple with the deaths of Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the wake of the October 7 attacks, as well as a despicable act of violence against a member of the Brown community here in the United States last November, and increases in reports of antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hate.”
In Sunday’s statement President Paxson said that “robust” security measures will be implemented to protect Brown-RISD Hillel, as well as the officials who were threatened, from harm.
The incident is not the first antisemitic act of hatred since Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.
In December, the university’s Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity opened an investigation into an incident in which someone slipped a threatening note underneath the door of an off-campus apartment rented by Jewish students.
“Those who live for death will die by their own hand,” said the note, which, according to the Brown Daily Herald, matches lyrics from a song by an early 1980s punk band. The paper added that the note was found by an electrician, who brought it inside.
A similar incident occurred last November at a Brown-RISD Hillel. Additionally, in 2020, a swastika was graffitied in Brown’s Hegeman Hall. In 2017, another was found in a gender-neutral bathroom at RISD. It was drawn using human feces, according to the Brown Daily Herald.
Last week, President Paxson rejected the demands of anti-Zionist students who were participating in a hunger strike in an effort to force the Brown Corporation to vote on a boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) resolution against Israel and make other concessions.
The university has twice ordered the arrests of extremist anti-Zionists student protesters, who have held unauthorized demonstrations in administration buildings, sometimes occupying them for hours after being asked to leave. Over 40 were arrested in December while onlookers shouted “Shame on Brown, Shame on Brown!”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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‘Free Palestine:’ Texas Church Shooter Suspected of Having Pro-Hamas Ideology
A woman who stormed a church in Houston, Texas, on Sunday with an AR-15 rifle and shot one person before being killed by police was apparently a Hamas supporter, according to details on the incident reported by CNN.
On Monday, the outlet reported that “Free Palestine” was written on the shooter’s rifle.
According to the Houston Chronicle, the shooter has since been identified as Genesse Ivonne Moreno, 36. The woman has an extensive criminal history which includes arrests for marijuana possession, assault, theft, and forgery.
On Sunday afternoon, Moreno walked into the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas — an institution famous for being the church of charismatic Christian preacher Joel Osteen — with a child and a gun. Wearing a trench coat and a knapsack, she threatened to have explosives, according to multiple reports. Most of the worshipers in attendance were Hispanic and attending a Spanish language service.
Moreno shot one man, leaving him critically injured, and was shot and killed by Houston Police. A child was also shot during the incident, but police are still unsure of whether they or Moreno are responsible for doing it.
“I want to commend those officers. She had a long gun and it could have been a lot worse,” Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said during a press conference later in the day.
An investigation of Moreno’s motives is ongoing.
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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London Theater Facing Legal Action After Comedy Show Turns Into ‘Antisemitic Rally’
A London theater is facing legal action after an Israeli man was hounded out of a comedy show on Saturday night by a comedian performing a one-man show that turned into what some audience members compared to an “antisemitic rally.”
A spokesperson for the UK’s Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) said the group was in touch with the Israeli man and other members of the audience who fled from the theater.
“What the Jewish audience members have recounted is atrocious, and we are working with them and our lawyers to ensure that those who instigated and enabled it are held to account,” the CAA spokesperson told London’s Evening Standard news outlet. “These allegations are of deeply disturbing discriminatory abuse against Jews. Comedians are rightly given broad latitude, but hounding Jews out of theaters is reminiscent of humanity’s darkest days, and must have no place in central London in 2024.”
The comedian, Paul Currie, had been performing a one-man show entitled “Shtoom” at London’s Soho Theater. Towards the end of his performance, he retrieved a Ukrainian and Palestinian flag and invited members to stand and applaud.
After the round of applause was over, Currie pointed to a man in the second row of the theater and quizzed him over why he had not stood up.
The unnamed man, an Israeli, replied, “I enjoyed your show until you brought out the Palestinian flag.” An infuriated Currie began screaming, “Leave my show now! Get out of my f—-ing show!” in response.
As the man and his partner rose to leave, accompanied by a handful of other shocked audience members, the assembled crowd began chanting “Get out” and “Free Palestine.”
In a written complaint to the theater over his treatment, the man wrote: ” Shaken and feeling threatened by the growing antagonism, we exited and tried to complain/ get some support from the front-of-house team at the theatre, who were not very sympathetic but did give us an email address to make a complaint. By this time, the show had ended and the audience started exiting, a number of whom were glaring at us aggressively and in a very threatening way. We all left the scene.”
He added: “Our friends later received a message from someone they knew who had also been at the show, saying that after we left, the situation became even more inflamed. What had been intended to be an evening of comedy turned out to be what felt like an antisemitic rally.”
The theater eventually apologized, issuing a statement expressing regret an “an incident that took place at our venue at the end of a performance of Paul Currie: Shtoom on Saturday 10 February, which has caused upset and hurt to members of audience attending and others.” It added: “We take this very seriously and are looking into the detail of what happened as thoroughly, as sensitively, and as quickly as we can. It is important to us that Soho theatre is a welcoming and inclusive place for all.”
Currie has remained largely silent since the incident, save for a post on Instagram which quoted Mexican poet Cesar A. Cruz saying: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” He then added: “If you were at my show last night… you’ll know.”
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