Jews and the Vatican: What Prayers to Pray?

Inbal Freund-Novick is an organizational consultant and co-founder of The Unmasked Comics Project, a social change comics venture with comics artist Chari Pere. After spending a year as a visiting fellow at JPPPI (The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute), she currently serves in the World Jewish Diplomatic Corps of the World Jewish Congress.

inbal freund-novickFreund-Novick is a participant in Discovering Common Values: The Catholic-Jewish Leadership Conference, hosted by the Vatican and held at the Pope’s summer palace of Castel Gandolfo. She’ll be blogging about it all week, only at MJL.

Tonight we had our introductions. First, in the main hall, we met the Jewish and Christian participants who came from many countries around the globe to the conference. Then the Jewish delegates had an internal discussion about how we would conduct prayer throughout this week. Most of the Jewish delegates held leadership roles of some sort, either as students or ordained rabbis of various denominations–which led to the question of what opening prayer the 28 of us should recite. We received two advance emails from the Jewish organizers, urging everybody to state in advance how they would like to pray — which were mostly ignored, leaving the hot potato to the conference evening itself.

Most of the people are very tired from flying out here from all over, but as our newly acquainted Christian counterparts departed for their Sunday evening mass, almost everybody–the ones who weren’t Skyping their homes, at least — discussed what form of prayer we should hold as a group of Jewish people. What would this week of joint prayer look like.

It started by saying we have a time limit. The discussion wad limited to half an hour, closing at 22:00. By 21:55, the discussion was heated we were announced by the initiator of discussion, Ari Gordon of the AJC (who earlier read the formal voice of the impressive call to the group by Richard Marker the replacement for Rabbi David Rosen who encouraged us to be ourselves and not just follow old footsteps) that we had 5 minutes left, meaning 15 in Jewish time.

The discussion was fascinating. Eleven men took part (why didn’t I even bother to count the women?). Of those, four would not pray in an egalitarian minyan, and one, on principle, wouldn’t pray on a separate minyan. A few very practical people were trying to move to a practical solution, as others tried to understand a deeper level of how we get to some kind of a consensus — all of which should be completed in half an hour.

And some were just very excited of this kind of discussion taking place and were gently hushed by the practical voices trying to get to a solution and not draw this throughout the night.

The discussion started by asking if anybody needs to say kaddish. No hands were raised. It went on asking if a minyan should be held once or three times a day. The third question was weather we should allow the Catholic participants, if they wished, to watch us or even to take part. There is also the question of nusah of the prayer, of course.

The largest group was comprised of traditional egalitarians –- people who accept women as part of a minyan. Three men refused to pray with women in egalitarian minyan — and, of course, not a minyan led by women or woman counted as part of it. One of those men said his community’s customs were Orthodox, but that he was not as observant and would not show up anyhow — and, still, he was opposing. Then one man who said he is not comfortable with a minyan which won’t count women. Most people felt that we need to get to a point of having everybody feel comfortable…but, even so, that reaching a consensus was not easy. Questions and remarks were made to make sure women who didn’t want to count for a minyan, wouldn’t be counted.

Some were willing to give up their comfort level to accommodate the whole community, but it wasn’t enough to others who are just not able to pray this way. Some would not bend their comfort levels if the other side was not making a few steps in their way. A very worthy group with many strong voices it is.

The solution was appointing different leaders to each prayer. The Orthodox Syrian by tradition guy took upon himself to lead a few short tfilot (his nusah was the longest; we were trying to keep things practical and short) and most tfilot are going to be traditional egalitarian. Jessica Sacks, an Orthodox participant and a member of the Yakar congregation in Israel, suggested leading a prayer in silence. Amirit Rosen, another Orthodox participant, suggested that a woman lead prayer up to the part of Pesukei D’Zimra, where a man would take over in an Orthodox egalitarian, Shira Chadasha style. One prayer would be lead by a man and a woman together.

It’s not clear to me how many people are going to show up to every one of those prayer services. I see something very natural that is happening to the group.

Prayer is a spiritual individual act, but it’s also a communal (and political) act — especially here, as we are representing the Jewish community in this conference. The external group — the Christians who represent the original voice of the ILC (the International Inter-Religious Liaison Committee) the body which gave IJCIC the first push to bring a unified Jewish voice in order to create a dialogue with the Vatican.

The same process was happening here, only with younger people who experience the Jewish current reality in a different way. We have to find our way within the next few days into a form of communal prayer or just scatter away as a group of individuals, each very different from the other leaving the communal act to the Christians who have a head start by coming from the same Christian sect.

It’s a real laboratory for what our community can look like. We have to get to a solution that will satisfy as many people – to be able to be here now and also in future conferences together.

After the meeting was over (at 22:15 if you are still wondering about keeping Jewish time) we said ma’ariv. Six men and 7 women stayed in the hall. Meanwhile, ten people stood behind a (male) hazzan. One of those 10 men said kaddish. In the back, two Orthodox women stood and prayed silently. At the other side in the back of the room stood an Israeli man of Syrian origin, following the prayer, but also praying alone.

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