Complexities and Contradictions: Prayer, Healing, Belief, and Identity among Liberal American Jews
AuthorSilverman, Gila S.
Committee ChairNichter, Mark
MetadataShow full item record
PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractIn recent years, the Jewish prayer for healing, the Mi Sheberach (literally, "the one who blessed"), has become a central element of North American liberal (non-Orthodox) religious and ritual life. The growing centrality of these prayers comes at a time when American Judaism has shifted away from congregational and communal life to a more personalized approach to Jewish beliefs, practices and identities; participation in both ritual and prayer practices is now based in personal choice and the desire for an individually-meaningful experience, as well as communal obligation or belief in God. This dissertation seeks to understand the meanings and impacts of these Jewish prayers for healing, by using ethnography as a tool for understanding the lived experience of religious practices, beliefs, and identities. Based in two years of ethnographic field-work in Southern Arizona, it places the relationship between Judaism and healing within the larger social, communal and historical contexts in which both of these concepts acquire meaning. I describe the complexities and contradictions inherent in modern liberal American Jewishness, demonstrating that these modern Jewish American selves are multiply-situated, multi-voiced, and characterized by diversity and dissonance. My research shows that, among liberal American Jews, the individual's search for meaning blends with the collectivist nature of Judaism, in an ongoing process of interpretive interaction between text, tradition, personal experience, and other members of the community. I find that Jewish representations of God are also complex and contradictory. Many people have difficulty articulating their thoughts about God, and their views are dynamic and inconsistent. Furthermore, Jewish belief develops in a multifaceted relationship to Jewish ritual and communal practice. Within this context, healing prayer becomes become one site, among many, through which relationships to Jewish traditions, practices and communities are negotiated and constructed. Healing prayer leads to a feeling of connection to community, ancestors and traditions; it transforms fear and anxiety into comfort, strength and acceptance; promotes spiritual transcendence; and provides a sense of agency and control at times of vulnerability and helplessness. Healing in a liberal Jewish context may involve the physical body, but it more often involves emotions, spirit, relationships to other people, and relationships to Judaism. Prayer may refer to a dialogue with the divine, but it is also a dialogue between the individual and the community, and between Jewish history and modernity. Finally, this dissertation contributes to discussions of religion and secularism, demonstrating that these analytical categories, which emerged out of European Protestantism, are neither sufficient, nor appropriate, for the study of modern Jewish life.
Degree ProgramGraduate College