Modern American Judaism is often characterized by complex negotiations about practices, beliefs, affiliations and identities. This article uses ethnographic research on one ritual practice—the Mi Sheberach prayer for healing—to explore these processes of meaning-making and identity construction, through the lens of lived experience. While survey data tell us which practices, beliefs and affiliations are most commonly adopted by liberal American Jews, this ethnographic research examines why these choices are made, what they represent, and how they are integrated into the broader lifeworlds of this population. I demonstrate that prayers for healing are an inherently social process, inextricably linked to relationships with other people, the community, God, and tradition. Prayer means something different to each of the participants in this study, yet for all, the Mi Sheberach becomes one site, among many, through which relationships to Judaism and Jewishness are negotiated and constructed. Study participants choose, and maintain, those Jewish practices, like the Mi Sheberach, that resonate emotionally and/or spiritually and that fit within the larger context of their lifeworld—in this case, the search for meaning, comfort, strength and connection during times of illness and healing. Yet at the same time, an essential part of this resonance is the experience of community, connection and tradition. The individual’s search for meaning is synthesized with the collectivist nature of Judaism, in an ongoing and continually evolving process of interpretive interaction between text, tradition and personal experience.
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It is important to note that, while common themes emerged clearly from the data, there was also much contradiction. Often, a single individual expressed opposing viewpoints and understandings. This is not surprising, given that the project explores the dissonances and multiplicities of practice and identity. Each individual’s journey and meaning-making were personal and unique. Despite this, it was striking how often the participants used similar words and concepts to describe these experiences.
All names are pseudonyms.
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Portions of this research were funded by the School of Anthropology, and the Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Institute, both at the University of Arizona. I am grateful to Mark Nichter, Jeff Levin and David Graizbord, who provided invaluable feedback on earlier versions of this article. I also thank the anonymous reviewers, for their very helpful comments and suggestions.
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Silverman, G. “I’ll Say a Mi Sheberach for You”: Prayer, Healing and Identity Among Liberal American Jews. Cont Jewry 36, 169–185 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12397-016-9156-7
- American Jewish identity