In 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. In addition to recitation in synagogues, prayers for healing are now chanted in hospital rooms, during support groups and meditation classes, and at dedicated healing services; multiple new Jewish prayers for healing have been created, building on the traditional formula and adapting it for caregivers, health care providers, those undergoing specific medical procedures, and those living with chronic conditions. Prayer for healing typically connotes a conversation with God, requesting a cure for a physical ailment; much research on prayer and healing has focused on determining prayer’s efficacy in producing particular biomedical outcomes. In this talk, I ask instead: What is the meaning of prayer, when it is often unrelated to belief in God? What is healing, when physical cure is not expected? Drawing on two years of ethnographic research among liberal Jews in Southern Arizona, I explore the ways in which healing prayer leads to feelings 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.
Gila Silverman earned a PhD in Sociocultural and Medical Anthropology at the University of Arizona (2015), and is an affiliated scholar with the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies. Her research explores intersections of religion, medicine and healing among non-Orthodox Jews, as well as the many meanings of Jewish identity in 21st century North America. She is currently writing about Jewish mourning and end-of-life practices. Gila was a founding steering committee member of Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine, and has worked for over 20 years on issues of community development and social justice in both Israel and the United States.