On my table sits a stone amen written upon it,
a grave stone fragment, a remnant of a Jewish graveyard
destroyed more than a thousand years ago, in the city where I was born.
One word, amen, cut deep in the stone
an amen harsh and final over what was and will never return
an amen soft and melodic as in prayer,
amen and amen; so may it be his will.
The grave stone fragment was a gift to the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai from an admiring priest who came to Jerusalem from the poet’s home town in Germany.
The content of the stone was shattered and scattered beyond reclaiming, but the context was whole and anchored in the one surviving word, amen; certainly the response to a verse, a prayer, a hope, a consolation.
But even the clearly etched, clearly purposed amen was not whole for Amichai. The poet did not focus his imagination on the characters of the word engraved, but on the character of the word intoned. The depth of engraving notwithstanding, amen remained shallow without a voice.
Was this amen angry, defiant, hopeful, mournful, meditative, accepting? The tone might change, but the word remained forever fixed—a sure and certain response of a community to the experience of loss.
The poet’s purpose was not to restore the stone, but to renew the power of amen, the response to sometimes unknowable yet undeniable content.
Amichai continued the ancient faithfulness to vitality of amen. Maimonides (12th century) captured the ancient rabbinic traditions concerning amen this way:
Anyone who hears one of Israel offering any of the blessings, even without hearing the entire blessing from beginning to end, and even without being personally obliged to recite that blessing, such a one is still obliged to respond amen.
Amen is an affirmation of a shared community value evoked by the life of experience of a fellow traveler. But not everyone’s blessings carry the values of a community. Thoughtful teachers have always asked: How far does the amen community extend? Can one respond with amen to celebrate and validate just anyone’s experience transformed into blessing?
And if an idol worshiper, a heretic, or a samaritan offers a blessing, or be it a child who is practicing or an adult who has altered the form of the blessing—we do not respond amen after any of them.
One cannot always say amen to another’s blessing. But even so, expanding the amen circle is the great challenge and opportunity for enriching one’s self and enlarging the community. Neither amen nor the opportunities for voicing it should be left fixed in stone. The varied voicings of amen is the subject of ancient reflections:
Anyone who responds amen should not respond with a rushed amen, neither with a cut off amen, nor with a short amen, and not with a long amen. Rather, with an intermediate amen.
At its best, amen is a thoughtful and reflective confirmation, neither perfunctory nor mechanical. Amen supports and celebrates an experience translated into a blessing; but amen should not overwhelm or draw attention away from the moment that it celebrates.
As the poet teaches, the fullness of amen is not written in stone; it is spoken in sincerity.