Debbie Friedman’s Healing Prayer

Opinion

By Drorah Setel

Published January 18, 2011, issue of January 28, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

As word spread that Debbie Friedman was gravely ill, people around the world prayed for her recovery. Many turned to “Mi Shebeirach,” her version of the traditional Jewish prayer for healing and probably her best-known song. Our prayers and our loving song did not prevent Debbie’s death, but neither were they offered in vain. Indeed, for Debbie, the purpose of “Mi Shebeirach” was about much more than physical healing.

The story of “Mi Shebeirach” begins in 1987, when a friend of Debbie’s, Marcia Cohn Spiegel, decided to hold a Simchat Hochmah, a ceremony celebrating aging, an idea originally conceived by the scholar Savina Teubal. Marty — as Marcia was known to her friends — was a pioneer in researching alcoholism and other forms of abuse within the Jewish community. During the 1980s, she had suffered profound losses, including the death of her husband. Her work with individuals who had suffered trauma and her own grief led Marty to conceive of this ceremony as a way to accept emotional and spiritual pain while still embracing life: in other words, as a path to healing. She asked her close friends Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Marcia Falk, Debbie and myself to help her create the ceremony and specifically asked Debbie to create a composition of the Mi Shebeirach prayer. Debbie, in turn, asked me to collaborate with her on the blessing.

In working with the words of the Mi Shebeirach prayer, Debbie and I were concerned with several issues. First and foremost at that time was the growing AIDS crisis in the gay community, which affected many who were part of our extended family of friends. How, we wondered, could we ask for refuah sh’leima, for a “complete healing,” for people who had what was at the time a terminal illness? It seemed not only cruel but contrary to the Jewish prohibition against knowingly praying for something in vain. We thought it would be more appropriate to focus on the possibility of spiritual healing, an experience of wholeness and blessing even in the face of death. We kept the rabbinic phrase refuah sh’leima but redefined it as the “renewal,” rather than the repair, of body and spirit.

The second issue was our desire to retain the familiar feeling of the prayer while making it gender inclusive. The opening line, mi shebeirach avoteinu (“The One who blessed our fathers”), spoke to the hearts of many Jews. Rather than replacing it, we added the words makor ha-barachah l’imoteinu (“Source of Blessing for our mothers”). The phrase also used traditional theological language, taken from the Shabbat song “Lecha Dodi.” Finally, to reject the association of one aspect of the divine as male and another as female, we reversed the words in the second verse so that it became “The One who blessed our mothers, Source of Blessing for our fathers.”

The feminist concerns that led us to include women and a feminine aspect of the divine reflected a larger desire for the song to express the empowerment of those reciting and hearing the prayer. We wanted to be clear that the Source of Blessing is within us as well as around us, allowing us to be active agents of healing. So we asked for “the courage to make our lives a blessing” in addition to the more passive, traditional request to be blessed.

Because of the ceremony and community for which Debbie and I wrote “Mi Shebeirach,” we took it for granted that those singing it would think of themselves as well as others in their prayers for healing. As it became apparent that this was not always the case, Debbie insisted on singing the song twice in concert: first, individually, for those listening (“I’ll sing it first for you,” she would say) and only then in unison.

Debbie knew all too well that every one of us, simply by virtue of being human, experiences pain and brokenness and, therefore, we all need healing. Yet at the same time, she taught us all that our lives are a joyful blessing. Certainly, her life and her work continue to bless us.

Rabbi Drorah Setel is rabbi of Temple Beth El in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and president of the Buffalo Board of Rabbis.



The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.