Exploring Babylon Chapter 11.2

A few notes on Rome, the last of the five foreign powers associated with Chanukah, to round out the discussion of “Ma’oz Tzur [Rock of Refuge].”

Chapter 11.1 outlined the structure of the 13th Century piyyut:

  • an opening stanza calling for future restoration of the Temple and for God to prepare the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe”;
  • four stanzas recalling past-tense rescues (Chanukah, Purim, Egypt, Babylon); and
  • and a final, present/future-oriented stanza asking God to “Aveng​e the blood of your servants from the evil nation” and “Push Edom into the shadows and bring the seven shepherds.”

This structure follows a regular, ancient pattern which recalls previous rescue from foreign powers while calling on God for help now, from the ever-present power of “Rome” in its many forms over the centuries. And this piyyut’s history illustrates another pattern associated with “Rome.”

See below for a note on the “seven shepherds” (hint: not average, peaceful flock ovine-tending folk).

The Persistence of “Rome”

When the Talmud and many early midrashim speak of “foreign powers,” rescue from Egypt and from Babylon, Persia, and the Seleucid empire is past tense, while the Roman Empire — often called “Edom” or “Esau,” sometimes “the evil nation” — remains a present danger. We saw this, for example, in midrashim on the Akedah, Jacob’s dream, and “in the beginning.” The same trope is repeated for centuries, with “Edom” or “the evil nation” standing in for the Catholic Church and non-Jewish political powers.

Meanwhile, the Roman Empire and its successors influenced various aspects of Jewish worship through official censorship by the authorities, intimidation and violence, and related self-censorship by Jewish communities. This dynamic is often cited to explain why the narrative of Chanukah shifted from the military-centered tale (Maccabees 1 and 2, usually dated 2nd Century BCE) to the story of one cruse of oil lasting eight days (B. Talmud Shabbat 21b, hundreds of years later, during Roman rule). This is also a key part of the story of how Ma’oz Tzur‘s presentation in various prayer books changed over the years.

For several hundred years, the harsh sixth stanza of the piyyut disappeared from prayerbooks, although the first stanza remained and garnered many musical settings. (See Notes 2 and 3 below.) The evil nation/Edom verses can be found today in Orthodox prayer books today, while non-Orthodox prayer books and musical collections continue to omit them — very often including even more abbreviated versions of Ma’oz Tzur or and/or substitution of the 19th Century song, “Rock of Ages.”

The sixth stanza’s disappearance is now thought to be the result of self- censorship by Jewish communities during periods when relations with “Rome” were troubled at best. Deciding whether and how to (re-)include the sixth stanza is part of the on-going development of relations between Jews and “Rome.”

Singing with Gusto?

A few years ago, the London-based Jewish Chronicle posted a discussion on including, or omitting, the sixth stanza.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer, from Borehamwood and Elstree (Modern Orthodx) United Synagogue, argued for using the existence of harsher prayers, like Ma’oz Tzur, as teaching moments:

As a responsible teacher you cannot hide this fact from your students. Instead, use these prayers as a springboard to discuss the turbulent nature of Jewish history. These are not speeches calling on faithful Jews to commit violence. They are desperate prayers to God asking Him to remove the threat of danger that hangs over our people.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain from Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue argued to the contrary, noting that “we ask others to remove passages that offend us — such as sections of Christian liturgy that insult Jews,” and declaring that the sixth stanza of Ma’oz Tzur “hardly reflects our understanding of the festival or the positive message of Jewish identity that we derive from it.”

Romain concludes:

The prayer book is the manifesto of Judaism. It is said that the Bible is God’s gift to the Jewish people, and the prayer book is our gift back. It reflects what we believe and stand for. If we are to pray it, then we should mean it.

We should be able to sing Ma’oz Tzur with gusto and without grimacing at the end. Religious values means ditching verse six.

…The two teachers were asked only about the sixth stanza, not about the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe” line in the opening stanza. Many progressive congregations do cheerfully belt out the first stanza in Hebrew, with or without a literal English translation nearby; I don’t know what is included in British Reform Jewish siddirum…

Brawer’s position is quite different:

Ma’oz Tzur in particular demonstrates that persecution is unfortunately a recurring theme in our history. Jews must never gloat when an enemy falls and vengeance for vengeance’s sake is distinctly un-Jewish. However, that does not mean we must shy away from asking God to eliminate our enemies. Nor for that matter should we hesitate to celebrate when that happens. That is, after all, the whole story of Chanucah.

But this brings us back to the topic of Chanukah and the ways we tell the story: the Maccabees’ might? Zechariah’s “but by spirit”? The Talmud’s story of lights? And this has always depended, at least in part, on who else might be listening.

Epilogue

This, finally, is the last of three originally-planned posts on Chanukah and the “five powers.” (Apologies for delay and any confusion occasioned by it.) The holiday has been over for awhile now, most likely the wax and wicks finally cleared away as well. But the real point of the holiday — as Gila Sacks writes here — is what we take forward from it:

The lighting of the menorah stands in direct contrast to the dramas of war…..it emphasizes the power of the regular, consistent practice of ritual and law to bring meaning into our lives— rather than waiting for miracles, waiting for enlightenment to find us.

Mai Hannukah? [What is (the reason for) Chanukah?] We focus on the lighting of the menorah, rather than the war that preceded it, to remind us that the real miracles came afterward—in our ability then, and our challenge now, to create an emanating light through small, simple, regular acts of service.
— Gila Sacks, “Creating Light Each Day”
Shema Bekolah: Hear Her Voice




NOTES

NOTE 1: Seven Shepherds
The Book of Micah — dated to the last part of the 8th and first part of the 7th Century BCE — focuses on a the time period around the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria. This prophet is read only once in the liturgical year, as haftarah (5:6-6:8) for the Torah portion Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9). The haftarah includes the famous line (6:8), “You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The haftarah begins with a positive-sounding message: “And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples, as dew from the LORD, as showers upon the grass…” (5:6) but goes on to speak of violent retribution, wrecking chariots and destroying idols, fortresses and cities (5-8-14). And just preceding the haftarah are more sword-centered, messianic visions:

“And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, Least among the clans of Judah, From you one shall come forth To rule Israel for Me— One whose origin is from of old, From ancient times.
“Truly, He will leave them [helpless] Until she who is to bear has borne; Then the rest of his countrymen Shall return to the children of Israel.
“He shall stand and shepherd By the might of the LORD, By the power of the name Of the LORD his God, And they shall dwell [secure]. For lo, he shall wax great To the ends of the earth;
“And that shall afford safety. Should Assyria invade our land And tread upon our fortresses, We will set up over it seven shepherds, Eight princes of men,
“Who will shepherd Assyria’s land with swords, The land of Nimrod in its gates. Thus he will deliver [us] From Assyria, should it invade our land, And should it trample our country.”
— Micah 5:1-5 (1985 JPS, posted by Sefaria)

Rabbi Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz discusses the “seven shepherds” in the context of Sukkot’s ushpizin [mystical visitors to festival booths]. Micah’s messianic verses are much more popular among Christians. In fact, FWIW, the My Jewish Learning article comes from a Christian press.

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NOTE 2:

Cantor David Berger, of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago, gave a 2010 presentation for the Union for Reform Judaism which presents many musical settings and includes history and commentary. His presentation to the URJ used an orthodox source (Koren Sacks siddur) for the six stanzas of Ma’oz Tzur, as well as Reform and other sources for the 19th Century song, “Rock of Ages.” (More on this in the previous chapter of #ExploringBabylon.)

NOTE 3:
Although some scholars suggest that the harsh sixth stanza was a later addition, it seems of a piece with the first stanza’s call for God to prepare the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe,” as well as with the “You saved us before, get us out of Edom” trope described above. Berger (in above cited webinar) reports that scholars now believe the sixth stanza original and self-censored.

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Posted by vspatz

Virginia blogs on Jewish topics at "A Song Every Day" and manages the Education Town Hall and #WeLuvBooks sites. More at Vspatz.wordpress.com

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