Sukkot and Babylon

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 1.1

“As You rescued the communities You exiled to Babylonia and Your merciful Presence accompanied them — so save us.” — from “Ani Va-ho,” a Sukkot prayer

Prayers begging for rescue and mercy often take the format, “You helped them; help us.” The unusual aspect of this prayer, recited each day of Sukkot in Conservative and Orthodox Jewish liturgies, is its implication that God needs saving, too. Long before Eleazar Kallir (c.570–c.640 CE) developed this poem, however, Jews were teaching that God follows the People into exile.

“These bold interpretations are a way of saying that when there is suffering in the world, God is not to be found on the side of the oppressors” (Or Hadash festival supplement; link below. Click here for basics on ancient Sukkot practices).

Fragility and Sukkot

Many centuries of prayers linked the fragility of Sukkot with exile. For example:

…In the merit of the Mitzvah of Sukkah, redeem us from exile,
protect us, that our enemies not reign over us.
And gather us from the four corners of the earth
and rescue us from captivity and from false imprisonment.
Let no evil eye rule over us ever.
Rebuild Your Holy Temple and restore your presence to Jerusalem….
– from Machzor Rav Peninim (R. Moses ben Hayyim Alshekh c1508-1600)

A different perspective appeared with Haskalah [“Enlightenment”]:


For thousands of years
Israel has been a wandering people.
Our houses are but fragile huts –
And these huts have been torn asunder too many times
By unrest and the hatred of others.
We have only your mercy to thank
That we have not perished from the earth.
Your compassion has held us and carried us
Through storm and flood, over every abyss
That has threatened to devour us,
And now, after generations of wandering,
You have allowed us to taste the sweetness of home.
Thanks to you, we have found a homeland –
A beautiful, wonderful country
That recognizes us as its children.
Safe and free, like ancient Israel
In the shade of its palm and fig trees,
We rest beneath the tent of peace
Provided to us by the law,
Along with all our brothers and sisters in this land….
– “On the first days of Sukkot”
in Fanny Neuda’s Hours of Devotion (1855)

The “homeland” Neuda had in mind was her native Moravia. The first edition of Hours of Devotion was published in German and included a blessing specifically naming Emperor Franz Joseph. Neuda’s family supported Haskalah, promoting the limited citizenship then allowed to Jews as well as sermons in the vernacular, modernizations of of prayers, and other religious adaptations that led to the Reform Movement. The prayerbook was later translated into Yiddish and was being reprinted in both languages up through the early part of the 20th Century.

Some Questions for Consideration

  • Where does the fragility of your personal Sukkot experience take you?
  • In what ways do you feel protected by a “tent of peace, provided to us by law”?
  • In what ways does your experience reflect exile, as expressed by Machzor Rav Peninim?
  • What about the fragility of the Jewish community, locally and worldwide?
  • And what about the wider world?
  • Are there lessons to be drawn from identifying ourselves and God as together in need of rescue?


sukkah78

Spatz-O’Brien sukkah, Oct. 2017

NOTES

In Temple days, hoshanot were recited while circling the altar on Sukkot; some denominations still recite them, while circling the bima — once on the first six days of the Sukkot and seven times on the seventh day, Hoshana Rabba. Hoshana is a contraction of hosha [save] and na [please]. Eleazar Kallir’s hoshana poem is known by its first line: “ani va-ho.”

ani va-ho hoshi’a na” from Mishnah Sukkah 4:5 is variously translated as “Save Yourself and us,” “I and You, may You deliver us both,” or “Please rescue me and the divine name.” Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 104a) explains that “ho” is one of God’s names.

See commentaries on this prayer in Conservative Siddur Lev Shalem and Orthodox The Koren Mesorat Harav Siddur. Or Hadash: A commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom‘s festival supplement is (available for download here).
See also pages 110-111 in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Heavenly Torah (more here).

Many Jews, including the Reform movement, do not observe Hoshana Rabba — or perform the hoshanot prayers during the rest of Sukkot.

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Roads, Birds, and Distance: Amichai, Goldberg, and the Rambam

“Touch” [Hebrew: נָגַע] is a word-of-the-week, as my study partner and I plow slowly through Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. This common verb, as it happens, is central to a Yehuda Amichai piece Temple Micah’s Hebrew Poetry group discussed this past Shabbat. The two explorations of touch shed a little extra light on one another — and on the Leah Goldberg poem, “Journeying Birds,” which our group also considered. (more on Amichai and the Hebrew Poetry group) Note: this post updated slightly 5/18/17.

Highway to Heaven

Maimonides’ non-stop stress on God’s non-corporeal nature might seem, for contemporary readers, like way too much attention on the obvious. Until very recently, I confess, I thought The Guide for the Perplexed was engaged in page after page of beating a horse long-dead, if ever it lived: After all, who among us, in this day (or in 1200 CE, for that matter), is convinced that the God of the Jews has literal feet? But I’ve come to appreciate a subtle truth in The Guide that shares a lot with Amichai’s use of playful irony and with Leah Goldberg’s God-approaching themes.

In Chapter XVIII of The Guide, the Rambam discusses the verb “touch” [נָגַע] and two others:

The three words karab, “to come near,” naga’, “to touch,” and nagash, “to approach,” sometimes signify “contact” or “nearness in space,” sometimes the approach of man’s knowledge to an object, as if it resembled the physical approach of one body to another.

…Wherever a word denoting approach or contact is employed in the prophetic writings to describe a relation between the Almighty and any created being, it has to be understood in the latter sense.
— Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed
(M. Friedlander, trans., pp.50-51)

The path “nearer” to God is a “spiritual approach, i.e., the attainment of some knowledge, not, however, approach in space,” Maimonides explains, citing these texts:

The LORD is near [קָרוֹב] to all who call Him,
to all who call Him with sincerity
קָרוֹב יְהוָה, לְכָל-קֹרְאָיו– לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת.
— Psalms 145:18

Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
For what great nation is there, that hath God so nigh [קְרֹבִים] unto them, as the LORD our God is whensoever we call upon Him?
And what great nation is there, that hath statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
— Deuteronomy 4:6-8 (The Guide cites 4:7)

But as for me, the nearness of God [קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים] is my good;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Thy works.
— Psalms 73:28

Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways; as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God, they ask of Me righteous ordinances, they delight to draw near unto God [קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים יֶחְפָּצוּ].
— Isaiah 58:2 (Yom Kippur’s “Is this the fast I require?” passage)

—-“spiritual approach” citations from The Guide, chapter XVIII

While the philosopher often speaks of “knowledge” as essential in “spiritual approach,” his illustrative texts here suggest that the real requirement is intention or focus.

Bow Thy Heavens

Maimonides closes his chapter on “contact by comprehension,” with a return to the verb “touch.”

In the passage “Touch (ga’) the mountains, and they shall smoke” [Ps. 144:5], the verb “touch” is used in a figurative sense, viz., “Let my word touch them”….as if he who now comprehends anything which he had not comprehended previously had thereby approached a subject which had been distant from him. This point is of considerable importance.
The Guide, p.51

The verse Rambam cites —

יְהוָה, הַט-שָׁמֶיךָ וְתֵרֵד; גַּע בֶּהָרִים וְיֶעֱשָׁנוּ
O LORD, bow Thy heavens, and come down;
touch [גַּע — ga’] the mountains, that they may smoke.

— is often linked with Exodus 19:18 with its smokey revelation: “Now mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire.”

Maimonides has already gone to great pains to explain that God is no nearer “whether a person stand at the center of the earth or at the highest point of the ninth sphere, if this were possible.” But he doesn’t argue that asking God to “touch the mountains” or “bow the heaves” is meaningless. To the contrary, he takes the verse’s extreme imagery as a comment on the power of God’s “touch,” understood as comprehending a “subject which had been distant.”

For Maimonides, any biblical images of God “approaching,” “nearing,” or “touching” serve to emphasize change of human cognition. In a similar literary move, Amichai gives agency to a paved road in order to emphasize a human couple’s state of mind.

Highway Decision-making

While most of his later works use free verse, some of Amichai’s earlier pieces, including “Pinecones on the Tree Above,” rhyme. This long piece begins with a few verses about a highway and two lovers:

[It] reached (הגיע) almost here — but thinking of
The bit of eternity that a lover and his love

Found here, close to their everyday drone
Made a detour and left them alone.
— Amichai, “Pinecones on the Tree Above”

IN Yehuda Amichai: A Life in Poetry, 1948-1994
Benjamin & Barbara Harshav, translators (NY: Harper Collins, 1994).

The highway’s apparent consciousness — making the decision not to touch the couple — is happily accepted within the context of the verses: The playful image only enhances the reader’s understanding that it’s the couple who feel that the road, and world beyond, cannot touch them for the moment.

My contemporary Bilingual Learners Dictionary notes that the Hebrew verb naga’ — nun-gimmel-ayin — means “touch,” “concern,” and “connection.” A more prosaic description of Amichai’s scene might have said the road “didn’t concern them” or that the couple’s intimate connection dis-connected them from the nearby road. The couple’s state of mind, their lack of connection/concern with the road, is only emphasized by poetically giving (their) agency to the highway.

Should a reader object to the playful granting of decision-making ability to the highway, the poetry would cease to function. The poetry would equally fail for a reader who somehow believed that roads do, in fact, make choices. In a similar vein: Should a budding philosopher object to a God capable of sky-bending and mountain-smoking, Psalms 144:5 would lose its power. The verse also fails when such extraordinary imagery is taken as even potentially factual.

God Approaches

I’m still at start of The Guide, and remain pretty seriously perplexed, but I am increasingly sympathetic to Maimonides’ approach and find it oddly poetic — or, perhaps, oddly “Amichai-ish.” In approach, that is, not in content. (Although Amichai’s themes sometimes involve God and the distance between man and God, I don’t think “Pinecones on the Tree Above” is intended to explore this territory.) Leah Goldberg’s “Journeying Bird,” on the other hand, shares some of the philosopher’s quest for understanding how humans and God might approach one another. [Next post]

Unlikely Answers: At the Burning Bush with Durante, Mamie Smith, and Sherman Alexie


“Without impossible questions and unlikely answers, faith is only dust,” Sherman Alexie writes in a poem that finds Moses at the Burning Bush. Alexie reaches this mountaintop via a circuitous path that touches on roller coasters, obsessive worry about failing to turn off the stove, Jimmy Durante, Dante Alighieri, and another poet‘s obsession with the fact that “Dante” is, in reality, short for “Durante.” (More on Dante/Durante)

Do you think, after Moses talked to the Burning Bush, that he couldn’t stop himself from thinking that the bush was still burning, and presented a clear and present danger? Do you think Moses hiked back up the mountain to make sure? If I claim that, in Hebrew, Moses is spelled Mos Eisley, will you look it up? Of course, you must. Without impossible questions and unlikely answers, faith is only dust.
— “Hell,” IN What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned
(Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 2014), p.51

Of course, I looked it up.

'Star Wars' image (property of LucasFilms)

“Star Wars” image: Mos Eisley Cantina musicians (property of LucasFilms)

Wookieepedia explains that Mos Eisley (pronounced “Moss Ize-lee”) is an important location in the Star Wars universe: a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” where wise visitors are cautious, it’s the site of the cantina (right) where Luke Skywalker first meets Han Solo and Chewbacca….Not, as this ignorant Star Trek fan guessed, some odd conflation of Mos Def and the Isley Brothers.

Perhaps Alexie is hinting at some kind of parallel between Luke Skywalker and Moses (spelled “מֹשֶׁה” [Moe-SHEH] in Hebrew, BTW, and thought to come from a verb meaning “to draw out”). If so, I know too little about Star Wars to catch it. Instead, my minimal wiki-knowledge sets me on a different path.

Jimmy Durante's Jazz Band (image: RedHotJazz.com)

Jimmy Durante’s Jazz Band (RedHotJazz.com)

ABC-TV 1964 (Wikicommons)

ABC-TV 1964 (Wikicommons)

I imagine Durante, in his jazz years and his later comic persona, with gigs at that alien cantina. Could Alexie have had this in mind, I wonder, when he came up with the inventive spelling for Moses?
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Surrounded by Big Things: Jonah, Harvey, and Yom Kippur

One of the things we might notice about Jonah is that he’s a little hard to follow: one minute, minding his own business, in his own land, and next thing he’s on the way to Joppa, on the ship, in the hold, tossed out into the sea, in the fish’s belly; then in Nineveh; and finally sitting outside the city arguing with God about a gourd. In honor of Jonah and his varied travels, these remarks go a number of different places, and, in an even deeper homage to Jonah, I can’t really promise that we’ll understand the point in the end. But I do hope it will be an interesting ride.
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Traveling With Jonah: Pre-Yom Kippur Thoughts

By the time we approach minchah on Yom Kippur afternoon, we have been through the month of Elul, Selichot prayers, Rosh Hashanah, and a substantial portion of the Day of Atonement. The role that the Book of Jonah plays at that point is one thing. But I’ve been wondering if it might not be of some use to reflect on Jonah’s travels earlier in the season as well.

Having recently read Yehuda Amichai’s brilliant and funny “Conferences, Conferences: Malignant Words, Benign Speech”* – in which one conference session explores, e.g., “ceramacists on the type of potsherd Job used to scratch himself” – I found myself imagining a similar conference on Jonah.

What began as silly free-association turned to slightly more serious exploration of some themes raised by the Book of Jonah. I thought sharing this BEFORE Yom Kippur afternoon, might be of some help.

Here, in the form of a “Conference Program” PDF, is the result of my musings. (Please note: the Creative Common license for this work has been updated.)

Offered with wishes for a good and sweet year!
Traveling_with_Jonah
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Exploring Divine Fluidity: Yentl, Gender, and Time

Murkiness does not persist for long in biblical narrative. For only one verse, “the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” After that, God begins a program of dividing [“va-yavdilוַיַּבְדֵּל]: light from darkness, waters above from waters below, water from dry land,….six days of work from the hallowed seventh. The theme of division continues throughout Genesis, in the stories of Noah, Babel, Abraham and descendants. Exodus and Leviticus stress divisions relating to food, sex, and other topics: this is kosher; this is not.

The biblical concept of “holiness” is all about separations; and the ancient Rabbis further pursued divisions and borders, beginning with the first words of the Mishnah: “From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?”

Murkiness is studiously avoided in Jewish tradition. And deceptive or confusing characteristics are particularly reviled, as when a pig “pretends” to be kosher by showing its split hooves (a characteristic necessary for a kosher animal) while hiding the fact that it does not chew the cud (also required).

How, in such a worldview, can an individual who is “neither one nor the other” — like the title character of the I.B. Singer’s 1962 Yentl the Yeshiva Boy — function?

And how is Judaism, with its separations and borders, to respond to the murkiness of gender-fluidity?

Photos: Stan Barouh

Photos: Stan Barouh

Yentl, in referencing Jewish sacred text, becomes part of the age-old conversation on those texts, their interpretations and implementations. Like commentary in every age, Theater J’s Yentl brings contemporary perspectives, needs, and questions into dialogue with centuries of existing material. This happens partly as the tale — set in late 19th Century Poland — interacts with music aware that the shtetl is no longer the only model for Jewish gender roles. In addition, the set, designed by Robbie Hayes as an open book, urges us into the dialogue as well.

Theater J‘s presentation combines the 1975 play, co-written by Singer and Leah Napolin, with newer music from singer-songwriter Jill Sobule. This “play with music” (not “musical” for legal reasons), directed by Shirley Serotsky, differs substantially from the 1983 film created by Barbra Streisand. And, while it comes closer to the original story in many ways, it differs from that, too, in interesting ways.
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Aramaic, Arabic and Jewish Names of God


This post was updated, 8/28/18, correcting an error in the section on Aramaic names for God. HaMakom [The Place] and Ribbono Shel Olam [Master of the Universe] are Hebrew. (Thanks to Norman Shore for pointing out the mistake; only took me 18 months to make the correction!)

יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא

In a previous post, I mentioned that kaddish is not filled with God’s names, as are many of Jewish prayers, but about God’s name. Consider, e.g., the Amidah — Judaism’s central tefilah [prayer], which speaks directly to God, using the four-letter name [YHVH] and second-person address [masc. sing. “you”]; it begs, for instance, “May YOUR greatness and YOUR holiness be realized… [תתגדל ותתקדש].” In contrast, the kaddish speaks in the third-person, and asks, as it’s often translated, “May HIS great name be magnified and sanctified [יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא].”

In trying to make this point, I accidentally gave the impression that I meant that Aramaic, as a language and/or as employed by the Rabbis, had no name for God. This is far from the truth (see below) and not what I meant. But the misunderstanding led to an interesting discussion at Temple Micah’s recent Siddur Study session.

In many translations of kaddish, “רבא (rabba),” which appears in the first line and in the congregational response, is rendered “great,” as in “[God’s] great name.” But one participant argued that “rabba” could be read as a noun, rather than an adjective.

Here is the way that “rab” is translated in the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon:

rb, rbˀ (raḇ, rabbā) n.m.
chief; teacher
rb (raḇ, rabbā) adj.
great, big

The final aleph makes “rab” (“chief” or “teacher,” here) into “the chief” or “the teacher.” So, if rabba is read, not as “great” but as “The Teacher” or “The Chief,” this could be a name of God. It would parallel, he argues, “Rab” as “Lord” in Arabic.

Here, as one of many examples, is the first appearance of Rab, usually rendered “Lord,” in the Quran:

1_2

Alhamdu lillahi rabbi alAAalameen
[All] praise is [due] to Allah , Lord of the worlds
— Sura 1:2, from this great interactive study tool

This change of reading of “Rabba” does not alter the pervasive third-person nature of the kaddish. But it does provide food for thought and reminds us of the close associations, or entanglements, in neighboring conceptions of God.

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