Singing and Praying about Enemies

“Ooh sha sha, we’ve got to live together,” voices used to tell me, from under my pillow at night. “What the world needs now is love … love between my brothers and my sisters …everybody get together, smile on your brother.” They promised “change is gonna come” and an “answer blowin’ in the wind,” later asking: “What’s going on? …. War, what is it good for? (Good God, y’all) … Why can’t we be friends?”

Daily messages from my transistor and from people around me were very far removed from the language of “enemies” and “wicked” in the Book of Psalms.

I did not grow up among Bible readers or folks who relied on psalms for comfort or instruction. As I became a Bible reader and a Psalms reciter as an adult, I’ve struggled to reconcile all those years of “love everybody right now!” with some of the darker images in sacred text and prayer.

Once, a long while back, R’ Joel Alter launched a Jewish Study Center class I attended by saying that some people find it unhelpful to focus on enemies but that, for the purposes of that class (on the Book of Deuteronomy), we would not debate the topic: “Don’t tell me we don’t have enemies.” I don’t think I’d said anything myself about my problems with the concept of enemies in sacred text, but Joel’s comment definitely spoke right to me, and started to shift my perspective.

Nevertheless, I remain anxious about psalms that say things like, “a host encamps against me” (Ps. 27:4) or “let God’s enemies be scattered” (Ps. 68:2) or that speak of “the wicked,” rather than wickedness. (Beruria, who taught her husband, Rabbi Meir, to pray for an end to “sins” rather than “sinners,” is my hero!) After all: Who gets to declare someone wicked or enemy of God?

I do love some psalms and find them deeply moving. I enjoy studying psalms. I joyfully, or mournfully, as the occasion demands, add my voice when psalms are part of the liturgy. I recite psalms when someone is ill or in dire straits. Still, though, when the world around me seems especially threatening, I often prefer to lean on Bill Withers or let Sly and the Family Stone carry me away.

photo: Joe Haupt (image description, full credit below)

Recently, however, I’ve had my perspective shifted again by the psalm medleys of Adam Gottlieb and OneLove. In one recent example (“Duppy Medley, with Psalm 27, below), his translation and the musical context prepare me for lines like, “when armies come at me, my heart will hold.” I could try to explain why I think this works for me. Instead, I’ll just share the video and ask how this lands for you this Elul.

This link allows Spotify users to pre-save Psalm 1 Medley, which includes a fantastic minor key “Hammer Song.” No cost, just need a Spotify account.

Here is the Patreon page for Adam Gottlieb & OneLove. Becoming a patron gives access to the Psalm 1 Medley before the September 2 release date and lots of other content.


And, here, for some different forms of uplift:

Sly Stone’s “Everyday People,” brought to you by Turnaround Arts (school groups around the country);

Bill Withers offering his own “Lean on Me” with audience participation; and

Playing for Change’s Song Around the World version of “Lean on Me.”


NOTES

“Everyday People,” Sly and the Family Stone 1968. “What the World Needs Now is Love,” Jackie DeShannon 1965. “The Hammer Song,” Martha and the Vandellas 1963 (Seeger and Hayes, 1949). “Get Together,” Youngbloods 1968. “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke 1964. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan 1962. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye 1970. “War,” Edwin Starr, 1970. “Why can’t we be friends,” War 1975.

Rabbi Joel Alter was then a relatively recent graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a regular teacher for DC’s cross-community Jewish Study Center after his day job in formal Jewish education. He is now a congregational rabbi in Milwaukee. Tagging him here with thanks and greetings.

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There were once some highwaymen [or: hooligans] the neighbourhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruria said to him: How do you make out [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Because it is written (Ps. 104:35): Let hatta’im cease? Is it written hot’im? It is written hatta’im! Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked men be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked men! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented. — Soncino translation, Babylonian Berakhot 10a. For more on this story, see also this PDF from a psalms study class a few years back.


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Image description: plastic rectangular transistor radio from the 1950s. Single dial and volume control. Photo: Joe Haupt via Wikimedia. License Attribution-Share Alike Creative Commons 2.0. Official name: “Vintage General Electric 5-Transistor Radio, Model 677 (Red), GE’s First Commercially Produced Transistor Radio, Made in the USA, Circa 1955.”

Video description: Musicians performing live in a small, possibly home-based (decidedly not fancy) studio. Guitarist/vocalist on one side; drummer, guitarist, and additional percussionist on the other side.

Rabbinic Worries: Berakhot 8-10

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In addition to exploring sources and methodologies used for decision-making in the Daf Yomi pages, it seems important to consider challenges the Sages faced outside the academy and worries they express. In Berakhot 8-10, worries include outlaws in the neighborhood, future enslavements, and bizarre accusations:

  1. In a famous midrash (Ber 10a), Rabbi Meir is plagued by outlaws in his neighborhood and prays for their deaths. His scholar wife, Beruriah, asks his thinking and then proposes an alternative scripture reading. In this way, she convinces him to pray that SINS, rather than SINNERS, cease from the land. He does, and the outlaws repent.

  2. In Ber 9b, God tells Moses, at the Burning Bush (Ex 3:14): “Go and say to Yisrael: ‘I was with you in this [Egyptian] servitude, and I shall be with you in the servitude to the kingdoms [i.e., Babylon and Rome].'” Moses replies: “Lord of the Universe, sufficient is the evil in the time thereof!” (Or: “suffering at its appointed time”) [דַּיָּה לַצָּרָה בִּשְׁעָתָהּ]. Whereupon God tells Moses to say only: “I AM has sent me unto you.”

  3. In Ber 8b, Rava told his sons to avoid sitting on the bed of an Aramean woman, on account of “an incident” with Rav Pappa.

The rare inclusion of a woman teaching another scholar — as well as the powerful model of one partner approaching another about an issue of theology and practical behavior — is worth noting, perhaps for future exploration. The conversation between God and Moses is another worth exploring. In the spirit of the wider view, sweeping through Daf Yomi, let’s focus on a theme present in all three texts.

“An Incident”

Rava, who taught in Babylon in the first half of the 4th Century CE (died c. 352 CE), told his sons to avoid three things:

  • cutting meat in their hands,
  • passing synagogues while the community is praying, and
  • sitting on the bed of an Aramean woman.

Several explanations are offered for the latter in the text:

  • Maybe it means to never go to sleep without reciting the Shema (as a gentile would) — which seems relevant to the overarching topic of when to recite the Shema;

  • Maybe it means not to marry a proselyte woman (which is forbidden to kohanim, a priestly family) — possibly relevant to Rava’s sons or maybe superfluous, depending on the commentary consulted; and

  • Maybe it means, exactly: “don’t sit on the bed of an Aramean woman.”

The literal interpretation is then explained with reference to “an incident of Rav Pappa”: Rav Pappa, another Babylonian teacher about 20 years younger than Rava, visited an Aramean woman who asked him to sit on a bed; he refused to do so until she raised the bed cover; when she complied, a dead baby was found there.

A later commentary, “Nissim Gaon” — Nissim ben Jacob (990 – 1062 CE, Tunisia) — suggests that the woman owed Rav Pappa money and planned to accuse him of killing the child and, thereby forcing him into forgiving the debt. This provides motivation for the woman’s actions, but it does not explain, to me anyway, the overall point of this macabre tale.

Is this story meant to explain an existing adage? something akin to “Beware Greeks (even if) bearing gifts”? Is it more like a family tradition of avoiding a certain town,* because of an unfortunate happening there, a tradition repeated over time and distance until it takes on new meaning? Jastrow offers one clue.

Worry as a Rabbinical Source

Jastrow’s dictionary defines “Armit, [אֲרַמִּית]” as “gentile woman,” referencing Ber 8b, but adds the following comment:

Owing to Christian censors as well as timid Jewish copyists, many of the passages originally referring to Romans, Christians, &c, have been altered by substituting Arammi, Kuthi, Goy &c, so that only by keen criticism their real application can be ascertained.

This note reminds us of the Rabbis’ situation as part of a minority under Roman rule. The “incident” and the lesson Rava drew for his sons carries some dangerous xenophobia. The casual acceptance of that within some commentary, in future generations (including ours), is also troubling. Still, the text reflects a reality that was ever-present and defining for the Rabbis.

This incident, along with the passages cited above from Ber 10a and 9b, highlight some prominent worries of the ancient Sages: personal safety in a crime-filled world; awareness of repeated national exile and related suffering in history; and, vulnerability to majority populations in the present.

These concerns are part of how the Rabbis saw their world and, so part of how they approached envisioning a new one. Do we see things all that differently? Don’t we have similar worries — and, therefore, similar blind spots we should heed?



NOTES

Jastrow, Marcus. A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. [standard Talmud reference] Philadelphia, 1903-ish. Partially embedded within Sefaria.org.

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Alternate Attribution
As it happens, there is a teaching about avoiding a certain town in another Talmudic passage including the Aramean woman’s bed. In Pesachim 112b, the same teaching about not sitting on the bed appears, along with three other warnings: about seeking to avoid taxes, about standing in front of an ox, and about dwelling in Shekanzib, “because [its inhabitants] are scoffers and will corrupt you to disbelief.” The same three possible interpretations are offered for the Aramean bed. Pesachim 112b mentions “the incident of Rav Pappa” but does not elaborate.

In Pesachim, this set of teachings is attributed to Judah haNasi [the Prince] (often called, simply, “Rabbi”).

Judah haNasi, who lived in Palestine and is credited with editing the Mishnah, died about 80 years before Rav Pappa was born. Moreover, according to Soncino footnotes, Shekanzib was a Babylonian city, and Judah haNasi “would have had no occasion to warn his children against living in a town in Babylonia.” This suggests to some scholars that the attribution should instead be to Rava (as in Berakhot 8b).

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Robe, River, and Bond in Morning Prayer

Wrapping

The early morning section of a Jewish prayer book focuses — with some variety in content and order (see below) — on wraps:

  • God is robed in majesty (Psalms 104:1-2).
  • Jews are wrapped in fringes (blessing for wearing a tallit [prayer shawl]).
  • Humans take refuge in the shadow of divine wings (Psalms 36:8-11).

The focus then shifts — with the verse, “For with You is the fountain of life. In Your light do we see light” (36:10) — away from God’s universal (and one-sided) kindness toward a more specific relationship with expectations on both parts: “Continue Your lovingkindness to those that know You and Your righteousness to the upright in heart” (36:11). This is followed by verses from Hosea (2:21-22) promising betrothal “in righteousness,” “in justice,” “in lovingkindness and in compassion,” and “in faithfulness.” (More below on these verses, tefillin, and the upcoming World Wide Wrap.)
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