Babylon and the Beginning

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 2.1

Ancient commentary finds reference to exile, to Babylon in particular, as early as the bible’s second verse:

Now the earth was unformed [תֹהוּ] and void [וָבֹהוּ] and darkness [וְחֹשֶׁךְ] was upon the face of the deep [עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם]; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water [וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם]”
— Gen 1:2

R. Simeon b. Lakish equates “tohu [unformed]” with Babylon and subsequent expressions in the verse with other “powers” (or “empires”) that dominated Israel: Medea/Persia, Greece, and “the Wicked State” (Rome). Finally, he links “the spirit of God” hovering over the water with Messianic spirit and reasons that it’s on account of the water (over which the spirit hovers) — likened to repentance, based on Lamentations 2:19, “…pour out thy heart like water…” — that Redemption will come.[1].

God makes order from chaos. In the beginning of Creation and in Reish Lakish’s day. Four separate kinds of confusion and darkness are but prelude. As in that hovering just before God created light and then divided light from darkness, the dawn of Redemption is just a moment away. Through this allegory, one verse of the Creation story thus encapsulates the People’s history, fears, and faith. And the experience of Babylonian captivity is shapes it all.

Estimated Impact

Jacob Neusner’s introduction to Genesis Rabbah notes that the sages of the time — Christian Palestine of the 4th-5th Century CE (incorporating earlier teachings) — “entertained deep forebodings about Israel’s prospects.” They understood the Torah to be “the story of Israel, the Jewish people, in the here and now,” however, and so read it to speak to the needs of their time:

So the importance of Genesis, as the sages of Genesis Rabbah read the book, derives not from its lessons about the past but from its message for Israel’s present–and especially its future….a prophesy for a near tomorrow.
–Neusner, p.2

Based on the Babylonian exile and subsequent return to rebuild the Temple, “hope persisted that the same pattern would find renewal–and the prophets’ promise of redemption.” (p.4, Jacob Neusner. Confronting Creation: How Judaism Reads Genesis: An Anthology of Genesis Rabbah [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1991]).

Biblical scholar Rainer Albertz [2] estimates that “half the material in the Hebrew Bible came into being or was substantially shaped” during the Babylonian Exile. A decade or so later, he suggested that “about 70 percent of the Hebrew Bible tackles the questions of how the catastrophe of exile was possible and what Israel can learn from it.”

But Albertz’s method does not appear to extend to readings, like those of Genesis Rabbah, in which verses unrelated to exile on the surface — that is, on a pashat (literal or simple) level — are allegorically linked. So, perhaps the percentage of the Hebrew Bible understood as relating to exile should be raised even further?

Questions for Consideration

Questions posed in Chapter 1.1 touched on feelings of safety and fragility. As we move beyond the sukkah and into the new year’s Torah cycle:

  • Does the vision of Genesis Rabbah, including the precarious nature of the political situation, have resonance for this year’s Torah cycle?
  • Does the notion of being so close to chaos, confusion, and darkness seem ancient or current?
  • What about the idea that Redemption can also be very near?
  • Does repentance, in this context, seem possible?
  • Is reading “(foreign) powers” into the early Creation story disturbing? hopeful?
  • Does a strong focus on exile and return, even for verses that seem unrelated, deepening bible reading? or flatten it?
  • Can knowing that we (and the Presence suffering with us) made it back, or out from under, help us now?

NOTE:

1) R. Simeon b. Lakish said:
Unformed [“tohu” תֹהוּ] = Babylon, because the prophet Jeremiah wrote about the Babylonian exile: “I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was waste [וְהִנֵּה-תֹהוּ]…” (Jer. 4:23). Void [“bohu” וָבֹהוּ] = Medea/Persia; Dark [“hoshech” וְחֹשֶׁךְ] = Greece; the Face of the Deep [“al p’nei t’hom” עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם] = “the Wicked State” (i.e., Rome). Reish Lakish equated the Spirit of God with the Messianic spirit, citing Isaiah 11:2 — And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him [the Messiah].

This teaching closes by asking, “In the merit of what will the Messiah come?” And answering:

[For the sake of that which] hovered over the face of the waters, i.e. in the
merit of repentance which is likened to water, as it is written, Pour out thy heart like water (Lam. 2:19)

–Genesis Rabbah 2:4

R. Simeon b. Lakish (3rd Century CE, Palestine) is also known as Reish Lakish.

Genesis Rabbah is thought to date be the oldest of the Midrash Rabbah collections. A translation by R. Dr. H. Freedman is available via the great Internet Archive.
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2) Rainer Albertz (profile; C.V.) has a Ph.D in Protestant Theology from the University of Heidelberg. He is the son of a Heinrich Albertz (1915–1993), one-time major of (West) Berlin and a pacifist, anti-Nazi Christian minister.

Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B.C.E., translated by David Green (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

“More and Less than a Myth: Reality and Significance of Exile for the Political, Social, and Religious History of Judah,” IN By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon: Approaches to the Study of the Exile, edited by John J. Ahn & Jill Middlemas (NY: Continuum, 2012).
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God’s Presence Accompanied Them

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 1.2

Deuteronomy closes with hopes, on the banks of the Jordan and declarations of Israel’s particular relationship to God:

So Israel dwelt in safety
the fountain of Jacob alone…

Happy are you, O Israel!
Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD,
the shield of your help,
and the sword of your triumph!
–Deut 33:28-29

Much later, after Israel had experienced more trial and loss and exile, the idea developed that God was in exile along with the People, as much in need of rescue as the People. In particular, Sukkot prayers include a verse, “Ani va-ho” — sometimes translated as “Yourself and us!” or “Rescue me and the divine name!” — followed by another that begs:

As You rescued the communities You exiled to Babylonia, and Your merciful Presence accompanied them — so save us.

This line of thought, which has been developing for centuries, is mean to teach that “when there is suffering in the world, God is not on the side of the oppressors. Rather God is with the oppressed and suffers with them” (from Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom; download and more at Rabbinical Assembly).

The idea that “God is with the oppressed” is too often, I fear, used as a sort of universal Coup-fourré card, a “safety” to correct any “hazard,” so as to stay on the road.

…For those who never played the old card game Mille Borne, maybe “ace in the hole” or “Get out of jail free” card will make more sense; but I find Coup-fourré — the process whereby one is able to surmount a pitfall and keep rolling along — more apt here….

It is way too easy to let “God is with the oppressed” console the already comfortable while leaving the afflicted with their travails. As we enter the new year, I think it’s time for the comfortable among us to examine our “safety” cards.

 

Following God’s Example

We must ask ourselves where we are when there is suffering and injustice in the world. It’s not enough to be concerned or write letters or even stand out in the street in protest — although all of those things are important. God went into exile with us, and something similar is required of us, if we are to make any progress on racial and ethnic justice issues.

We must take steps to remove any sense that we are somehow entitled to dwell in safety — as we find Israel at the close of Deuteronomy — when others cannot. If God could join us in exile, we can work to dismantle White Supremacy and other protections that can never be equally shared. Where there is suffering in the world, we cannot simply declare ourselves “on the freedom side.”

We’ve got to follow God’s example, to the extent we are able, and be willing to be vulnerable, explore what it’s really like in Babylon, not just our romantic ideas about it from outside. We have to look carefully at any place where oppression thrives and ask, “how we are complicit?” Really, deeply, honestly ask ourselves and our communities: “Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?”

And then take action, even if it means compromising our own safety or sense of self.

NOTE: A version of this mini-dvar [word, sermon] was given at Fabrangen and Tikkun Leil Shabbat joint Simchat Torah celebration, 10/11/17.

“Babylon” (Bavel) means many things in Judaism and in U.S. popular culture. Join “A Song Every Day” in Exploring Babylon over the next 40 weeks.

 

Which Side Are You On?

Background on the song/chant —

Florence Reece (more here) wrote “Which side are you on?” lyrics in 1931 as part of labor organizing effort —

Freedom Singers adapted it for the mid-20th Century Civil Rights movement —

A version of this is still used, as in #BlackBrunch in Oakland (above), but protestors in the Movement for Black Lives also use a combination song and chant, as in this snippet:

Chant: [Example Leader] was a Freedom Fighter
who taught us how to fight
We gonna fight all day and night
until we get it right

Sing: Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?
We’re on the freedom side!

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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Exploring Babylon: Intro

Exile: Babylon and Beyond

Exile saturates Jewish sacred text, practice, and thought. From the first couple’s banishment from Eden, early in Genesis, to the Babylonian captivity, which closes Second Chronicles, the Hebrew bible is filled with themes of loss, wandering, and desire for return. Even the Exodus, Judaism’s foundational tale of escape from human oppression and entrance into service of God, carries a strong exilic theme: “Remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

An arc similar to the path of the Tanakh [Hebrew bible] – from Creation, with its seeds of exile, through Revelation, toward Redemption; and then back to exile again – is repeated in practice, over the course of each Shabbat, across the annual festival cycle, and in the schedule of Torah readings.

Deuteronomy closes with the People on the banks of the Jordan, hopeful but not yet home; we never pass this point, in the annual reading cycle (an invention of Jews in exile), instead linking “Never again was there a prophet in Israel like Moses….” immediately to “In the beginning.” Before the very first portion ends, Eve and Adam have already been expelled from Eden.

Moreover, Babylonian captivity infuses centuries of Torah interpretation and Jewish philosophy: After Babylon, Jews can never un-know that, however close to the promised Land we get, exile is always just beyond the horizon….And that holding onto the “Promised Land” will be harder and require a more sustained ethical commitment than we’ve managed so far.

But Babylon has many meanings and values in- and outside Judaism.

In the Torah, Babylon [Bavel] is the site of the Tower and neighbor to town of Ur, from which Abraham’s family set off and later returned in search of spouses. Prophetically, Bavel is both a threat, a consequence for misbehavior, and the city whose welfare we are told to seek (Jer 29:7). Historically, Babylon is a foreign cultural center, the site of one of the ancient world’s longest lasting, most developed, and most diverse settlements. It is also the base of much creativity, including centuries of aggadah [lore] and halakhah [law] still central to Judaism.

For Jews, Babylon eventually becomes a crazy patchwork of motifs: distant origin, traumatic captivity, and creative center. Christians, Rastas, and others bring additional perspectives. In U.S. politics, Babylon has become a cracked mirror reflecting tyrants, colonizers, and oppressors – who, all too often, look disturbingly like us.

More on “Exploring Babylon” project at “A Song Every Day”