Saturday, December 05, 2015

The fifth question: Songs of Songs and the Book of Ruth

Written By Yossi Sarid in HaaretzApril 1, 2007

Rejoice, rejoice in the good news: Spring is here and Passover is on the way. And I too rejoice when Nissan, the month that was once the first of the Hebrew calendar, arrives, and with its vernal beauty steals the joy of the still-blustery Adar - though we are all commanded to rejoice during that month. The joy of Nissan is double - both departing for freedom and departing from winter.

I have revised my tastes in Bible a number of times over the years; a kind of weakness of taste, a sort of capriciousness of temperament that is characteristic of transitional seasons. Today I am almost certain that I have formulated my position: The Song of Songs and the Book of Ruth are my favorites, and that is final.

These are two books of a subversive character, and both of them always bring up the question of how they succeeded in the first place in entering the collection of Holy Writ. How were they given canonical status? Were such writings collected and redacted nowadays, it is doubtful they would be awarded this status. Quite possibly, the Song of Songs would be left out because of its eroticism and the Book of Ruth pushed out because of its ethics. But we shall write about Ruth at length at the end of the counting of the Omer, when the holiday of Shavuot arrives.

Ruth and the Song of Songs are the most Land-of-Israel books that I know of, then or now. When the question arises of whether there is such a thing as Israeli literature, and not just Israeli writers, these two books are the decisive answer: Indeed there is such a literature. Reading and delighting in them is possible anywhere, but the writing could have taken place only here, in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, among the fields and vineyards of the beloved land of our fathers.

I once suggested to our Interior Ministry that it rely on the Book of Ruth to establish the rules for obtaining citizenship in this country, and now I am suggesting to the Tourism Ministry that it use the Song of Songs to attract tourists in love. And Bar Refaeli, with little marketing effort, can play the role of "For I am lovesick." As everyone knows, the Song of Songs is attributed to King Solomon, but according to modern research, the text was shaped many years after his reign. Not only historically, but also from the literary perspective, it is difficult to accept Solomon as the author, as in his palace harem he had a thousand women, whereas Shulamith's love for her beloved is unique and exclusive. The lord of a thousand women does not qualify for a love experience that is so focused and for longings that are so distilled.

Today the prevailing assumption is that the anthology of love songs was not written by a single hand but rather by various authors in various periods, although a rereading reveals perfect stylistic and thematic unity.

The Song of Songs is a subversive book in biblical, conservative and traditional terms, so much so that the sages had to interpret it as a kind of allegory. Not a beloved and a lover, not a shepherd and a shepherdess, not Shulamith and her beloved, but rather a love affair between the community of Israel and God. Rabbi Akiva, of all people, who held the Song of Songs to be more sacred than the other books of Scripture apart from the five books of Moses and the Prophets, is recorded as having said that "anyone who warbles the Song of Songs in drinking houses and makes it into a kind of ditty has no portion in the world to come."

Those sages always had to spoil our fun. Why do they do this to us? What did we ever do to them? Happily for us, this exegesis, which was aimed at preventing desecration, did not make a deep impression on creative inspiration. Generation after generation had its say and transmitted material, and there isn't a single line that has not been put into the mouths of flesh-and-blood lovers. There isn't a single poem in the Song of Songs that has not been sung by the young in spirit, who, in the breezes of the night and the day, imagine themselves as shepherds and shepherdesses, black and comely, tanned swarthy by the sun; this is their sensual fantasy.

The allegory argument in this case is rather funny and far out. Even God Himself would not be grateful to the great leaders of Israel and their exegetes if a trace of the human remained in His image. What is it they want to tell us, the sages of blessed memory - that their God is not only merciful, but also libidinous, and that the community of Israel, for its part, is particularly interested in the thighs of the Holy One, blessed be He, which are "as pillars of marble." He swoons over her most intimate parts, "the rounding of thy thighs," "thy belly is a heap of wheat" and "thy two breasts are like twin fawns," and he dreams of climbing into the palm tree with the help of the branches thereof and her breasts as the clusters of grapes. As for her, she will nestle him between her breasts, his left hand under her head and his right hand embracing her.

God shows up all of a sudden, and with no prior warning in any other reference, knocks on the door, his head filled with dew, on his locks the drops of night, removes his coat, washes his feet and is ready; and she rises to open the door, her heart moving for him, her hands and her fingers flowing with myrrh on the door handles. She too is ready.

Good God, what is happening here? Has the landlord gone crazy? How is it that we hadn't previously known such a human God, so similar and equal to us? Neither did He know that He was like that, until his emissaries and exegetes told Him. The Song of Songs is customarily read on the Sabbath of the Intermediate Days of Passover, between the first and the seventh day. There are those who also read it on the closing holiday, and even a few who end the seder night by reading it. I very much recommend this custom, and I think it should spread. The Song of Songs is a much better read than the Passover Haggadah, which is an eclectic text that stops at every station in time, like a slow train that takes on more and more freight.

Because the Haggadah is a wide-open text that has not been zealously guarded in every generation, it has been infiltrated by a mix of biblical verses and bits of legend, prayers and hymns and just plain songs. With its educational mission ("thou shall tell thy son on that day"), the Haggadah is ostensibly also aimed at children, and perhaps first and foremost at them, so as to instill in all four kinds of sons the story of the Exodus from Egypt, to make them like it and to educate each according to his needs. But while the Song of Songs only charms, the Haggadah is also scary, like Grimms' fairy tales. When the Haggadah pours out its wrath, it does so on young and old alike. Alongside fine and interesting sections, there are a number of baffling and boring parts. No wonder many families postpone the worst and have the meal first so that slumber will not fall on the eyelids of the tender Jewish infants.

Therefore, I recommend that another question be added to the traditional four: How is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we read only the Haggadah; on this night we also read the Song of Songs, wherein the songs are better than wine and verily, even the fleshpots.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Rosh Hashana Drasha 5766: Race, Racism and the Creation of Mankind

When you woke up in the morning today, many of you put on your nicest clothes in honour of the chag and began your journey to shul. As you walked down Balaclava Rd, you wished Shana Tova to the people you passed, and exchanged hugs and reminisced with friends not seen for some time. One thing you may not have done, is wish someone ‘Happy Birthday.’ Many of us don't realize that the reason we are here today is to mark the birth of two people.

Two people, initially created as one, born of no parents, with no religion, separated from each other at birth. They walked the earth 2000 years before the first Jew was born, and 2500 years before we were proclaimed a people at Mt Sinai. Their names were Adam and Eve. According to the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 29:1), today is their birthday.

The words ‘Hayom Harat Olam,’  “Today the world was brought into being” mark the creation of the first human soul. 
The Talmud asks in Masechet Sanhedrin, "Why was only a single specimen of man created first? To teach us that he who destroys a single soul destroys a whole world and that he who saves a single soul saves a whole world;  Man was also created alone so that no race or class may claim a nobler ancestry, saying, 'Our father was born first'; and, finally, to give testimony to the greatness of the Lord, who caused the wonderful diversity of mankind to emanate from one type. And why was Adam created last of all beings? To teach him humility; for should he ever become arrogant, let him remember that the little fly preceded him in the order of creation." – Talmud, Sanhedrin viii. 4-9)

The Yalkut Shimoni 
1:13 elaborates on this idea by stating God formed Adam out of dust from all over the world—yellow clay, white sand, black loam, and red soil. Therefore no one can declare to any people that they do not belong since this soil is the source from which we all emerged.

There are more texts in this vein which go to great lengths to express the idea that all mankind is descended from one Adam, a being who was neither male nor female, whose body held the potential to be a vessel for all future genders, races, and possibilities of human identity.

This principle, that all mankind originates from one, exists in many faiths, and is also enshrined in the pre-amble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises the “inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”

The first article of this declaration which has been endorsed by almost every nation on earth states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

The Guinness Book of Records describes the Declaration as the world's "Most Translated Document." Even though it is not legally binding, the Declaration has been adopted in or has influenced most national constitutions since 1948 and served as the foundation for a growing number of national laws and international laws.
Sometimes I read it to my children as a bedtime story.

That said, in spite of this desire for mankind to be colour blind, articulated in both Jewish and civil law, so many events have occurred in the past year to show the opposite is true. I’d like to explore cases from two different countries that will be familiar to many of you here today.

Twenty years after Nicky Winmar famously lifted his jumper and declared ''I'm black - and I'm proud to be black!'' the response of Adam Goodes to a racist taunt from a 13 year old girl has now become a defining moment in Australian race relations. The day following the incident, Goodes explained his response:
“It's not the first time on the footy field I've been referred to as a monkey or an ape. It was shattering. This week is a celebration of our people and our culture. Last night, I was able to make a stand for myself and say racism has a face, and it’s a 13-year-old girl, but it's not her fault.
She's 13, she's still so innocent. I don't put any blame on her. Unfortunately it's what she hears, the environment she's grown up in that has made her think it's ok to call people names.” 

A year later, Goodes was honoured with the title of Australian of the Year for his activism against racism. Whilst he was honoured by many, a small minority started booing him at AFL matches, the trauma of which led to him taking some time out of football in August this year. Amongst a great deal of commentary about this, I was incredibly moved to read these words of Wiradjuri journalist Stan Grant in the Guardian:

“I may be overly sensitive. I may see insult where none is intended. Maybe my position of relative success and privilege today should have healed deep scars of racism and the pain of growing up Indigenous in Australia. The same could be said of Adam. And perhaps that is right.  But this is how Australia makes us feel.
Estranged in the land of our ancestors, marooned by the tides of history on the fringes of one of the richest and demonstrably most peaceful, secure and cohesive nations on earth.
The “wealth for toil” we praise in our anthem has remained out of our reach. Our position at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator tragically belies the Australian economic miracle.
From childhood I often cringed against my race. To be Aboriginal was to be ashamed. Ashamed of our poverty. Ashamed of the second-hand clothes with the giveaway smell of mothballs and another boy’s name on the shirt collar. Ashamed of the way my mother and grandmother had to go to the Smith Family or Salvation Army for food vouchers.”

I have met with a number of inspiring elders over the past few years through my participation in the Yorta Yorta Beyachad program at Mount Scopus. These moving words of Stan Grant are not new to me, and underlie how far we still need to travel as a nation before the aspirations of our anthem  are realised.

The country I’d like to explore next is an ocean away from us, but very close to the hearts of many in this room. From 1948, its government had the dubious reputation of being one of the most racist in the world. I am speaking of South Africa. A country ruled by the British or Dutch since the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 until the end of apartheid in 1994. 
Being one of what sometimes feel like a minority of Jews in Melbourne who is not South African, the history of this country has always fascinated me. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting this most beautiful and challenging of places as a guest of Limmud South Africa.

Before my visit, most of what I knew about the country was based on memories of watching the Power of One and the 1995 Rugby world cup with many South African school friends who ate Biltong and lived in Doncaster. I remember the symbolism of Mandela wearing the once hated springbok jersey, and seeing the now multi-racial rugby team win over New Zealand. It was an incredibly inspiring moment demonstrating the power of reconciliation.

Like many Australians, I also heard many stories about Nelson Mandela, who seems to occupy a special place in the western imagination together with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr as being one of the greatest champions of non-violent resistance, forgiveness and transformational leadership.
A month after Mandela was elected president in 1994, he famously said of his people, “Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Last week, I re-watched the final minutes of the 1995 rugby world cup where South Africa defeated New Zealand. The first thing the Australian commentator said when the final whistle was blown was; “It's Over. A triumph for the rainbow nation.” 
This made me think, Is South Africa a Rainbow nation? 20 years after the end of apartheid, has it finally overcome its demons of history? Was this nation that categorised all of its people into black, white and coloured for so many years, able to implement the idea in Talmud Sanhedrin, that we are all created equal and are all from the same source?

On one hand, I found many examples to answer this question in the affirmative. Most striking was my visit to Constitutional Hill which is the site of a former Johannesburg prison that incarcerated hundreds of black and white members of the ANC, three of whom went on to become Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Today it is home to the highest court in the land. The Constitutional Court enforces what is arguably one of the most progressive constitutions in the world.  Not only does it guarantee the traditional civil rights such as the right to vote, free expression, the rights of association and assembly, but also important social rights such as the right to clean water, health and to be gay or lesbian without being discriminated against. It ruled in favour of same sex marriage in 2005, passed strong laws against the death penalty, and has even tried a deputy president whilst in office. This court was an incredible prize to all who participated in the struggle for liberation.

Visit to the Constitutional Court with former prisoner Alan Fine

However, just outside the court, there were signs all over the city saying “Johannesburg says no to Xenophobia". These were a reference to a spate of racist attacks against foreigners in South Africa from Zimbabwe, and Congo, Somalia and Mozambique. 7 people lost their lives to this violence in April 2015.

The issues that motivated those who perpetrated the violence against the foreigners included competition for jobs, commodities, housing and nationalism. Clearly in these cases, even though both the victims and perpetrators shared the same skin colour, there was enough difference within the ethnic identities and lived reality to bring them to such tragic consequences.

In addition to this phenomenon of xenophobia, the #RhodesMustFall movement which successfully lobbied for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue from the University of Cape Town this year has generated much discussion around the issues of white privilege in South Africa. These have included strong debates about the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) initiative, which gives preference to Black and Coloured South Africans in the awarding of government contracts and university places, as well as the strong feelings of alienation by black students who are still learning in courses where Afrikaans is the language of instructions such as Stellenbosch University.

In light of these issues, of all the descriptions that are used to describe the South African people today on their journey to liberation, ‘a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world’ are not the words I would choose.
Even though we have only explored two countries today, stories about social, political and economic equality based on race can be easily found in almost every country on earth. With this in mind, I’d like to share a simple hope for the coming year 5776.

Many people of conscience throughout the world would like our planet to return to being a Garden of Eden without racial discrimination, but before that can happen, we need to acknowledge the legacy of racism, the privilege that some races still hold over others and the tikkun required before we can again return to an idea we are celebrating today on the creation of the first human. 

May we all one day live in a world that is colour blind, where a person is judged by the content of their character and not the colour of their skin.

Shana Tova