Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Days of Awe in days of yore (or, Reading God the Riot Act)

Last Friday's JC had a review of the Chief Rabbi's new Machzor for Rosh Hashono by Dr Jeremy Schonfield. The reviewer refers to passages in our prayers which are "evidence of an awareness that all is not well in God's relations with Israel", and is critical of the Artscroll translations which gloss over these themes and instead reflect "a simple piety often unworthy of the intellectual depth of the poetic writers".

I was reminded of the review when on Monday in selichos there appeared the following verses from Jeremiah (14:8-9): Why shouldest Thou be as a stranger in the land, and as a wayfaring man that turneth aside to tarry for a night? Why shouldest Thou be as a man astonished, as a mighty man that cannot save?

It is no wonder that we Jews are such relentless critics because if our God doesn't escape our vitriol mere mortals can't stand a chance. In modern argot, the Prophet's words would translate as, why are You behaving like a wimp? Can't You get off Your butt and do something?

Dr Schonfield is right that this element of our relationship with God has largely gone. While in the selichos liturgy the poets lambast God for His treatment of His people, nowadays it is all sycophancy and fawning to a God to whom we owe everything, Who owes us nothing and the best we can do is stand like beggars at His table and wail for a morsel or a bone.

In fact one can go further and say that the Jewish God is almost dead. Fifty thousand people travel to Uman in the Ukraine to be with the dead Reb Nachman, many thousands travel far and wide to worship a living Rebbe, in Israel they worship the land as if that is the new vengeful and jealous Jewish deity, and meanwhile God is forsaken and no one will give Him the tough love He so often deserves.

Verses like the one above, the constant refrain in the selichos of “Arouse, why do You sleep', or sarcastic lines like 'we have spilt our blood for You yet have still not achieved Your forgiveness' remind us of our complex relationship with our God. That even if it was our destiny to be His sitting ducks at least we were given the privilege of speaking our mind to Him to ensure He doesn’t get off lightly.

So how refreshing to have come across the oratory of a Rabbi Yehosua Szpetman who talked to God in the manner of the Prophets. Born in Lublin, Poland, he was a rabbi at the Nelson Street Synagogue in the East End of London during the 1930s and '40s and a collection of his speeches in Yiddish were printed in 1938. This is not a rabbi who minced his words when addressing his Creator even when doing so publicly in front of his flock. Times in 1938 were of course significantly different to our days but this was not a rabbi to turn on Jews when trouble befell them and tell them to mend their ways in the petty, childish speeches one gets to hear these days. Instead it was God who needed to mend His ways. Rabbi Szpetman did not turn Jew on Jew and try to unite Jews with their God by sowing division amongst His people. Nor did he turn on our enemies by spouting vacuous curses which serve only to stoke flames of hate and strife.

Instead his addresses are directed to God Himself. Challenging Him, Lambasting Him, calling Him to action. Like the Prophets of yore, he addresses an omnipotent God but only to point out his apparent impotence. Stop behaving like a god, he appears to be saying, and be a man for a change.

A Ksivo Vachasimo Toivo to all my readers and I leave you with Rabbi Szpetman in this extract I have translated from a fiery sermon for Rosh Hashono:


Let us ascend to the Throne of Honour, to the King who is King of kings, the King Who sits on a high and lofty throne! Let Him hear our call of the Shofar, let Him come out from his hideout , from His holy Curtain and let Him attend and receive our blasts, wails and trills of the Shofar, that are like a bitter cry.

Arouse like prophets and call, Arouse! Why dost Thou sleep, why art Thy like a stranger in the land…, like a wayfarer retiring to spend the night…, like a mighty who cannot rescue? Arise! Why do You sleep, You Guardian of Israel? Why are You like an alien, like a stranger in the world? Like a visitor, like a warrior in chains?

On this day of Rosh Hashono, from Your coronation, the Day of the Birth of the World, shed Your royal crown, the diadem and don sackcloths and ashes, so to speak, and come with us into exile. Let us together mourn, cry and wail for the enormous tragedy that has befallen the Jewish people. The whole world has been turned into an altar and its only sacrifice is the Jew. Let us together say remembrances on the mass graves, old and new.

Let our tears from distress fall on the Great Sea and seethe, boil and storm the ocean. Let the cry of the Shofar within our essence, the pain and indignity of the souls and bodies of the Jewish people make the desert tremble. Let strong oaks fall and let there leap flames of fire. The voice of the Lord is on the water, the voice of the Lord makes the desert quake, the voice of the Lord mines flames of fire, the voice of the Lord fells cedars.




Anonymous said...

Thank you for another enlightening piece.

The more I read your blog the more I am thankful Hkb"H that in our small and timid town we are blessed with great people like Rabbi Pinter who are there to protect our innocent children from influences like yourself.

Are you having a laugh??? You post a blog like this with disgraceful apikorsus a"l with sickening hatroseh against the Boireh Oilom and you still have the audacity to voice opinions on matters of orthodox Judaism? You masqurade as a voice of reason and freedom fighter?

Your shameless comparison of Nishmas to the other song a"l and the French cleavage woman to your wife (no comment), is your choice, but please do not be selfish. Even atheists know how to respect others. If the above are your beliefs, please dont impose yourself on us. Please dont mix with us. Please dont send your children to our schools. Please do not write about and slander us. Live and let live.

I know you will likely not post this, but please heed the genuine message.

Simcha said...

It's not so much whether we are prepared or not to have a go at God (see e.g. Joseph Heller's God Knows or Shalom Auslander's Beware of God), rather the beef that I have with Selichot is that for the most part they are describing a situation that simply isn't happening. When the Selichot were being written we were being kicked from pillar to post by the nations of the world. Nowadays the boot is on the other foot, it is we who are doing the kicking. We should be confessing our current misuses of political, spiritual, financial and sexual power. Otherwise, it seems that we just aren't speaking the truth.

Some time ago I wrote to the JC and made the above points, and asked if there is anyone out there who could write Hebrew, or even English, piyyutim for the modern world. We could get together and write some top notch Selichot for today, and recite them next Rosh Hashanah. Need I add, nobody responded. Now I will ask again: please, have we got some poetic talent out there that could be put to constructive use? I love you all dearly.

IfYouTickleUs said...

Simcha, the polarisation of Judaism is such that those who can write won't be accepted by those who do most of the praying while those who do the praying can't write for toffees. See the crude chareidi attempts at Holocaust liturgy and wail because if Rabbi Yehudah Halevi or Ibn Gevirol were writing today their works would be burned on the streets of Benei Berak.

Similarly, changing liturgy is a contentious issue in any religion and it will not happen while the current reactionary winds continue to blow. Victimisation also remains part of the chareidi creed and most people would see no reason for change.

So as long as we have them enjoy the poetry, some of it at least, and spare a thought for the people who lived in times which generated such emotions.