Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

Posts tagged ‘Hebrew’

Howling at the moon: Dragons and Sirens in the Hebrew Bible.

 

The other evening my dear friend Eric Eldritch –the amazingly creative artist behind the Red Dragon Festival– brought to my attention an interesting Biblical verse: Job 30:29. I’ll transcribe it here so you don’t have to look it up: “I am a brother to dragons, a companion to owls” (KJV, which most probably implies something like Job is as hurtful and lonely as these two animals). Eric’s questions were if there are dragons in the Bible, and if dragons are part of Hebrew mythology.

If the King James Version surprised me, the wide variations between other translations were no less perplexing: dragons and owls became in other Biblical translations jackals and ostriches respectively. The subject piqued my curiosity and I decided to find out about the dragons and the apparently incongruous variation between translations. What lied behind the metaphor of these lonely animals howling at the moon?

For many generations, believers and religious leaders have thought that the Bible was the perfect word of God, divinely inspired letter by letter, even scientifically flawless and historically accurate. Rivers of ink had been spent trying to harmonize each and all contradictions of the text, and struggling to make the text be –or appear as!– perfectly homogenous. It begun with the redactors of the Biblical documents (JEPD) and has not ceased until contemporary fundamentalist commentators. It comes as no surprise that for centuries the Church preferred the Vulgate over the Hebrew Tanakh: any unequal, fragmentary text does look nice, smooth and coherent if translated with enough skill. However, the tireless efforts of generations of editors and translators have never been able to devoid the Bible of all traces of Hebrew myths: the Goddess, Lilith, the Leviathan, Azazel, demons, and giants have left their footprint in the Biblical text and it is relatively easy to uncover them.

Going back to Job 30:29, the Hebrew terms used in the text are tanin (תנין) and ya’en (יען). Sometimes the Bible uses hapax legomena, that is, words whose meaning is unknown because they appear only a few times in the text and we have very few or no other external texts where the word is used, so that we can deduce its meaning. Although tanin is technically not one of these words, its exact meaning is equally unknown. The term tanin seams to designate a wide range of creatures. The Even Shoshan Hebrew dictionary includes some of the meanings for this word: from crocodile and gecko, to a wide range of marine monsters and unknown humongous creatures. Thus, Gen 1:21 seems to refer to the creation of marine monsters, or at least of very big wales. Is 27:1 offers us a glimpse to a gallery of mythical monsters, including the Leviathan and another marine tanin, here often translated as “dragon.” When Aaron casts his rod in front of Pharaoh, it becomes a tanin, some sort of monstrous serpent that ends up eating the other serpents (Exod. 7:9).

In his Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism (p. 71), Dennis defines the tanin asan archetypical monster, usually resembling a serpent. Some readers understand it to refer to a monstrous serpent or dragon that is a menace for navigation (Is 27:1; Neh 2:13; Baba Batra 74a-b). Although in some instances it may be a synonymous of Leviathan, in the apocalyptic literature it designates a dragon of huge dimensions in Sheol that feeds on the souls of the wicked (3Baruch 4-5). Demons can take the form of taninin, dragons, according to the Talmud (Kid. 29b). In fact, the demon Samael is often given the title “serpent” or “dragon.” A cosmic blind dragon or Tanin ‘Iver serves as the steed of Lilith (Daniel Septuagint, 3Baruch, Treatise on the Left Emanation).

So what are the tanin and the ya’en? When linguists do not know the meaning of hapax legomena or of a particularly obscure term, we try to find out how ancient translators understood them. It is quite probable that ancient Biblical translators from the beginning of the common era were more knowledgeable than us regarding these two words: they were fluent in both languages and conversant with both cultures and their socio-historical contexts. Ya’en doesn’t seem to be much of a problem: other than its meaning of “owl” we only find another alternative, that of the Septuagint, which translates the term as Στρουθος, “ostrich.” However, the word tanin is another story, and the options of the ancient translators do not but increase our perplexity. The Vulgate chooses to translate tanin by draco, “dragon.” The Targum translates the plural form taninin as yerurin or yelulin (ירוריןילולין) derived from a root (ילל) that means to howl or to cry out with full voice. Whatever the monstrous tanin was, it was understood to be howly and noisy, and therefore some translators thought it had to be a lonely jackal. The Peshitta follows the same reading and translates it as yerura (ירורא), with the same meaning.

Most surprising to me was the Septuagint, which decides that a tanin has to be a howling, marine monster of another kind: a seiren (σειρήν-σειρηνος), that is, a siren. As we know from the Odyssey, the sirens were two mythical sisters on the south coast of Italy, who enticed seamen by their songs, and then slew them. They tried to seduce Ulysses with their chants, but luckily he was tied to that mast (Od. 12.39 ff.). Strange how the alluring appeal of the siren’s song and the mournful, loud howl of the dragon converge in our story. Seiren is also one of the epithetic names of Zeus, possible related to a verb that means to scorch. The funny thing I find out is that the word σειρήν, generally feminine, can be used in a masculine form, particularly with the meaning of a kind of solitary wasp. The tanin, by the way, is definitively masculine, and so is draco. My wild imagination can’t avoid but to conjure images of Odysseus seduced by a leviathan, a serpent, a dragon, a masculine siren whose chants have the allure of wale songs and the dirge of jackals. 

Advertisements

Reenactments of death: Kippur, prostration and judgment day

I scribbled this post right after Yom Kippur but then I told myself that all this talk about death was just not too coherent with the happy Sukkot season we were about to enter. Today, when we approach the end of the Tishri frenzy, some shocking and very sad news brought the subject back to my mind: two days ago my graduate-school friend Cantor Jason Goldberg passed away of a sudden heart attack at age 34. May his memory be a blessing.

 

While leading Yom Kippur services this year, I was meditating on what I call the Kippur reenactment of death. This is a very strange holiday, with ancient and a little obscure rituals. If you think about it, the whole idea of Kippur is to play dead. Many of the details prescribed by the ritual correspond to a metaphoric death: like the deceased, on Yom Kippur we wear a white kittel and no leather shoes. All of our attire is white, the color of purity and that of shrouds. Just like the dead, we don’t eat, drink or have sex, all actions that define the quotidian of living beings. We are, in a way, like the angels of Service, spending the whole day in prayer and praise to Ha-Shem.

 

It is not by chance that this day is also named yom ha-din, the Day of Judgment, because that is what we actually enact. Think of U-netane Tokef and its words: this day is full of awe and terrible, a time to come in front of the divine presence. The Book is opened and our destiny is now sealed: who will live and who will die, how exactly will the dead perish, who shall prosper and who shall not. A mighty shofar is blasted, but only a still small voice comes out, calling us to teshuvah. At that time of the day, I can’t avoid thinking of those who are aged or sick. I wonder how many will not be here next year for Kippur. It hurts to imagine that Jason may have had a similar thought when he sung that same dirge-like melody some weeks ago, with his limpid tenor voice, for what would be the last time of his life. Death –and even more when it is untimely and sudden– always falls on us with the cold shine of a knife.

 

One of the strangest aspects of the High Holidays, and particularly of Kippur, is the ritual prostration. Jews do not ordinarily kneel or prostrate when praying but we have this one time when we do. It is a humbling and deeply spiritual experience that –unlike some people think– it is not reserved to clergy. Next year, give it a try and you’ll tell me! I read somewhere that the prostration in itself is another reenactment of death: instead of falling flat at once, we slowly bow down, kneel and move to a full prostration. We are slowly breaking down and dying, falling back to mother earth’s womb. However, we are in front of the King, who has the power to raise the death, so lifne Melekh we suddenly raise back to life, like the earth revives in its cycle of seasons.

 

I am not an anthropologist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the origins of prostration are in fact reenactments of death. Bowing down and prostrating to the sun is probably the oldest form of human worship, as if our ancestors where telling the sun: “ we acknowledge that you are very powerful, that you give life to the plants and that you even can burn us to death if left in the desert for some time; see? just one stare from you and we drop dead!” Since the tribal king –as later the pharaoh– was often a personification of the sun, it comes as no surprise that the ancients begun to bow down to him as well. Many ancient religions –and even modern Islam– have fasts that last only as long as there is daylight. Somehow, maybe they “play dead” so that the solar god don’t see them “alive and eating”.

 

Wherever we look in the Yom Kippur machzor, there are constant reminders of the metaphoric death. There is a Yizkor service, probably the central one in the year. We have a long recitation about Jewish martyrs in history –modernly including those of the Shoah– with very graphic details of their death. A number of times we repeat piyyutim like be-yom din. Finally, there are a number of confessions: remember that the vidui is not only something we recite several times on Yom Kippur but also the prayer we are supposed to say at the time of our death. This text not only permeates the viduim of the Avodah service, but also many other places such as the end of Neilah.

 

And yet, Yom Kippur is a reenactment of death so that we can enjoy another year of life. No matter how we feel, life goes on. By “playing dead” in a way we try to conjure death once again. At the end of Neilah the mighty shofar blasts loud and clear, a sharp contrast with the shofar described in U-netane Tokef, and we respond with relief and with joy, already making plans to celebrate it in Jerusalem, next year. May we all indeed be there to celebrate.

 

Gone with the ruach: dancing with Pentecostal Jews.

Summer is always too short and leaves me yearning for more. Undoubtedly, the spiritual highlight of my summer has been co-leading services at the Nehirim camp with my friend R. David Bauer. There were around 70 adult men of all ages lightning the candles, joyfully singing the kabbalat Shabbat psalms to the sound of drums and other instruments, and welcoming the Bride with dances. Next morning, the genuine fervor and love of the many active participants sitting on the floor of an improvised temple literally moved me to tears. Ruach –the Hebrew word for “spirit,” “wind,” and even “divine breath”– was something very palpable and touching.

 

The following Shabbat I lead services at my home shul. The songs were almost the same and I played pretty much the same music notes. The spirit, however, was different. Feeling the Divine, touching heaven with your two hands was certainly still possible, but it didn’t come as easy. It required an extra kavanah effort to be there, present, receiving the Shabbat. Nobody danced down the aisles or peacefully swayed, their eyes closed. Who knows, maybe it was the pews, the more formal setting. Maybe we all instinctively conformed to what it is expected of a suburban synagogue-goer. In the morning I visited a nearby shul for the first time. The service was more traditional than ours, with no instrumental music. The melodies were familiar but their tempo was a lot slower, in a way that made the song linger forever. Right after the song, the service leader chanted the openings and closings of prayers in a succession that not even me, a quite fast and proficient Hebrew reader, could follow. We “did it all” and it all was smooth and flawless, but I didn’t feel anything spiritually uplifting.

 

That’s why, in my end-of-summer melancholic mood, I ask myself where’s the ruach? We have built magnificent synagogues and created impressive Jewish institutions. We may have learned how to be as reverent as our neighbors, how to mourn and say kaddish, and how to beat our chests on Yom Kippur. However, we have almost forgotten how to dance with the scroll on Simchat Torah; how to sing hallel joyfully; how to act silly on Purim; how to rejoice genuinely on sukkot under the stars; how to welcome the Queen dancing in the woods, like the Kabbalists of Sfad when Lekhah dodi was composed. It is shocking and quite sad to see that we have relegated Purim parties and Shimchat Torah celebrations to our Hebrew schools, with almost no participation of the adults, as if the joy of Judaism was only to be experienced by children.

 

In a way, I would like to daven at some sort of a “Pentecostal shul” with all its joy, ecstasy, clapping, dance and joyful noise. A kind of service that has deep Torah study, but also moments of pure enthusiasm and freilikh. Admittedly, some Jewish denominations are more or less spirit-aware, but I think nobody is yet experiencing truly Pentecostal Judaism or, if you want, Shavuot Judaism, since ultimately the Christian fest of Pentecost is not but a transvaluation of our Shavuot. On Pentecost, Christians celebrate the moment when the spirit miraculously descended on the believers and –so to speak– “energized” them for their mission. On Shavuot we celebrate our joy for the reception of the Torah on Sinai, the precise instant of our covenant with the divine. Among other things, we mark our joy with a strange meeting: the tikkun. We gather for an all-night long session of singing, study, meditation and fellowship.

 

Somehow, my crazy idea of a Pentecostal Judaism is not that far from a Hasidic tish (without idealizing a movement that has its clear downsides). It combines moments of ecstatic singing and dancing with Torah discussion, with calm contemplative nigunim, and with joyful fellowship. I just wonder how can we pack all that and bring it to our shul and to our Shabbat table, how to become uninhibited and genuine as children once more.

 

Now, not everybody relates to spirituality in the same way. In her book Discover your spiritual type, Corine Ware presents four types of persons, four different spiritual identities: mystic, feeling, thinking and visionary. Silent prayer may touch the mystic or contemplative people, while boring other worshipers to tears. Lively music, clapping and dancing connects with the feeling individual, but may bother those who are more cerebral. A deep Torah study moves the thinking type, but may seem spiritually dead to the feeling person. Individuals with a visionary spiritual type will find themselves at home in a service that calls to action or in tikkun olam programs; and, again, some people will think that these events are nice and necessary but not spiritually fulfilling. The last of the services I described at the beginning was probably meaningful for somebody. Probably, in every group there is a predominant spiritual type but, essentially, they all contain people of all types.

 

I think that the point is to ask ourselves: for my own spiritual type, in my own understanding of spirituality, is this service or meeting fulfilling and edifying? What would have to happen for it to be? What’s my next step towards a more fervent, joyful, and meaningful Judaism? How can I get closer to the Divine –she, he, it– and be more fully human, more fully Jewish?

Untimely death of the Hebrew language: in saecula saeculorum le-olam va-ed.

When I was a kid, I thought that my Catholic auntie was a genius: she knew the whole Latin mass by heart. She could pray the rosary without the booklet, all in Latin. Later, when I went to high school and learned some Latin, I realized that, after decades of rote repetition of a text in a language she didn’t understand, my auntie had transformed the prayers in a gibberish in which one could barely recognize some original Latin phrases. Latin is a dead language. You can mistreat it to your heart’s contempt because no native speakers are around to defend it or to laugh at you.

Now, Hebrew is miraculously alive and well. People in Israel speak it everyday, and here in America many non-natives love it and know it pretty well. It is the language most of us use in shul for our prayers and study. Unfortunately, for many it has become a death language, after decades of rote learning of bar mitzah’s haftarot (aka “half-Torahs”), of simplifying our prayer books to their bare bones, of people graduating from (aka checking out of) Jewish education after their benei mitzvah, of cantors and rabbis assuming that Hebrew alienates people from communal Jewish life.

Far from me to try and solve all that at once, but I would like to comment on my particular area of interest: that of Jewish music. Simplification is everywhere, and reaches almost absurd extremes. While on a trip, I was at a shul on Shabbes. At the end of pesukei de-zimra, the congregation sung the so-called “Sufi melody” of Ps. 150 (big, cautious quotation marks there). I often use the same melody when I lead services too, because one can fit all the words of the psalm and yet it is not overly long. However, this shul’s version was quite simplified. They had substituted all the words by two simple phrases, halelu halelu halelu (repeat at will) and the known kol ha-neshamah ending. With all due respect, maybe we are treating people like little kids. In our effort for not alienating people due to Hebrew, we are educating generations that not only don’t know the language, but are not even familiar with how it sounds. Learning all the words of a psalm you sing weekly does not hurt. Congregants will appreciate knowing prayers in Hebrew; it is their heritage, their treasure and birthright. Even if they barely understand them, the sound is there, building identity, creating memories, and awakening people’s curiosity to learn the language eventually.

I have the biggest respect and admiration for my fellow Jewish composers but here’s my friendly advise: please, if you don’t know Hebrew well, other people will be happy to help. There’s no shame on checking with your cantor, rabbi, Hebrew teacher, or Israeli speaker. Admittedly, one in a hundred congregants will realize of your mistakes, but why should you take that risk? Checking your Hebrew text before recording is particularly important. The famous Halelu halelu halelu melody can be found in several CDs. At least in one of them, it breaks my heart to hear so clearly after a long list of mere halelus– “kol han Shema” instead of kol ha-neshamah, again repeated a number of times.

If you are “atem,” then we’re nitzavim; we stand here today and remember the dream; kehilah kedoshah: a nice song of a talented composer that I admire. However, as a linguist, I can’t but label its use of Hebrew as mere diglossia, folklorization, or heraldic use of language: words lose their primary function and are used as mere ornaments. Language is no longer alive, but fossilized and packed for casual consumption. Any person who speaks both English and Hebrew –and probably you have a handful of them sitting in the pews– understands the strange phrase as meaning if you are you then we are standing. Another example: May Shekhinah bless you… ha-Shem panav eleikha is also a beautiful and inspiring song, but it would be so much better if its composer didn’t suppress the verb of the Hebrew phrase, thus rendering it unintelligible.

We should honestly evaluate if writing English lyrics sprinkling Hebrew words instead of salt-and-pepper is doing any good to the musical education of our congregations. Hebrew should impregnate all our congregational life, particularly our music, because it is one of the keys of our survival as a cultural minority.

Welcome to my blog

I really appreciate you dropping by! I decided to start this blog in order to open a dialogue about issues concerning everything Jewish music. In particular, I want to focus on three main subjects, which of course are interrelated:

  • Jewish Music: its history, development, variety, and future. I am very interested on how music and musical memories contribute to the formation of our Jewish identity. In fact, this can be extrapolated to all other collective identities: we live  in a world where we do not only live in two civilizations –as Mordecai Kaplan claimed– but in a multifaceted, complex combination of civilizations and societal ascription that configure us as individuals.
  • Jewish Identity: factors that are (re)shaping the Jewish identity. What is the future of this identity in a changing world.
  • New Technologies: nothing like modern technology has changed the way we deal with music nowadays. It has shaped the way we listen to music, the way we have access to it, the amount of music available; how it is distributed, popularized, and published; how it is created and composed; how we share it within any given human group. New technologies have also reshaped how Judaism –and particularly its music– faces the future.
The title of this blog, Gershayim – גרשיים, has several meanings. It designates a typographical mark in the Hebrew language that serves to indeicate an abbreviation, an acronym, a number, the name of a letter, or even an acrostic (some people call it chikchak, go figure…). To me, this is a metaphor of modernity, the multiple meanings of simplicity. Furthermore, a gershayim is also one of the trop marks we use for Bible cantillation. It is a musical sign in itself, an embellishment formed by ascending and descending notes. Gershayim represents where writing, language, and music meet; where profane and sacred touch.