February

2014

Chip Taylor wrote a song in the early sixties that was picked up and covered by the English band “The Troggs” in 1966. In July of 1966, “Wild Thing” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Since then, the song has been ranked #257 on the Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Whew, that is a basketful of accolades for a simple melody that is quite repetitious. Even so, the line that has stuck with me over the decades is from the concluding stanza: “Wild Thing – you move me.”

As a young child listening to this song, I recognized that the verb “move” was used in a way that I was not taught in school. I had not heard the cliché “moved to tears” yet and even when I did connect the two phrases later, there was a cognitive disconnect. “Wild Thing” was a deliciously happy song about visceral romantic love and was the opposite of crying. Or so I thought.

The curiosities of youth become the puzzles of adulthood. With experience one learns that profound love can move one to tears. Whether it is tears at the birth of a child, a wedding, at a moment of success or graduation, or even a milestone anniversary, tears are symbol of the great capacity of the human soul. When a couple stands on the bimah for an anniversary blessing, the held hands and the kiss are often accompanied by tears – and all are moved. Now I understand what Chip Taylor touched upon with his simple lyrics.

We all seek to be moved. However, tears and weeping are usually bound up with the terrible emotions of loss and suffering, especially in the Jewish world. These tears come to us, we do not seek them out. Our tradition is fundamentally concerned with being moved though, by spirit and by emotion. An early story of Rabbi Akiba reminds us that being moved to tears, while profound, can be of the greatest joy.

“Rabbi Akiva sat weeping on the Sabbath. His disciples said: ‘Our master you taught us, “Call the Shabbat a delight’” (Isaiah 58:13). Rabbi Akiva replied, ‘This is my delight.’”

May we all be so moved.

 

2011

A pundit recently wrote that a national politician can no longer recite John F. Kennedy’s famous quote, “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”, and be taken seriously. The nation is in dangerous waters and it is “every man for himself” so it seems. The point is not resurgent selfishness per se, but the typical response of fear to the economic and social afflictions of the day. The unthinking drive of many is to hold on to every last penny, giving as little as possible for the common good, because these are unsettled times. The new fashion is to be parsimonious.

In a world where people do not affiliate with community groups, from houses of worship to bowling leagues, this singular calculus makes perfect sense. The only responsibility a person has is to look out for oneself. The equation is easy when one is not beholden to others, or any cause, persuasion, ideology or theology. Having “Me first” as a guiding principle makes a very simple equation of one plus no others equals one.

Our society is a competition of many ideas and philosophies from saintly to avaricious and from selfless to penurious along with everything in between. The fashion of the moment is not frugality but stinginess. Up to twenty million are unemployed – from them we hear frugality and penny-pinching. Those who preach tightfistedness the loudest have the means but no desire to share.

My argument is not about those who are conservative in their spending. My ire is directed towards those believe that it is a virtue not to contribute and a right denied if they are forced to pay into the kitty for the common good.

 

2010

In our Western minded/Euro-centric view of the Jewish world, many places of important Jewish history are overlooked and ignored. One of the most vibrant and thriving Jewish communities from Second Temple times through the Middle Ages was in Yemen, on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Today Yemen is known as the latest redoubt of Al Qaeda, a rugged, backward land of tribal warfare and blatant violence. Yet there was a time when Yemen was a jewel of civilization in the known world, an important waypoint for traffic to and from the eastern Horn of Africa. At this time the Jews flourished.

Despite myths and unverifiable traditions, the first confirmed Jewish migration to Yemen was in the 100’s BCE.

In the first five centuries of the Common Era, scholars estimate that 3000 Jews lived in Yemen at any given time. In the 400’s, Judaism was practiced in the royal palace. The real troubles for the Yemini Jews began when Saladin became Caliph in Cairo in the 1100’s and began sorties into Yemen. At the beginning of the 1900’s, there were 30,000 Jews concentrated in specific areas in Yemen and all were impoverished. Almost all of the remnants of this great community were airlifted to Israel in 1950 by Operation Magic Carpet. Eighty Jews remain in a compound in the capitol city, Sa’ana, today.

One of the great Yemeni scholars, Natan-el ben YaSha’ya, wrote his philosophy text, Nur Al-Zalâm, in the early 1300’s. He was a highly educated man whose contacts with the greater world stretched from Iran in the east with its rising Shiite tradition to Maimonides to the north in Cairo, Egypt. I can give you a small taste of his brilliance.

When seeking a reconciliation between Biblical theology and modern science (well, his version of modern science, which included medicine, optics, Greek philosophy, and algebra), his statement on the subject was elegant and still has resonance today.

He said: “Know that the sciences were hidden and difficult, and they were not laid out in books. So when God wished to bring Israel to perfection quickly and easily, He showed them the shape of the world by means of a sensible structure. This was so that they could learn from the smaller, sensible world about the greater, unknown world. In this way they were aroused to the perception of the sciences in the shortest time and by the easiest course.”

An explanation: Natan-el ben YaSha’ya states as a fact that science is not found in the Bible. For his time and place, that statement alone is innovative and dangerous. He goes further, arguing that the absence of science is deliberate as God wanted people to understand the Creation with their five senses (“sensible” refers to knowledge understood through the senses) first, and only afterwards use their intellect to study the greater nature of the construction of the Creation. Even if his argument is difficult to follow, his statement is astounding: science doesn’t belong in the Bible but science belongs in the Creation. God created science and religious people should study it to learn the greater nature of God’s universe.

This is a true snapshot of the nobility of this ancient Jewish outpost of civilization. Nur Al- Zalâm is a dangerous text in a fundamentalist world, in an Islamic state no less. Even more, how many writings from the 1300’s have insights that are still relevant to the current debates of our day?

These ancient cousins have vanished yet their words still inspire and engage our Jewish world. May our own words be endowed with such power.

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