Foreign prophets, foreign songs

Two summers ago, here at Kutz, a girls’ cabin led services one day. As we all entered the tron, they were standing at the front singing and clapping their hands. The song goes like this:

Lord, prepare me

To be a sanctuary

Pure and holy

Tried and true

With thanksgiving

I’ll be a living

Sanctuary for you

It’s a nice song. The message is fairly basic and unobjectionable. The tune is catchy and sounds slightly gospel. I like it. Since then, I’ve also heard a variation that incoporates a quote from Torah, “V’asu li Mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham” (“Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst you”). I like that version even better. When people found out that this verse of song is actually part of a larger song from the wonderful world on contemporary Christian music, they went nuts. The rest of the song is not explicitly Jesus-centric or anything like that, though it does sound very Christian, talking about being led away from temptation. (Of course one could argeu that that’s our topic also, but that we’ve left by the wayside because Christians speak so much about it.)

All week, we were hearing about how upset people were about the use of this songs in a Jewish service. This week also happened to be the week of Parashat Balak. Balak, aside from being one of my absolute favorite Torah portions, details the story of Bilam, a foreign prophet of God hired by a Moabite king, Balak, to ride out to the Israelity encampment and curse them. When he goes to curse them, God changes the words in his mouth into a blessing and out comes a poem of blessing. The first line is familiar to us because it now appears in every morning service: “Mah tovu ohalecha, Ya’akov mishk’notecha, Yisra’el!” (“How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!”)

This coincidence gets even better. Not only did we have an uproar on camp about the use of a non-Jewish song in services coincide with a Torah portion including a foreign prophet’s song that we know use in services, not only did I notice this wonderful coincidence, but I was scheduled to deliver the d’var Torah that week. You can imagine what I spoke about that Shabat morning.

My point was that if we can take a poem uttered with the intent to curse us and make it into a regular part of a service, we can handle one verse of totally unobjectionable Christian song.

In retrospect, I’m not sure that I was right. I was given the chance to revisit this story this week. Friday evening services were led this week, beautifully, by the songleading major taught by Caryn Roman and Jesse Paikin. They began with “Lord prepare me.” If you’re paying attention, you know that this last Shabat was Shabat Balak once again. You can imagine what was on my mind during services that evening.

I got to thinking not just about this particular issue, but about one of the the popular tunes for Psalm 150, which is actually a Sufi melody (Alah hu, Alah hu, Alah hu, etc.) I thought about the Phish song “Wading in the Velvet Sea” and the Bob Marley song “Redemption Song.” In my four summers at Kutz, I’ve heard both used as tunes for Mi Chamocha. I thought about a half-dozen other secular and non-Jewish melodies used in services. And I wonder if it’s okay.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the melody itself is not the issue. It’s the text. We have the entire Tanach, two Talmuds, and about eight million other Jewish texts out there to choose from. I wonder if we need to go to other traditions to find what we want to say. I wonder if we can’t find it somewhere in one of our own texts.


8 responses to “Foreign prophets, foreign songs

  1. Since the time of the Maccabees, Jews have been picking things up from the surrounding culture. After a generation or two, it becomes our own tradition. While I can understand the psychological discomfort of realizing that “Lord prepare me” was written as a Christian song, I think that if it fits our tenets, we should be free to use it. I experience a similar discomfort (but in reverse) during High Holiday services when I hear Isaiah being read and my mind provides Handel’s tune from the Messiah. I would hate for progressive Judaism to become insular for fear of picking up cultural contaminants.

  2. What comes around, goes around.

    I was a senior in high school when I was first confronted with this issue. I was teaching Hebrew in a Reform congregation, a new and unfamiliar environment for me, and my supervisor asked me to write a couple of songs for the faculty Chanukah party. I dutifully complied, only to be told that my effort had met with some consternation in the education director’s office — what would The Rabbi (caps intentional) think about my having used a Christmas melody? Well, courage prevailed, and as it happened, Rabbi Brickner loved it. Sixty years later, I still remember my lyric (music for the Christmas melody by Irving Berlin) —
    I’m dreaming of a green eretz
    Just like King David used to know–
    Where the Negev’s bloom
    Dispels the gloom
    That started two thousand years ago —
    I’m dreaming of a green eretz
    With every candle that I light….

    It should be noted that the Chanukah in question was after the UN decision to partition Palestine, but prior to the actual establishment of the state, and it should also be noted that Rabbi Barnett Brickner z”l was a dedicated and prominent Zionist when that was far from a mainstream position in the Reform movement.

    And having raised a Zionist theme, let me also remind the kahal that Hatikvah is set to a Czech folk melody (also immortalized in Smetana’s Moldau).

    So to those who objected to the use of a gospel melody, I can only say, Get a life.

  3. …..I don’t think the melody is the problem.

    I see the problem as theological, and not about quoting a verse or acknowledging the admirable sentiments of another religion. The Christian concept of “being a sanctuary” speaks directly to the faith vs works dichotomy, one of the fundamental divides between Christianity and Judaism.

    Judaism does not happen inside one’s self, in isolation. The personal relationship with God, beloved of Christianity, is not, however admirable, a Jewish idea. Our God says “build me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you,” that “you” being plural. it’s more like “build me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you folks.” Judaism is not about feelings, it’s about actions. Christianity is about faith and belief. Jews are not allowed to be solipsistic in our communication with the almighty.

    The idea of the Temple being embodied by the individual is a Paulinist idea, created particularly to refute Jewish ritual practice. The original quote, I believe is, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 in which Paul wrote the following: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” He uses the idea of the Temple to turn the idea of Temple sacrifice and ritual on its head.

    Paul’s ideas are quite clever, playing on quotes from Tanach and showing them to be the opposite of the way that Jews read them. Paul created the successful version of Christianity by showing Gentile that they did not have to become Jews to join this group, (a daunting proposition,) as suggested by James, but that the Jews were doing it all wrong, and that to be a Christian, one should see Jewish worship of God as anathema.

    Emily Katcher

  4. Right on, as usual, Emily!

    All, I’m not proposing by any means that it is immoral to take a Reggae tune or a jam band tune and make a new Mi Chamocha tune out of it. I’m merely question if we can’t come up with some of our own text for the tune that we like.

    I’m uncomfortable when Redemption song replaces Mi Chamocha, but I love that we can honor the topic that the author wrote the song about and honor our liturgy by putting the words of Mi Chamocha to the tune of Redemption song.

    It’s a question of whether we’re willing to say, “Well, our tradition speaks volumes on the topic of freedom, but nothing quite says freedom like a little Bob Marley.” It’s about having pride in the extent of our own textual tradition rather than defering to outside sources to say something we’ve already said perfectly well for ourselves.

    Jenn, Emily, Larry, thanks for the comments.

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