Friday, January 29, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Beshallakh 5770 – War Chants

Here it is, Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, and I am deeply troubled by the roots of music in the holy texts of our tradition. Both the parasha and the haftarah  contain songs (or poems, or whatever  you wish to call them) that celebrate victory achieved through the deaths of “the other.”

The poetry is stunning – lyrical in its original Hebrew, and full of great poetic imagery. That is, if you can stand imagery of horses and riders being thrown to their drowning deaths.

Moses and the men engage in a long, structured, stylistic celebratory war chant, that which we called the Shirat HaYam, the song of the sea. Many like to point to the shorter, succinct chant of Miriam and the women as being older (and perhaps superior.) That is, if superior to you still involves

Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

There’s a pretty picture…NOT.

The roots of Jewish song are in celebrations of military victories involving crushing defeats of the enemy? I’m not so thrilled about that.

It doesn’t end there. Think of all the Hanukkah songs, Purim songs, and more that similarly celebrate good endings for us at the price of bad endings for others.

Now admittedly, Jewish music has come a long way since Ashira L’Ad*nai ki ga-o ga-ah, Mi Khamokha, and the rest. Still, we have Zionist hymns, Israeli songs of war (and peace) and others that continue the trend. Sure, there are plenty of songs about peace, pursuing peace, and the general sentiment nowadays seems generally less militaristic. Maybe we’ve realized the futility of writing celebratory war songs in an age when war could very well mean the end of everything. (As Tom Lehrer says in his introduction to “So Long Mom, ” “if we’re going to start writing any WW3 songs, we’d better start writing them now.”

Yet what is it that millions of Jews around the world will hear in synagogue this Shabbat? A war chant. A fight song. A victory celebration. This year, I’m having a hard time getting all psyched up about Shabbat Shirah because I just can’t get past what the “shirah” part actually says. How about you?

It also being Tu B’shevat is a wonderful confluence of events. We can take heart that, in the midst of besieging an enemy, we are not to cut down their trees. Gee, isn’t that sort of like saying we’ll still keep enemy combatants prisoner, we just won’t torture them in ways that violate the Geneva Conventions anymore?

Here I am, faithful redeemer of so-called irredeemable texts, unable, this year, to redeem some core texts.  Is there anything truly redeemable in Shirat Hayam or Devorah and Barak’s song, when taken in context with the whole (and not conveniently out of context0)? Help me out here.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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