Medley: Forming Light, Making Peace

These three tunes strung together were originally meant to be one long track, until the engineer forbade it. They were performed as a continuous medley, linked by drones and thematically. I invite the listener to figure out the theological progression represented in this medley!

YotzerOr Hebrew

This chant is drawn from the prayerbook where it occurs as part of the morning service. The text is itself a rabbinic alteration of Isaiah 45:7. In Isaiah, the text reads exactly the same except for the last two words which the prophet renders u-vorei ra, creating “evil” or badness. Isaiah then continues, “I, YHWH, make all these.”

What was Isaiah up to? Well, this is a bit complicated and requires what we call an intra-textual reading of the Bible. That’s a fancy way of saying that some parts of the Hebrew Bible are aware of the statements of other parts and then proceed to comment on them. (This reading is largely dependent upon the teachings of Moshe Weinfeld.)

When he uttered this statement, Isaiah was prophesying among the exiles from the Jerusalem and Judah in Babylonia. There, the Israelites came under the influence of Zorastrianism, a religious outlook which depicts, essentially, two Gods or principles: A God of evil, and a God of good. These two Gods are equal and co-eternal, meaning they have existed and will exist always, side-by-side, in contention. One my wonderful teachers, Yochanan Muffs, once pointed out to us that this dualist reading of God into two Gods constitutes, perhaps, the most coherent explanation as to why there’s evil in the world. There’s a good God pushing for the Good; and an evil God doing the same for the Bad.

In any case, the Israelites in Babylonia, who had just suffered the horrible catastrophe of having their temple (God’s temple!) destroyed and being thrown into exile “by the rivers of Babylon,” had much evil to explain. What they probably did was read the original verses at the beginning of the Bible in the light of Zorastrianism. In the second verse of the first chapter of Genesis, the earth is described as being in a certain chaotic condition: one of void and chaos, darkness, watery abysses, etc. In short, the Israelites — or so the guesswork goes — were now understanding this verse to mean that at the beginning there existed a God of chthonic elements, a God of evil. It was owing to this evil God that they now found themselves without a Temple and removed from their land.

Isaiah would have none of this. Considered, especially in these chapters, to be the strongest advocate of “biblical monotheism” in the Hebrew Scripture, Isaiah wanted to make it clear that there was only one God. Thus, in 45:7, he not only says that God is responsible for darkness and evil; he uses the stronger creation verb, bara with regards to these elements and weaker, shaping and forming verbs in reference to light and peace. So, and accurate translation of Isaiah 45:7 would be:

Forming light, but creating darkness,
Making peace, but creating evil!

Thus, Isaiah is trying to say, there is only one God, this God is responsible for everything, and — to make that extra clear — God is the cause of that which we, in our limited understanding, see as negative and evil. There is no second or other God.

But these are not the words which we chant in our kirtan. Why not? Because, the ancient rabbis changed the words! They did this for perhaps two reasons. First, there is a principle that one try not to pray a complete biblical verse, but rather alter it. But, more compelling is the fact that our sages were likely at least as uncomfortable with Isaiah’s words as we are today. So, they changed them, while still maintaining the spirit of Isaiah’s theology. So, now we chant “creating everything” at the end — a much more pleasant idea.

It is significant that the ancient rabbis could aggregate to themselves the power to change texts which did not suit their sensitivities. In this way, they were very much “Reform” Jews. I mean this humorously, because it is actually they who transformed the Israelite religion which perhaps reached its apex in Isaiah into a living Judaism based on prayer, charity, and acts of loving kindness. We, too, are in a position to re-value that which we have inherited to make it fit both the world we live in as well as our evolving ethical outlook. Part of this, may include a desire to see the multi-faceted aspects of the One God, as we chant names to Him… and to Her!

The tune for this mantra was created on the spot for a Hanukkah Kirtan held at Yoga on Main in Philadelphia.

Midot Hebrew

I won’t say too much to this mantra. This is taken from the prayerbook and, in turn, from the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 34:6). I have taken a few of what are called the attributes of God, or God’s characteristics.

The passage in Exodus follows upon Moses’ famous request that God show him God’s face. God replies that Moses could not bear it (Bob Dylan: “No man sees my face and lives). Instead, God says that God will pass by and show Moses his back side. In the original, I believe — and I’m probably out on a limb here — that this is one of the few bonified jokes in the Bible. Moses asks to see God’s face, and God answers, “you’re barely worthy of seeing my backside!” Maimonides, the great Medieval Jewish philosopher, understood backside to mean, that which came after, in other words, that which God causes, hence the attributes of God.

In keeping with the nature of kirtan, I consider these attributes to be genuine names of God. As you see, the attributes which we chant here emphasize God’s love for the world. God’s patience and truth.

There is much more that I could say to this, of even greater nuance, but for that you’ll have to take a class!

I do not know when, where or how I came up with this tune for the mantra.

Salaam Hebrew

This one’s a cover. It is based on one of the most famous and beloved songs to come out of modern Israel. It has attained what we call “from Sinai” status, which means that it is so much a part of our being now that it is as if God gave it to us at Sinai. Usually, this can also mean that a folksong like this one has lost its authorship. In this case, the song was originally introduced by Mosh ben Ari quite a while back. It has been performed and recorded endlessly and is a constant standby in prayer services. It is a wish for a time when peace will reign on earth, especially between Jews and Muslims — which is surely why the word Salaam figures so prominently in it and gives the song its title. We often choose to add the word Shanti, to acknowledge that peace should also come between Hindus and Muslims. My few spoken words at the end (on the CD) — כן יהי רצון (ken yehi ratzon — were unplanned. They translate to mean, “May it be (God’s) Will.”