Resurrection Medley

Resurrection Medley lyrics
The words for this chant are drawn from the second blessing of the statutory prayer. Sometimes called the “standing prayer” (Amidah), it is said in practically every synagogue service. A Jew who holds to the practice of  matbea ha-tefilah, of praying within the vessel of prayers “canonized” by the tradition, will say the Amidah three times a day – four times on Shabbat.

General Comments
I have been fascinated with the concept of the resurrection of the dead at least since I studied Ancient Judaism with my beloved teacher, Professor Shaye Cohen, at The Jewish Theological Seminary. What Shaye made clear was that this notion of resurrection emerged in the days of early Judaism. In other words, resurrection – and specifically, resurrection of the  body – is a completely Jewish idea, which Christianity subsumed into itself fully cooked. It has remained a fundamental belief in Judaism (it is the final of Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith, though he does not expound upon it). But, over time, many Jews have sought to distance themselves from the notion of resurrection.

This was especially the case for the 19th century Reformers. When they set about to adapt the prayerbook to make it more “modern,” resurrection of the dead was a concept which fell off the cutting board. It contained for them the notion of afterlife, which did not fit well with their idea of Judaism being a  this worldly religion, a religion of Reason and action. So, in the second blessing of the Amidah, they decided to change the term from  mechayyei hameitim (Who resurrects the dead) to  mechayyei et ha-kol (Who enlivens  everything). Later, the Reconstrucionist liturgists altered this expression yet again to  mechayyei kol chai (Who enlivens all that lives). I suppose these latter sought to make a distinction between inanimate matter and living beings, whether these be plants, animals, humans or – perhaps – even divine beings. (By the way, there were many historical precedents in the Jewish tradtion for both of these choices.)

Obviously, I prefer to chant the traditional words:  mechayyei hameitim and not to use the modern replacements. I feel that both the Reform and Reconstructionist versions of the blessing miss the point, even though their language does succeed in some ways. For, God is precisely that which enlivens everything. God is Life itself. As Maimonides himself would say: Take God away and nothing else is; everything instantly disappears. But, if you remove all being from the created order, God still remains. In the words of the sages:  God is the place of the world; the world is not the place of God. Further than this: God takes that which would otherwise be ‘dead’ – matter, and breathes life into it.

To go in a different direction momentarily. I have spoken about Kirtan as call-and-response chant, about its repetition, and about one of the necessary constituents of successful Kirtan being its  leela, its sense of (divine) play. Another fundamental characteristic of Kirtan lies in  whatwhat one tends to chant – over and over again, namely, the  names of God. How would this work in Judaism? What can we call a “name” of God within Judaism? Of course, we have the  shem ha-meforash (the ineffable, four letter name of God); we have other designations such as,El, Elohim,  Hamakom, and many variations. And this is barely to mention using Kabbalistic aspects of the Godhead, hypostasizations of God in the  sefirot, as plug-ins for God’s Name. (See my version of the  Shema on  Kirtan Rabbi: Live!)

To jump to the point: I would argue that a phrase like,  mechayyei hameitim, is also a name of God.

I especially believe this to be the case, because the form of this kind of phrase is a  gerund, it is an  -ing word. Hebrew – especially biblical Hebrew – does not really have tenses in the modern sense of the word. As opposed to, say, the more static ancient Greek language, Hebrew is dynamic; it indicates processes and movement. One gets very little plastic imagery from the Hebrew Bible; but feelings, actions and movement abound. As the title of Rabbi David Cooper’s book declares,  God is a Verb.

A humorous anecdote. A longtime ago, in a different incarnation (pun intended), I was a nursery school teacher. I was very young, just out of college, and inexperienced. I did not carry great authority with the four year olds, as an obviously green teacher’s assistant. It was hard to get them to listen to me. I would say, “sit down!” – and nothing would happen. Then I would try, “Let’s sit down!” Again, nothing. Finally, after much failure and for no apparent reason, I blurted out: “Sitting down…” Boom! They all sat down.

Clearly, there is great power in the verb, and especially in the gerund form. So,  mechayyei hameitim, now understood as “resurrecting the dead,” should in my opinion be recognized as a name of God. So should other formulations, such as  shomea tefillah (hearing prayer)… and many more.

I would go further and say that  mechayyei hameitim is not just  a name of God, but perhaps  the Name of God. For, making alive that which would otherwise be dead – this flesh, this matter – might be God’s essential activity.

More on the language of this chant
I open up the chant with a wistful solo on three other phrases, linked together in the second blessing of the Amidah, which I also consider to be Divine Names:  someich noflim, ve-rofei cholim, u-matir asurim: “supporting the fallen, healing the sick, and freeing that which is bound.” Sometimes, during a Kirtan when teaching this chant, I will quote my cousin, Professor Menachem Schmelzer of JTS. He loved to turn to all the therapists at his Shabbat table (of which there were many) and say: “someich noflim, ve-rofei cholim, u-matir asurim – that’s your job!”

In that spirit, we should view this phrase as a call for  imatio dei, for us to imitate God. Just as God lifts the fallen, heals the sick and frees the bound, so should we! Indeed, if God has breathed life into us to live in this world, this is what God most of all calls upon us, therapists or no, to do.

Finally, what I have said up to this point, should help us understand the language of the sixth track. I chose to add this for reasons I no longer remember. But it supports and underlines the rest of the blessing.  U-m’kayyeim emunato li-shenei afar: “God establishes God’s faithfulness” – good enough for King James, good enough for me – “yay unto those who sleep in dust.” Even those of us who live in illusion and walk about as if asleep; even to us, is God true and faithful. For this, we can say Halleluyah! (And also make the blessing into a rock and roll song!)