How it really was!

Just a little bit of levity makes the sermons go down!

A museum worker cleans the floor in front of the paintings ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ by Hans Baldung Grien, the apprentice of German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer, at the Staedel Museum in Frankfurt (photo credit: REUTERS/KAI PFAFFENBACH)
A museum worker cleans the floor in front of the paintings ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ by Hans Baldung Grien, the apprentice of German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer, at the Staedel Museum in Frankfurt
BY NOW you must be sick of all the sermonizing whether sledge-hammered or soft-spoken, sensible or silly, strained or relaxed, boring or challenging.
Let’s take a break from all the solemnity. Just a pinch of levity to make the serious go down.
Here is my favorite sermon story. Once upon a time, in the “Old Country” (the Pale of Settlement where Jews were allowed to live in Russia, 1791- 1917) and in the Jewish shtetls and towns of Eastern Europe, the rabbi was not chosen because of his silver tongue, we are told, but for his knowledge and ability to adjudicate disputes and interpret Halakhah.
He was expected to give two sermons (drashot in Hebrew, droshes in Yiddish) a year: on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the Shabbat preceding Passover.
In one shtetl, the rabbi hated preaching sermons, even if only two. So, on Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he rose before the Torah reading.
A hush fell upon the town synagogue. He straightened his tallit, making sure it was even on both sides. He cleared his throat.
The silence deepened.
“Jews, we must repent!” (Yidn, m’muz tshuveh tuen!) Thus having spoken, he returned to his rabbinic chair on the eastern wall.
Now he had a clear run of over six months! I would imagine, to embellish the original story, before Passover he might say, “Jews, eat matzah!” Or maybe, “Remember no hometz!” That is, get rid of all unleavened bread and products.
I grew up in such a synagogue in my early teens, and the only occasions when there was an exposition of learning rather than a sermon was a hapless bar-mitzvah boy, or a blushing groom-to-be. This had to be in Yiddish and usually was based on some esoteric leap of logic from a scrap of sentence from the portion of the Torah read that Shabbat to a number of Talmudic texts. Often the speakers did not know how to speak, that is they could not be heard further than the first row, leaving the rest of the hundreds of worshippers angry, if interested.
And angrier, if not interested.
The most arresting occasion I experienced was when a younger friend of mine, whose voice had not yet changed and who was red from embarrassment, began to explain a text from the Talmud. The text was, if memory serves me, something about the knot in the phylacteries (tefillin).
By the time the long Torah portion had been read, and the reading from the Prophets (the haftarah) was chanted by the soft-voiced bar-mitzvah boy, stomachs were rumbling.
In the Orthodox world of the mostly Polish immigrants, one did not eat before the morning Shabbat service. No breakfast, just a cup of tea and perhaps a piece of cake.
Then the arresting moment came. Literally. The knotty tefillin presentation in its reedy voice was halted by a “back-bencher,” that is, just an ordinary member of the congregation sitting on the pews closer to the rear exit, who roared out two words. Beard trembling, eyes flashing, the man, hungry and fed up, yelled in our juicy Polish-Yiddish accent, “Shoyn geneeg!” (Enough already!).
That bar-mitzvah boy later became a professor, which proves that people evolve.
The shy can become the preceptors, and we all have potential within us. Now, “enough already” of these third person tales.
This coming incident happened to me.
I was conducting services in a large Conservative synagogue for the High Holidays almost 30 years ao. In advance, while studying the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, I checked my favorite commentator, Avraham Ibn Ezra, who was born in Spain over nine hundred years ago. My favorite because he does not just explain text, but analyzes Bible and then does not shy away from inconsistencies.
Even if you do not believe the Torah is divine but see it as the foundation text of Jewish knowledge and identity, the birth of humanity as told in the Book of Genesis has immense depth.
Chapter III of Genesis relates the tale of Adam, Eve, and the serpent. It is a lovely but somewhat strange story in magnificent Hebrew and with deep psychological insight.
What immediately strikes you is that Adam blames God for committing the sin of eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
A conversation that sounds more or less like this: You gave me a woman, she talked me into this.
The woman says, “Yes, the serpent tempted me.” Well that’s straightforward. Pass the blame along. “I am clean, the other guy did it.” Pretty old tune, isn’t it? At any rate reading Ibn Ezra, and rereading the Biblical text with a more careful and experienced eye, it became clear to me that the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the ability to distinguish between good and bad was intimately interwoven with sex. Again it’s straightforward. Before eating of the fruit, they knew not they were naked. After eating from it, they covered their nudity. Sexual desire is born.
The next chapter begins with Adam “knowing” his wife, that is having sex with Eve (Ibn Ezra uses a rougher term), who becomes pregnant. The word “knew” and the word “knowledge” are obviously the same root in English as they are in Hebrew: yada and da’at. Can a Freudian expert please tell me whether Dr. Sigmund rejoiced or at least recognized the connection? Now, returning to the services, I prepared a sermon about Judaism and human relations, the need to be good and do good, the need for people to try to bring happiness to others and the need for love, for a husband and wife to rejoice in their love. En passant, I mentioned that giving one another sexual pleasure was also part of Jewish values.
Following the service, one female congregant said something like, “Thank you. I hope my husband was paying attention.”
Eventually, I heard they divorced.
I used the word “levity” before, as a leitmotif for this column. There was no levity or lightheartedness in the situation I described.
I referred to it as an example of the validity of the original Biblical insight and its resonance millennia later. In essence, human nature does not change.
A poet who delighted in Bible, in love, and in setting the Biblical tales into a personal “midrash” or commentary blending the ancient and the modern was able to breathe life and sweetness into his writing.
The poet, Itzik Manger, was a brilliant and sensitive soul and in one poem tells his own Adam, Eve and the Snake story of lies, jealousy and love in the rollicking rhythm and rhyme of a ballad. (See below)
Adam the First lies on the grass And spits up at a cloud.
Begs the cloud for mercy: “Adam dear crown, cut it out!” Adam then sticks out his tongue “Cloudy, flowdy, flowdy doo dee.”
And suddenly a flash of spit flies up “That's for you, so there! You see.”
With clumsy hand, the cloud wipes his face, And then growls in furious rage: “When you do nothing all day, you layabout, You can't even act your age.”
Adam the First laughs till it hurts And his white teeth glisten and shine; While coming from apple alley green Mother Eve’s on her way to dine.
“Oh where have you been, O Eve my wife, Where my Eve, my child, mayn kind?” “I was strolling in the alley of the plums, And playing games with the wind.”
“No, you weren't in the alley of plums at all, You deceive me with a lie unfair.
Redolent, your body carries apple scent, Apple fragrance in your sweet hair.”
“What a poor weak memory do I have, ‘Apple alley’ I should have said.
You got it right, O Adam my man, A blessing on your clever head.”
“What were you doing in the alley of apples? Dear Eva, my golden, my slim?” “I passed the time flirting with the snake Empowered by the good deed called Sin!” And the apple trembles in her shivering hand And shimmers in scarlet red fire And the setting sun casts its shade Of death and of human desire.
Adam primordial feverishly burns No way can he grasp his alarm – Why has her voice become sugary sweet And why she’s electric with charm.
With shivery hand he reaches out to her.
– What you’re doing,my man, makes me blush.
The nightfall dark blankets both of them, And then silence and still – all’s hush! The above poem was translated by Avraham Avi-hai from the Yiddish in Itzik Manger, ‘Medresh Itzik’ p. 11-12 (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1984).
The apple as the forbidden fruit is a medieval concept, again showing how Manger enjoyed mixing time frames.