Thursday, December 24, 2009

Not a Deaf Ear on the Blind Night

As many of you may know, friends, tonight the Christians celebrate the commemoration of the birth of their Deity; Christmas. For the moment I'm not quite interested in discussing Christmas itself, though I admit it's an interesting topic, especially for those of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition.

Though traditionally Christmas has never quite been a rosy time for the Jews, most Jews today seem to celebrate Christmas in one way or another. From going to Christmas eve concerts to reveling in Christmas carols to Chasidic "Shalishsudis"s with Coca Cola bottles that have an absurdly out of place picture of an overly-merry, red-cheeked Santa on the wrapper.

My own form of involvement in this holiday is the aforementioned Christmas carol binges. It should be stated though that the idea of listening to and taking pleasure in songs sung for the glory of a foreign Deity is at least somewhat questionable from a halachic perspective. Yet it's essentially not a question of Christmas songs themselves, but of the music specific to any religion outside of our own, especially those with Pagan leanings. The "G-d of Israel" is in fact known to be very concerned about proper theology, but is there any room for lenience for songs of this nature?

Now, I can't go into the actual halachic specifics of the topic, but suffice it to say that I am generally lenient on religious songs of other monotheistic traditions as long as there is no mention of explicitly polytheistic ideas, even if the the premise of the entire religion is semi-polytheistic. This lenience, in my opinion, is very Maimonidean in origin. He was a proponent of an unprecedented amount of theological inclusion and acceptance.

As you may have noticed, I included some of the Christmas songs I'm fond of on the sidebar. I thought the red color would be amusing, but the truth is I myself find it to be of objectionable taste. Nonetheless, I wish to say a few words about some of these songs separately:

1) The Little Drummer Boy: The first song I wish to mention is this pleasant little tune written early in the previous century by the lovely American composer Katherine Davis. This song, I feel, more than the other Christmas songs, is not only evocative of the most sublime Jewish ideals, but in a strong sense are more typical of Chasidic ideas. For those who are not aware, the song is a narrative of a boy who is stuck in the predicament of having to greet the king, whom everyone else is bestowing lavish gifts to, with nothing but his drum. When his turn comes to greet the monarch, he decides that his best option is to play his drum as best he can, which ultimately finds favor with the king. The meaning of the parable is obvious; the object of Divine service is not "how much" we have to offer G-d, but to be fully sincere with what we actually do. As it says in Avot: אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמיים.

There is a well known Chasidic tale told about Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer of Medzibizh that bears a great similarity to this: during the Yom Kippur prayers the "Baal Shem" refused to continue because he felt that there was something impeding their prayers. At that moment an unlearned village boy entered and played his flute as a form of prayer, not knowing that such performance is prohibited on the holy day. Yet instead of criticize this boy, the Baal Shem Tov exclaimed that is was this boys absence that was impeding their prayers, and with this performance they can rest assured their payers are reaching heaven's gates.

2) It Came Upon a Midnight Clear: While obviously discussing Christmas, this nineteenth century melody, written by Edmund Sears has no direct reference to Pagan G-ds (probably having something something to do with his being a Unitarian minister). Although this song was written partly as a melancholy critique of his overly materialistic society, it embodies a lot of the positive aspects of Christmas's current form, the main one being to increase in friendliness as the world becomes more desolate (as Christmas takes place in the dead of the winter). The song also beautifully contrasts the mundanity of life with the spiritual ecstasy of the angels, and ends with a yearning for the era of the Redemption.

3) O Come O Come Emmanuel: A metrical version of one of the Antiphons, the hymn was translated into English by John Mason Neale, again, in the nineteenth century. Although the song refers to the Christian god and is directed to him, from a non-Christian standpoint the song is simply about G-d, Israel and the coming Redemption. It's a prayer to and about the Jewish Messiah, to come and save Israel from it's plight in the exile. Essentially the song has surprisingly Jewish themes (aside from the whole "son of god" thing!), the last line for example reads "Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height, In ancient times did'st give the Law, In cloud, and majesty and awe. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel. Shall come to thee, O Israel".

4) Carol of the Bells: Translated from Mykola Leontovych's Ukrainian. The significance of this song is more melodical that lyrical, but again, just the idea that people should be kinder at the height of the winter and not miserable is a legitimate idea.

[The title of this post by the way, is based on a now obsolete Eastern European Jewish term for Chistmas, "בלינדע נאַכט" (Blind Night), now replaced by the more common "ניטל נאַכט".]

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