Thursday, September 12, 2013

“When they said Repent, I Wonder what they Meant": An Alternative Playlist for Yom Kippur

One of Jewish music’s most venerable traditions is that of borrowing love songs from popular culture and re-positioning them in a religious context. Yisrael Najara took Turkish love songs from the alleys of Damascus and Gaza and set them to holy words. Yehuda haLevi borrowed the imagery of Saharan shepherds and used them to describe the longing of the forsaken Jewish people. It is told of Rabbi Ovadiya Yosef that he can only write his halakhic responsa if Umm Kulthum is playing in the background. All is fair when trying to open up the heart…

As Yom Kippur comes round the bend each year, I find myself searching for an alternative playlist of songs to supplement the traditional ones, hoping to crack open my cynical heart with a surprising connection or two. As a gift for the new year, here is my list this year. While a random selection at best, it seems each song includes its own answer to Leonard Cohen’s immutable question:

Pay Me or Go to Jail!
Bruce Springsteen | Pay Me My Money Down

“Repentance” is the Latin term often used for the Hebrew word “Teshuva”. They actually mean vastly different things. In the metaphor of repentance, atonement is achieved by paying back. Our sins are debts, accrued throughout year. As the New Year approaches, our debtor demands of us: “Pay me my money down!” On Yom Kippur – unable to repay all our bad deeds – we admit bankruptcy and request a bailout from the powers that be: another year of life.

I'll find my way back to you / If you'll be waiting
 “Teshuva” on the other hand, means returning. It has nothing to do with the financial – it is wholly spatial. Sin is distance – from truth, from God, from ourselves. The distance is understandable; a logical outcome of a year of journeys. What is required now is a return. Luckily the Jewish people have a promise: No matter where they leave to, God will be waiting for their return. Tracy Chapman promises the same, and her words could easily be a stand-in for a Later Prophet or a Medieval Spanish Jewish poet singing about God and the Jewish people, recalling that old love affair one more time…

If you go, who will embrace me like that?
Yom Kippur is the day of closeness, the day in which the High Priest enters the innermost sanctum, the most intimate place in the Temple. Yet the moments of intimacy also raise the anxiety – what happens if you leave? How will I handle being alone again? We recall what happened with the Temple in the end… The Israeli Idan Raichel memorialized this felling most poignantly in his Hebrew song, “Im Telech - If you go”:
If you go / who will hug me like that / who will me hear at the end of the day
who will comfort and soothe / only you know.
In our new “theological” context, one can wonder: who has a deeper anxiety about being left alone – man or God? Rationalists might not like that questions, but Kabbalists, Hasidim and Heschelians have been asking it for years…

My Entire Body: Take One
A moment before Kol Nidrei, Sephardic Jews will recite an erotic poem of deep desire: “To You My God, is My Desire” by Avraham Ibn Ezra.:
To you my God is my desire / in you is my pleasure and my love
to you is my heart and my kidneys / to you is my spirit and my soul
One by one they will mention each of their limbs and organs, reiterating how much they all aspire, desire and long for God’s proximity.
At the same time, traditional Ashkenazi Jews will also be mumbling about their limbs and organs. But in the Ashkenazi version, called “Tefillah Zakah”, it is to decry how each limb has sinned this year, how each organ has betrayed the Lord. Of these two alternatives, despite my European roots, the Sephardic embrace of life and desire is the gate through which I hope to enter Yom Kippur this year.

My Entire Body: Take Two
Here is a third alternative, rebellious and heretical, but life affirming in a way that is reminiscent of the lust for life of the High Holiday poetry. In Nina Simone’s version of this “Hair” classic, there is a deep spirituality to the freedom of the body. Some might find that freedom in a release from religion. I find it by reclaiming the divine roots of life, seeking freedom from the way society and corporations try to define my body for me. Either way, the cry of life is the basic cry of Yom Kippur: “I’ve Got Life!”, “Seal us in the Book of Life!”

May we be sealed in the Book of Life,