Sunday, September 2, 2018

Bible and Hip-Hop Meet, John McCain's Passing, What Fox News Can Do To Your Thinking and My Annual Moby Dick Story

Luke 23:34 and Some Hip-Hop

Hey, I’m Jewish but that doesn’t stop me from addressing Christians, particularly Evangelicals, with a bit of New Testament gospel.  Luke 23:34 portrays the dying Jesus as asking God to take it easy on those who crucified him and were drawing lots over his garments.  “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,” were His final words according to Luke.  The same plea might be made today for those voters and elected officials who vote against what is morally correct and continue to support a leader whose deeds show that he is without personal nor political ethics.  “They know not what they do.”  But over two thousand years later it’s clear that it’s not that simple.

Hip-Hop artist Lauryn Hill addressed this question by singing these *lyrics twenty years ago.  They are pertinent today, and not only in matters of racism and personal relationships. I didn’t have a problem understanding them, but if you do, I include my ‘translation’ in red where necessary:

“Them not (they don’t) know what them (they) do
Big out to yi
(they desert you) while I'm stickin' like glue
Fling skin grin
(they smile falsely) while them (they’re) plotting for (against you), true!
Forgive them father for they know not what they do
Me nah tellin' them no more
(I’m through telling this to them)
Forgive them father for they know not what they do
Be real, them not
(they don’t have) a clue!
Beware the false motives of others
Be careful of those who pretend to be brothers
And you never suppose
(suspect) it's those who are closest to you
To you
They say all the right things, to gain their position
Then use your kindness
(support) as their ammunition
To shoot you down in the name of ambition, they do
(yes, yes)
Forgive them…”
 *From her record-breaking album, “The Miseducation of Lauren Hill,” produced in 1998, and which sold 20 million copies worldwide!

Jack Lippman

John McCain

The death of Senator John McCain produced a combination of mourning his passing and celebrating his life.  Politics were shunted aside as America recognized the death of a man whose hallmark was courage, manifested in the face of five years in a Viet Cong prison and later, living up to his reputation as a “maverick,” sometimes opposing the direction in which his Party was being directed.

The absence of the President of the United States from the ceremonies of the past few days was quite appropriate and in character.  His presence there would have been a vile intrusion.

Thoughts After Watching Fox News

I’ve been taking my own advice and watching more and more of Fox News lately.  I do this when there is a commercial break on CNN or MSNBC.  If what Fox is broadcasting holds my interest, I stick with them for a while. 

One of their attractions are the short skirts and crossed lags their female panelists display, a leftover from the Roger Ailes days which I am sure is intentional.  Also, I have never seen a flat-chested female panelist on Fox!  Check them out!

Anyhow, I’ve noted a drift away from their usual content which consisted of praise for what they see as the President’s tremendous accomplishments in the fields of job creation, tax relief, immigration reform and international trade. They are now shifting into a “circle the wagons” defensive stance, attempting to discredit any threats to the presidency. 

According to what I see on Fox, it’s the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Mueller investigation, the media, the courts and of course the sources of information upon which they base their actions that should be investigated!  The President is like someone who always meticulously washes his hands when he leaves a restroom.  No one is ever going to detect anything dirty on him.  With this in mind, and this seems to be the position Rudy Guiliani always takes, Donald Trump’s hands are clean, very clean, and no collusion with Russia will ever be found on them, nor for that matter with the campaign organization which elected him.  So, it follows logically, the "Russia" investigation has come up with nothing on the President.

If everybody in that smelly restroom carefully washed their hands as thoroughly as the President did, that might even be true.  Hence, there would no longer be any need for the Mueller investigation.  Anything else it unearthed (like information leading to the Manafort conviction) was beyond its intended original scope anyway and really grounds for itself being investigated because they had no mandate to go there in the first place.  This is the kind of “news” Fox puts out hourly. The Trump base believes every word of it.

Which One is Bugged?
But Donald forgets that others might not bother to wash their hands so thoroughly as he does when they leave a restroom,  and illegal as it probably is, there might even have been recording devices in there, hidden behind the commodes or built into the urinals.  That worries him.

L'Shana Tovah

A week from tonight, the Jewish High Holiday of Rosh HaShonah (the head of the year) will take place starting off the year 5779 of the Hebrew calendar  The usual greeting used for the High Holiday season is “L’Shana Tovah,”  which means “Have a good year.” Tacking on “U’metuka” at the end adds a wish for sweetness to your greeting.  So to all reading this,

  “L’Shana Tovah U’metuka for 5779”

Some of you may recall that I am a fan of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. A few years back I wrote a piece relating that novel to the Jewish High Holidays. For a while, I almost though he might have been Jewish, but that is not the case.  Melville just knew a lot about the Hebrew scriptures from his Christian background.  Anyway, here’s that piece again for your enjoyment. The novel tells a whale of a story!

                            Moby Dick, a Jewish Novel?
                    (or “Moby Dick, an Incomplete Anagram”)

                                     Jack Lippman
I have always felt that there was a special relationship between Herman Melville’s great novel, Moby Dick, and the Jewish High Holidays.  Many of the biblical allusions in the book relate specifically to Jewish scriptural occurrences which are part of the Jewish High Holiday liturgy.  This is so striking that I have often wondered, even though it is clear that Herman Melville had an extremely thorough knowledge of Jewish scriptural writings, whether he might also have had a Jewish friend who took him to synagogue during the High Holidays.

For people who like to play with words, the very title of Moby Dick is enticing and perhaps exciting.  If you look at the letters, and try to construct an anagram from them, you fail to produce “Yom Kippur,” but you do come fairly close.  The first five letters of the holiday’s name, “Yom Ki” easily fall into place, but then the anagram fails.  But this failure to complete the anagram may not be accidental.  In the book, the white whale called Moby Dick never appears in his entirety, only that portion of him which is not submerged in the water being visible.  Might it not be logical that Melville, in entitling his book, would create only a partial anagram since his view of the whale was never more than a partial one?   He actually says “… there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like.”   (Chapter 55)

In another quote, Melville apparently associates the sperm whale, whose face he considers to be an inscrutable blank wall, with the Deity. (Chapter 79)  He paraphrases Exodus 33:23 (“Thou shall see my back parts … but my face shall not be seen.  But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face”)  (Chapter 86) causing us to wonder whether Melville is talking about God or about a whale.  To those familiar enough with the novel to subscribe to the idea that the White Whale might be a manifestation of God, or actually represent a Deity which mankind has never actually fully seen, the incomplete anagram may make some sense.

Herman Melville came from a socially prominent Manhattan family which had lost most of its money, precluding his pursuing higher education.  Instead, at age eighteen, he went to sea on a merchant vessel.  This was followed by whaling voyages, capture by cannibals, teaching, lecturing, and ultimately a government job at the Custom House in New York.  Early on, Melville turned to writing about his experiences at sea and from Moby Dick, it is clear that he was very familiar with Jewish scripture.  I am unaware of Melville having any close relationship with Jews of his period, although undoubtedly, there certainly were Jews in New York City in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Perhaps, as I have thought, he had a Jewish friend.   But let us get on with the book, and of course, its uncanny relationship to the Jewish High Holidays

The “Etymology” which begins the book includes the word for “whale” in many languages.  It is noteworthy that first of all of them, however, Melville lists (in Hebrew letters, no less) the Hebrew word for whale.  Immediately following that is a section labeled “Extracts,” where quotations involving whales are cited from various historic sources.  The first five of the many extracts quoted, notably, are from Jewish scripture, specifically from the Books of Genesis, Job, Jonah, Isaiah and Psalms, texts with which Melville obviously was very familiar.

The novel itself starts with three words, “Call me Ishmael.”  And Ishmael is the narrator as we read “Moby Dick.”   In the Bible, Ishmael is Abraham’s son, born of Hagar, his wife Sarah’s maidservant.  Genesis 21 tells us that when, after years of barrenness Sarah gives birth to Isaac, she no longer wants Hagar and Ishmael to remain in the household.  The Lord instructs Abraham to accede to his wife’s wishes and to send Hagar and Ishmael off, assuring Abraham of Ishmael’s future wellbeing.  Apparently, Ishmael did survive his wanderings, because years later, we find his namesake about to set off on a whaling voyage out of Nantucket, which as his telling the story evidences, he also survived.  Coincidentally, Genesis 21 often is the morning Torah reading for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah during the Jewish High Holidays in many synagogues.

On his way to Nantucket, Ishmael stops in the whaling port of New Bedford, waiting for a boat to take him to the island, where he will seek employment on a whaling vessel.  He visits the Whaler’s Chapel in that city where he listens to a sermon about the punishment which awaits those who defy and disobey the Lord, but how the Lord also forgives those who repent.  This, of course, is the story of Jonah, which in the salty language of the seagoing preacher, is told in its entirety in that Chapel in New Bedford.  That same Book of Jonah also is read, again coincidentally, as part of the afternoon service on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. 

An interesting footnote to the chapter in which Ishmael visits the Whaler’s Chapel is Melville’s passing reference to “antique Adam who died sixty round centuries ago.”  If the author was using a Hebrew calendar and rounding off to the nearest century as he says he is doing, he is fairly close to the mark, because I place the story of Moby Dick as taking place approximately in the year 1850 or 5610 on the Hebrew calendar, only 390 years off from Melvilles’s “sixty round centuries ago.”  Melville, again coincidentally, was obviously conversant with that calendar, which moves on to another year at each Rosh Hashanah.

The novel deals with the whaling ship’s captain, Ahab, who drives his crew mercilessly in his mad quest to find Moby Dick, the White Whale who, on an earlier voyage, had taken Ahab’s leg and left him seeking revenge.  In the Jewish scriptures, Ahab was a Hebrew king, and influenced by his evil wife Jezebel, became an idolatrous worshipper of Baal.  Melville’s Ahab apparently was one who in the past, like his biblical namesake, also had disobeyed and defied the Lord.  The novel does not go into the specifics of Ahab’s transgressions but it is clear that unlike Jonah, neither the biblical King Ahab nor Melville’s Captain Ahab had any intention of repenting.  In fact, many view Captain Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick as his way of battling the Lord’s efforts to punish him, represented by the whale.  This, in effect, is the novel’s story.  Ahab, in hunting the whale to avenge his mutilation, is fighting the God who has punished him for his sins, and continues to do so, through Moby Dick. 

Early on in the novel, before the Pequod (for that is the name of the boat Ishmael sailed on) left on its voyage, a mystical character named Elijah appears on the dock to warn Ishmael that something is wrong with Captain Ahab, that he has a history of something terrible that had happened in the past.  Elijah tries to discourage Ishmael from signing onto Captain Ahab’s boat.  In the Bible, the Prophet Elijah is precisely the one who attacked the idolatry of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, urging the Hebrew people to recognize only the one true God, and not the false god worshiped by King Ahab.  And just as the Prophet Elijah urged ancient Jews to keep their faith pure, so Melville’s Elijah is there to warn Ishmael against Captain Ahab as he signed onto the crew of the  Pequod  on that dock in Nantucket.  The parallel is striking. 

But what might you ask does this have to do with the Jewish High Holidays?  The story of King Ahab and Jezebel is not part of the High Holiday liturgy.  The Prophet Elijah is more associated with Passover, when a door is left open for him at the seder.  Nevertheless, you will find those same words Elijah used to the Hebrews, uttered in the face of King Ahab’s apostasy, still resonating to Jews of today, as Yom Kippur draws to a close just prior to the final sounding of the shofar.  “The Lord, He is God” (Adonoy Hu Ha-Elohim) is repeatedly intoned as Jewish worshippers complete their period of “tshuva” (repentance) on the Day of Atonement.   Was this the same message that Melville’s Elijah was trying to communicate to Ishmael?  Indeed, it is a Jewish message.

The novel goes on to tell the story of Ahab’s quest for Moby Dick, and how the Pequod ultimately finds him, battles him and is destroyed by him, with Ishmael being the only survivor.  

As the novel approaches this climax, the vessel encounters another whaling ship, which is sadly crisscrossing the sea, looking for missing crewman, lost in an earlier attempt to challenge Moby Dick.  These lost crewmen included the vessel’s captain’s children, and the name of the ship, the Rachel, obviously relates to the biblical Rachel who laments her lost children in Jerimiah 31.  That reading commonly serves as the Haftorah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah in many synagogues, another indication of the relationship of Moby Dick to the Jewish High Holidays.  It is the Rachel, still searching for its lost children, which rescues Ishmael from the disaster which befell Ahab, his ship and the rest of its crew.

(Twenty-five years after writing Moby Dick, Melville published a 30,000 word poem entitled “Clarel, A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land.”  Melville scholars have suggested that this is really a study in comparative religion, a field which became popular in the late 19th century, when industrial and scientific advances were causing many to question long standing fixed beliefs.   Melville’s knowledge of Judaism, as indicated in Moby Dick, would logically lead him in this direction a quarter of a century later.)

No, Herman Melville was not Jewish, nor do I really believe he had a Jewish friend who took him to High Holiday services.  What is clear is that he was extremely familiar with Jewish scriptural writings, and included many references to them in Moby Dick.   In re-reading the novel, and relating it to the Jewish High Holidays, this reader has had frequent occasion to put the novel down and refer to the Torah and the Prophets in order to deepen his understanding of what Melville is saying.  To my way of thinking, a novel which prompts its readers to study Torah has to be considered a Jewish novel, and Moby Dick certainly meets this standard.

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