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I have never seen these ideas appearing in any literary articles about Moby Dick or its author, Herman Melville. In that sense, while it is not academic, the article is original. Now that we have reached the Jewish holiday season starting the year 5784 on the Hebrew calendar, it seems appropriate to repeat it. L’Shana Tovah!
Moby Dick, a Jewish Novel
(or “Moby Dick, an Incomplete Anagram”)
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 those parts of the Bible that Melville probably identified as the Old Testament, based on the original Hebrew scriptures and 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 these portions of the Bible, 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 the parts of Bible identified to him as the Old Testament, based on the original Hebrew scriptures. 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 the parts of Bible sometimes referred to as the Hebrew scriptures,’ specifically from the Books of Genesis, Job, Jonah, Isaiah, and Psalms, texts with which Melville obviously was very familiar as part of what he knew as the Old Testament.
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 is the morning Torah reading for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah during the Jewish High Holidays.
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 biblical Book of Kings, also part of the portions of the Bible Melville identified as the Old Testament, Ahab was a monarch, 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 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 Alone is God” (Adonoy Hu Ha-Elohim) is repeatedly intoned as Jewish worshippers complete their period of “tshuva” (penitence) on the Day of Atonement. Herman Melville was familiar with First Kings, Chapter 19, where these words appear, as a part of the portion of the Bible he identified as the Old Testament. Is 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 crewmen, lost in an earlier attempt to challenge Moby Dick. These 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 happens to be the Haftorah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, another indication of the relationship of Moby Dick to the Jewish High Holidays. It is the Rachel, still searching for its lost children, that 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 the parts of Bible sometimes referred to as the Hebrew scriptures, and which he knew as the Old Testament, 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 that prompts its readers to study Torah has to be considered a Jewish novel, and Moby Dick certainly meets this standard.
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I was all set to include a ‘Click Here’ link to a column by Thomas Friedman about immigration (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/16/opinion/biden-trump-border-policy.html) in this posting. Basically, he says that we need a ‘high wall,’ but one with a ‘big gate,’ and goes on to explain that. But I changed my mind when I saw the pictures accompanying the Times article about immigrants hopeful of reaching the United States struggling to traverse the Darien Gap, the jungle area between Colombia and Panama, and how the locals there were making money from them as they trekked northward. More than its words, the article’s pictures tell the story of the enormity of the problem. It is far more than our having a ‘high wall with a big gate.’ Check it out by visiting https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/14/world/americas/migrant-business-darien-gap.html or by CLICKING HERE.
These heartbreaking pictures illustrate the dimensions of the problem and make it clear, at least to me, that our efforts to establish a viable immigration policy must include getting the nations from which these immigrants are coming, at least those in the Western hemisphere, to improve economic and political conditions there so that their people do not have to attempt the dangerous trek to the United States, where they might even be turned back.
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Libya and Morocco - Things We Take for Granted
One thing that occurs to me when I see the horribly deadly results of the earthquake in Morocco and the floods in Libya is whether these poor people had things that we take for granted, like homeowners’ or renters’ insurance and automobile insurance, and monthly payments to make. Americans who own cars all have automobile insurance, homeowners with mortgages have homeowners’ insurance and many who don’t, carry it anyway, as is the case with renters’ insurance. And those who purchase or lease cars often do so with a contractual monthly payments being required.
I get the feeling that there are no such things for the general populations in these countries, even for those who managed to own their homes or automobiles, turned to wreckage overnight by disasters. (Perhaps there might be for the aristocratic elite members of their societies.) Simply surviving is uppermost in most of their minds.
Nevertheless I wonder when seeing the debris of their homes and automobiles whether things are different in these places from the way things are here. Or are they? If similar disasters struck here, would our insurance be worth anything, and would car payments on destroyed vehicles be waived along with mortgage payments on demolished housing?
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Advice for Those Looking for 100% of Whatever
When you buy a bottle of cranberry, pomegranate, or whatever supposedly nutritious juice you like, don’t be fooled by the words ‘all juice’ or ‘100% juice’ on the label. Often that means exactly what it says, ‘100% juice,’ and that does not necessarily mean 100% of the kind of juice in big letters on the front label that you thought you were purchasing.
|Read the small print this label includes. They should |
have a picture of apples on it rather than cranberries!
Read the ingredients on the back label to find out what is the chief ‘juice’ composing that 100% number, listed first by law, and often you’ll find that it’s plain old apple juice, with the ‘front-labeled’ juice there but further down the list reflecting its lesser component of what you are buying, possibly providing its color and a bit of its flavor. Now I have no argument with the taste of apple juice which I happen to like, but it isn’t the cranberry nor pomegranate juice you were buying!
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Advice for Those Concerned with the President’s Age
Maureen Dowd’s recent New York Times column on this topic was titled ‘Go with the Flow, Joe.’ She was correct.
Senior citizens know what they have to do to continue being active. That’s how they got to become senior citizens. They know when they need rest. They know what tasks to delegate to others. They know what they must do themselves. They know that maintaining a structured existence each day enables them to accomplish as much, if not more, than those younger than they are. An elderly Konrad Adenauer proved that after World War Two in what was then West Germany. Those that attempt to shepherd senior citizens, and haven't been there yet themselves, may not grasp this.
President Biden will continue to do just fine, but he must be the one in charge, in effect being his own governor, with a small 'g.'
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Trivia Quiz #7
At a masquerade party, as whom would the following guests be attired, and which one would you have difficulty seeing?
Peter Benjamin Parker
And here are the answers to Trivia Quiz #6: (Car rental agencies and States with which they share a first letter.) At a minimum, you should have guessed:
1. Hertz (Hawaii)
2. Avis (Arizona and few other States)
3. National (Nebraska and many other States)
4. Thrifty (Tennessee or Texas)
5. Alamo (Arkansas and a few other States, but one other than the one you might have used for Avis)
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Housekeeping on Jackspotpourri
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