No Jewish hymn is as popular as Adon Olam. Not only in the synagogue but on the concert platform and wherever people sing. The rhyme and rhythm are a godsend to pop-composers.
Never mind that it is highly religious poetry and many people (performers and audiences alike) sing it with gusto without covered heads.
The great thing about Adon Olam, however, is not the poetic style or the musical renditions, but the theological paradox. The hymn has two halves, one philosophical and one emotional, and no-one seems to ask how they can co-exist.
The first half is about the existence and nature of God. Its assertions come straight out of the classical works of Jewish philosophy. The second half begins with the words, “V’Hu E-li” – “He is my God”. “He is mine, my Redeemer liveth, He is my Rock in times of turmoil; into His hand I commend my spirit; I shall not fear.”
It is the great paradox of religion – God’s distance and His closeness; the Supreme, Eternal Principle who loves and can be loved.
For an analogy, look at Avinu Malkenu, “Our Father, our King”. Look at the words that follow the shofar blasts in the Rosh HaShanah Musaf service, “We are His children, we are His subjects”.
A King is high and objective, a father is close and compassionate; a child is loving, a servant is fearful. In the first half of Adon Olam we speak of His nature, in the second half we yearn for His love and support.
How do we come closer to Him? By religion, from a Latin root that means to bind or tie. By finding a relationship with Him.
RELIGION WITHOUT GOD.
Many people turn up for Rosh HaShanah services and join in the singing without really believing a word of it.
They mouth the word “God” but are unsure whether they believe in Him. They go along with the words of the prayers without taking them seriously. They would feel lost without their annual passing nod to religion, but they wouldn’t claim to be religious.
So what’s the point of all these religious things if they lack conviction? Is there a point in religion when you’re not religious?
On one level there are human needs which religion seems to satisfy – Hannah Arendt sums them up as the comfort, discipline and survival values of religion. In other words, religion is good for society even if God doesn’t come into it.
The Talmud seems to go along with this view. Jews are marked, say the sages, by three things – they are “rachmanim” (compassionate), “bay’shanim” (modest) and “gom’lei chassadim” (kindly). Compassion means feeling for others. Modesty means not being blatant. Kindness means being helpful and supportive.
When two of the sages (Avot D’Rabbi Natan chapter 4) were talking about life without the Temple, Rabbi Y’hoshua said that without sacrifices there was no means of atonement. Rabbi Yochanan said that the way to atonement was “g’millut chassadim”, doing kindly deeds. No apparent mention of God. No traditional dogmas or doctrines. No spiritual dimensions such as belief, prayer, awe and humility.
Do God and spirituality make things better? I believe they do.
They add truth: recognition that existence has non-earthly components with which man can commune. Humility: a means of measuring man’s littleness against God’s greatness and knowing that small though we might be, we all matter.
Repentance: picking oneself up after having fallen and strayed. Aloneness: being solitary and yet never abandoned. Holiness: God is not grubby, nor do we have to be.
LIFE BEFORE DEATH.
Death is a fact but not an obsession.
Some Jewish texts such as Pir’kei Avot assert that this world is the entrance hall of the World to Come.
It is problematic if this implies that the afterlife matters more than life on earth. The Kabbalah said that this is “olam ha’asiyyah”, the world of action, the world where things are done, the world of achievement.
Life on earth is important in itself, not for any reward that lies in store in the World to Come. This is the world where so many things are good and we can make them even better. This is the world where there is so much potential and our task is to uncover and discover the potential and bring it out into the open to flourish and grow.
No-one knows precisely what awaits us in the next world; indeed we don’t even know what lies around the corner in this world. But in this world we know that if we have challenges we also have opportunities.
The High Holyday prayers say, “Hayom Harat Olam”, “This day the world is burgeoning with promise” (the translators often miss the point that “harat” is a word for pregnancy; it is sheer imagination to render the words “This day is the world’s assize”).
Turning the promise into reality is the privilege that is placed in our hands every Rosh HaShanah.
TWICE THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT.
Samson Raphael Hirsch analyses the word “shanah” (of Rosh HaShanah) and finds two derivations which contradict each other – to repeat and to change.
Linguistically helpful, maybe, but psychologically difficult. Repetition is the opposite of change; change is the opposite of repetition.
How does it help us to understand Rosh HaShanah when we have to take both options into account?
Let’s start with repetition. It goes on all the time. It’s comforting to encounter the familiar, to say “what was, is – what is, was”.
You come home again and find everything in its normal place. You return to a city after years away and the old streets are still there. Many of the people are the same (though some have aged in the meantime). Even the problems are as they were.
I remember 1952, when a certain rabbi said at his induction ceremony, “Human life has become so cynically cheap that its mass destruction is not greatly deplored”.
In those days most people did not have a TV set but they knew he was right because the events of the Holocaust were so recent.
Time has passed. By now the TV, Internet and other media bring events into our homes as they happen and it’s a repetition of what the rabbi said – cities being bombed, lives becoming a cinder, true peace still a distant dream.
Other problems are also repeating – poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness, unemployment, lack of opportunity. Because everything repeats itself so often, the greatest tragedies are weakened and neutralised.
Yet the siddur says something different – not “today is as yesterday” but “God renews every day the work of Creation”.
That’s also repetition, but on a different plane. The world was beautiful yesterday, and it’s beautiful again today. The sun rose yesterday morning, and it rose again today. Nature was a source of joy and wonder yesterday, and so it is today.
That’s two kinds of repetition, and they are rivals.
Can we choose one and not the other?
Actually we can if we use the freedom of choice which goes with being an independent human spirit.
One choice is to squash the Creation motif, to decide to see only the repetitive ugliness and cruelty around us, to become negative about everything, and to lose hope in humanity – and God.
The other choice is to rise above the negative forces and accentuate the positive, turning the world from jungle to joy, replacing fanatic hatred with determined love, and trying to attune civilisation with the Divinely-given blessings of truth, justice and peace on which, the rabbis say in Pir’kei Avot, the world stands.
Whichever option we choose, we will find ourselves using Hirsch’s second option, change. We will have changed our world, maybe for evil, maybe for good.