Friday, May 25, 2007

Ruckert & Mahler's Kindertotenlieder

Songs on the Death of Children (1901-1905)
Based on poems by Friedrich Ruckert written in 1833-4,
when two of his children died within 16 days of each other.
He wrote 425 poems in this period, Mahler chose five.
The poems that comprise songs two and five of Mahler's cycle,
chosen by me not for their poetry but for the sentiment:

Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen
Ihr sprühtet mir in manchem Augenblicke.
O Augen!
Gleichsam, um voll in einem Blicke
Zu drängen eure ganze Macht zusammen.
Doch ahnt' ich nicht, weil Nebel mich umschwammen,
Gewoben vom verblendenden Geschicke,
Daß sich der Strahl bereits zur Heimkehr schicke,
Dorthin, von wannen alle Strahlen stammen.
Ihr wolltet mir mit eurem Leuchten sagen:
Wir möchten nah dir bleiben gerne!
Doch ist uns das vom Schicksal abgeschlagen.
Sieh' uns nur an, denn bald sind wir dir ferne!
Was dir nur Augen sind in diesen Tagen:
In künft'gen Nächten sind es dir nur Sterne.

(English translation by Emily Ezust)
Now I see well why with such dark flames
your eyes sparkled so often.
O eyes!
It was as if in one full glance
you could concentrate your entire power.
Yet I did not realize - because mists floated about me,
woven by blinding fate -
that this beam of light was ready to be sent home
to that place whence all beams come.
You would have told me with your brilliance:
we would gladly have stayed near you!
But it is refused by Fate.
Just look at us, for soon we will be far!
What to you are only eyes in these days -
in future nights shall be stars to us.

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,
Nie hätt' ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus;
Man hat sie getragen hinaus,
Ich durfte nichts dazu sagen!

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus,
Nie hätt' ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus,
Ich fürchtete sie erkranken;
Das sind nun eitle Gedanken.

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus,
Nie hätt' ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus;
Ich sorgte, sie stürben morgen,
Das ist nun nicht zu besorgen.

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus!
Nie hätt' ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus!
Man hat sie hinaus getragen,
ich durfte nichts dazu sagen!

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus, in diesem Braus,
Sie ruh'n als wie in der Mutter Haus,
Von keinem Sturm erschrecket,
Von Gottes Hand bedecket.

In this weather, in this windy storm,
I would never have sent the children out;
They were carried outside -
I could say nothing about it!

In this weather, in this roaring storm,
I would never have let the children out.
I was afraid they had fallen ill,
but these thoughts are now idle.

In this weather, in this cruel storm,
I would never have let the children out;
I was worried they would die the next day -
but this is now no concern.

In this weather, in this cruel storm,
I would never have sent the children out;
They were carried outside -
I could say nothing about it!

In this weather, in this roaring, cruel storm,
they rest as they did in their mother's house:
they are frightened by no storm,
and are covered by the hand of God.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Origin of "Open to me the gates of repentance?"

The Rabbis emphasized that God is desirous of our repentance and inclined to forgive. In the midrash on Shir Ha Shirim (the Song of Songs) they wrote:

"Open to Me [Song of Songs 5:2]". Make for Me an opening (of repentance), an opening as narrow as the point of a needle, and I will make the opening so wide (for pardon) that camps full of soldiers and siege engines could enter it.

Similarly, they taught that while the gates to prayer (that is, God's willingness to hear prayer) are sometimes open and sometimes closed, the gates of repentance are always open:

R. Helbo asked R. Samuel bar Nahman: since I have heard of you as a master of Aggadah, tell me what is meant by the verse Thou has covered thyself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through [Lamentations 3:44]? R. Samuel answered: Prayer is likened to an immersion pool, but repentance is likened to the sea. Just as an immersion pool is at times open and at other times locked, so the gates of prayer are at times open and at other times locked. But the sea is always open, even as the gates of repentance are always open. [Lamentations Rabbah 3:43, section 9].

From this site. "Gates of repentance" also occurs in Psalms Rabbah, Pesikta Rabbati, possibly midrash on Jonah.

The north portal of the Golden Gate (the east gate of the city wall in Jerusalem) is also called the Gate of Repentance.

Rabbeinu Yonah wrote The Gates of Repentance (Sha'arei Tshuvah) in the 13th century, and the lines from the midrash quoted above are often found in Jewish writings on repentance. There is also imagery from the three High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that the gates of repentance are open for these three days, and become locked. Yom Kippur closes with the Neilah service, meaning "locked," of the gates of heaven and book of judgment.

So unless the Orthodox hymn precedes the 5th century AD (following scholarship that suggests Lamentations Rabbah was written over the same period as Genesis Rabbah and the latter is dated to the mid-5th century at the latest), it is likely taken from rabbinic sources, although Lamentations Rabbah also includes a number of Greek words.

Anyone else have any ideas?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

NYCB Style - Part I

The New York City Ballet formally came into existence in 1948. Founded by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, other choreographers were initially invited to participate (including Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, and Jerome Robbins), but it soon became dominated by the works and aesthetic vision of Balanchine. As Croce wrote in the early 70s (paraphrased), no other artistic institution was as singularly the creative vision of one person (Balanchine) the way New York City Ballet was. The first generation of ballerinas in the company included Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClercq, Diana Adams, and Melissa Hayden. To this line-up, Allegra Kent, Jillana, and Violette Verdy were added in the 50s. Among the men, Jacques d'Amboise, Edward Villella, and partner extraordinaire Conrad Ludlow joined Francisco Moncion and Nicholas Magallanes. Balanchine's building of the repertory, a combination of more classical fare (Firebird, The Nutcracker, segments from Swan Lake) and highly innovative works to new music by Stravinsky, serialist compositions of Webern, and the works of other 20th century composers, would also shape the style of the company, right up to the time - 1963 - (as Garis wrote) that Suzanne Farrell arrived on the scene.

Tanaquil LeClercq as Dewdrop in The Nutcracker (1952)

Edwin Denby, “A letter on New York City’s Ballet”, August 1952
The NYC style is the most particularized and the clearest defined of all the American ones; the most Puritan in its uprightness. For me an immediate attraction of the NYC’s style is the handsomeness of the dancing, and another is the absence of glamour, of glamourization. To have left glamour out is only a negative virtue, but there is a freshness in it to start with.

Handsome the NYC way of dancing certainly is. Limpid, easy, large, open, bounding; calm in temper and steady in pulse; virtuoso in precision, in stamina, in rapidity. So honest, so fresh and modest the company looks in action. The company’s stance, the bearing of the dancer’s whole body in action is the most straightforward, the clearest I ever saw; it is the company’s physical approach to the grand style – not to the noble carriage but to the grand one. Simple and clear the look of shoulder and hip, the head, the elbow, and the instep; unnervous the bodies deploy in the step, hold its shape in the air, return to balance with no strain, and redeploy without effort. Never was there so little mannerism in a company, or extravagance. As clear as the shape of the step in the NYC style is its timing, its synchronization to the score at the start, at any powerful thrust it has, at its close. So the dancers dance unhurried, assured, and ample. They achieve a continuity of line and a steadiness of impetus that is unique, and can brilliantly increase the power of it and the exhilarating speed to the point where it glitters like cut glass. The rhythmic power of the company is its real style, and its novelty of fashion. Some people complain that such dancing is mechanical. It seems quite the opposite to me, like a voluntary, a purely human attentiveness.

It is an attention turned outside rather than inside. It is turned not to sentiment and charm, but to perspicuity and action. It suggests a reality that is not personal, that outlives the dancer and the public, like a kind of faith. The company is not trying for an emotional suggestion; it seems to be trying for that much harder thing, a simple statement.

Allegra Kent and Edward Villella in Bugaku (1963), photo by Bert Stern

Stravinsky's comments on
Movements (1963)
Those extraordinary bee-like girls (big thighs, nipped-in waists, pinheads) who seem to be bred according to Balanchine’s specifications.

Six members of the original cast of Agon (1957)

Arlene Croce, "Balanchine's Girls: The Making of Style," April 1971

[Following Agon] These girls didn’t seem to think; they acted. They didn’t walk; they swam and hovered in balances and dove with a perilous insistence; or they moved one muscle and froze the time they moved it in, as if time, by catching up, might force it to move by itself. Balanchine’s choreography in this style, after Agon (1957) and up through Movements (1963), was increasingly microscopic, cellular: tight phrases exploding like crystals in a confined space…The new ballets to the new music seemed to seize on qualities of architectural scale and anatomical development that made sense to New Yorkers. And they made sense in an era of affluence. These were richly concentrated, high-protein ballets, with more “grip” per measure than anything that had been seen up to that time.

For some people, the idea that poetry can pour from the bodies of hardworking American girls…is hard to believe, and occasionally, as we watch one of these girls moving with brilliant clarity, the thought “She doesn’t know what she’s doing” occurs to us. If she did, though, would she do it better? The question has never been answered. It isn’t mindlessness but the state beyond mind that moves us in perfect dancing. It’s what moves the dancer, too.

Monday, May 21, 2007

"Let him kiss me with the kisses from his mouth!"

Song of Songs 1:2

todo se transfigura y es sagrado,
es el centro del mundo cada cuarto,
es la primera noche, el primer día,
el mundo nace cuando dos se besan,

all is transformed, all is sacred,
every room is the center of the world,

it's still the first night, and the first day,

the world is born when two people kiss,

(Octavio Paz)
Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim) Rabbah II:ii.1
A. Another interpretation of the verse, "O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!"
B. Said Rabbi Yohanan, "An angel would carry forth the Word from before the Holy One, blessed be He, word by word, going about to every Israelite and saying to him, 'Do you accept upon yourself the authority of this Word? There are so and so many rules that pertain to it, so and so many penalties that pertain to it, so and so many decrees that pertain to it, and so are the religious duties, the lenient aspects, the stringent aspects, that apply to it. There also is a reward that accruse in connection with it.'"
C. "And the Israelite would say, 'Yes.'"
D. "And the other would go and say to him again, 'Do you accept the divinity of the Holy One, blessed be He.'"
E. "And the Israelite would say, 'Yes, yes.'"
F. "Then he would kiss him on his mouth."
G. "That is in line with this verse: 'To you it has been shown, that you might know' (Deut. 4:25) - that is, by an angel."
H. Rabbis say, "It was the Word itself that made the rounds of the Israelites one by one, saying to each one, 'Do you accept me upon yourself? There are so and so many rules that pertain to it, so and so many penalties that pertain to it, so and so many decrees that pertain to it, and so are the religious duties, the lenient aspects, the stringent aspects, that apply to it. There also is a reward that accruse in connection with it.'"
I. "And the Israelite would say, 'Yes.'"
J. "So he taught him the Torah."
K. "That is in line with this verse: 'Lest you forget the things your eyes saw (Deut. 4:9)' - how the Word spoke with you."

An affirmation, "Yes, yes," and the Word of God kisses the Israelite on the mouth.
B. "In the entire Torah there are six hundred thirteen commandments. The numerical value of the letters in the word 'Torah' is only six hundred eleven. These are the ones that Moses spoke to us."
C. "But 'I [am the Lord your God]' and 'You will not have [other gods besides Me]' (Exodus 20:1-2) we have heard not from the mouth of Moses but from the Mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He."
D. "That is in line with this verse: 'O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!'"
The two commandments of God, spoken from the mouth of God Himself, like kisses from His lips. It recalls this moment (Deut 4:10-12):
Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when He said to me, "Assemble the people before Me to hear My Words so that they may learn to revere Me as long as they live in the land and may teach Them to their children." You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.
And these verses (Proverbs 2:6; Proverbs 24:26):
For the Lord gives wisdom,
and from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.
He kisses the lips [and wins the hearts of men] who give a right answer.
But what does it mean to be kissed by the Word of God? What does it mean to be kissed? In Genesis 29, according to the rabbis, through the Spirit Jacob sees all of Israel: its history as a people, its Temple practices, its life in the synagogue (the field, the the well, the three flocks of sheep, the rock: all have symbolic meanings.) When he sees Rachel, his great strength moves the rock and he kisses her (Genesis 29:11):
Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud.
Rashi wrote that he wept because he saw that Rachel would not be buried with him (Genesis 48:7). But Jacob's weeping should also be read as the weeping for his people, the nation that he has foreseen that will arise out of his love for her. In a way, his own tears will be transferred to her, as she will weep for children (Genesis 30:1) and from her burial place will weep for the descendants of her husband and remind God of his promises to her husband, as Rashi writes [commentary on Genesis 48:7]:
and I buried her there And I did not take her even to Bethlehem to bring her into the Land (i.e., into the inhabited region of the Holy Land- [Sifthei Chachamim]), and I know that you hold it against me; but you should know that I buried her there by divine command, so that she would be of assistance to her children. When Nebuzaradan exiles them (the Israelites), and they pass by there, Rachel will emerge from her grave and weep and beg mercy for them, as it is said: “A voice is heard on high, [lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel is weeping for her children]” (Jeremiah 31:14). And the Holy One, blessed be He, answers her, “‘There is reward for your work,’ says the Lord,… ‘and the children shall return to their own border.’”
When two people kiss, mouth to mouth, as Rambam wrote, they become one flesh. "No true companionship is possible unless a man dies to himself" (Oesterreicher, The Israel of God). As Adam fell into a deep sleep, a sleep like death, and then celebrated Eve as his flesh, so to does the kiss between Jacob and Rachel bind their flesh, at the pivotal turning point of salvation history - out of Jacob's love for Rachel will arise the people Israel - and they mourn the future struggles of their children. The world is re-born with Jacob's kiss, and is re-born again in the kisses of the Word of God on the mouths of the people Israel at Sinai.

The Incarnate God, the Word Made Flesh, kisses us at baptism, where we first hear the commandments of God; in the Eucharist, when we share in the flesh of God. Through kisses, we become one flesh with Him. We say Yes, die to ourselves, and He kisses us with the kisses from His Mouth, joining our flesh to His. And so the saints swoon at these moments.

But there are other kisses, most notably the kiss at the moment of death:
Song of Songs Rabbah II.ii.20

E. Rabbis say, "The souls of these are going to be taken with a kiss."
21 A. Said Rabbi Azariah, "We find that the soul of Aaron was taken away only with a kiss: 'And Aaron the priest went up to Mount Hor at the mouth of the Lord and died there' " (Numbers 33:38).
B. "How do we know the same in the case of the soul of Moses? 'So Moses the servant of the Lord died there ... according to the mouth of the Lord'" (Deut. 34:5).
C. "How do we know the same in the case of the soul of Miriam? 'And Miriam died there' (Numbers 30:1). And just as 'there' in the former passages means, 'by the mouth of the Lord,' so here too the fact is the same."
D. "But it would have been inappropriate to say it explicity."
E. "How do we know the same in the case of the soul of all the righteous? 'O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!' "
F. "[The sense is,] 'If you have occupied yourself with teachings of the Torah, so that your lips are well-armed with them, then, at the end, everyone will kiss you on your mouth.'"
And we also pray to St. Joseph that the Lord will kiss us as we draw our dying breath, that we will be enveloped in His Body at that moment.

In future posts, I will write about Jacob, the most dynamic person in the Old Testament. Jacob gives up his identity and his name, joins his flesh to Rachel's, struggles with God and still stands, and opens up a future where the Lord can kiss His people and lift and unite His creation back to Himself.

amar es combatir, si dos se besan
el mundo cambia, encarnan los deseos,
el pensamiento encarna, brotan alas
en las espaldas del esclavo, el mundo
es real y tangible, el vino es vino,
el pan vuelve a saber, el agua es agua,
amar es combatir, es abrir puertas,
dejar de ser fantasma con un número
a perpetua cadena condenado
por un amo sin rostro;
el mundo cambia
si dos se miran y se reconocen,
amar es desnudarse do los nombres...

to love is to battle, if two kiss
the world changes, desires take flesh,

thoughts take flesh, wings sprout

on the backs of the slave, the world is real

and tangible, wine is wine, bread

regains its savor, water is water,

to love is to battle, to open doors,

to cease to be a ghost with a number

forever in chains, forever condemned

by a faceless master;

the world changes

if two look at each other and see,

to love is to undress our names...

Octavio Paz, Piedra de Sol (Sunstone), 1957. Translated by Eliot Weinberger.

Translations of Song of Songs Rabbah by Jacob Neusner.

Definitions and Terminology

I started reading Jewish commentaries on the Old Testament about 12 years ago and have read them off and on since then. Since I will be writing about them frequently in the coming posts, here are some words, definitions, and people to whom I may refer.

Avot: "Fathers," often used for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Also used for a tractate completed by 200 A.D. of the oral Torah, and for commentaries on that tractate.

Midrash, plural Midrashim: "investigation," refers to 1) the activity of exegesis of the Scriptures, 2) the interpretations that result from that exegesis, 3) the written documents that are a collection of those interpretations.

Mishnah: code of Jewish law, derived from the Pentateuch and passed down by oral tradition. The most famous version of the encoding of the oral Torah was completed around 200 A.D. by Patriarch Judah in Palestine, but there are other versions, notably Mishnah Torah, a commentary on the Mishnah written by Rambam/Maimonides.

Mitzvah, plural Mitzvot: commandment, commandments of the Law. There are 613 mitzvot recorded in Deuteronomy.

Rabbah, Midrash Rabbah: midrash texts on the five books of the Pentateuch and Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, Eccelesiastes, and Song of Songs. Compiled and collected from about the 4th century A.D. through the 9th.

Rambam: initials of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204, Spain, Morocco, Egypt), aka Maimonides, philosopher and commentator.

Ramban: initials of Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (1194-1270, Spain), commentator.

Rashi: initials of Rabbi Shelomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105, France), the foremost medieval commentator on the Torah.

Talmud: code of Jewish law, philosophy, and ethics, collected between 200 and 500 A.D. in both Palestine and Babylon.

Tanakh: the Scriptures, comprising the Pentateuch (aka Torah), Prophets, and Writings.

Tanhuma: midrash written as homilies on the Pentateuch.

Torah: "instruction," the Law, the Word of God, also used to designate the Pentateuch. The oral Torah, as written down in the Mishnah, informs the written Torah, as contained in the Pentateuch. Both were handed down by God to Moses at Sinai, and the written Torah must be read in light of the oral Torah. The Torah existed "In the Beginning."
Genesis Rabbah I.i.2

A. In the beginning God created (Genesis 1:1) [As to the verse, Then I was beside Him like a little child, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the sons of men] (Proverbs 8:30-31).
B. The word [for child also may be read to] mean "workman."
C. [In the cited verse] the Torah speaks, "I was the work-plan of the Holy One, blessed be He."
D. In the accepted practice of the world, when a mortal king builds a palace, he does not build it out of his own head, but he follows a work-plan.
E. And [the one who supplies] the work-plan does not build out of his own head, but he has designs and diagrams, so as to know how to situate the rooms and the doorways.
F. Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, consulted the Torah when He created the world.
G. So the Torah stated, By means of "the beginning" [that is to say, the Torah] did God create (Genesis 1:1).
H. For the word the beginning refers only to the Torah, as Scripture says, The Lord made me as the beginning of his way (Proverbs 8:22).
Proverbs 8 is speaking of Holy Wisdom, known as Hagia Sophia to Christians, whose person is the Incarnate Word. Read John 1:1-18 in light of the above. For myself, this is an example of the illumination that can be found when reading rabbinical commentaries on the Old Testament.

Warning: I am not a Jewish scholar, nor have I read enough works to think that I have an intuitive grasp on Jewish interpretation. I do, however, often find it insightful, while trying to play close attention to not distort the words of the rabbis to something unfaithful to the text, as I extend the writings to Christianity (in other words, I try to avoid proof-texting, and will read an entire rabbah, its sources, and other commentaries such as Rashi's, before developing my thoughts on a particular part). I will mostly be using Jacob Neusner's translations of Hebrew and Aramaic texts, while largely ignoring his controversial interpretations.

Please feel free to correct me, disagree, or provide additional texts in the comments.