And God stepped out on space
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely —
I’ll make me a world.
These are the opening lines of The Creation by the famous African American preacher, James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938). When I had finally changed my major at Columbia’s School of General Studies from math to comparative literature — calculus had done me in — I was buying poetry books of every kind by the fistful. (I recently found on my shelf an anthology of Australian poetry.) It must have 1963 or ’64, because I was a sophomore. One of those volumes was Johnson’s selection of some of his sermons God’s Trombones, the Creation being one of them.
I know why the words spoke to me: I was raised in Virginia, in the South, and had been exposed to church preaching — white and African-American — often on the radio in the car on the way to Hebrew school Sunday morning. The vivid, powerfully-charged, sometimes-fiery, the explication of the text-at-hand (often from the “Old Testament”) touched something deep in my subconscious. And the rolling rhythms and imagery!
Later on, this would be reinforced when I occasionally accompanied Ethel French, the African American woman who helped raise me, to her Methodist church in Falls Church.
The entire experience beginning with Johnson’s poem stayed with me, appearing in my mind every so often as out of nowhere. It was so deeply embedded that in the early 1970’s I wrote a lengthy creation poem of my own – clearly derivative of Johnson’s style. It was the only instance in my 50 years of writing poetry that I remember waking up in the middle of the night, going to the kitchen table, and writing out one of my lengthiest poems – 3 1⁄2 pages. At some time afterwards, when I reviewed it to refine and tweak the words, I found it said almost exactly like I wanted.
I think that most Americans’ exposure to this sound and style of preaching really only came to their attention when they heard Martin Luther King’s words on the TV. Indeed, all Americans fighting for civil rights clearly recall his I have a dream words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Part II: My intensive training in Bible took place at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My professors – there were five or six of them — ranged from young and brilliant and destined to become prominent in the field, to giants, to one (H.L.Ginsberg) who was clearly the pre-eminent presence.
I need to tell two stories: (1) I have lunch in Jerusalem with Professor Shalom Paul, the only one still alive, telling him every summer how his course in The Book of Jeremiah was the first high-level Tanach course I ever took, and how much he meant to me as a person. (2) The late Professor Yochanan Muffs — may his eternal rest be in Eden — was unrivaled for creative thinking. Watching him moment-by-moment bring the text alive revealing astonishing insights, and writing all over the blackboard and beyond. It was no less that a wondrous thing to behold. Years later, when he was no longer physically well and had ceased classroom teaching, it happened that I had finished dinner and just when I was leaving one of my favorite Jerusalem restaurants, he, his wife, and attendant were coming in. I turned around, and sat at their table, directly facing Professor Muffs. I began tearing up and told him, “Professor Muffs, I wish that back when I was your student in the 60’s I would have said to myself, ‘That’s the kind of teacher I want to be!’”
Part III: When I am in Jerusalem during the summer, I go to the Turkish synagogue in Yemin Moshe for Shabbat morning services. The people are friendly and welcoming, they end earlier than their Ashkenazic counterparts, and they have a fabulous Kiddush: borekas, and other non-European baked delicacies, a variety of sweet items with Ladino names, olives, chummus, and Arak which, of course, I mix with diet soda. When there is a Simcha, the bubbehs go all out with their old country specialties, handed down since 1492 and before.
And because the praying and Torah reading end by about 10:15, after Kiddush #1, I can walk the two short blocks to the Ashkenazi shul for Kiddush #2 including lasagna, pies, and most of all, chocolate goodies. Step #3 is meeting my friends Fran and Bernie Alpert there, and after another short stroll and I am in a recliner at their home for some nosh or Big Nosh, and scotch and Sprite Zero in preparation for the long walk back in the hot summer sun to the apartment I rented. But by then I am essentially oblivious to the temperature and much of the world around me.
At the Turkish shul, one of the congregants gives a brief 10-15 minute commentary on the Torah reading. He is soft spoken, delivers his words with an American accent and always provides fresh, perceptive, and unexpected insights. I asked one of the people who the speaker was and he said, “That’s Professor Kugel”. Awesome! I knew his name, had read
some of his writings, and knew of his reputation at Harvard. It was said that the course based on his book How to Read the Bible was attended by hundreds of students (and no doubt some faculty). Respectfully joking, someone once said that his IQ was in the high 260’s.
But “Kugel” is hardly a name to be heard in the cafés of Izmir. As I was told by another congregant, the family name is really Kadoori (as in כדור – a ball), and “Kugel” in Germanic languages is a globe or sphere. Aha! Professor Kugel’s originals became 100% obvious when he read from the Torah in the precise notes of the Turkish Sefardim. Now and again we sit next to each other or schmooze at Kiddush #1. In anticipation of seeing him, during the week I have usually stored up some difficult Tanach problem that has been bothering me that I will ask him to explain.
Part IV: Of Professor Kugel’s several books, my favorite is The God of Old. It speaks to me. It is a very deep — yet eminently readable — study of those angels that keep appearing to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel’s mother Hannah, and others I may have missed. In preparation for following his study, we must first “cleanse” ourselves of all the images of angels in Medieval art, Walt Disney’s animations, and even rock and roll’s “Teen Angel”. (From here to the end, I obviously cannot do justice to Professor Kugel’s scholarly and brilliantly-articulated words.) Professor Kugel notes that at first, all those Biblical figures who encounter the angels are confused — until they reach the realization that God is, in some way, in human form, interacting with them. As it were, God is Out There somewhere beyond a veil or barrier, and on occasion comes through to have an encounter with these particular people for some specific purpose.
V. I like what Professor Kugel is revealing about The God of Old. When my ever-more-sophisticated education threw out the Old Man with the Long White Beard and substituted omniscient and omnipotent, I was at a loss. This concept was too abstract, too impersonal and chilly. I could not wrap my mind — and for that matter — my soul around those concepts. Professor Kugel also explains how The God of Old could be everywhere and simultaneously be at a specific place. In addition, at my stage in life and my thinking, in some fashion, my teacher Professor Heschel’s theology of God being One Who Cares about us human beings, helped me.
But the Aha! moment came to me as I was assimilating my thoughts about The God of Old. It happened when it struck me that, in some way, the Mitzvah heroes I have met in the past more than four decades are like those angels. Not God, like the angels in The God of Old who were really God, but by the actions that permeate their being, in some fashion, they are a personification of what God’s message is for us. I know that seems high-sounding and not very articulate. But being with them, observing them, working with them, I believe that we experience is a glimpse of the divine Presence. They are not merely “activists”. That term doesn’t capture their essence. No matter what our understanding of the word “Mitzvah”, in their presence, we can feel something more profound than social activism.
Without being a mystic in the classical sense of the word, I believe we are taken to a realm and a vision beyond ourselves — and its good for our souls.