Sunday morning was a typical summer service at church: five hymns, a psalm, some service music and a couple of anthems for the cantor. It’s pretty laid back, as the choir isn’t in session and the rector is out of town for the month (like much of the congregation). One might say the church feels empty, but it doesn’t – in a sanctuary that only seats 200 or so, a congregation of 30 lends a sense of intimacy, rather than sparsity.
As usual my mind wandered during the sermon, my thoughts turning to one of the hymns which I had selected for the morning. “The God Abraham Praise” (tune name Leoni) has an interesting place in most Protestant hymnals, as it’s not “originally” a Christian hymn at all. The tune was supposedly transcribed by a minister named Thomas Olivers after attending a Sabbath service at the Duke’s Place Synagogue in London. “I have rendered it from the Hebrew, giving it, as far as I could, a Christian character, and I have called on Leoni [the cantor Lyon] who has given me a synagogue melody to suit it.” To an extent Olivers remained true to the tune’s original text also, loosely translating the words of the Yigdal Elohim (a Maimonidean statement of faith, if you will) and giving it a certain Christian “flavor.”
For church musicians, it’s kind of the “go-to” hymns for any ecumenical service, lectionary reading on the covenant with Abraham or any and all references to Christianity’s self-proclaimed inheritance from Judaism. We whip it out on World Communion Sunday, when we hear about Abraham’s close encounter with infanticide, etc. More often than not, it’s rather crudely referred to as the “Jewish” hymn.
While I was in Berlin a couple of weeks back, my boyfriend took me along to the Terror Museum. Located just blocks from Checkpoint Charlie, the museum tends to offer exhibits on the grim nature of the penal and surveillance systems in the GDR and on the the everyday nature of violence under National Socialism. A visit usually follows somber stroll through the Holocaust memorial, and upon leaving there is the option to go and see a large preserved portion of the Berlin Wall before taking a 15 minute spin in a refurbished car manufactured in East Germany. What’s strange is the sense of normalcy of the material in the exhibit is such that it sits comfortably next to a block of shops, stalls and entertainment vendors all selling Ostalgie kitsch. It seamlessly goes from the grotesqueness of violence to the tasteless of consumerism, with no apparent cognitive dissonance or self-awareness.
The exhibit we saw however was not to do with the Stasi or the GDR police state, but on the place of Martin Luther within National Socialist ideology. While I’ve seen harsh exhibits on the nature of participatory terror in the Third Reich, what I saw was genuinely eye-opening. Somewhere along the way, I managed to miss the memo about the extent to which both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches in Germany not only lent institutional support to the Nazi Party, but were emboldened to do so by the priests and parishioners who actively sought to implement Nazi ideology across every aspect of German life. I guess I also knew that Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke up and acted out, but not from a wave of silence – it was a from a sea of willing support for the Third Reich’s destruction of Europe’s Jews. Again I’ll fully admit to a sincere amount of naivety and ignorance, as the Christianity I was raised in didn’t have any particular stance on Jews, except to affirm their covenant as being equal to that of the Christian covenant and a tacet acknowledgment Israel’s legitimacy as a modern Jewish state. In this sense, I never grew up with any dichotomy between Old and New Testaments – I learned that the Bible is flawed and picking and choosing for the sake of tolerance was normal. I guess from the historical standpoint, I didn’t see Nazi antisemitism as emanating from anything devoutly religious; I was taught that it was a “perversion” of Christianity.
The reality of the exhibit was that the ideological stretch from much Christian theology into violent antisemitism wasn’t a stretch at all. In short, Lutheranism didn’t just fit well into Nazi ideology, but rather Nazi ideology fit squarely into a long history of Lutheran ideas about Jews. One didn’t need to alter or change the context of Luther’s words to justify the destruction of synagogues, the boycotting of Jewish businesses, or even killing Jews. I needn’t quote Martin Luther’s treatise On the Jews and Their Lies (1543) to illustrate – the title alone is fairly illustrative. In fairly thorough detail, the exhibit showed the manner in which both individuals and denominations not only stood by and watched, but actively partook in the solidification of National Socialism and the crimes of the Holocaust.
These days, my own level of religiosity is relatively low, even by an Episcopalian church musician’s standards. Yes, I am “in sympathy” with the the broad non-confessional message that the denomination offers (the general expectation for a church musician in the 21st Century), and I’m certainly a beneficiary of its tolerance of its welcoming stance towards sexual minorities and free thinkers. But until I saw this exhibit, I didn’t really think I had a skin in the game – the exhibit to an extent still felt displaced by time and physical distance. The last section of the exhibit however was the one that hit home. Pages from a Nazi hymnal were put on display, showing an amended version of Ein feste Burg, Martin Luther’s most famous hymn and the unofficial “theme tune” for the Protestant Reformation (which celebrates its 500th anniversary this year). The informational display went on to explain the manner in which hymns were edited or altered to remove any Hebrew words (including “Hallelujah,” “Zion,” “Sabaoth”) and any connection between the new and old testaments (names like Jacob or Moses).
When I got back to the hotel in Berlin, a quick look around the internet showed that hymns were not the only victims of textual violence in the Church’s campaign for Nazification. Recordings of Germany’s world famous boychoirs, many of which were integrated into the Hitler Youth from the mid-1930s onwards, reveal some chilling examples. For instance, The first studio recording of Mozart’s Requiem, recorded in 1944 by the Kittelchor in Berlin, changes the text of the Requiem to remove the words “Abraham” and “Israel.” In 1941, the Thomanerchor’s recording of Bach’s Magnificat with the Gewandhaus Orchestra does the same with “Abraham.”
After Sunday’s service, I went digging on the internet yet again to take a look at the history of Leoni. Having spent a few weeks ruminating about all this, I had a feeling that maybe the hymn wasn’t as “inter-faith” as I had previously assumed. In searching the web, the story was pretty much the same across countless Evangelical blogs and hymn-enthusiast websites: the hymn “born in the Synagogue” is just that. But a lone hymnologist in 1923 pointed out the background to the hymn, and the manner of its publication in a London Calvinist magazine in 1775. Apparently, accompanying the hymn was the story of “a young Jewess who had been baptized into the Christian faith, and in consequence was abandoned by her family. She fled to the home of the minister, poured out her heart to him, and as if to show that, after all, her joy in her new-found Saviour was greater than all her loss of home and family, she sang, The God of Abraham Praise.” In a way, it was as if the story had been lifted straight out of the The Merchant of Venice, and this was somehow Jessica’s lost song of triumph upon leaving her father. The context for the hymn seemingly changed, as the text was no longer just a Christian acknowledgement of the religion’s Jewish inheritance, but an act of differentiating the New from the Old covenants, with an explicit message as to which one is better.
While I’ve been told that a hymn like Leoni and an alteration of liturgical texts in the Third Reich aren’t really comparable, one can not ignore that they are rooted in the same impetus to negatively separate Christianity from Judaism. Try as we might, systematic Christian theology still has difficulty finding ways to repudiate the time-honored stereotype that Judaism is a religion of the Old Testament, concerned with laws and retribution, and not with grace or compassion. After all, look at our Easter Acclamation:
Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us;
therefore let us keep the feast,
Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Alleluia.
It’s all well and good for Christians to affirm the Apostle Paul’s assertion that the Abrahamic Covenant holds fast (despite the innumerable scriptural examples that indicate otherwise), but again and again in our liturgy and in our message of compassion and redemption, it’s all underpinned by a rather dark idea that prior to Christ’s resurrection, Judaism and the Old Testament had it wrong anyway. The message that comes through is that Christianity is “better than” rather than simply “divergent from” Judaism.
I suppose the exhibit in Germany made me uneasy because the place of church music in Nazism has not something I’ve ever remembered discussing or learning about in my church music training. Furthermore, in conferences and workshops across the country, musicians learn about both the history of church music and how to move it forward in terms of musical diversity and inclusivity. And yet there is virtual silence on the matter of antisemitism. In discussing this with a reformed Jewish friend, she simply laughed and said “this train is never late.”
The manifestation is not necessarily violent in any manner, and I don’t propose to accuse any of my colleagues of hate crimes or hate speech. But in Episcopal Churches across the United States, Christianity’s antisemitism problem rears its head in other ways. Though Episcopalians are instructed to pray for peace throughout the world, it is often the case that the State of Israel is never mentioned by name, but is called “The Holy Land” or “Jerusalem” or “The Middle East,” all the while countries such as Jordan, Egypt or Lebanon are mentioned by their names regardless of their reference to ancient geographical areas or modern states. I admit I grate my teeth, as very often when the word “Israel” comes up, the pronunciation of Israel (“Iz-rail”) is delineated from that of Israel mentioned in the scriptures (“Is-rah-el”), as if any active association between the two might just acknowledge the legitimacy of a Jewish State. Again, no other geographic territory in the bible really receives this treatment. But the desire of some of our clergy to be compassionate, loving and sensitive to global affairs (read: progressive) has the effect of maintaining the same double standard that several LGBT showcased this year: a desire in no way to avoid legitimizing the State of Israel’s existence or policies in the occupied territories through symbolic acts of distance. (I fully acknowledge that this is not Episcopal Church policy, but the frequency with which I’ve encountered it with both clergy and choirs has shown a fairly consistent trend.)
Far more extreme have been the use of slurs and attempts to ban Stars of David at Pride events this year (note: several Episcopal friends on Facebook active support for groups’ attempts to exclude Jewish symbols from parades).
My boyfriend is Jewish, and this the second long term relationship I’ve been in with a Jew. Topics such as these have come up again and again, and I admit a certain astonishment at the silence surrounding the issue of implicit antisemitism and progressive and progressive Christian values. To be blunt, as with other forms of progressivism, antisemitism always falls to the very bottom on the list of priorities.
(For my fellow Obies reading this, one need only see the activities of the Divest movement on campus, the slow pace of Joy Karega’s removal from her post, and removal of the Kosher-Halal Co-op from OSCA to see the extent to which antisemitism is alive and well at our nation’s [supposedly] most progressive liberal arts college.)
I admit to having gotten to point of having no answers when confronted with difficult questions about Christianity’s inconsistent stance on Judaism, and on a greater level, American progressives’ ever growing antisemitism problem. To a large degree I don’t even have those answers now. What worries me is the silence around the issue, and the assumption that good intentions and the sheen of religiosity somehow make unsightly prejudices or assumptions impossible. If anything, due to messages of universality that religions deliver, our liturgies and arts and music are just as susceptible (if not more so) to being used as motors to drive political bandwagons.