According to my best recollection I was eight when the new music teacher started at my elementary school. Memory is tricky, though, so I might be out by a year or two either side. But I remember her starting. I don’t remember having music lessons before then, so someone at school or one of the parents, perhaps, must have decided that young Jews needed a musical education to round us out as human beings. Or maybe they were all just tired of the children’s choir that sang every year at the High Holidays being so badly out of tune. I really don’t know who decided to hire a music teacher or when or how they found her, but I do know that her presence in my life was transformational.
Suddenly we all wanted to sing. She used to come in with bits of music to see what happened if she set them to three or four part harmony and split us all into groups to teach us our parts. And the competition for solos was fierce. Everyone wanted to impress her. The school began holding concerts several times year, not just a High Holidays roll out of the cute children from the day school attached to the synagogue building in a rather cynical attempt to get parents to turn up for some of the less well attended services on Yom Kippur, for example.
And our teacher excited us about Jewish music, especially because a lot of it was music we had never heard before, music we had never heard in synagogue before, music that made us want to sing and sometimes dance, music that made us feel joyous about prayer and being Jewish. Our music teacher’s music was nothing like the music that our cantor, a trained opera singer, sang at Shabbat services each week. Her music was music we could join in with. It was, truly, a revelation.
What I didn’t know at the time, but found out years later, was that most of what she taught us to sing really was revolutionary, because it wasn’t the then standard synagogue repertoire. It was music that she was composing at night and weekends, when she wasn’t trying to herd a bunch of 6 – 12 year olds into singing in key. And that music that she composed and tried out on us and then taught us to sing just the way she wanted to hear it sung didn’t just transform our world, our relationship to prayer and synagogue, it transformed the whole of the Jewish world. Because I was very, very fortunate to go to a Jewish day school in suburban southwest Houston in the mid-1970s where they had the foresight to hire Debbie Friedman z’l to be our music teacher.
So when I say that I can’t remember the first time I heard or learned to sing ‘Not By Might’, I don’t mean I can’t remember the first time I heard a recording of it or the first time I heard a choral rendition of it. I mean I can’t remember the first time Debbie brought in a handwritten sheet of paper that she had been working on and tried it out with us. I can’t even remember if it was when she taught me in elementary school or when she worked with our youth group later on, when I was in high school. But I do remember being fourteen or fifteen at a B’nai Brith Youth Organisation weekend away, possibly in Chattanooga, Tennessee (if memory serves), and standing on top of the tables with my friends as Debbie played loudly, passionately on her guitar and we sang, ‘not by might and not by power, but by spirit alone, shall all men live in peace.’
Debbie changed those words in later years to come into line with gender inclusive language – ‘not by might and not by power, but by spirit alone, shall we all live in peace’. A good and helpful change, I have always thought. But I was well into rabbinical school before I learnt that the words that Debbie herself had always told us came from the book of Zechariah were more accurately a transformation of the words from Zech 4:6, which we read in this morning’s haftarah.
ויען ויאמר אלי לאמר זה דבר-יהוה אל זרבבל לאמר לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם-ברוחי אמר יהוה צבאות:
He [the angel/messenger] answered and said to me, saying: This is the word of the Eternal One to Zerubbavel saying: Not by might and not by power, rather by My Spirit, says the Eternal One of Hosts.
This verse is definitely not the same as the words of Debbie Friedman’s famous song. Yes, they both contain the words ‘not by might and not by power’, but after that they diverge substantively.
This now well-known verse from Zechariah is part of the larger section of ch 4: 1 -14 that comprise Zechariah’s fifth vision (out of eight in total). [As an aside we also read the fourth vision in ch 3.] Each of these eight visions is mediated by a messenger or angel figure, who first appears in Zech 1: 9. Set in the post-exilic period during the reign of Darius I, Zechariah’s visions deal with the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem under the dual leadership of both priests and politicians and, in the case of this vision particularly the leadership of Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel, who was both the Achaemenid governor of the province in which Jerusalem was situated as well as apparently a descendant of King David, completed the rebuilding of the Temple in conjunction with the high priest, Joshua ben Jehozadak.
In Zechariah’s fifth vision, the messenger talks again to Zechariah. ‘What do you see?’ he asks in v. 2. Zechariah replies with a detailed description of the lampstand of the Temple (and this probably is the reason that our haftarah is linked to Beha’alotecha, as the parasha, too, commences with a description of the lampstand). But Zechariah does not appear to understand his own vision and asks the messenger what they mean. The last two verses of our haftarah, vv. 6-7, are the messenger’s reply, the messenger’s explanation of Zechariah’s vision. The messenger directs his words ostensibly to Zechariah, but they actually appear to be a message to Zerubbabel: Do not think that the Temple will be rebuilt through any show of your military strength or political power. The Temple is rebuilt only through the will of that most militaristic name of God, the Eternal One of army units, יהוה צבאות.
Moreover the Hebrew formulation of the relationship between ‘not by might and not by power’ and ‘by My spirit’ employs the conjunction כי אם. Normally simply translated here as ‘but’, כי אם actually often has more power than that. In some syntactical arrangements כי אם can be used to establish an oath, for example. While it doesn’t seem to have that force here overtly, I think there is scope to read it as part of the verse’s subtle undertone. Not only is God asserting God’s own power over human power; God is doing so almost as though it is a promise/threat. God is the ultimate religious-political authority, powered by weapons-grade divinity. God towers over Zerubabbel; power, might, strength, authority, these human attributes are nothing compared to God’s spirit which embodies all these attributes and more.
In contrast, Debbie Friedman’s lyrics mean something utterly different. ‘Not by might and not by power, but by spirit alone shall we all live in peace.’ The ‘quotation’ is now stripped of God’s involvement completely. The contrast is between the attributes of power and might versus ‘spirit’, with only an implied sense of what ‘spirit’ might mean through the completely invented new ending. Spirit must be something gentle, something that leads to peace; not a show of arms, but a challenge to power. Spirit, perhaps in the sense of spirituality. Debbie’s song is homage to the folk music of the 1960s, a soundtrack for non-violent protest, an anthem for a passionate, but peaceful demonstration.
But the Bible is a text full of violence, some of it, even much of it, God’s violence. God is often angry, punishing the people for generations, inflicting a range of destructive forces on human beings from the Flood to slavery to sexual violence to the demolition of Jerusalem and the Temple itself. I wondered this past week if that was the Bible Donald Trump was holding up when he employed military force to clear non-violent protestors from his path for his photo opportunity in front of a church that was aghast at his actions.
In the culture wars that have raged for two millennia, the Bible has been used to uphold violence through its own violence as often as it has been used to cry out for peace, freedom and justice. Debbie Friedman rewriting Zechariah has been the side that as progressive Jews we have all too unwittingly held up without any serious scrutiny. How can we sing our songs of peace and have them be meaningful until we have examined what lays behind them, until we know what is written and what is interpretation?
Debbie’s music transformed me, but it took me decades before I fully understood what she was truly transforming. Zechariah tells us, forcefully, that God is in charge; change only happens at God’s will. But Debbie plays into our hearts something else – that we are ultimately responsible for creating the peace we want to see in the world.
I hope, in different ways, they are both right.