At the end of most services, we sing Adon Olam. More than sing it, we shout it. It’s the fun part of the service that kids love to sing. Even late in life, the most secular adults can recite the first verse with deep affection.
Watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZyXhUMPp2I
We never give much thought to that song, its lyrics, or its author. Some argue it shouldn’t be sung like that at all. It’s a deep, quaking meditation on the magnificence of G-d and all creation, and our position of fear and reverence in the face of it all. We should sing it softly, they say, lamenting, feeling G-d’s spirit deep within our soul.
Its author, Solomon ibn Gabirol, may well have intended it that way. He was a Jewish poet in Andalusia, who brought Eastern and Greek philosophy to the Jews, Christians and Muslims of Medieval Spain. He was a deep thinker on halakhah, ethics and metaphysics. So he must have been really dour and orthodox, right? Right?
Here’s the thing. Solomon ibn Gabirol, the man who wrote the song we sing at the end of our services, liked boys. He liked their lips, he liked their cheeks, he liked their chests and he liked their arses. We know, because throughout his poetry, he tells us this in no uncertain terms.
I will be a ransom for that gazelle of love, in whom all who grieve find happiness;
Whose cheeks are like white marble, and ruddy [as though] anointed with the blood of lovers.
The fruit of his lips are like swords and his eyes like arrows to the heart.
(from Norman Roth‘s amazing essay, “Deal gently with the young man”: Love of Boys in Medieval Hebrew Poetry in Spain).
Most wierdly, I heard a Chabad Rabbi in Oxford give a lecture on how this had been foolishly misinterpreted as erotic, when really it’s just about G!d. Can you believe there are some rabbis who want to strip Gabirol of all his dignity, a millennium after his death, and say that there’s nothing erotic in that?
It’s just about G-d, they claim. There’s nothing (homo)sexual in there at all. Funnily enough, those are the same folks that think we don’t belong in synagogues, who think we’re sinners, or that our love is second best. They’re the ones who ridicule and exclude trans people. They’re the same people who won’t let women sing in shul, or think that cross-dressing on the bimah is unholy.
Maybe you’re not convinced. Maybe you don’t believe ibn Gabirol could really have been the historic homoerotic monster I’m saying he is. In that case, consider this:
He wounds me, whose necklace is the Pleiades and whose neck is like the light of the moon.
In opening the loops of his mouth he reveals the light of his pearls like the sun from its abode.
I answered him: “Take my soul and slay; or if not, heal me, please heal!” He replied with the sweetness of his mouth: “There is no cure for an old wound.”
“Is my wound old, my friend? It is fresh – not more than a year old.”
He answered: “Drink my cup, and sing to me as on a day of parting, let there be no exaltation.”
And my beloved sang to me in Arabic: “In the memory of the man whose appearance I love.”
(from the same essay)
Yeah, yeah. Nothing sexual here. Just about G-d. Nothing to see here.
I’m not even saying it’s *not* about G~d. Maybe that was one of the many layers to these very beautiful poems. What I am saying is that it is also, most definitely, about dick. ibn Gabirol liked twinks.
You know what else? Everyone knew. All his contemporaries were writing homoerotic love poetry too. Ibn Evra. Judah ha-Levi. Ibn Nagrillah. They all liked boys. Sometimes their love was unrequited; sometimes it was consumated; sometimes boys loved them and they didn’t love them back. Sometimes they got stoned on hashish with them. (I’m serious, look it up.) They lived and loved, just the way we do now.
There are long passages where they write about their fears that, perhaps, their love is impure, or perhaps it will never be requited, or maybe they simply don’t love enough. You can read in it all the angst and heartbreak of any modern lover, in the most elegant language imaginable.
Today, we face different challenges. Today queers have to deal with daily bigotry, street attacks, increased risk of homelessness, exclusion and marginalisation. Because of that, we also have a queer culture where people suffer from drug abuse, suicide and mental health problems. We are fighting (and, may I add, winning) against an establishment that is still deeply patriarchal, racist and homophobic.
Maybe you feel like homophobia belongs in the past. No. The misery of sexual denial and homophobia is a relatively recent invention. We belong in the past. We queers have our place in history, in the present and in the future. The voices who say that lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans folk and all us other “abominations” are evil – those voices will die out. And when they’re gone, the wonderful life and poetry of ibn Gabirol will still be with us.
So, no, I don’t want to turn Adon Olam into another dry, cumbersome hymn. I want to sing it just the way I do now, only louder. Singing Gabirol’s song is a reminder that we queers have always had a place in the synagogue. And that, no matter how hard the forces of bigotry try to contain us, we always will.
Sing those words, loud and proud, and know that the final lines of that beautiful song, in English, read:
When I sleep, and when I awake,
With my spirit and my body,
The Holy One is with me,
And I am not afraid.
And I am not afraid.
Norman Roth, “Deal gently with the young man”: Love of Boys in Medieval Hebrew Poetry in Spain, Speculum Vol. 57, No. 1 (Jan., 1982), pp. 20-51. Published by Medieval Academy of America.