Sunday, June 28, 2009

Satan’s Siren Songs

The interpretation of Satan's role varies within Judeo-Christian religions. Alhough Christianity often compares Satan to the Devil, the opposing force of God, the Jewish Bible (or the Old Testament) and the Talmud portrays him as the Accuser (ha-Satan or השָׂטָן), or the Tempter. He is working for God, testing the strength of people's faith and morality, tempting them to sin. Bulgakov's famous "Master and Margarita" is based on this theme. Although in Genesis Devil takes the form of a serpent in the paradise, not generally regarded as a pretty creature, in other biblical passages Satan is described as the most beautiful of God's angels, powerful enough to have other angels follow him and supposedly desiring to replace God. Many stories tell of the fallen angels being cast down from heaven, Satan as their leader. The temptation of Christ mentions Devil as the tempter of Jesus in the desert in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew but Satan in the Gospel of Mark. None of us can deny the existence of evil as it surrounds us constantly, yet I for one wouldn't call it Satan's work.

It is interesting that we are told of God being omnipotent and yet at the same time some writings, held sacred, admit that there is a constant war between God and Evil. The Jewish faith generally believes in demons, king of whom is often mentioned as Asmodai or (אשמדאי). According to some writing he was married to Lilith (Lilli or similar names), his queen. He is overseer of gambling, prince of revenge and demon of lust. He is also one of the seven princes of hell and has seventy-two legions of demons in his command. Some tales claim Asmodai is the same as Satan but in general Satan's role is quite different as he is only supposed to act with the permission of God. Among many interesting items in Derfner Judaica Museum in the Bronx there is a deck of old playing cards from the 1920s Palestine, having pomegranates, stars of David, fig leaves and menorahs replace the usual suits. Asmodai is also pictured, as the Joker.

We are seeing an increase of anti-Semitism these days, both globally and here in the States. Neo-Nazi sites are all over the internet and the Aryan Nation flexes its muscle whenever it can. Not that Americans are strangers with this: it is not that long ago when Jews couldn't join clubs or even rent a room in many hotels ("Hebrews are not welcome"). In 1939 Cuba turned back a German ship, St. Louis, full of Jewish refugees heading for Havana, letting in only 22 Jews, those with visas. Those almost a thousand people then slowly sailed towards Miami and saw the lights of the city but weren't allowed to disembark. Western Europe finally accepted most of them but with the swift invasion of the Third Reich, 532 were trapped and of those 254 died.

Part of this raw emotion is understandable, disgusting as it is, with the worsening economic crisis and seeing so many Jewish names connected to failed institutions, not to mention the Jewish poster boy Bernie Madoff. Finding a scapegoat is a result of any crisis and pointing a finger at a certain ethnic group is easy. Muslims are treated even worse but it is because we associate them with 9/11 and terrorism in general. Jews, on the other hand, didn't improve as human beings with wealth and power. Gone is the humble piety of a poor person from the Pale. Today we more likely see a Jewish public figure that pretends to be religious only to have the support of the well-to-do community, has a lavish Bar or Bat Mitsvah for his offspring, and yet at the same time takes perverse pride in having a shiksa as a girlfriend or mistress.

We learned from Greek mythology about the deadly singing of the Sirens. Sailors couldn't resist their tempting voices and headed for their deaths. The famous anti-Semite Richard Wagner wrote some very seductive music which has brought music lovers, his intended victims, to his world in hoards. In many ways his music is that of the Sirens. The Nazis blasted it in the concentration camps so that it made the poor suffering souls even sicker before gassing them. The idea of praising a Nordic pagan religion in the Ring cycle should be revolting to Christians, but what about all the Jews who embrace the same music and ideology? Isn't the Jewish character of Mime enough of an insult? Granted, the music is very tempting at times, but do we have to give into an anti-Semite's plan any more than to fall for every seductive woman or man? We, in the West, haven't accepted the use of the swastika after the defeat of the Nazi party which stole the sacred symbol in its anti-clockwise form from India and other cultures. I would rather embrace the ornamental cross, which was never intended to cause harm, than the music of a dangerous but gifted maniac.

Is Wagner's music another test by Satan the tempter or is it a product of Asmodai the demon of lust? I don't have the answer to that but although I had to take part in numerous productions of the composer's operas, today I wouldn't be caught dead attending a performance. For reasons he never told me, my father deeply disliked Wagner's music, and thus I had very little exposure to it until much later. In my dad's situation, I think the music made him feel uneasy early on, even before Hitler's time. In any case he didn't fall for the seductive qualities of Wagner's works and genuinely hated the bombastic overtures and other such sections that he had heard. Never did his orchestra play any of the composer's music although other German music was to his liking, with the exception of Bruckner. He was a violinist after all, not a brass player, and I don't think there are too many of us who love endless tremolos.

May Israel's ban on Wagner's music remain in place in spite of the work to the contrary by some wonderful musicians, such as Barenboim. Perhaps they have given in to the lust, just like Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, formerly one of the strongest voices demanding the impeachment of President Clinton and his Monica. Take the operas to China: people there are accustomed to such stories. Ling cycle, anyone?

"Satan" by Gustave Doré
Palestine playing cards at Derfner, NY Times