The Hills Are Alive
Friday, 01 September 2017 | 10 Elul, 5777
It’s the second most viewed movie (after Gone With the Wind). Across the world the lyrics are recognised; it’s a feel-good uplifting experience. It’s The Sound of Music with the irrepressible Julie Andrews in starring role of Maria Von Trapp; the governess of the family who married Captain Von Trapp, the father of the seven children. The movie was largely filmed in the gorgeous city of Salzburg with its fine old buildings, gardens, medieval streets, museums and Mozart connections.
Every year huge numbers of fans head for Salzburg and join the Sound of Music Tour, stay at the Villa Trapp and have a Sound of Salzburg Dinner Show with songs from the movie to occupy their three-course meal (wonder if they do kosher). Recently a Salzburg City Councillor caused a stir by requesting that a street be named after Maria. The council voted against this because in her autobiography, Von Trap describes the corporal punishment she exacted on the children. The council reasoned that today her behaviour would be considered cruel, even violent and unacceptable. The detractors argue that this is so, but that such punishment was common at the time and that anyway so many “difficult” people have had streets named after them.
While the movie is cheesy and sentimentalised (and I still find myself singing “The Hills are Alive”), this little debate does bring up more important issues of contextuality and the idealised re-writing of history.
As close readers of text, serious Jews are called on to consider the context of events and to reflect on how we idealise our ancestors. We defend some of our most difficult Biblical texts on the basis of contextuality. Thus we suggest that slavery or monarchy need to be understood in terms of the times.
Rambam famously argues (in his Guide) that sacrifices were an integral part of ancient history but that as we evolved, their importance diminished (Nachmanides and others vigorously opposed this although Rav Kook largely supported it). The Abarbanel, who live through the cruel reign of King Ferdinand and Isabella and the expulsion from Spain (1492), was vehemently opposed to the monarchy and saw the Torah’s laws of kingship (in last week’s parasha) as a grudged concession to the weakness of the Jewish people, rather than a noble institution.
The idealisation of our ancestors remains a hot topic of debate between the traditionalists and the modernists. Thus the Chareidi traditional position is that our “avot” – patriarchs and matriarchs – were close to perfection and irreproachable. The Modern Orthodox and academic worlds view the flaws of our progenitors as a reflection of their humanity. When we appreciate that even the great have their struggles and weaknesses, we are better able to face our own failures and vulnerabilities. Perfection is an inhibitor rather an inspirer.
A more recent example of the idealisation of our historic figures comes from an article by Dr Leslie Gisparg Klein about Sarah Schenirer who pioneered Jewish education for women in the early twentieth century. Thanks to a Schenirer network of (Beis Yaakov) schools was set up for religious Orthodox girls which is approved by the vast majority of rabbinic leaders across the Chareidi spectrum today. When it is suggested that Schenirer was a role model for reform, a modern day champion for Jewish women’s rights, they argue that she only did so with the prior approval of the great rabbis or Gedolim of her age especially the Chafetz Chaim. Truth is this is a false narrative. As Gisparg Klein documents Sarah Schenirer began her movement without the prior approval of any of the greats of her day (although the Belzer Rebbe was minimally supportive). The famous endorsement of the Chafetz Chain came some ten years after the movement’s founding in 1933. Change was initiated at a grass roots level by this singular individual with a vision only matched by her energy. Idealising Shenirer only detracts from her greatness as opposed to idealising Von Trapp which minimises her failings. Both are misleading.
Our thirst for perfection often blurs our perception of reality. We would love to live in a world where the hills resound to the sounds of music, where children are helped by doting, indulgent teachers, where the rivers run smoothly and peacefully through the majestic scenery. The story of the Von Trapp’s however has a dark side, not only of abusive behaviour towards children but also of the rise of Nazism (the family had to flee over the Alps). The story and the controversy remind us that our heroes all too often have feet of clay, that if we choose to lionise individuals we should also acknowledge their failings. Interestingly this is also similar to the debate raging in the U.S.A about statues erected in honour of “racist” confederate generals and others.
This month of Elul, preceding Rosh Hashanah calls on us to think deeply about our imperfections, to acknowledge our foibles and failures, to strive for the truth and to think carefully about our heroes and the streets we choose to name after them.