Harry Belafonte died this week. He was among my favorite performers, and although his most successful years as a performing artist were before I was born, I was exposed to his music through my mother’s old vinyl records, and in particular “Belafonte at Carnegie Hall,” his live album from 1959.
One of the things that made his music so wonderful was his love of a wide range of folk music. Belafonte sang not only the songs of his youth in the Caribbean (his album “Calypso” was the first ever to sell more than one million copies!), but also folk songs from the American, European, Latin American, and yes, even Jewish traditions. He considered Havah Nagilah, which he performed at nearly every live show, to be one of his favorites, and there is a good case to be made that the reason that this song is such an enduring feature of the American Jewish musical landscape is because Belafonte popularized it:
הבה נגילה ונשמחה
הבה נרננה ונשמחה
עורו אחים בלב שמח
Havah nagilah venismeḥah
Havah nerannenah venismeḥah
‘Uru ahim belev sameaḥ.
Let us rejoice and be happy
Let us sing with joy and be happy
Awake, brothers and sisters, with a happy heart.
Although his paternal grandfather was apparently of Dutch Sephardic extraction, Belafonte was not Jewish. Nonetheless, my mother once told me that she and her friends agreed that he would make a wonderful cantor.
But Harry Belafonte’s great talent was bringing people together, and bringing them joy. His audiences were black and white, Jewish and non-, young and old. During his extended version of the calypso classic “Matilda” at Carnegie Hall, you can hear him take great joy in inviting different demographics of the audience to sing along with him during the chorus, lightly poking fun at “all the big spenders” in the orchestra seats, and “those people on scholarship” all the way up in the nosebleeds. And then when he invites “women over 40” to sing along, the whole place erupts in laughter and joy.
On a more serious note, Belafonte was also an advocate for civil rights, and a personal friend to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the actor Sidney Poitier. And, perhaps due to his charisma, his high profile as an entertainer, and his inclination to bring people together, Belafonte was able to make his voice heard for the benefit of Black Americans. In 1993, he told The Times that he used his songs “to describe the human condition and to give people some insights into what may be going on globally, from what I’ve experienced.”
There were times when he was quite critical, calling out prejudice in unsparing language. Lamenting the roles Black actors received, he said, “TV excludes the reality of Negro life, with all its grievances, passions and aspirations, because to depict that life would be to indict (or perhaps enrich?) much of what is now white America and its institutions. And neither networks nor sponsors want that.”
And Belafonte had the credit to do that, because he was such a master at connecting people through his performance work, because he brought people such joy.
Our tradition, Jewish life and learning, is also heavily invested in joy. But it may not be the first thing that most of us think of when we think of Judaism. Probably the first thing that comes to mind about Jewish life is mitzvot, the 613 opportunities for holiness which our tradition teaches us.
Parashat Qedoshim opens with the line which is, in my humble opinion, the most essential line in the whole Torah (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:2):
קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י’ ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
Qedoshim tihyu, ki qadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem.
You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
Our primary duty to other people, our relational mission, is to be holy, to distinguish ourselves as individuals and as a people by acting in a way that understands the presence of God in the other, and the Divine presence found in the space between people.
And of course, the details are in the passage following, the rest of chapter 19 of Vayiqra / Leviticus, a section known as the Holiness Code: Honor your parents. Keep Shabbat. Leave some of your produce for needy people. Do not steal; deal honestly with your neighbor. And so forth.
What it means to be holy, to emulate God, is to treat others and the Earth with respect, to appreciate what we have been given and not to abuse or take advantage of it. Much of it is a framework of living that is universal; that is, we the Jews read it as having been given to us and required of us.
But let’s face it: the world would be a much better place if we all honored our parents, took a day off to remember God’s creation once a week, and set aside some of our material bounty for others who have none.
The essence of qedushah, of holiness is, in fact, bringing people together rather than driving them apart. Holiness is creating a just society. Holiness is ensuring that other people have food and shelter and clothing. Holiness is following a code of laws which uplifts us all, a set of traditions and customs which bring us framework and meaning.
And we can more easily achieve that when we gather in joy.
I have a student right now with whom I am guiding through the process of conversion. She was raised Catholic, and she has told me that one of the reasons that she was drawn to Judaism was the joy that she has experienced in synagogue, in singing joyfully at the Hod veHadar Instrumental Kabbalat Shabbat service, in watching as we dance as a community for baby-namings and aufrufs. It might be easy for some of us to lose sight, particularly amid Shabbat prohibitions or long Yom Tov days or deep into Yom Kippur afternoon, that Jewish life is filled with music and dancing and joy. We had 85 people here at Beth Shalom on Tuesday evening to celebrate Israel’s 75th birthday, and we danced and ate falafel, after we read the Declaration of Independence. We celebrate together, and even when we are grieving, we grieve together as a community.
My student wants to be a part of that joy. And I suspect that while some of us are here this morning to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillah/prayer, many more of us are here to be joyful together.
You might think of Havah Nagilah merely as a light dance tune. The words are simple. Let’s rejoice, let’s sing with joy. Awake, my brothers and sisters with a happy heart. But we might read that last imperative, ‘Uru, awake, as a call to action. Let’s sing with joy together, so that we can go out tomorrow and work hard to build a better society and a better world.
What is the essential point of the Holiness Code found in Qedoshim? To unite people in holiness, so that we can ultimately get down to the business of improving our lives and the lives of others, where we raise our voices for change, just like Harry Belafonte did.
One final thought: Ramban, the Spanish commentator who lives in the 13th century, points out in his commentary to “qedoshim tihyu,” the commandment to be holy, that it is possible to fulfill all the mitzvot of the Torah and still be, in his words, “נבל ברשות התורה,” “naval birshut hatorah,” a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah. That is, one can act fully within the letter of the law and still be a horrible person. You can accept the Holiness Code of Parashat Qedoshim, and keep Shabbat and provide for needy people and honor your parents and not be a thief and so forth, and you can still be mean, ill-tempered, stingy, and all sorts of other negative descriptors. (Perhaps some of us even know people like that.)
So in order for the system of mitzvot to work properly in helping us to build better lives for ourselves and others, they have to be perceived not as an oppressive set of laws which limit our opportunities for pleasure, but rather as a source of joy.
And that is why the joy of gathering together for ritual, for singing, for celebrating is so essential. It is the joy which keeps us honest, which reminds us that qedushah, holiness, thrives in that relational space between each of us. We have to keep the focus outward. We have to awaken with a lev sameaḥ, a happy heart, to see the joy in our lives and the holiness in others, in order to effect change.
Awake! Live in the joy right now, so that we can go out tomorrow and face the challenges of improving the state of humanity, with a lev sameaḥ.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/29/2023.)