I whistle a happy tune – what happens when you’re afraid?

June 11, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the Rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Isn’t the verse from Psalms unrealistic – “The Lord is with me, I shall not fear” (118:6)?

A. The song says, “Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect: I whistle a happy tune, so no-one will suspect I’m afraid”.

The Jew says, “Whenever I feel afraid, I know I’m not alone: I say ‘Shema Yisra’el’, and never do I moan”.

With God there, the fear does not magically evaporate, but it loses its force.

The sages (Avodah Zarah 65a) tell a story about the great scholar Rava, who was deputed to bring a gift to an official of the Parthian regime.

He found the official lying on a bed of roses surrounded by beautiful maidens. The official looked scornfully at the ascetic sage and said, “Do you have anything like this in your World to Come?”

Rava retorted, “We have something better, which is bliss, undaunted by fear of governments.”

As they were talking a messenger arrived from the government, requiring the official to appear before an investigatory panel on charges of misconduct.

Suddenly all the bluster went and the terror-stricken official lost interest in his flowers and maidens.

Of course, there were many times in history when Jews were confronted with threats and attacks, but the Jewish response was to say, “God is with me, and I will overcome.”


Q. Is it acceptable for male and female congregants to join in singing “Adon Olam?

A. The Talmud (Sotah 48a) objects to two types of mixed singing:

1. When men sing and women then join in, and

2. When women sing and men then join in.

The second case is regarded more negatively than the first. The rationale of both appears to be that when one gender starts and waits for the second to join in, unholy thoughts may be aroused.

Rabbi J Simcha Cohen, formerly of Mizrachi in Melbourne and an acknowledged halachic writer, notes a third scenario which the Talmud does not record at all, i.e. when a community sings together in unison.

In that situation, the singing is not structured on male-female lines and neither men nor women are paying specific attention to the melodic tones of the other gender; they are singing as a community (“Intermarriage and Conversion: A Halachic Solution”, 1987, chap. 19).

However, this does not justify a mixed choir, which is, by definition, structured to take note of the different group of voices.


Q. In the eyes of God, do we all have equal rights?

A. Some countries have a Bill of Rights that spells out people’s entitlements. But many of us claim all sorts of extras – not just free medicine, free education and free handouts, but special status, influence and regard.

In some cases there is an actual right which was won after a long struggle; in others there is a broad consensus, such as that nations are entitled to self-determination; in others the “rights” are wishful thinking.

The question of equal rights raises the deeper question of equal status. Are we all equally important in the eyes of God, i.e. in a philosophical sense?

The answer has nothing to do with our size (“I’m bigger than you, therefore I’m worth more”), with our colour (“I’m white, therefore I’m superior”), with our voice (“I can shout louder, therefore I matter more”), with our heredity (“My father was a great man, therefore I’m special”).

Nor does it depend on how much we have in the bank, how many cars we have, how much social standing or political influence we possess.

A person’s status is intrinsic to their personness.

The Tosefta (Sanhedrin chapter 8) says that Adam was created alone so that no-one could claim that they had a better measure of natural endowment.

Psalm 145 teaches that God’s mercies extend over all His creatures.

The Tanchuma to Deut. 29:9 says that no-one is better just because they’re male, female, young, old, of high rank or lowly.

The prophets say, “Has not one Father created us all?” (Mal. 2:10).

Yes, I know that this is not always how it works in a diverse and often defective world, but the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God remains the ideal.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.


2 Responses to “I whistle a happy tune – what happens when you’re afraid?”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    Rabbi Apple,
    I hope you will not mind a little further discussion here and this particularly speaks to my own question voiced earlier of the origins of separating men and women in the practice of Judaism or in public places.

    As it happens I’m currently reading Simon Schama’s ‘The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BCE – 1492 CE’. I’ve come to discussion of the diaspora of late antiquity, in which a fourth century synagogue is mentioned (at the time synagogues were more abundantly decorated than of later times, much of the decoration geometric and ornamental). There were benefactors who made possible splendid mosaic work and their names were recorded in Aramaic inscriptions, one of which is
    ‘Juliana of her own funds paved the mosaic of this holy synagogue of Naro for her salvation’, (p. 191, chapter 5). The following passage will show my interest in mentioning this, with current ultra-orthodoxy thinking in mind:

    ‘That a Jewish woman celebrated her benefaction at Hammam-Lif should come as no surprise. The tightly confined role assigned to women in the Mishnah, principally as the recipients of male judgements about their rights and claims, may be an inadequate guide to social reality. That reality was that women and men sat together in these synagogues with no separation whatsoever. In fact neither the Torah nor the Mishnah has anything to say on the subject, and from the wealth of evidence available from synagogues of this period, not one sign of any gallery or other kind of partition has ever been found.’

    It is a great shame that separation has been taken to the lengths it has, and in the twenty-first century it makes sense for the pooling and sharing of men’s and women’s talents and Judaic belief for strong unity of the Jewish State and Jewish people in the Diaspora, which would also ensure equal human rights to worship, to work and to contribute (and I do not mean domestically, which is the default position taken by those justifying the present state of play).

  2. Liat Kirby says:

    These questions/answers open up a Pandora’s box, Rabbi Apple. I have always found the rationale behind separation of male/female in dancing or indeed in synagogue attendance an aberrant thing and have often wondered about its origins (I don’t think it exists in the Torah as an instruction?). Now we have the discussion on joint singing, with the Talmudic reasoning of unholy thoughts proffered as reason for not doing so. It’s a shame there’s not more respect for man and woman’s capacity to focus on the holy and I do not believe we need other adults to protect us in this way. Also, the focus is usually on the man to be protected from the woman, which is an offensive concept. At least Rabbi Simcha Cohen tries to find a way out with his idea of unity in singing.

    There are increasing problems in Israel with the ultra-Orthodox attempting to influence publicly separation of men and women on public buses, influence brought to bear on radio stations not to broadcast women singing, and policing of what women wear in the streets, all with this kind of thinking in mind. The Supreme Court has made findings against this as response, so if women have the courage and determination to take the equal rights G-d considers theirs, the problems will be addressed. When we speak of these issues and the Talmud, the realities associated with them socially need also to be acknowledged.

    I appreciate you are sharing your knowledge in your column for the enlightenment of Jewish people, and think it would be an additional benefit to have deeper discussion around rules that have been decided upon by men coming to decisions through scholarly interpretation of biblical edicts. At least Judaism is a growing thing, with new shoots added to a trunk of learning as time goes on and with many avenues to explore. The difficulty remains that a woman may only contribute if she’s part of a congregation that is not Orthodox. In saying that, I do not in any way infer disrespect for the Orthodox, not at all.

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