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Sing the lyrics to it Aint Necessarily So

It ain’t necessarily so, it ain’t necessarily so
De t’ings dat yo’ li’ble to read in de Bible
It ain’t necessarily so

Li’l David was small, but oh my
Li’l David was small, but oh my
He fought big Goliath
who lay down and dieth
Li’l David was small, but oh my

Oh, Jonah, he lived in de whale
Oh, Jonah, he lived in de whale
Fo’ he made his home in dat fish’s abdomen
Oh, Jonah, he lived in de whale

Li’l Moses was found in a stream
Li’l Moses was found in a stream
He floated on water
Til Ole Pharoah’s daughter
She fished him, she says, from that stream

It ain’t necessarily so, it ain’t necessarily so
Dey tell all you chillun de debble’s a villun
But it ain’t necessarily so.

To get into Hebben don’t snap for a sebben
Live clean, don have no fault
Oh, I takes dat gospel
Whenever it’s pos’ble
But wid a grain of salt

Methus’lah lived nine hundred years
Methus’lah lived nine hundred years
But who calls dat livin’
when no gal will give in
To no man what’s nine hundred years?

I’m preachin’ dis sermon to show
It ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa
Ain’t necessarily so.

I want to tell you about a religious experience I had in the youth lounge last week. First a little background. In the coming year, we are hoping to explore the beauties and complexities of the Black-Jewish relationship. And, as a kickoff to the first year of this initiative, we are going to invite people from both communities to see Porgy and Bess together when it comes to the Seattle Opera in August.

Porgy and Bess, as many of us know, was the first of many musical collaborations between blacks and Jews. The music and lyrics were written by George and Ira Gershwin, and the singers and actors of the cast were black.

Well, about a week ago. I was thinking about what this experience was going to be like, when I walked into the Youth Lounge. I really had come looking for an ice cream. But, while I was there, I just happened to notice that on the top of the traveling book cart was a brand new biography of George Gershwin. So, I went over and I opened the book. And, lo and behold, the book opened exactly to chapter 31, which was the chapter on Porgy and Bess.  Was this a coincidence?

I was so excited that I immediately sent off an email to my friend Mark Jones who is my partner in this project explaining what happened. I have to admit that there is a part of me that would have liked to believe that this was an act of God. But, deep down inside I don’t really believe that.

There is a certain kind of belief in God that looks for signs in the world like the one I experienced. And, that is the kind of belief that is challenged in Porgy and Bess in the song “It aint necessarily so.” The Gershwins, through the words of Sportin Life, question whether what the Bible says is really true. Did Jonah really live inside the belly of a whale? Did Methusalah really live to 900?

And, George Gershwin adds an extra level of chutzpah to this question with the melody of the song. It is almost exactly the same as the melody we sing when we have an Aliyah to the Torah: (sing) Barchu et Adonai ha’m’vorach/it aint necessarily so…In other words, Gershwin uses a melody which we use to affirm our loyalty to the Torah in a song which questions whether the words of the Bible are true.  Amazing! And, so Jewish!

And, yet the idea of questioning our faith in God is not new. It’s as old as the Bible itself. It’s just a different kind of questioning. As James Kugel points out in his new book (The Big Shift), our Biblical ancestors did not question whether there was a God or not. They took God’s existence for granted.

And, yet, there is doubt all over the Bible. It’s, our ancestors may not have questioned God’s existence. But, they did question whether God could deliver on God’s promises. So, when God first sends Moses to Pharoah, Pharoah only makes the slavery worse for the Jewish people. And, Moses comes back to God all upset and says ‘lama ha’reiota la’am ha’zeh’/why, God, have you made the Jewish people so miserable?

Moses is not questioning God’s existence, only his effectiveness. Moses is questioning whether God is really more powerful than Pharoah, as God claims. Is good a more powerful a force than the evil in the world? That’s what Moses isn’t sure about.

And, sometimes God isn’t sure either. When God sees the corruption on earth in  the days of Noah, God wonders, “Did I fail? Is the good in humanity really capable of overcoming the evil?”  And, as God looks at the Jewish people’s behavior in today’s  parasha, God  questions whether we have it in us to be the kind of people God wants us to be.

For a brief moment, God loses faith. But, it’s not the faith that we exist. God is wondering whether this whole project God had in mind for us of creating a society based on kindness and giving and caring is going to work.

And, when Abraham doubts, and he says to God, ‘mah titein li, va’anochi holeich ariri’/God you promised to make me a great nation, but I don’t even have one child!—Abraham is not doubting God’s existence. Abraham is wondering whether he personally has the tenacity, the persistence and the determination to see his dream through, this dream of a more a beautiful world. “Maybe I’m foolish to dream this way,”says Abraham. “Maybe, the dream is a mirage.”

This really is the more serious crisis of faith in Porgy and Bess. Whether Jonah really lived in the whale is not the core concern. That doesn’t impact my life—whether God performs magic tricks, like opening my book to the chapter on Porgy and Bess just at the right time. What does impact me is the line in the song that questions whether the devil is really a villain. Meaning: Is the drug dealer, Sportin Life right? Does the world really belong to him and his kind?  Is life really only about survival of the fittest, and the most powerful are the ones that are going to win?

The question which is at the heart of Porgy and Bess is—am I foolish to be an idealist? And, that is the same question which is at the heart of the Bible. That question was infinitely more important to our Biblical ancestors than whether God split the Red Sea or not.

And, it’s this faith question that we still struggle with today. When I was in high school, I was first introduced to the question of whether Lincoln really wanted to free the slaves, or whether the Civil War was just about money. That question is still tugging at America now. We don’t wonder whether God exists. We wonder whether America exists—that is the America we were taught to love. Is there an idealistic core to the American story? Or, is our whole history just about power, wealth and fame?

For the Jewish people, our question is: Does Israel exist—that is, the Israel we were taught to love. For so many of us, the story of Israel we grew up with was a story of human triumph over adversity, of good overcoming evil, of the possibility of defeating bigotry and rising to our full potential.  Now, many people in the world are saying this story isn’t true. There never was such an Israel, that we are foolish to believe in such fairy tales. This is the crisis of faith of our generation, not the question of whether God exists.

After the Jewish people left Egypt, we traveled for three days and we ran short of water. We panicked, and we cried out: Ha’yesh Adonai b’kirbeinu, im ayin…Not ha’yesh Adonai/Not ‘is there a God’….but ha’yesh Adonai b’kirbeinu….is God with us…literally, is God in us.

There are two mistakes we can make in looking at the world. One is to assume that all the good is in us, and we have nothing to learn from those who differ from us.  The other is to assume the opposite, that there is no good in us, and everyone else in the world is better than us.

This is the mistake made by our people in today’s parasha. We saw ourselves as grasshoppers and the people around us as giants. We lost our moral self-confidence. We lost the belief that ‘yesh Adonai b’kirbeinu’—that there is God in us, that there is good in us.

This is the challenge we face today. It’s not lack of faith in God that is our greatest obstacle. It’s lack of faith in our own idealism. We have lost our faith that America is an idealistic enterprise. We have lost our faith that Israel is an idealistic enterprise. We see ourselves as grasshoppers and those who despise us as giants. We have lost our moral self-confidence.

Of course, we are a work in progress. We are not saints. We are often driven by self-interest and a desire to win. We are not moral giants. But, we are not moral grasshoppers either.

In the end, Porgy’s courage is the most eloquent answer to the skepticism of “It ain’t necessarily so.” He is physically challenged. He moves around on a goat cart. Yet, he protects Bess from her abusive lover Crown. And, at the end of the opera, he sets off from Charleston, S.C. to New York on his goat cart to rescue Bess from her drug dealer, Sportin Life.

We don’t know that he will succeed. But, we don’t for a moment question the power of his faith.