The “Herem” of Anonymous: A Contemporary Fable

Loving Disputes

The rabbis of the Talmud believed that in order to understand a situation fully, and to make a resolving decision (where possible), it was best to take all aspects of a situation into consideration. This entailed different points of view, and they were able to hold multiple points of view in their minds as true, each from their own perspective. The Talmudic method was one that fostered a delight in argumentation, but they were intended as loving disputes. Of course, eventually they had to come to a decision, and then the majority decision ruled. But the minority decision was also recorded (because times change, and different decisions may be needed). Interestingly, the U.S. justice system has many similarities to Jewish law, especially in terms of the way appeals and the Supreme Court works.

The Talmudic tale of “Akhnai’s Oven” (a circuitous story that begins with loving disputes about repairing and purifying a broken oven and takes a long route to its resolution) is one of these disputes. Inspired by this Talmudic tale, my own narrative, “The Herem (Banishment) of Anony-Mous, is a round-about story about wrong, shame, recovery, and a heavenly voice called the bat kol. In Akhnai’s Oven, the reader or listener does not know where the story is going until it gets there. In the same round-about manner, The Herem of Anony-Mous makes the point of the narrative. My story is a contemporary illustration of how people with group-think can inflict pain – ona’ah — on a talented person with original ideas beyond the capacity of the group to understand.  The story makes much use of an oft-used literary device characteristic of rabbinic narratives: the divine voice from heaven (the bat kol), and the banishment of Anony-Mous from his community – and his music — parallels the herem imposed on the Talmud’s Rabbi Eliezer.

The “Herem” of Anonymous: A Contemporary Fable

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Anony-Mous was not Jewish; he lived in remote area of North China where it was unlikely that he would ever encounter a Jew. But Anony-Mous did have a religion of his own, although he didn’t know it was a religion. He called it Music. He did not have to seek Music. It came to him, as if he had a Divine Voice, a bat kol in his head. The bat kol was with him always, when he rose up and when he lay down to sleep. It was always there.

The poor, uneducated people who lived in the rural, impoverished town in North China where he was born didn’t have musical training, but Anony-Mous’ bat kol could transport them to internal places they understood from Nature, from the sparse trees in the area, and the waterfall’s flow. They understood the sounds of the birds and the animals, and they heard the breath of the wind, the ru-ach. But never before had anyone in their town made the beautiful “Music” that came from Anony-Mous’ bat kol. On their home-made instruments the villagers tried to reproduce the sounds that Anony-Mous played on his improvised instruments as if truly a Divine Voice were directing him. This was the first miracle, that a little boy could hear that Voice and create its sound for all to hear.

The people whispered about this miracle to the nearby villagers, who whispered to other villagers, and soon the news of Anony-Mous’ bat kol traveled all the way to Beijing, the capital of China, and the home of its musical culture. The Beijing Opera, for example, was there, along with some of the finest musicians and music teachers in all of China.

Anony-Mous was eight years old when Chinese officials from the capital visited the little town to hear his music and promptly whisked him off to Beijing, where he was housed and fed in a style he had never experienced and given the rigorous training accorded to those whose musical genius came to the attention of the State.  This was the second miracle. Anony-Mous’ bat kol was very happy there and sang in his head all day long and sometimes all night too, as Anony-Mous learned from expert teachers to write down the notes of the Divine Voice in his head.  By the time he was twenty, he was composing music – operas, symphonies, concertos — not only in the Chinese style, but in the Western method he was learning too. He was greatly attracted by what he learned about the West, where there was a political system called “democracy,” as if all the instruments in the orchestra had a chance to play so that their voices could be heard.

By now Anony-Mous was not only conducting an orchestra, he was also a university student at Beijing’s finest facility, where ideas he had never encountered before floated around surreptitiously. Unwisely, he took a leadership role in a student protest: The students wanted the government to ameliorate impoverished conditions throughout China — poverty very unlike the elegant living to which Anony-Mous had been introduced in Beijing. He wanted to make life better for simple people, like those who had valued the soulful beauty of his bat kol when he was a little boy.

The Chinese government’s reaction was harsh: It was dangerous to allow a charismatic leader like Anony-Mous to disrupt society with his Western ideas. Even if the rural people of China were indeed suffering dire poverty while Beijing officials lived in luxury. Even if Anony-Mous was right, and they were wrong. Even if his bat kol sang out in magnificent music that celebrated and supported these ideas. The people were listening, and they might begin to understand where the bat kol was leading. An individual must bend to the majority decisions.

The majority decision of the Chinese court was dire: herem, banishment. The learned judges had the power to execute him if they so decided. Instead, they tried to kill his bat kol, his special power that came from a place they could not understand. They realized that it was not Anony-Mous but the magnetism of his bat kol that could lead the people astray. So not only did they banish him from the capital and sentence him to hard labor in a remote agricultural commune in North China, but the judges further decreed that he could not write music nor play an instrument. Not for twenty years. Their intention was to break his spirit into defamed pieces, like the sections of Akhnai’s oven that were no longer ritually pure. Anony-Mous was made tamei (impure).

That night, with uncontrolled anger, the bat kol wreaked vengeance on the capitol. The wind howled, uprooting the trees, the waters reversed their direction, and the earth shook, causing the very walls of the courthouse that had witnessed Anony-Mous’ sentencing to bend perpetually in penance. The animals screamed in terror. But the people were silent. They understood that their beloved bat kol was leaving them.

Miraculously, the bat kol did not leave Anony-Mous. That was the third miracle. Like the Shechina, it accompanied him to the remote rural community where his muscles would ache from the hard labor and the harsh climate until he got used to it and became very, very strong. Inside and out. Although he was not permitted to sing, play an instrument, or write a note of music, the bat kol sang in his head day and night – as he was awakening to the dawn, while he was working throughout the day, and as he was going to sleep. It created beautiful operas and symphonies, and concertos that only Anony-Mous could hear. For nineteen years. In the twentieth year of his harsh sentence, he was permitted to conduct a rural orchestra in the village where the labor camp was located, and where he improvised rough instruments. As the stirring notes of the bat kol took heart and emerged in the compositions he created for the orchestra, the people were awed. The notes were not yet written down. They were all in his head.

At the end of the twentieth year, the authorities whisked him back to Beijing as if the herem had never happened. He was considered “re-educated” and reinstated to all his former musical glory. Then he was formally introduced to the current female director of the Beijing Opera, whom he married, and they had a son  — who perhaps one day, if Anony-Mous is lucky, will defeat him. It was like the restoration of Job after all his hardships. Or the restoration of Akhnai’s oven that had been dismembered but put together with sand between the three sections so that it could remain pure.

Yes, there are some pure individuals who must adhere to their own absolute truth, despite the consequences. No matter what happened to Anony-Mous, he had kept faith with the bat kol. Finally, his tears at the ona’ah, the pain inflicted on an individual by a group, by a majority that was wrong, had penetrated God’s gates, even though they remained locked to others. Now, aided by the bat kol, the notes emerged from his head and flooded onto pages and pages of musical compositions. As one of the foremost modern composers in China, Anony-Mous would become well known in the West for compositions that reconciled the sounds of Eastern and Western music into a unified whole. And the bat kol rejoiced. When Anony-Mous’music is played all over the world, some say they can hear the bat kol – or is it God? — laughing.

* * * *

Is this a true story?

Who was my Anony-Mous (not his real name)? Like Rabbi Eliezer, Anony-Mous was cruelly treated by his community. He, too, had suffered the debilitating effects of ona’ah, and eventually — twenty years later — his tears penetrated the locked gates too. I encountered him at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Canada, where we were both guest artists in different disciplines and became friends. In his early fifties then, tall for a Chinese man, slim, and fit, with black hair, flashing black eyes, and hands that gesticulated like a Rabbi Heschel captured on film, he was in the process of writing a symphony for presentation at the Lincoln Centre. Although his studio at the Banff Centre was furnished with a grand piano, he rarely used it. The notes of his composition simply poured out of his head to his pen and transferred themselves to paper in astounding fluidity. Cemented together like Akhnai’s oven, he was purified.  He had emerged from his broken state, from a herem that would have broken lesser souls to become the musical pride of China.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2015