The Dangling Conversation

Kids’ Day Speech

June 10, 2012

by Andrew Frantz

Hearing voices no one else can hear isn't a good sign, even in the wizarding world.

– from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling


Heard the one about the talking gefilte fish?

Okay, so technically there’s no such thing as a talking gefilte fish because gefilte fish have no mouths. For my fellow goyim, gefilte fish is a mix of ground fish, matzo meal, eggs, a little seasoning, shaped into balls or patties, then baked, chilled and served with a horseradish-vinegar sauce, usually on Shabbat (the Sabbath. Come on, goyim, keep up.) The very idea of a talking gefilte fish is absurd.

Actually, it was a talking carp.

Perhaps you remember reading the story, as reported in The New York Times, as well as a whole passel of other publications, of the two fishmongers from New Square, New York, a small Hasidic community about an hour north of New York City. As fish tales go, theirs is the biggest whopper this side of The Incredible Mr. Limpet.

It seems that on January 28, 2003, Luis Nivelo, a thirty-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant who had been working at the New Square Fish Market for seven years, was preparing to chop up a twenty pound carp to make into gefilte fish, when suddenly, the carp began talking to him – in Hebrew, no less – “shouting apocalyptic warnings and claiming to be the troubled soul of a revered community elder who recently died.”

I’ll give you a moment to process that picture.

Mr. Nivelo, who the Times was kind enough to inform us, speaks no Hebrew – nor carp, we’re left to assume – “looked around to see if the voice had come from the slop sink, the other room or the shop’s cat,” – because, after all, what’s more illogical, a talking fish, a talking slop sink, or a talking cat?

But no, “The voice came from inside the fish. . . . The mouth of the fish opened and closed and it was a really funny voice,” Mr. Nivelo said.

Thinking it was the devil, Mr. Nivelo screamed and ran to get the proprietor of the store, Mr. Zalmen Rosen, who called his employee meshuggeneh (that would be “crazy,” goyim. I haven’t forgotten you). But when Mr. Rosen approached the fish, he too heard it speaking in Hebrew.

“It said” – and I would ask your indulgence for my poor Hebrew pronunciation here, except, of course, I am quoting a fish – “‘Tzaruch shemirah’ and ‘Hasof bah,’” Mr. Rosen said, “which essentially means that everyone needs to account for themselves because the end is near.”

A panicked Mr. Rosen “tried to kill the fish with a machete-size knife. But the fish bucked so wildly that Mr. Rosen wound up cutting his own thumb and was taken to the hospital by ambulance. The fish flopped off the counter and back into the carp box and was butchered by Mr. Nivelo and sold.”

Residents of the New Square community have mixed feelings when it comes to the tale of the talking fish. Some claim it was all just a hoax while others believe it was a miracle and that God was revealing himself to the two fishmongers. As for Mr. Nivelo, he still believes the fish was the devil. “‘I don’t believe any of this Jewish stuff,’ he said. ‘But I heard that fish talk.’”

Like Mr. Nivelo, I too do not speak Hebrew, carp either, but if a fish began talking to me, I do not believe I would need a translator. I would know the end is near and I would definitely account for myself – or at least my shorts.

That’s not to say I haven’t heard a voice or two in my time, but they usually emanate from within my own bulbous head rather than the mouth of a fish, what some people refer to as their intuition or conscience. Once on an episode of Seinfeld, Kramer referred to such a voice as “the little man inside you,” instructing George Costanza, “you gotta listen to the little man,” to which George replied, “my little man’s an idiot.”

There are some people who believe their inner voice to be the voice of God. I’m not so sure, given the many mornings which find me staring into my closet, trying to decide what to wear, and listening to the voice inside my head as it says, not the brown pants, wear the blue ones. I have read where God is said to be concerned for our well-being, even to the point of knowing the number of hairs on our heads – and let’s face it, some heads of hair offer God more of a challenge than others – but I can’t imagine the LORD GOD OF THE UNIVERSE being all that concerned over the color of my pants. Besides, anyone who has seen the way I dress could only come to one conclusion: my little man’s a fashion idiot.

Still, it was my inner voice I was listening to not too long ago when I clearly heard it say, Andrew, try not to be such a jerk. Now there’s no need for me to bore you with the reasoning behind the reproach. Let’s just say that on occasion, it is well deserved. That does sound like something God might say though, doesn’t it? Try not to be such a jerk. When you think about it, there’s an awful lot of theology in such an admonition. It even sounds like something one might read in the Book of Proverbs: Trust in the Lord with all thy heart, and try not to be such a jerk.

For a while I thought this is what I should speak about this morning. I could share my reflections on “the jerk inside each of us,” maybe mention some jerks in the Bible, even get topical and point out a few of the bigger jerks in our society today, except that between Donald Trump, the Tea Party, and everyone reading their Kindles or emails or texting while slowly walking directly in front of me when I’m trying to get somewhere, well, I’d hardly know where to begin. But it takes one to know one, as they say, and in pointing a finger at others, I guess I just made a pretty good case for why I was being admonished in the first place.

Instead, I decided to focus not on the message, but on the messenger, and the sense that perhaps we all share to one degree or another of being called by God. Now I don’t mean to imply that we are all hearing voices or that we spend our free time barking at the moon, nor would I want to mischaracterize your connection to or definition of God. Val Webb, in her book Stepping Out With The Sacred: Human Attempts to Engage the Divine, reminds us,

The spectrum of answers over the centuries to the question of whether the Sacred engages with humanity ranges from the Deists’ belief in a Creator that had no further interest in creation, to Nature itself as Sacred, to a Divine life-force or Persuasive Urge within the universe, to GOD directing every event in our world from outside, changing its laws in answer to prayers. How we answer basically comes down to how we interpret what we experience in the world.

The Sufi mystic Rumi interprets this calling as “A lover seek[ing] his beloved,” and says “God has planted within you the desire to search for him.”

Too romantic for your taste? You might prefer instead the retired Episcopalian bishop, John Shelby Spong, no theist he, who nevertheless describes the calling this way:

[T]here is something deep inside me, and I suspect deep inside every other person, that requires us to commune with the source of life. Perhaps that is what the hymn writer named the love “that will not let me go.” Perhaps it is only an illusion, but illusion or real, we know its presence. It is like a mystical center of life that can neither be described nor denied. It is something beyond me, yet always it seeks to meet me in the depths of my own being. It is a presence that calls me into wholeness. It is something powerful that impinges on my consciousness and seems to invite me beyond the barriers of my security and even beyond the barriers of my humanity. It is something that nudges me into community and into caring for others. I address this presence as a Thou, not because it is a personal being, but because it seems always to call me into a deeper sense of personhood.

All religions have their sacred scriptures, each bearing witness to a time when God was, if not more discernible, at least much more loquacious. That the voice of God might emanate from the mouth of a New Square talking carp would be right in keeping with our biblical stories of old, where God has been known to pop up in the darnedest of places, saying the darnedest of things. People in the Bible claim to have heard God’s voice in the midst of a burning bush, in their dreams, out of the mouth of a talking donkey, a host of angels, the mountains, the thunder, in the midst of a blinding light, and in the sound of thinnest stillness. The only thing stranger than the location of these encounters are the words God is said to have spoken: don’t eat from the tree of knowledge; take now thy son, thine only son, and offer him there as a burnt offering; march around the city of Jericho once a day for six straight days, and on the seventh day, shout as loud as you can, and the walls will come tumbling down.

No one seems to have heard from God more than Moses. God said to Moses, “Come up to Me on [Mount Sinai] and I will give you tablets of stone,” and then for the next forty days and forty nights, God was like a Chatty Cathy doll. God talked Moses’ ear off.

What I find most interesting about their conversation is just how specific God would get, down to the most minute detail. Not just the Ten Commandments stuff, but everything else. The kind of offerings God expected – “gold, silver, and bronze, blue . . . yarns and fine linen.” The design of the ark of the covenant – I mean the actual design – the kind of wood it should be made from, the dimensions. God gives Moses the blueprints for a tabernacle, teaches him how to build a bread table, instructs him on the best place to put a mesh grating for an altar, tells him what kind of utensils he should use and the type of pegs to hang the utensils on. God goes on and on for ten whole verses just describing how to build a lamp stand! It’s like God is Bob Villa from This Old House, with actual plans for everything, and there is to be no deviation from the plans. God knows exactly how everything is supposed to look, saying over and over, “You are to construct it following the plans I’ve given you.”

God designs curtains for the tabernacle: “Thou shalt make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue . . . And thou shalt make loops of blue upon the edge of the one curtain . . . Fifty loops shalt thou make in the one curtain, and fifty loops shalt thou make in the edge of the curtain that is in the coupling of the second; that the loops may take hold one of another.”

And then God turns haute couture, designing turbans and sashes, and telling Moses exactly how the holy garments worn by his brother Aaron and the other priests should look, from the shoulder pads all the way down to the underwear. “You shall make the robe . . . all of blue. It shall have an opening for the head in the middle of it,” – do you really need God to tell you to put an opening in a robe for your head? – “with a woven binding round the opening . . . so that it may not be torn. On its lower hem you shall make pomegranates of blue . . .”

I’ve heard that The Devil Wears Prada but this is ridiculous! And what’s with all the blue?

(Hey, maybe that was God telling me to wear my blue pants!)

Oh, and as for that underwear: “You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh; they shall reach from the hips to the thighs.” And those “holy drawers” came with a warning: “Aaron and his sons shall wear them when they . . . come near the altar to minister in the holy place; or they will bring guilt on themselves and die.” Talk about needing to account for your shorts.

Meanwhile, poor Moses had been sitting on top of that mountain for forty days and forty nights, listening to God yammering on and on about everything from “chequered tunics” to how to make olive oil, and all Moses could think of is if God doesn’t stop talking soon, I am never going to be able to get all these stone tablets down this mountain!

By the time you have finished reading Moses’ story, you realize God told Moses everything. Everything! Everything except the exact directions to the Promised Land. Oops!

Claims of God communicating directly with man would not be limited to the pages of biblical history, or man, for that matter. The best known example might be Joan of Arc, the true life French heroine who began hearing divine voices when she was about twelve years of age and rose from country peasant girl to lead an army at 17, helping France eventually win its freedom from England. Born 600 years ago, if you were to google Joan of Arc today, you would get more than 17,000,000 results. “France’s national archives include tens of thousands of volumes about her. She has been immortalized by Shakespeare, Voltaire, Twain, Shaw, Brecht, Verdi, Tchaikovsky[,] Rubens” and . . . Elton John?

At seventeen, she became the Queen of Orleans
A peasant child guided by a vivid dream
She was cool before they knew what cool became
She cut her hair and cross-dressed in a dangerous age

She set a trend, a natural look was all the rage
Imagine if they’d had merchandise and poster sales
This bride of God, bigger than Elvis in her day
She had it all until they burned it all away

She swung a sword
She rode a horse
She wore her armor for the Lord
But did she cry by candlelight
Was she lonely after dark
Did she pray for something more
Did anybody sleep with Joan of Arc?

Okay, so it’s no “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

Joan of Arc has served as inspiration for everything from music to video games, to Japanese anime, to television shows, and especially, movies.

They started making silent films about Joan as early as 1895. In fact, you can view a 41-second colorized clip from the 1898 French silent, Exécution de Jeanne d’Arc on YouTube.

The 1928 French silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc) is not only considered to be the greatest film about Joan, it is also regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time. Yet for my money, you can’t go wrong watching Victor Fleming’s 1948 Joan of Arc, which starred Ingrid Bergman, Ward Bond and a deliciously creepy José Ferrer. There isn’t a French accent within a mile of this movie, it has some of the cheesiest Hollywood dialogue you’ll ever hear, and all the men wear the oiliest, bowl-like haircuts seen this side of Moe Howard of Three Stooges fame. But Ingrid Bergman, oh, my God!, how beautiful was she? Ingrid Bergman was so beautiful, I would have followed her anywhere. If like those two New Square gentlemen, Ingrid Bergman had told me she was hearing voices not from God, but from “Cod,” I’d have said, “Honey, let’s go fishing!”

My favorite cinematic Joan of Arc moment comes not from the big screen but from an episode of the television show The Simpsons in which Lisa Simpson plays Joan of Arc and Milhouse plays the Dauphin, after Homer reads about Joan in a children’s book. When Homer gets to the part where Joan is about to be burned at the stake, and Lisa asks, “Was she killed?” their mother Marge comes bursting into the room and says, “Just then, Sir Lancelot rode up on his white horse and saved Joan of Arc! They got married and lived in a spaceship!” She then tears the page about Joan’s death out of the book, eats it, and says, “Easier to chew than that Bambi video!”

I remember as a child first reading about Joan of Arc in the old Classics Illustrated comic book series. I don’t know if you remember Classics Illustrated comics: they took great books, everything from The Iliad to Silas Marner, and told them in such a way a kid could not read fast enough. What’s wonderful about the Classics Illustrated version of Joan of Arc is how simple and believable the story becomes. Even though the comic book panels may be in color, the story is black and white. When Joan hears from God through the voices of St. Michael, St. Margaret and St. Catherine, you believe her because, well, there they are on the page. There’s the beautiful Joan D’Arc standing in the midst of a blinding light cast by the archangel Michael as he tells her, “You’ll deliver France from the English conquerors, and you’ll crown our Dauphin king.” And being a child, once you figured out that a “Dauphin” wasn’t the same thing as a “dolphin” – that the archangel Michael was not directing Joan to place a 15th century version of Flipper on the throne of France – you were off and running: Joan in her suit of armor, surrounded by knights, swords raised, flags flying, horses charging into the thick of the battle!

Kathryn Harrison, who is writing a biography of Joan of Arc, said in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, that witnesses described Joan as “luminous in battle, light not glinting off her armor so much as radiating from the girl within. Her enemies spoke of clouds of butterflies following in her wake, a curiously beatific report from men who said she was in league with the devil.”

You know how Joan’s story ends. “After a series of victories, Joan suffered the reversals her voices had predicted. Captured and sold to the English, and shackled in a dank cell for more than a year, Joan was put on trial for her life. For refusing to renounce the voices that guided her as deviltry, Joan, 19 years old, was burned at the stake before a jeering crowd, her charred body displayed to anyone who cared to examine it.”

Ms. Harrison declares, “Joan frustrates efforts to reduce her to mortal proportions. What can explain what her voices told her, whether directing her movements in battle or scripting answers to her inquisitors.” And then Ms. Harrison writes, “We don’t need narratives that rationalize human experience so much as those that enlarge it with the breath of mystery [emphasis added].”

It is this “breath of mystery” which is at the heart of the eternal conversation between God and humanity. It is this “breath of mystery” we seek to engage in worship in our churches, synagogues, mosques and holy sites. Through song, the reading of our sacred texts, and the participation in rituals of remembrance, we attempt to draw nigh unto its presence. We retreat from this world in hopes that free of distraction, we might find ourselves in communion with it. Or we plunge into the deep end of the good fight where we believe this Holy Mystery stands, surrounded by those who would establish its kingdom here on earth.

And we pray.

My favorite line about prayer comes from the writer Anne Lamott who says the two best prayers she knows are “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She recently added a third when earlier this spring, while admiring the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C., she twittered, “3rd great prayer, after Help and Thanks, is Wow!”

In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, psychologist William James wrote, “The God whom science recognizes must be a God of universal laws exclusively, a God who does a wholesale, not a retail business. He cannot accommodate his processes to the convenience of individuals.” Intellectually, I understand what Mr. James is talking about. It makes sense. In order for God to be God, he or she must be beyond all manipulation. The problem is, and with all due respect to Mr. James and, well, the Garment District, our lives are in retail, not wholesale. The concerns we face everyday – the need for a job, an affordable place to live, the longing for love, caring for one’s family, dealing with illnesses such as cancer – these are individual, retail concerns. I admit I don’t understand how it is supposed to work, but surely the God who is beyond all manipulation must also be the God who is beyond all limitation.

And so we pray.

Help us, help us, help us.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And even on occasion, Wow!

And we listen.

A few years ago the United Church of Christ came out with a campaign entitled, “God Is Still Speaking,” a phrase “created as a 21st century version of [a] quote from John Robinson, pastor to the Pilgrims who set sail from Holland for the New World in 1620.” Mr. Robinson’s original quote was, “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word.”

You and I may not have been destined to hear the voices which spoke to Joan of Arc, nor may we have been chosen to receive the very, very, very, overly-specific instructions given to Moses (and perhaps we should be grateful), but that does not mean God is not attempting to speak to us today, offering “yet more light and more truth.” Speaking to us in the joy on our children’s faces as they sing a song about swimming or the look of horror when they learn a North Carolina pastor would advocate hurting children who might be gay. Speaking to us when Jane Treuhold calls for more volunteers to meet at Dunkin’ Donuts to accompany Jean Montrevil to yet another immigration hearing. Or when Michael Conley and Stephen Duncombe, among others, hoist a golden calf upon their shoulders and go marching off to Wall Street.

Times may have changed since the days of Joan and Moses and our ideas of who or what God is may have changed with them. And Judson being Judson, I am fairly certain my ideas about God may be different from yours, and your ideas may be different from the person sitting next to you, and that’s okay. Perhaps what unites us here at Judson this morning, and unites us with history, is that the need to engage God has not lessened over time. We are all still listening for God’s voice in whatever form it might express itself. We are all still hoping to be heard.

Who knows, maybe we’re all crazy. Maybe we’re all a little touched. Maybe we have to be to be living in a world where it seems at times as if love has reached its limit and cruelty and hatred know no bounds; and yet, as people of faith, our hope is that God is still here and still calling us into conversation. That God is present in our joys and in our sorrows; present in our questions and present in the appalling lack of answers. That God is present when we are at our best and still present when we are at our worst, perhaps even whispering in our ear on occasion, try not to be such a jerk.

Our lives are a conversation with God.

Listen up.

Talk back.




55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844