During a recent Bernie Sanders rally in Portland, Oregon (March 25, 2016), the crowd went wild when a little bird appeared on his podium. Taken together, the images of the bird, a smiling Bernie Sanders, and an enthusiastic crowd who witness the visitation (coupled with his three big wins against Hillary Clinton) have taken on a kind of messianic aura. The bird, as it were, is taken as a sign. And instead of simply “feeling the Bern,” the crowd was also (as one hashtag puts it) “feeling the bird.”
There is a long history of taking birds as signs. We can find such references throughout the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, Homer, and in magic. But what is more interesting than spotting a bird at certain events is the relationship of the Saint to the Bird. The stories around Saint Francis of Asissi (c 1220) and his relationship to birds are well known around the world. Animals are said to have no fear of him. They would visit him and dwell in his peaceful presence. (And this, of course, hearkens to Isaiah 11:6, which talks of the wolf and the lamb and other animals lying down with each other – rather than fighting – in the messianic era.)
His “Sermon of the Birds” lauds the birds as blessed by God. He sees birds as model for humankind to envision itself and also a model for serving God through song and praise.
My little sisters, the birds, much bounden are ye unto God, your Creator, and always in every place ought ye to praise Him, for that He hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and hath also given you double and triple rainment; moreover He preserved your seed in the ark of Noah, that your race might not perish out of the world; still more are ye beholden to Him for the element of the air which He hath appointed for you; beyond all this, ye sow not, neither do you reap; and God feedeth you, and giveth you the streams and fountains for your drink; the mountains and valleys for your refuge and the high trees whereon to make your nests; and because ye know not how to spin or sow, God clotheth you, you and your children; wherefore your Creator loveth you much, seeing that He hath bestowed on you so many benefits; and therefore, my little sisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praises unto God.
The image of the bird visiting Bernie on stage certainly draws on this lore and stokes the messianic coals. But we also find lore about man and animal in the Kabbalah, in Hasidic lore, and a book (which both address) called the “Chapter of Song.” Although there are many disputes over the origins of the Chapter of Song, there is agreement on the fact that it was published in 1576, in Venice, as an illuminated manuscript. But before being published, it was mentioned in many different places in the 12th and in the 13th centuries. It had great appeal to mystics and allusions to a book of songs to animals can be found in the Midrash and the Talmud. They accompany what is called (after the first chapter of Ezekiel) “merkavah (chariot) mysticism.” Ezekiel’s chariot includes different animals that, in some way, have symbolic relationships with divinity. In addition, Isaiah also refers to angels as wild animals and suggests such relationships. These relationships may be downplayed by the Rabbis in the Talmud and in the medieval period, but they were of great interest to the Kabbalists.
Kabbalists like Rabbi Isaac Luria and Moses Cordovero discuss the book and suggest that there are correlations between animals and the higher spheres. The Baal Shem Tov and his grandson, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, also discuss the relationship of man to animal and of the animal to God. Learning the language of birds and frogs – by way of listening closely to them – takes on a mystical meaning for them and even finds its way into several Hasidic meditations.
Zvi Mark – in his book on Rabbi Nachman, Mysticism and Madness – points out how there is a significant difference between the Kabbalists and the Hasidim regarding these songs. And this difference has to do with moving from the text (meditating on and singing the songs, which the Kabbalists do) to creating a relationship with animals (and ritualizing it).
The widespread custom of kabbalists and others of reading daily the text of the Chapter of Song, which opens with the description of the frog’s song and praises to God, is transformed into a custom of taking a daily walk alongside swamps and pools of water in an attempt to hear the song of the frogs. They (went)….in order to literally…hear the frogs croak in an attempt to ascertain from them how song and praise raise to God. (113)
But the fact of the matter is that animals are all over Hasidic lore and can be found in the Talmud and Midrash. Animals intervene in human affairs and are often thought to be messengers of God (like angels). In Jewish mysticism they have symbolic meaning but in Hasidic stories actual animals are – from time to time – thought to be giving a unique message or a saving grace to this or that person.
In Yiddish literature and in the art of Marc Chagal, we see this Hasidic notion of a relationship between man and animals enlarged and secularized. Shalom Aleichem’s Motl loves his calf while Chagal has countless paintings that pair humans with chickens, crows, and cats in a kind of mystical aura.
Given this, the idea that a bird or frog would have a mystical effect on an audience is not by any means so far fetched. And it is not simply a mystical idea that is owned by this or that religion or sect. To be sure, it is mainstream. Through animation, the idea that animals and humans are on the same level, can communicate, and can experience something almost or actually divine went mainstream. I’ll end with s clip of this kind of…animism. The animation – which takes animals as subjects – illustrates how Americans are enchanted by a secular kind of popular messianism. It is communicated by or through human-like animated animal figures. Through animation, the fine line between man and animal is effaced. In the 1920s and 30s, it takes on an American kind of aura. We’ve been “feeling the bird,” so to speak, for quite a while.