In the immortal words of Joan Rivers, let's talk:
I must confess that I enjoy the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur shul services – and also Shabbat. I admit also that I love opera (well at least Italian and French opera). Apart from making me appear weird, what do these two things have in common?
Consider the Jewish religious texts, including the prayer books. It seems to me they comprise the most indigenous Jewish literature that we have. Though composed over many centuries, as we contemplate them today, they constitute an organic network of linked artistic achievement. Take the Machzor for example (Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur prayer book). This can be appreciated as an amazing work of art replete with poetry (including ingenious alphabetical acrostics and soaring metaphors), beautiful traditional prose verse and multiple allusions and connections to the Jewish experience throughout the ages. It is a carefully structured script, in numerous acts and sub-acts, for a yearly performance, a playing out of a hypothesized interaction between the Jews and their God, and between the Jews themselves. Every year the text is the same (save for minor insertions or omissions), yet every year we can approach it anew. No matter how many times I see La Boehme, or Madame Butterfly, I enjoy it every time – same music, same libretto, different arrangement, different tempo, different sets, different experience.
The Rosh-Hashanah-Yom-Kippur service is its own art-form. And it too can be enjoyed every time it is repeated. I appreciate the music, mostly in the form of East-European cantoral-choir music, if available, but also in the form of congregational communal singing. The music is evocative of shared memories, the harmonies are pleasing to the ear and the melodies provoke the closest thing to a religious experience I am capable of. Truth be told, it is the same feeling I have when listening to a sublime operatic performance. For me the parallel is exact.
But it is not only the music. The poetry and the text are fascinating and intricate. There are riches to be mined beyond the energy to do so – enough for a lifetime. One can appreciate the confluence of music and text when one listens to a chazzan singing the verses with complete understanding of the significance of each word in its context. But to do so one must have the background knowledge. Jewish education is as much about artistic appreciation as about theology.
I face multiple objections to this viewpoint. Both the Jewish fundamentalists (those who are literal believers) and the modern interpreters (who attach nuances to revelation) object to the "reduction" of a Jewish service to mere artistic expression. Many congregations have banished the art of the chazzan and the choir, feeling that a religious service should not be a "performance" – that, in admiring the virtuosity of the performers, one might be distracted from the overriding religious purpose of the service.
I have never found these objections persuasive – partly because I do not share their religious beliefs, but, also, partly because I believe that they involve a false dichotomy. One need not choose between the admiration of artistic virtuosity and religious fervor and sincerity. One can and should combine them. A very close lifelong friend of mine is a world-class chazzan, choir-master, arranger and song-writer – born to a Chasidic family. During his long and wonderful career as a chazzan, he would often introduce new melodies into the service, from the operatic and Broadway musical world, in addition to the wonderful, but now familiar, Carlebach fare. And he sometimes faced indignant protest and the suggestion that this bordered on blasphemy. His response was emphatic. If the music of the Phantom of the Opera could be used to display the grandeur of God, if it could provoke people to an appreciation of the wonders of this world, how could it be blasphemous to use it in that way? If it were not for him I would never have had much appreciation for the Jewish liturgy.
Still, I will not deny that art and religion are different things. The truly religious, if he appreciates the use of artistic expression in a religious context, sees it as being in the service of religion. I see it as art for its own sake. The appreciative experience of a thing of beauty is, for me, its own justification.
But not so fast! Consider this. Can we not see a connection between artistic expression and the human condition – between art and conscience? What makes us essentially human is our capacity for self-reflection. We do not merely observe. We observe and contemplate, we seek meaning in things. You can probably learn much about the nature of a person by observing what they enjoy, what they appreciate, what they find poignant in a poem, what kind of stories move them to tears. Morality and art are inextricably linked.
Which brings me to an old refrain of mine. We Jews like to claim all manor of morality from our tradition. So, for the fundamentalist Jew, looking to the vengeful and exacting God of Genesis, God is a right wing conservative. For the majority of the rest of the Jews, looking to the prophets and their preoccupation with "social justice," he is a modern "liberal" – the Democratic Party variety. (For me he would obviously be a classical liberal, a libertarian who understood the value of liberty and free markets). Did God create us or did we create him?
In any event, when Keats said, "Truth is beauty, beauty truth, that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know" I think he was talking about more than aesthetics as simple sensual experience. When challenged on the inconsistency of my secular beliefs with my synagogue attendance, I am tempted to reply: "It's the aesthetics stupid." Yes, it is aesthetics, but its not just aesthetics, where aesthetics is understood as a limitation. I think aesthetics is a big deal. A work of art is something we can all appreciate and enjoy together.
This reminds me of a story that I am fond of repeating.
- Mr. Cohen's son: Dad, how come you go to shul?
- Mr. Cohen: What kind of a question is that?
- Mr. Cohen's son: I know you are a non-believer, an atheist, an agnostic, or whatever; so why would you go to shul?
- Mr. Cohen: Goldberg goes to shul.
- Mr. Cohen's Son: So what? What kind of an answer is that?
- Mr. Cohen: Goldberg goes to shul to talk to God, I go to shul to talk to Goldberg!
Some of my non-Jewish friends have misunderstood this story. They think it means that Cohen cynically talks to Goldberg about business (interesting interpretation!). Of course, what it really means is that Cohen likes to be among friends with whom he has centuries of tradition and much modern experience in common. He is far from cynical. He is affirming the value of friendship, of community and the enjoyment of beautiful things together.