Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rosh Hashanah and the Jewish Atheist

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.


David Glickman said...

Peter -- I think your analogy is apt. The opera, too, is having trouble retaining relevance in an MTV world. -- David Glickman

mipinn said...

Yasher koach, Peter. As has happened many times in the past, you give meaning to many of my confused thoughts. Maybe you could take a look at all of my "hard drive" and arrange it into cogent thought processes - kind of a de-fragmentation.

Anonymous said...

Your reafirmation that it is OK to be very Jewish while not being religous is for me comforting.
You are a thinker and you write beautifully.

Steven Horwitz said...

Well said Peter.

The way I like to think of it, both at Shabbat and the High Holidays, is the following. At those moments, I am connecting both geographically and intertemporally with the extended family of Jews (the economist might say: cross-sectionally and longitudinally :).

On those days, millions of Jews around the world are saying the same prayers and doing the same things as I am. And on those days, each of us is connecting up with a 5000 year old tradition that has been handed to us for preservation. One need not believe in God to recognize the power of community that comes from the moments when Jews gather together to repeat the rituals of both fellow Jews and generations of ancestors.

One need not believe in God to feel the power of that historical and cultural connection and, as you say, to appreciate the aesthetics of the event.

Peter Lewin said...

Thank you for these comments.

R. David: I hear what you say and bemoan the struggles of both opera and "religious-arts" is maintaining their appeal. I am not sure though what this signifies.

Michael: I will be happy to examine your "hard drive" any time over a nice cup of tea, with a view to de-fragmentation.

Arnie: Thanks for the kind words. I say, in matters of private conscience one should do what feels right and not have to apologize for it. I can't deny that I have felt some uneasiness at the apparent inconsistency of my actions - this was my attempt to explain it - to myself and others. Glad you could relate.

Steve: Thanks buddy for the affirmation. As usual your words complement my own perfectly.


Adam Shapiro said...

Hi Peter,

It is truly beautiful to see the "Pintele Yid," (the Jewish spark) that breaks through in your above blog, both in your actual text as well as the comments of your audience.

Whilst at times your appreciation (yet disbelief,) frustrates me - it's reassuring to be reminded that all Jews, fundamentalist or not, come from the same source.

What I would like to focus my comment on is your statement that, "I can't deny that I have felt some uneasiness at the apparent inconsistency of my actions." To quote R' Opert (Rav of Bulawayo Shul 1996-2003) - "Judaism is not an all or nothing religion. It can be compared to a river filled with stepping stones. One has to just be careful not to stay on the same stone for fear of falling in!" Your appreciation of the cultural aspect of Judaism is one stepping stone which (with a bit of mazel) will hopefully lead you on to the next.

Wishing you and your family a Gmar Chasima Tova. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a healthy and happy year. Please send love to all.

Peter Lewin said...

Adam: Thanks Adam for your comment and good wishes, warmly reciprocated.

Echoing your sentiments might I hope that a willingness to read and think about what I say might one day lead you from your current stepping stone to a more critical evaluation of what you now consider to be Truth? This is a two way street.

Troy Camplin said...

Beautifully put. You should familiarize yourself with the work of the anthropologist Victor Turner, who wrote on theater and ritual. I'm reading him now, and it's really making me think about the nature of theater and how to think about my plays as I write them.

I think you are right to see the connection between the arts and religion. They have only recently been separated. But they need not be. Sometimes it is fruitful to go one's separate ways; sometimes it is fruitful to come together once again. You are right about Keats. But consider too that Aristotle said that virtue aims at the beautiful. Elaine Scarry points out that the beautiful is fair and the fair is just. I see parallels between the nature of beauty and the features of spontaneous orders. There is something to beauty, and it is madness to reject it -- especially religion.

Matthew said...

Excellent blog, and I relate to most of it.
But I have to ask: what about operas by Mozart, Handel, Richard Strauss and even Benjamin Britten?

Peter Lewin said...

Revisiting this blog, I see the comment by Matthew.

I like Mozart and Handel, but not nearly as much as the Italian and French operas - a soppy romantic I am. I don't really care for Richard Strauss and I don't know Benjamin Britten. I have never developed a taste for Wagner (nothing to do with his Antisemitism).