Judaism rejects the notions of beauty that underscore Christian classical music, from Bach to Mozart—but the music still speaks to us
How should Jews feel about the religious music of great Christian composers (including the convert Felix Mendelssohn)? Norman Podhoretz has said that he “senses the Infinite” listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. A devout Orthodox rabbi of my acquaintance allows that he loves Mozart’s Requiem more than any other musical work. What does this music mean to Christians?
Among all the arts, Western classical music is the only true innovation of the modern West: We can read Aeschylus or Pindar just as we do Shakespeare or Keats, but the ancient world produced nothing that resembles Josquin des Prez, let alone Mozart. Alone among the arts, classical music is an artifact of the modern Christian West, and it is hard to extract it from its Christian context.
On a Good Friday some 30 years ago, in an undistinguished church in a mid-sized German city, I heard the most remarkable musical performance of my life: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with a combined amateur-professional orchestra, the church’s amateur choir, and hired vocal soloists. The Passion sets parts of the Gospel interspersed with devotional poems. It is ill-suited for the concert stage, for when performed as intended in church, on the saddest day of the Christian calendar, congregation and performers join the liturgical drama. (Strictly speaking, as an observant Jew, I shouldn’t have been in a church at all, although some Orthodox rabbis permit Jews to enter evangelical churches that contain no religious iconography, such as the one where this recital was taking place.)
Music helps the Christian to mourn the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and Bach’s great work makes this intensely personal: A palpable hush came over players and congregation when the bass soloist sang his last aria, “Make yourself pure, my heart—I want to bury Jesus myself.” As Franz Rosenzweig wrote in The Star of Redemption of Christian music, “He who joins in singing a chorale, or who listens to the mass, the Christmas oratorio, the passion … wants to make his soul stand with both feet in time, in the most real time of all, in the time of the one day of the world of which all individual days of the world are but a part. Music is supposed to escort him there.” But during the nine days before the saddest event in the Jewish calendar, the 9th of Av, rabbinic law forbids Jews from hearing any music at all; the most lugubrious hazzan in the world is of no help.
This past July, I dined in a kosher restaurant in Vienna with a young priest from an Austrian Stift who is finishing his studies in philosophy in Rome. As we finished the wine, Father A. challenged me: “What is your definition of beauty? My opinion of you will depend a great deal on your answer.” That is an important issue for Catholics, who believe that an earthly institution, namely the Church, holds the keys that unlock what is locked in heaven. If that is possible, God must make himself knowable in some way to humans, for example, by taking human form. One of these ways is beauty. Adapting Plato, Catholic theology equates the good and the beautiful by making them attributes of God.
“Beauty has two components,” I offered. “One is what we might call harmony: It unites all the elements of the object of perception into a whole in which the parts have a necessary relation to the whole.” That was right out of Plato, and Father A. flashed an arachnoid smile as I feinted toward the web.
“The other element is surprise,” I continued.
“What do you mean?” asked Father A., himself surprised.
“There are any number of things that meet the criterion of harmony—for example, geometrical constructions, crystal patterns, and so forth—but we don’ t necessarily consider them beautiful,” I went on. “They may be as dull as they are harmonious. The experience of beauty requires the sense of discovery of a harmony we hitherto did not perceive and whose existence we did not suspect.”
“That’s interesting,” Father A. allowed. “I hadn’t thought about it quite that way.”
“Would you agree,” I added, “that the concept of surprise is bound inextricably to the concept of expectation? I can only be surprised if something happens that differs from what I anticipated.”
“I suppose that is true,” said Father A.
“Let’s take the example of Mozart. Close to the end of the Andante of the 21st piano concerto, Mozart brings back the opening F-major theme not in its original key, but rather in the remote key of A-flat major. Would that qualify as a beautiful surprise?”
“By all means,” said Father A. He admires Mozart.
“And the surprise depends on our expectations about musical form, in this case, the practice of recapitulating a theme in its original key?”
“I suppose so.”
“And someone who had never heard Western classical music might have no experience of musical form, and no such expectation?”
No answer this time. Father A. guessed where I was going with this.
“And someone who was so used to post-Romantic chromaticism, where tonality changes all the time, might not find it surprising to hear a recapitulation in a remote key?”
“Perhaps not,” he said.
“If the perception of beauty requires surprise, and surprise depends on expectation, have we not reached the conclusion that beauty is not absolute, but depends in some way on the expectations of the beholder?”
“I will have to give that some thought.”
“Let us consider another side of the problem,” I continued. “Is the beautiful good, and vice versa?”
“That is what I believe.”
“Can beauty be placed in the service of falsehood and immorality?”
“Not the truly beautiful,” he said.
“What about Mozart’s opera Così Fan Tutte, in which music as beautiful as any Mozart ever wrote promotes outright lies.” The opera involves two young men who set out to test the faithfulness of their fiancées, by seducing the other’s intended. There is not a single sympathetic character in the work, whose music is on par with the Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni. That may explain why it is less popular: The men are cynical and the women slutty.
“If art employs beauty to promote falsehood, then I cannot consider it truly beautiful,” Father A. decided. “If you exclude Così, your idea of beauty won’t convince a single classical musician,” I said, and we moved on to dessert. The Greek idea of beauty, naturalized into Catholic theology by St. Thomas Aquinas, is entirely alien to Mozart’s quirky humor. One might even speak of Mozart’s Jewish sense of humor, for his librettist in Così Fan Tutte was the converted Jew Lorenzo Da Ponte, and his ironic view of Christian society belongs to a peculiar mode of Jewish irony.
Judaism does not accept the Greek concept of beauty carried over into Christianity. But how does Judaism—Torah and the rabbinic tradition—understand beauty? Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, director of the Strauss Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, observes that not once does the Tanakh call God “beautiful” (yafeh). God is called adir (splendid), and his voice is called hadar (majestic). As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein wrote:
The verse says (Tehillim 29:4), “Kol Hashem ba-ko’ach; kol Hashem be-hadar—The voice of God is power; the voice of God is splendor.” We perceive God in one sense as boundless, unbridled power. In another sense, we perceive Him in terms of values, of truth and goodness. … Hadar is presumably some kind of objective beauty, a moral beauty, a beauty of truth.
But that is moral beauty, not visual or sonorous beauty as in the Christian definition.
The nebbish is the bumbling caricature of a Jewish male, embodied by figures like Woody Allen and George Costanza. Where did he come from?