Judaism rejects the notions of beauty that underscore Christian classical music, from Bach to Mozart—but the music still speaks to us
In the all of the Tanakh we find God and beauty mentioned only once in the same verse: “I have observed the task which God has given the sons of man to be concerned with: He made everything beautiful in its time; He also put an enigma [ha-Olam] into their mind [b’libam] so that man cannot comprehend what God has done from beginning to end” (Kohelet 3:11, Artscroll translation). What Artscroll translates (following the Targum) as “enigma” and Koren as “mystery,” ha-Olam, is rendered in its more common usage as “eternity” in other translations. Ibn Ezra supports the latter reading, noting that in the whole of the Tanakh, the word olam is used only in the sense of time and eternity. Perhaps the ambiguity sheds light on the implicit Jewish understanding of beauty.
Kohelet tells us is that beauty comes from God. We are obligated to say the blessing “shekakha lo b’olamo” when we see beautiful things. But God made things beautiful in their time. Creation is contingent; even the world itself will wear out like a suit of clothes, and God will replace it (Tehillim 102:26). Beauty is not an eternal characteristic of nature in its recondite essence, accessible to the adept through special knowledge, as Plato taught; much less is it an attribute of God. Beauty, rather, is temporal and hevel, or “fleeting” (rather than “vain” as Kohelet is usually rendered).
Next to this terse statement about beauty we find a statement about man, namely that God has put an enigma (eternity) into the minds of humans such that we seek after eternity, even if we cannot fully comprehend it. This reading of Kohelet 3:10 gains clarity if we read Kohelet 3:15 in the Koren translation by the 19th-century rosh yeshiva Michael Friedländer: “That which is, already has been; and that which is to be has already been; and only God can find the fleeting moment.” As I wrote in another context for Tablet Magazine, Rabbi Friedländer might have had in mind the celebrated wager that Faust offered the Devil in Goethe’s tragedy. Faust would lose his soul and will if he attempted to hold onto the passing moment, that is, to try to grasp what only God can find. The impulse to grab the moment and hold onto it is idolatrous; it is an attempt to cheat eternity, to make ourselves into gods.
That is not the standard reading of Kohelet 3:11, to be sure. Rashi comments that the day of our death is unknown, so that a man says, “Perhaps my death is far off,” and builds a house or plants a vineyard. Because the time of our death is concealed from us, we should rejoice with our portion and follow God’s law while we yet live.
But rejoicing in our portion throughout the days of our lives is never quite enough, for eternity is set in our hearts, which is to say that our hearts are set on eternity. St. Augustine paraphrased Kohelet in the opening words of the Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until we come to you.” We might think of beauty as an intimation of the eternity that God has set in our hearts. God has planted in our hearts the enigma of eternity, which is the same as the mystery of human mortality, and beauty is an intimation of that eternity. We do not say that God is beautiful, for we have never seen his form. For Jews, unlike Christians, beauty is not an attribute of God, but rather a fleeting human perception of God’s action in the world.
Judaism abhors the program of Matthew Arnold and others who saw in art a replacement for religion. But if we understand beauty through the eyes of Kohelet—as a fleeting glimpse of God’s action in the world—we also understand why we cannot do without it. God has planted eternity in our hearts, but the whole of his purpose remains hidden. All the more so do our hearts require these fleeting glimpses of God’s action in the world.
This may take the form of awe in the presence of natural beauty, which shows us God b’hadar, as in Tehillim 29. But God has made us his partners in creation, and human artists also can create beauty. The risk of emulating God is great. A king may share in God’s glory, as in the blessing for seeing a king (“Blessed are you, God, King of the universe, who has given of his glory to flesh and blood”), but a king who does not subject himself to the law becomes a monster who arrogates God’s authority to himself. Artists are at risk of the same kind of abuse of power. From the standpoint of Kohelet, idolatry can exist in time as well as images. A musician who fails to acknowledge the fleeting character of beauty becomes an idolater.
Jews can recognize the beauty in music composed by Christians on explicitly religious subjects, even though we reject the worship of Jesus of Nazareth. Norman Podhoretz is not wrong to love Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The classical music of the West, from the sacred counterpoint of Josquin des Prez in the 15th century through Brahms, makes Kohelet’s concept of beauty sensuous. It subordinates the musical moment to a teleological goal. That is, Western music creates tonal expectations so compelling that the hearer’s perception of the flow of musical time is guided by a sense of the musical future. Tonality—the system in which the horizontal unfolding of melody in time integrates with vertical consonance—has the unique capacity to generate a sense of the future.
Every tonal work has a goal, the resolution of tonal tension in the return to the tonic by way of a final cadence from the dominant. The Austrian Jewish theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) identified a “fundamental structure” underlying each movement of a classical composition that maps a journey away from and back to the tonic. The great composers subordinate every element of composition to the goal. Once the composer has created an expectation, it is possible to create tension by prolonging it, or create surprise and even humor by leading in an unexpected direction. Deep expectations of the future act upon memory through the judgment of our mind’s ear.
Popular music written for or derived from dance remains in the ordinary time of heartbeat, respiration, and walking. Classical music, though, can recreate time on two different levels: the quotidian clock-time of duration, and the experiential time of harmonic change. The juxtaposition of time on different levels enables the great composers to give us an intimation of eternity, a sense of the sacred in purely musical terms. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and other great composers, that is, give us a perception of the sacred through purely musical means that are independent of the religious content of the texts with which the music is associated. That is why it should be permissible for observant Jews to enjoy a Bach Passion or the Mozart Requiem, despite their discomfort at the Christian content. It is impossible for Jews to hear the Matthew Passion in the same way that the congregation of the German church heard it, as participants in an ecclesiastical drama, but the music speaks to us nonetheless.
A radically different view of musical time appears with the decay of the Christian West, from Richard Wagner. Wagner remains the consummate bard of narcissistic love, of passion for our own alter ego. Wagner wants to counterpose a love of pure impulse to the covenantal order of traditional society. As Wagner wrote in 1850 to the critic Theodor Uhlig: “Time is absolute nothingness. The only Something is that which makes us forget time.” Where the classical composers subordinated the moment to musical teleology and, in their best moments, evoked sacred time, Wagner set out to destroy time. Whereas classical composition ordered time in the spirit of Christian teleology, subordinating the individual moment to a long-range goal, Wagner set out to undermine the organic unity of classical form. This raises interesting questions about Gustav Mahler, who called Wagner’s music “the great and most painful revelation.” A convert to Catholicism, Mahler often is portrayed as the exemplar of a Jewish composer, although he embraced a decidedly alien aesthetic.
Music criticism has a two-fold task in a Jewish context. One issue is the technical competence and interpretative validity of performance, or the quality of new composition. But a more important issue is the spiritual purpose toward which music is made. If I am correct to argue that the biblical concept of time and eternity underlies the great tradition of Western classical music, then it would be a diminution of Jewish spiritual life to eschew it.
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