The Kosher Gourmet by Megan Gordon With its colorful cache of purples and oranges and reds, COLLARD GREEN SLAW is a marvelous mood booster --- not to mention just downright delish
April 18, 2014
Rabbi Yonason Goldson: Clarifying one of the greatest philosophical conundrums in theology
The Kosher Gourmet by Julie Rothman Almondy, flourless torta del re (Italian king's cake), has royal roots, is simple to make, . . . but devour it because it's simply delicious
: Trying hard to be 'positive' but never succeeding? Blame Your Brain
April 14, 2014
Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer: Passover frees us from the tyranny of time
: First degree: How America really recovered from a murder epidemic
: When love is not enough: Teaching your kids about the realities of adult relationships
: How you can tell if your financial adviser is setting you up for potential ruin
: Up to 500,000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver disease. New Treatment Has Over 90% Success Rate
: Eating Watermelon Can Help Control High Blood Pressure
April 11, 2014
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg: Silence is much more than golden
: How to value a child for who he is, not just what he does
: A Simple Blood Test Might Soon Diagnose Cancer
: Have A Slow Metabolism? Let Science Speed It Up For You
April 9, 2014
Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?
Samuel G. Freedman
: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau
: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau
: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease
April 8, 2014
Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease
Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear
April 4, 2014
A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children
Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet
Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds
Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves
April 2, 2014
Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?
Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities
It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene
Jewish World Review
Feb. 24, 2004
/2 Adar, 5764
What Bach could have taught Spinoza about Judaism
By Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo
A world renowned Jewish philosopher on the creativity resulting from adherence to tradition
Arnold Toynbee, the great, though slightly anti-Semitic historian of this century is quoted as saying that "history is the tragedy of what could otherwise have been." When contemplating this comment, we wonder what would have happened if Johann Sebastian Bach, (1685-1750), genius musician and composer would have met Benedictus (Baruch) Spinoza (1632-1677), world renowned philosopher, a Jew by birth and foremost critic of Judaism.
It is our thesis that in a meeting between these two great minds Bach would have staunchly defended the world of Halacha (traditional Jewish Law) against Spinoza and that Spinoza would have informed Bach that he did not appreciate his music as much as he did Beethoven's.
This may sound ludicrous. Bach after all was a most devout Christian. He was a Lutheran, and it may be argued that Lutheranism is further away from Judaism than any other Christian denomination. And what has Spinoza in common with Beethoven who lived long after he did?
But before the reader dumps this article in the trash, we ask to bear with us for a few more minutes.
Spinoza is well known for his rejection of Jewish Law. To him Judaism, and even more so Halacha, is a kind of religious behaviorism, in which outward action is idolized and inner devotion of secondary importance. Judaism, according to Spinoza, is a well-organized discipline, in which tradition and careful observance have the upper hand. To obey and to follow all the minutiae of the Law is the ultimate goal of the religious Jew. There is "no place for lofty speculations nor philosophical reasoning." "I would be surprised if I found (the prophets) teaching any new speculative doctrine, which was not a commonplace to gentile philosophers."
Spinoza believed that for Judaism "the rule of right living, the worship and the love for G-d was to them rather a bondage than the true liberty, the gift and grace of Deity." (Tractatus Theologico Politicus III, XIII) Spinoza's main objection against Jewish Law is its confinement of the human spirit and its intellectual constraint. It does not allow for any novelty or intellectual creativity. All that the rabbis did, as they developed biblical law, was to spin a web so intertwined that it killed its very spirit and turned the religious Jew into a robot. As such, the Jew became a slave of the law and the law became a yoke. ( Because of this, Emanuel Kant maintained that Judaism is "eigentlich gar keine Religion" [actually not a religion]. The same applies to Hegel.)
Indeed this seems to be a bitter critique on the foundations of Judaism, not easily defeated.
Those who carefully study the music of Johann Sebastian Bach will be surprised to discover that the great musician dealt with music as the rabbis dealt with the law. Bach was totally traditional in his approach to music. He adhered strictly to the rules of composing music as understood in his days. Nowhere in all his compositions do we find deviation from these rules. But what is most surprising is that Bach's musical output is not only unprecedented but, above all, astonishingly creative.
According to many, Bach was "the greatest composer of all." Anybody carefully listening to his St. Matthew Passion and having a sound background in music will admit that this is probably the most beautiful composition ever written within western tradition.
(This is the not the private observation of a rabbi but something stated by several outstanding music critics!)
CREATIVITY FROM ADHERING TO TRADITION
What we discover is that the self-imposed restrictions of Bach to keep to the traditional rules of composition forced him to become the author of such outstandingly innovative music that nobody after him was ever able to follow in his footsteps. It was within the "confinement of the law" that Bach burst out with unprecedented creativity. This proves, against all expectations, that the "finiteness" of the law leads to infinite riches. What Bach proved as nobody else was that it is not in novelty that one reaches the deepest of all human creative experiences, but in the capacity to descend to the depths of what is already given. Bach's works were entirely free of any innovation, but utterly new in originality.
This type of conventional creativity we do not find in Beethoven. Beethoven (in his later years) broke with all the accepted rules of composition. He was one of the founders of a whole new world of musical options. But it was his rejection of the conventional musical laws that made him less of a musical genius. To work within constraints and then to be utterly novel is the ultimate sign of unprecedented greatness. This is what Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) the great German poet and philosopher meant when he said:
In der Beschraenkung zeigt sich erst der Meister, Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben. (Sonnet: "Was wir bringen")
(In limitation does the master really prove himself. And it is (only) the law that can provide us with freedom)
Bach, then, was a "Halachic" giant of the first order. He realized that it is not true that when one adopts a well defined scheme one forfeits an inner life experience of great spiritual profundity.
This is indeed why we maintain that Spinoza would have preferred Beethoven over Bach. What Spinoza did not comprehend when he criticized Jewish law was that restrictive rules, when deeply studied and contemplated, become the impetus of a special kind of infinite creativity, never to be found by those who rejected these very limitations.
Bach thought that Halacha is both a discipline and an inspiration, an act of obedience and an experience of joy, a yoke and a prerogative. Man needs to hear more than he understands in order to understand more than he hears.
Any student of Jewish tradition would no doubt give evidence that the study of and the life according to Halacha was and is one of the most creative of all human endeavors. Music cannot be played without a musical instrument, and no "real" religious Jew can play his soul music without a most sensitive musical instrument called Halacha. In fact, it is the secret to a life of happiness and tranquility.
It is indeed a great tragedy that Spinoza was not able to meet Bach. Would he have, he may have become an even greater philosopher.
Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo is a world-renowned lecturer and ambassador for Judaism, the Jewish people, the State of Israel and Sephardic Heritage. This article was inspired by conversations with several musicians. No doubt not all music critics will agree with its interpretation of Bach's music. Also special thanks to Dr. Edwin Rabbie, the Netherlands.
To comment, please click here.
© 2004, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo