“Whether the angels play only Bach, in praising God, I am not quite sure; I am sure, however that ‘en famille’ they play Mozart.” Karl Barth (1)
When attending synagogue services around the world, one is often confronted with a lack of religious enthusiasm. In many synagogues, services are heavy and often depressing. It is not always the lack of concentration by the worshippers that make synagogue services unattractive, but the absence of a song and passion. It is true that prayer is a most serious undertaking, yet our sages have often emphasized the fact that the opportunity to speak to the Lord of the Universe is a great privilege, which should bring much happiness to man. After all, for humans to converse with their Maker is something that has no logical basis. Who is man to speak to the King of Kings? This is even more surprising when one contemplates the fact that man has the opportunity to praise God with hymns and laudations. As the great German poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe once said, “Wer einen lobt, stellt sich ihm gleich.” (He who praises another person places himself on the other’s level.) And as Aristotle said – probably referring to Plato – “Everyone may criticize him, but who is permitted to praise him?”
Most interesting is the fact that one of the ways we are able to identify the Mashiach is by his capacity and willingness to sing. In the talmudic tractate Sanhedrin (94a), Bar Kapara states that God intended to appoint King Chizkiyahu as the Mashiach, the ultimate redeemer of mankind, but eventually did not.
Chizkiyahu is known as one of the most righteous men the Jewish people has ever seen. He introduced significant religious reforms and was a man of outstanding devotion, committed to the highest level of morality. In fact, he was so successful in promoting Torah study that there was “no boy or girl, no man or woman in the land who was not well-versed in the religious laws of tahara and tuma – purity and impurity!” (Ibid).
Still, King Chizkiyahu was unable to teach the awe of God to his own son and heir to the throne, Menashe. King Menashe is known for his wickedness, and commentators observe that this was partially due to the fact that his righteous father did not know how to sing and was therefore unable to inspire him. We can be sure that Menashe was well educated in Jewish learning, but all such learning was academic and frigid, because the warmth of a song did not accompany it.
Most telling is that, as the sages inform us, King Chizkiyahu did not sing even after he experienced a great miracle that saved Israel from the hands of the wicked Sancheriv, the Assyrian king (Ibid).
Being unable to sing is considered by our sages a serious and irreparable weakness that invalidates one from becoming the Mashiach (Ibid). Indeed we find that all of King Chizkiyahu’s efforts to encourage Torah learning came to an end after he passed away. There is no future to Jewish education and Judaism without a song and passion.
This, however, needs some clarification. What is there in a song, not found in the spoken word, that makes it so crucial to the Jewish tradition?
It may be worthwhile to look at a highly irregular statement by the great rationalist thinker, Rambam. Discussing human reason and prophecy, he writes (2):
“I say there is a limit to human reason, and as long as the soul resides within the body, it cannot grasp what is above nature, for nothing that is immersed in nature can see above it. Reason is limited to the sphere of nature and is unable to understand what is above its limits…
Know that there is a level of knowledge that is higher than all philosophy, namely prophecy. Prophecy is a different source and category of knowledge. Proof and examination are inapplicable to it. If prophecy is genuine then it cannot depend on the validation of reason….
Our faith is based on the principle that the words of Moshe are prophecy and therefore beyond the domain of speculation, validation, argument or proof. Reason is inherently unable to pass judgment in the area from which prophecy originates. It would be like trying to put all the water in the world into a little cap.”
Music raises the spoken word to a level that touches on prophecy. It gives it a taste of that which is beyond and transforms it into something untouchable. Just as there is no way to demonstrate the beauty of music to a person who is completely deaf, so is there no way to explain the difference between a spoken word and one which is sung, unless one sings. It lifts a person out of the mundane and gives him a feeling of the imponderable, which is the entrance to joy. It sets the soul in operation and brings us near to the Infinite.
“Some men go on a hunger strike in the prison of the mind, starving for God,” said Heschel (3). Only song will free them. Prayer is our answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. “To be able to pray is to know how to stand still and to dwell upon a word.” (4) This is true even more when a group of human beings join in communal song.
When our sages inform us that one who is unable to sing cannot be Mashiach it should be a message to all who want to be religious. Song with passion is crucial while we pray and try to live a meaningful life. We are deeply indebted to Sephardic tradition, Chassidism and legendary figures such as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z”l, who have placed song in the center of modern Jewish life. While there is much more to Judaism than song and music, it is time that synagogue rabbis give this aspect of spiritual expression their devoted attention, teaching members of their communities to surprise themselves at what their souls are able to achieve. It is prayer in the form of song that makes this possible.
(1) Karl Barth, quoted in his obituary, The New York Times, Dec 11, 1968.
(2).“Letter to Rabbi Chisdai” in Kovetz Teshuvot HaRambam Ve’iggerotav, Abraham Lichtenberg, ed. Leipzig: H.L. Shnoys, 1859. II, pp. 23a-23b.
(3) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976, p. 90.
(4) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Between God and Man, New York: Free Press, 1997, p. 206.