Balancing Emotional and Rational Approaches
This Shabbat celebrates music. Some communities have developed the lovely custom on Shabbat Shira of distributing special food for the birds, those providers of musical gifts to humanity. The Beshalah Torah reading contains the passionate hymn which our ancestors chanted after crossing the Sea of Reeds in safety and witnessing the destruction of their pursuing enemies. Our tradition is to stand during the reading of the hymn, for the leader to use special musical tropes during the chanting and for the congregation to join in the singing of a number of the verses. It is intended to be a dramatic performance. In some Hassidic communities the chanting was followed by a ritual dance to reenact symbolically the jumping into the waters of the sea and the emerging in safety. Thus, music and drama are used as an integral part of the emotional components of the religious experience.
Plato was convinced that rhythm, melody, dance and poetry were all barbarian, potentially dangerous and should be treated with suspicion. Though psalms, vocal music and musical instruments were parts of the Temple service in Jerusalem, some medieval rabbinic authorities were as suspicious as Plato was of the use of even vocal music in synagogue prayer. The words might be compromised by the emphasis on music.
Yet look at some of Psalm 57, for instance, “Awake, oh harp and lyre. I will awaken the very dawn.” The psalmist envisions people, humans, greeting, influencing the sun itself with musical instruments. Then contrast, if you will, the so well-known and much loved pastoral images of Psalm 23, the quiet, sedate image of God as the shepherd of the individual human being, the still waters that refresh the soul, the faith that man shall not want, the protective rod and staff that comfort — contrast those images to the pounding, loud, abrasive roaring of Psalm Two’s “Why do the heathens rage?” and, at the end of the psalm, the amazing phrase, “He who dwells in Heaven laughs”, and then the advice, “Be joyful and tremble.” What a juxtaposition! What a combination of emotions these sentences describe! For humans tremble a great deal in this world and yet can be remarkably joyful, and even God in Heaven laughs…. It’s all in the liturgy waiting to be expressed.
All of our emotions, our reactions to the universe, to God, to our fellow humans — to problematic existence — all are reflected in the liturgical poetry which is so much a part of our religious lives, and which, to a large extent, is sung. Music is a need of the soul. Good music is a precious treasure.
None of the above is intended to denigrate the rational in our religious lives. A remarkable book by the neurologist Antonio Damasio explores the biology and neurology of reason and its inseparable dependence on emotion. Emotions, he claims, are not a luxury; they are essential to rational thinking. The absence of emotion and feeling can break down rationality and make decision making almost impossible. The realization of reason and of emotion are neurologically connected. The book is called Descartes’s Error. Descartes had proclaimed: “Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.” We would like, in good Seminary tradition, to emend that text to read, “I think and I emote, therefore I am.” Thus, we want to live our liturgy in a way that the music and the text reflect each other and influence our lives — in a way that the rational and emotional in our existence complement each other; that our moments of ecstasy also reflect a religious and cerebral restraint, that our cerebral involvements are sweetened by and are, indeed, intertwined with the joys of music and art and love and feeling and mitzvot and closeness to God, that our halakah and our aggadah be given equal time — law and tradition and poetry; that our music be passionate and yet controlled.
That, perhaps, is the message of Shabbat Shira.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,
Rabbi Morton Leifman
The publication and distribution of Rabbi Leifman’s commentary on Parashat B’shallah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.