Parshat Yitro

Torah Reading for Week of January 12, 2014 – January 18, 2014

 

“Music is the Best”
Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

 

Frank Zappa had a credo: “Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best.” Whatever Zappa meant by this statement and however strongly he believed it (he was, after all, perpetually sarcastic), it does suggest a spiritual philosophy of music. Information can be wrong. Knowledge can be misapplied. Attempts to be wise don’t always lead to objective truth. The search for beauty can be fickle and shallow. Romantic love can obscure perception. Music avoids these traps and pitfalls. It is pure expression, transcending the imperfections of language, the foibles of conviction, the deceptions of the intellect.

As with any hierarchy of virtues, the Zappa formula is not bulletproof. His bias as a musician and disposition as a cynic exaggerated his distrust of mental processes and amplified his praise of the non-rational power of musical sounds. Overstatements aside, the placement of music above other modes of discernment and communication does have biblical support.

Music is mentioned in nearly every book of the Bible. It was an accompaniment to daily dealings, an aid to sacred services, a supplement to civic ceremonies, an enhancer of miraculous moments. This flourishing of vocal and instrumental music has been linked to the second commandment of the Decalogue: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exod. 20:4–5). This is the Torah’s central statement regarding artistic imagination. It did not suppress all figural representation, but it does appear to have substantially limited plastic arts to ritual objects and accessories (e.g., Exod. 25:18-20; 2 Chr. 2:6). With the minimizing of visual imagery, the Israelites focused their creative energies elsewhere. They turned to music.

This was no accidental development. Musical sound was analogous to the Israelites’ conception of G-d as incorporeal and transcendent, yet intimately knowable. Music is the least tangible and most immediate of the arts. Its invisible tones surround and envelop us—whether or not we are focused on the source—and its impact on mind and mood seems almost mystical. In a similar way, the Torah describes G-d as being heard but not seen, felt but not touched. At Sinai, the people “heard the sound of [G-d’s] words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice” (Deut. 4:12). If G-d were revealed as a vision, G-d might have been compared to an idol: a fixed image confined in time and space. But the sound of the divine disembodied voice, like the sound of music, conveyed limitlessness and immateriality.

It is here that Zappa’s hierarchy finds resonance. Music is widely portrayed as the expressive medium that is least deceptive, least prone to misunderstanding, least subject to misrepresentation. It is an emotional language that reaches us before our big brains can get in the way. To pair Zappa’s words with those of another musical ideologue, Ludwig van Beethoven: Music is a higher revelation than all information, knowledge, wisdom, truth, beauty, and love.

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