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MUSIC AND THE CREATION IN JUDAISM

A text by Jascha Nemtsov

Music and the creation in Judaism

In the Hebrew Bible the state of the world before the act of creation is described as ‘Tohuwabohu’. It is a sort of word play with two Hebrew words that sound similar – ‘tohu’ and ‘wohu’. In his translation of the Bible into German, Martin Buber tried to copy this word play and translated it with the German words ‘Irrsal’ (state of human error) and ‘Wirrsal’ (chaos of what has occurred). This chaotic and amorphous state of the world was put in order by the word of God and given a meaning – which obviously was not an easy task, even for the Almighty. That the creation was an exhausting and strenuous effort is proven by the fact that God had to rest for a whole day after six days of work.

According to Jewish perception the creation of the world is not at all a unique event, quite the contrary: it will never be completed. The human being, who was created by God »in our image, in our likeness« (translation of Leopold Zunz’s German translation of Genesis 1:26), becomes his assistant and partner for this task. The ongoing recreation of the world is necessary as the matter has an immanent tendency to fall apart, to loose its form, to fall back into the state of ‘Tohuwabohu’. This is something we are familiar with from everyday life: everyone knows that a shoe can occasionally break. However, I have not once experienced that a broken shoe got fixed again by itself – for that to happen, intellectual and phsyical effort is necessary. In Jewish Philosophy this is called ‘Tikun Olam’ – literally ‘reparation (or healing) of the world’ – a permanent process of recreating the unsettled harmony of the world, a kind of intellectual resistance to the destructive tendency of matter. The first time the expression ‘Tikun Olam’ appears is in the Talmud. From then on it shaped the entire evolution of Jewish thought, including the metaphysical and cabbalistic perceptions of the ‘broken light vessels’ (Isaak Luria). It is, however, not only about thinking, but more especially about acting. In Jewish perception, it is neither the fear of God’s punishment nor the hope for a future reward in this world or in the world to come, but rather the personal responsibility for the creation that constitutes the most important motivation for the ethical behaviour of humans.

However, what does music in Judaism have to do with God’s creation and the harmony created by him? In actual fact, nothing! Human singing - which in traditional Jewish music is always in the foreground – is not seen as an image of divine harmony, but is much rather understood in a deeply humanistic sense, as an expression of the conflicting and often torturous internal life of humans. However perfect the world may be planned by God, humans aren’t – instead they were given a free will and have to strive constantly for the good and the right way, without ever being able to reach perfection. In an early medieval Jewish tract the difference between human singing and the perfect music by angels is described as follows: “May Israel be blessed – how much dearer it is to God than his serving angels! For as soon as the serving angels want to fly into the heights with their songs, rivers of fire and mountains of flames surround the honourable throne and the holy one says: may all angels, Cherub and Seraph, who I created, be silent in my presence until I heard the sound of the singing and of Isreal’s praise, of my children.“

As a musician one is always forced, at least in one’s profession, to directly fight against the material, against the challenges and limitations of nature. Every musician has to at least cope with his or her own material imperfection. In general, humans can often only develop their intellectual capabilities when they are challenged, when they have to overcome internal or external difficulties. Music, the true art in general can only come into existence through such striving. The Jewish composer Viktor Ullmann, who was imprisoned in the

Theresienstadt Ghetto, left a note about this in 1944 in one of his essays, which he titled with the word play “Goethe and Ghetto“: “here, where in everyday life one has to overcome the material through the form, where everything musical stands in such complete contrast to the surrounding world: here is the true school of masters, if you can take Schiller to see the secret of the work of art: in destroying the material through the form – what presumably is the mission of the human being in the first place, not only of the aesthetic human being, but also of the ethical human being.“

The concepts of Transhumanism have spread around the Western world recently: according to these concepts the human being is considered some kind of outdated model. Humans are assumed to be imperfect and unable to keep up with machines, with artificial intelligence and should therefore be superseded by it, or more specifically, be replaced by it and be transformed into a hybrid being, a cyborg. Political elites and technology companies see a promising development in this, which is presumed to be a certain and inevitable vision of the future. According to pioneers of Transhumanism, such as the Google chief developer Ray Kurzweil (‘Humanity 2.0’) and the historian Yuval Harari (‘Homo Deus’), the Homo sapiens needs at least an ‘upgrade’ that would transform him into a ‘Homo Digitalis’. The robot, which the legend of Golem once depicted as a failed servant for the human being, is now declared a higher being. There is also no place for human music in this ‘beautiful new world’ envisaged by transhumanists, as it will be replaced by ‘perfect’ computer music. Our culture, founded on uncontrolled and free human interaction, ought to be replaced by a new culture, one that is primarily if not completely taking place in a controlled digital space. Our society, defined by all sorts of human encounters and relationships, would thereby become a loose collection of atomised and controlled individuals, who are only concerned with rationality and effectiveness.

By eliminating not only God as the creator but also humans with all their natural imperfection, the ideology of Transhumanism, which shows pseudo-religious features, suggests unlimited possibilities and promises a better world. It goes without saying that these beliefs do not show any resemblance to Jewish thinking but fundamentally contradict all moral concepts in Judaism. However, in the end it is each and every one’s task to intellectually resist this new totalitarianism, which is subliminal and has become increasingly widespread and dominates our life more and more.

Music and the creation in Judaism - A text by Jascha Nemtsov

Music and the creation in Judaism.pdf (77.3 KiB)

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