Thoughts to Ponder Number 35
10 Adar Rishon, 5760; February 16, 2000
Johann Sebastian Bach and the Halacha*

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 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 puts this Thought to Ponder politely but surely in the dustpan, we ask him or her 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." He believed that for Judaism "the rule of right living, the worship and the love for God 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. (It is not surprising that many gentile philosophers echoed Spinoza's critique. 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, he 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!) 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 which 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 which 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 law 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.

Nathan T. Lopes Cardozo

*This article was inspired by my 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.

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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