My Spiritual Problem With the 26 Letters of the Alphabet

Advice to the Reader: “To read is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says, but to go off with him, and travel in his company.” – Andre Gide, Third Imaginary Interview, Pretexts, 1903

Kol HaNevua and Odysseus’ Scar

As mentioned previously in chapter 6, Franz Rosenzweig insisted that one hear the Torah and not merely read it. To truly understand its meaning, one needs to learn the act of listening to the divine voice contained in the words of the Torah with one’s entire being. This means surpassing the text and is limitations to get a sense of what is not written, but is implied. This was part of the teshuva process for Rosenzweig. Not repentance in the classical sense of the word, as the act of returning to Judaism, but as a continual process of growing Jewishly throughout one’s entire life.

This, I realized, also means that when one studies the classical sources of Judaism, one needs to incorporate this in one’s inner teshuva process. Not to “see” Judaism and its texts but to “hear” Judaism beyond its texts.

In my case, this meant that I had to re-study all the Talmudic and Midrashic texts I had already studied and start to “hear them” for the very first time. I had to transform them into something entirely new, a living reality, which had the capacity to alter my very being. This was an extremely difficult task for me. I was not used to this.

The academic approach to non-Jewish sources (and even Jewish sources) never taught me anything about “hearing” a text. The opposite is true: it looked down at it. This “auditive” approach to the text was not even taken seriously. It was considered primitive and totally subjective.

Suddenly I was confronted with an astounding realization: it was the academic world that had failed to understand the text (whether Jewish or certain non-Jewish texts) because it was often incapable of perceiving the text beyond the words.

When I confronted some professors about this, they were disgusted and felt betrayed. But I realized that they were so steeped in the academic method that they had drowned in it, and were not able to see how much they were hampered by this approach. (There were surely exceptions!)

I later realized that this was also true of reading Shakespeare, and poetry in general. I remember Goethe’s dictum, cited by Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980), the famous philosophy professor in Princeton: “What issues from a poetic mind wants to be received by a poetic mind. Any cold analyzing destroys the poetry and does not generate any reality. All that remains are potsherds which are good for nothing and only incommode us.” (Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958, p. 383.)

It took me a long time before I was able to accept this. In fact, it was painful; it destroyed my claim to objectivity and the unchallenged certainty of the academic approach.

In fact, two books convinced me that I had been on the wrong track. They opened my eyes and taught me that Rosenzweig and Goethe were correct. The first was Kol HaNevua written by the “Nazir,” Rabbi David Cohen (1887-1972). The “Nazir” was a major disciple of the renowned Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), who was a mystic, thinker and halachic authority of repute who greatly influenced Rabbi Cohen. (The latter was the father-in-law of the late Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Shlomo Goren z.l) The Nazir himself was a profound mystic and thinker in his own right and the author of this remarkable work, Kol Nevua.

The second work was an essay by a secular scholar by the name of Erich Auerbach (1892-1957), a German literary theorist, entitled Odysseus’ Scar (published in his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Princeton, NJ: University Press, 1991).

Interestingly enough, both works deal with the difference between the Homeric/Greek and biblical narrative. The Greek narrative focuses on “seeing,” i.e. the external beauty of the world and of human beings—their garb, weapons, and surroundings. The biblical perspective, on the other hand, focuses on “hearing” the deeper internal dimension that eludes the naked eye.

This division found its way into the respective languages of the Greeks and the Jews. Most western languages are rooted in the Greek tradition, which represents the academic approach in distinctive ways. Take the English language, for example. When speaking about understanding, we often use the term “insight”. We use words like foresighthindsightobservationpeople of vision. All of these expressions, which have nothing to do with actual seeing, convey a certain mentality, a view of the world, implying the predominance of sight.

Conversely, when we examine Hebrew, we encounter a world view based on audibility. If Greek uses the idiom “I see” to signify understanding, classical Hebrew has coined the phrase: “Shema Yisrael”, Hear oh Israel, “Ani Shomea,” (I hear); the Talmudic expression introducing a new concept or law is “Tah Shema,” Come and hear; when one draws a conclusion, one uses the word “Mashma” or “Shema Mineh” (both meaning “hear from it”); and when one cannot agree, one says “Lo Shemia Leh” (this is not heard).

This insight (er, yes, I’m writing in English!) is eloquently expressed by Auerbach thusly: “The biblical text is fraught with background,” i.e., with words unspoken and external facts undisclosed. (See Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, p. 12).

This observation made me shiver. In some sense, it destroyed my world. It challenged me to start all over again and learn the art of “hearing” before I could decide whether or not to stay religious. While, as mentioned previously, I had decided to remain observant, which is not the same as being religious, now a new twist further complicated my already arduous journey vis-à-vis Judaism.

God and Music

This spiritual capacity for hearing adds yet another dimension to the religious quest. This is expressed in the phenomenal world of music. Hearing means going beyond what the text is able to express. Through music, one enters a new world where words evaporate into tunes. Music lifts words out of their limited meaning and opens up a new dimension whereby the words are transformed into something loftier and more sublime.

I realized that music speaks to one of the great paradoxes of religion.

How can one speak about God who is utterly transcendent and capture Him in human terms? We are extremely limited in what we can express through our alphabet, which consists of only 26 letters. Most of our feelings, such as the quality of love we feel with every fiber of our being, is impossible to express through language. Such sentiments are ineffable.

How much more so when speaking about God. How can one capture God in words? Any attempt to define God through the medium of language is a form of idol-worship. Consequently, Judaism is very silent about Him. Martin Buber once said that one can speak to God but never about God.

At this point, music becomes tremendously important. It is able to bridge the gap between immanence and transcendence, between feeling God’s radical otherness while simultaneously sensing His intimate closeness, and relating to God as our great life Companion to Whom we can turn whenever we want.

Music can actually make God more “tangible”, because music touches us in a way that words cannot. “There are gates in Heaven that cannot be opened except by melody and song” says a Chasidic aphorism. Music seems to respond to the innate need of human beings to connect to the Reality beyond that which surrounds us.

All of this is closely related to our search for meaning. Music is a portal to transcendence. It is a form of “hearing” beyond words and even of the holy texts.

It is therefore not surprising that the Torah reading in the synagogue is accompanied by the ta’amei hamikra (the traditional musical cantillation notes).

This explains one of the strangest experiences I have ever had. When I entered the yeshiva world, it was far removed from the cold analysis of a text I was used to. The Talmudic text was sung! What crazy custom was this? Why sing a text? And yet, I slowly learned that this custom was a great eye-opener. The melody has the effect of converting the prose and prosaic aspects of human life into exquisite poetry and music. And that is what the Talmud is all about. It is a kind of prose / poetry set to a tune dealing with the trivialities of human life. This was marvelously crazy. And therefore mind blowing!

To be continued.

Due to the upcoming Jewish Festivals, this series will continue after Succot. The next few weeks we will focus on the Festivals.

Thanks to Yehudah DovBer Zirkind and Yael Shahar for their editorial comments.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.