Monday, November 7, 2011

To Educate or to Inspire?

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was at our shul in Toronto this Shabbos, and one of his themes was the use of music to reach our souls.

At one point, the Chief Rabbi commented that Orthodoxy had made a critical mistake for decades, trying to reach people on the cognitive level – and, as he put it, "Cognitive is the English word for dull."

I don't think it's a mistake to reach out intellectually, framing Judaism's teachings in academic terms and attempting to teach text. For that matter, I don't think the Chief Rabbi believes that, either. To inspire the soul without informing the intellect would be to forsake the substance which anchors us as Jews, to abandon the eternal message of Sinai in favor of its ephemeral firework accompaniment, and to veer dangerously into cult territory.

But I do believe that reaching someone on an emotional level generally has a greater and more desirable impact than reaching him on an intellectual level.

Teaching a text can educate, but reaching a soul can awaken.

Teaching a text can inform practice, but reaching a soul can inspire it.

Teaching a text can reduce doubts, but reaching a soul can enable a person to live beyond them.

And while text might be a means of reaching some souls, I don't believe it is the means to reach most.

So why do rabbis traditionally spend so much time teaching text, and comparatively little time singing?

One reason is that inspiration doesn't require a rabbi; it can come from a garden or a song or a meditation or a prayer. Knowledge often requires specialized instruction, but inspiration may be found everywhere.

Another reason is that - in some ways - it's easier to teach text; read a book, explain it, rinse and repeat. It doesn't involve the deep personal relationship, and the associated investment of energy and passionate caring, needed to learn a soul and speak its language and embrace it and understand what moves it. But the results of speaking honestly to a soul are so much more significant – and, personally, I find the experience much more rewarding.

No surprise conclusion here – the two approaches go hand in hand. One who would impart Judaism must succeed at both. But I am with Rabbi Sacks: Shifting some focus from cognition to inspiration would do our Jewish world good.


  1. Any discussion of music must include the statement of the Talmud in Tractate Gitin and the opinion of the Rambam and Tosphot. This is not trivial and must not be ignored in any Jewish context. I am aware that Rebbi Nachman (drawing on the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov) saw a fundamental role for music in the service of God but this must be taken in the context of the Gemara. I don't claim to be able to resolve this seeming contradiction but ignoring the Gemara (as all Hasidic writings do) seems to me to be dishonest.

  2. Adam Zur,

    What music do you play, sing or listen to?

  3. I think that davening has become a spectator sport and not as interactive (with niggunim) as it should be in most shuls.

  4. This was one of the areas where Chasidim and Mitnagdim seemed to part ways in the 17th century and are still somewhat apart in this to this day. Should the emphasis be on Learning vs attaching the soul to Hashem through music and niggunim.

    Of course, as you note, both are necessary. Interesting to see some shifts in this direction recently in our shul.

  5. It use to be that we sang when we learned.

    I have heard that Reb Dovid Lifshitz z"tl use to ofen break out in a niggun during shiur at YU.

  6. Adam-
    Agreed, but it's far more than Gittin and music. It's also Simchah/Schok and Berachos 31a.

    I know people say that, but I wonder if it's historically accurate. I wonder whether the GRA sang zmiros on Shabbos.

    Goes back to the old question: If your minyan isn't talking during chazaras hashatz, what do you want them to do? But on the other hand, aren't they supposed to hear each word from the chazan?

  7. Not one to the exclusion of the other - I'm referring to which one was emphasized.

    My understanding is the Chasidism was in part a reaction to a perception that those who weren't talmidai chachamim were looked down upon. They taught that you don't have to be a lamdan to be a good Jew - you can do it through song, joy and dancing.

  8. Assuming that you were present on Fri night, Shabbat morning and Seudah Shlishit -- which of those three different experiences with Rabbi Sacks do you think will stay longest in people's memories???

  9. Michael-
    I agree that the embrace of early Chasidut came, in part, as rebellion against a system that valued intellectual achievement as the greatest accomplishment. I'm just not certain the intellectuals weren't rejoicing/singing.

    I was indeed there for all of them. I couldn't gauge others' experiences, but my own sense was that Seudah Shlishit, at which he spoke about music and the cognitive/emotional approaches referenced in this post, was the strongest experience, and the most memorable. Part of that was due to externals like setting and timeframe. Also, the Chief Rabbi seemed to me to be exhausted (from his arduous week, presumably) during the first two talks. But a major part of it was the message itself, and the personal passion with which he conveyed it.