[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.