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Anagogy and Judaism

February 6, 2012

“Is there a Jewish concept of classical music?” asks this article by David Goldman. I’m not sure how to respond, not because I think Jews can’t appreciate classical music, but because, whether or not Goldman’s approach is compatible with Judaism (I wouldn’t know enough to say), it doesn’t strike me as something only Jews could endorse.

I never know quite how to approach specifically Jewish writers and theorists [1]. I’m often fascinated, sometimes sympathetic, but always fear that if I say I agree with them it will only reveal that I didn’t quite understand what they meant. After all, they explicitly oppose their view to the Greco-Roman-Christian tradition. On the other hand, maybe it’s just that they don’t understand the Roman Catholic position [2]. Rome sees itself as a synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem; that makes it easy for Jerusalem to see us as Athens in disguise, and vice versa. Thinking about this often makes it seem as if Catholicism is inherently schizophrenic.

Anyway, Goldman’s train of thought is as follows: (1) classical music is a distinctive product of Christian civilization; (2) that means it’s usually approached with a Greco-Roman-Christian conception of beauty that Jews cannot accept; (3) but Judaism has its own conception of beauty; (4) and classical music can be seen as beautiful in the Jewish sense.

I have no quarrel with (1) and (4); in fact I particularly like Goldman’s description of teleology in classical music: “”The classical music of the West … subordinates the musical moment to a teleological goal. That is, Western music creates tonal expectations so compelling that the hearer’s perception of the flow of musical time is guided by a sense of the musical future. … The juxtaposition of time on different levels enables the great composers to give us an intimation of eternity, a sense of the sacred in purely musical terms.” I can get behind that [3].

But I’m not sure what to make of (2) and (3). He describes the Greco-Roman-Christian sense of beauty as follows:

[The definition of beauty] is an important issue for Catholics, who believe that an earthly institution, namely the Church, holds the keys that unlock what is locked in heaven. If that is possible, God must make himself knowable in some way to humans, for example, by taking human form. One of these ways is beauty. Adapting Plato, Catholic theology equates the good and the beautiful by making them attributes of God.

A way of putting this, I think, is that in a beautiful work of art, God reveals himself by analogy. That is, by proportion; by harmony. The way the parts of the work relate to one another parallels the way God sits in perfect harmony with himself.

Goldman brings out the flaws in this view through a conversation with a priest who, through the equation of good and beautiful, is led to claim that a work of Mozart’s is not “truly beautiful” because it promotes immorality–and of course it’s absurd to say Mozart is not truly beautiful, right? Well, no, not if you take God to be the only completely beautiful being. Everything else is imperfectly beautiful; and being not-good (in a moral sense) harms that beauty; but it doesn’t destroy it. The piece by Mozart (which I haven’t heard) is surely more beautiful than a disgustingly saccharine gospel song, and better to listen to; it would be better if it didn’t promote immorality (if it does), but that’s a flaw we can look past, especially if it’s inextricable from it’s beauty. The same way Athanasius can be a saint even if he had a bad temper–and in some ways because he had a bad temper, since it aided him in his fight against heretics.

Now for the Jewish definition of beauty to which he opposes this. Here’s the first key paragraph:

But rejoicing in our portion throughout the days of our lives is never quite enough, for eternity is set in our hearts, which is to say that our hearts are set on eternity. St. Augustine paraphrased Kohelet in the opening words of the Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until we come to you.” We might think of beauty as an intimation of the eternity that God has set in our hearts. God has planted in our hearts the enigma of eternity, which is the same as the mystery of human mortality, and beauty is an intimation of that eternity. We do not say that God is beautiful, for we have never seen his form. For Jews, unlike Christians, beauty is not an attribute of God, but rather a fleeting human perception of God’s action in the world.

So, beauty is teleological; it points towards God. Perhaps we can also call it eschatological?

As for the disagreement with Christianity: at first glance there’s a very slight difference between saying “only God is beautiful, any earthly imitation of his beauty necessarily falls short” and “God is above beauty, and and attempt to make beauty absolute and infinite is idolatrous.” I think both do justice to the absolute transcendence of God. There is a difference, though: the Christian approach says that divine beauty and earthly beauty differ as much as infinite differs from finite, but are of the same kind. In doing so, it allows for the analogical. The Jewish view says beauty only points, it does not parallel.

We might say, then, that the Jewish view embraces the eschatological; the Greco-Roman view (insofar as it’s embodied by Plato’s Forms) embraces the analogical; and the Christian embraces both. As I recall, the “anagogical” includes both as well [4]. We might call them melody and harmony. So is there really a conflict here?

Finally, Goldman’s take on the risks of artistic creation touches on another issue my writing here has been concerned with. I won’t comment, just quote:

This may take the form of awe in the presence of natural beauty, which shows us God b’hadar, as in Tehillim 29. But God has made us his partners in creation, and human artists also can create beauty. The risk of emulating God is great. A king may share in God’s glory, as in the blessing for seeing a king (“Blessed are you, God, King of the universe, who has given of his glory to flesh and blood”), but a king who does not subject himself to the law becomes a monster who arrogates God’s authority to himself. Artists are at risk of the same kind of abuse of power. From the standpoint of Kohelet, idolatry can exist in time as well as images. A musician who fails to acknowledge the fleeting character of beauty becomes an idolater.


[1]: This probably has something to do with my being ethnically Jewish but raised Catholic.)

[2]: I’m talking about Catholics because I am one and because as far as I know a uniquely Protestant understanding of beauty basically doesn’t exist; they either reject it or are carried by their emotional response without any way of making sense of what is happening to them. Is this unfair to Protestants? Maybe.

[3]: I’m also intrigued by his description of what Wagner does, but don’t know enough to agree or disagree: “Where the classical composers subordinated the moment to musical teleology and, in their best moments, evoked sacred time, Wagner set out to destroy time. Whereas classical composition ordered time in the spirit of Christian teleology, subordinating the individual moment to a long-range goal, Wagner set out to undermine the organic unity of classical form.” Now that does sound bad. I don’t want to destroy time. At the same time I can understand wanting to do so. I’d tend to see Wagner as the other side of the Athens-Jerusalem dialectic, so of course I’d want to accept his work as good while saying that there’s something he’s missing, but again, I just don’t know enough.

[4]: I’m reading Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and have to say, annoyingly scientistic as he is sometimes, I love his description of the anagogical in literature.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2012 7:22 am

    I’ve got to confess, arguments like Goldman’s always leave me with a faint feeling of a moebius. Is there any point in dividing the two outlooks, even given the distinction of one as a parallel and one as an analogy, if in the end there is agreement that beauty comes from God and that, especially, “God has made us his partners in creation, and human artists also can create beauty.” Whether beauty if a perception of God or an attribute of God, there is still the common ground of agreement that beauty is connected with God and that we are all subcreators.

  2. February 8, 2012 10:36 pm

    It’s a rather metaphysical argument, but I think it does end up making a practical difference in some ways. For example, if you think of physical beauty as analogous with divine beauty, you get things like Greek sculpture; Jewish culture, like Islamic culture, tends to eschew depictions of the human form as potentially idolatrous. And if you think of beauty as teleologically oriented towards God, you get stories like Abram changing his name to Abraham and King David’s, uh, complicated biography; Greek culture has a much more static view of human character and its literary characters tend not to have conversions or go through cycles of sin and repentance (cf: the first chapter of Auerbach’s Mimesis, which everyone should read anyway).

    So, the distinctions of analogy/teleology, harmony/melody, do matter, in that they make a difference… the question is whether making the distinctions is beneficial, or if it just stifles artistic creativity. It might seem the latter; after all it seems like Jewish culture repressed a valid art form and Greek culture failed to understand another. But I suspect that to get Greek sculpture you need more than just “beauty is connected with God,” you need harmony and proportion, and to get Jewish dynamic characters you need to see the world as changing, developing.

  3. February 11, 2012 3:33 pm

    Good point – I like that idea, that to understand the art of different cultures we need to learn more of the lenses through which they view their subcreations.

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