I am very grateful for the helpful suggestions which my teachers R. Avi Grossman and R. Menachem Copperman offered towards this piece. Additionally, many of the ideas regarding the concept of speech in Judaism come from the teachings of R. Akiva Tatz.
In the ancient world, cultures often told their national histories in verse. Many of these histories, in fact, have come down to us, and several of them are quite well known. From Mesopotamia, for instance, we have the Epic of Gilgamesh; from Babylonia, Enuma Elish; from Greece, the Iliad and the Odyssey; from Rome, the Aeneid. In this regard, the Hebrew Bible stands out among pre-modern texts, for its bulk was written in prose. Every so often, however, we find in our canon poetic passages which contradict this rule – most prominently, perhaps, in this week’s reading. Our Torah portion this week includes the celebrated Song of the Sea, and the Haftarah revolves around the Song of Deborah. Both songs are songs of salvation which were composed by the Israelites upon overcoming their military enemies, and it is on their account that we refer to this Shabbat, in Hebrew, as שבת שירה: the Shabbat of Song.
Naturally, our discussion this week will focus on the significance of song in Judaism. To appreciate the value of song, however, we must first study the related faculty of speech – a topic about which our tradition speaks at great length. When God creates man, the Bible tells us, He infuses him with the “breath of life.” Onkelos, translating this phrase into Aramaic, renders it as “רוח ממלא” – the “winds of talking.” Along these lines, later Jewish thinkers, trying to isolate the unique characteristic of humanity, settle upon defining man as the מדבר – the “speaker.” According to these sources, we are a species which is characterized by the spirit of speech.
What’s fascinating, particularly in this regard, is that God Himself creates the world through speech. God says “let there be light,” “let the waters separate,” “let the vegetation sprout” – and there is, and they do, and it does. The process is intrinsically paradoxical, for what is uniform in its essence becomes compound in its expression: from an initial, indivisible oneness (Creator) somehow emerges concrete multiplicity (creation). And this occurs specifically through the act of speech. Conceptually,then, speech is the mechanism through which infinity condenses into finitudes, and generalities refract into particulars.
That’s all quite abstract when we’re discussing metaphysics and cosmogony. On the human level, though, the idea is totally accessible. As humans, economists tell us, we have a rough time coping with ambiguity. We find intangibles overwhelming. Ontologically, we might say that this is because, as finite beings, we struggle when we confront anything un-finite – anything whose boundaries or borders are not clearly demarcated, and whose content is, therefore, not readily contextualized. In simpler terms, we’d say that anything which we cannot grasp or cannot put in words, eludes us – and that’s frustrating. Some philosophers, called linguistic determinists, take it a step further. According to these thinkers, anything which we cannot express in words, we cannot conceptualize in the first place: that which we cannot say, we cannot even think. Now that’s a scary thought!
This, in short, is why we speak. Speech allows us to contain reality, to capture it in the limits of language. With words, we shrink a world of infinite complexity into manageable proportions. We assign events their meaning, people their purpose, and items their function, all in an attempt to better understand our environments and ourselves. This is not only necessary, but positive, for to define is to redeem from nothingness into “thingness” – to separate, to distinguish and to infuse with independent value. In Judaism, this process of designation through differentiation takes on religious significance – weekdays give way to festivals, hallowed foods are rendered sacred, and men and women unite in marriage, all as a function of speech. Speech indeed creates reality, in a manner not quite like the linguistic determinists claim, but not all that different: God’s speech creates physical reality, and man’s speech creates legal reality.
Yet there’s a drawback. Speech is powerful, but it is limiting – indeed, it is powerful because it is limiting. Meanwhile, the same Torah which teaches us that humans are creatures of speech also informs us that humans were created in the image of a God whose name of essence – the Tetragrammaton – means, merely, “being.” God’s greatest attribute, His name suggests, is that He simply is. When we think about it, this actually makes sense. After all, God isn’t troubled by the same existential anxiety which we face: He doesn’t need to confine or to categorize things, for He is already one with them. That, on some level, is our goal too. To live harmoniously with our spark of divinity is to surrender our need to describe reality, and commit instead to simply experiencing it. It is the humble attempt to exist authentically and holistically – with integrity, in all of our complexity.
Here, then, we touch upon the dilemma. There is a fundamental human need to explain our external realities to ourselves, and to communicate our inner reality to others. And yet, reality can never be related in its fullness – only lived. How ironic that the very words which express, obscure. In emphasizing one aspect, they implicitly de-emphasize all others, so that the more we say, the more we find ourselves needing to say. One who meditates on this conundrum long enough is tempted to withdraw into exasperated reticence. Is it not better to leave alone, than to tamper with and break; to remain unknown, than to risk being misunderstood? From this perspective, the imperative of imitatio Dei – of modelling oneself after one’s Creator – is sooner achieved through silence than through speech.
It is precisely this dilemma which song alleviates, and it is for this reason why song constitutes an indispensable aspect of the human condition. Song is the subtle synthesis between the specificity of speech and the safety of silence. Its cadences and its modulations allow one to express that which words cannot – but that which is real, all the same. Confusing, conflicting — even contradictory — emotions are somehow carried through song: conflated, complete, clarified. In contrast to the detached posture of speech, the posture of song is one of total engagement: brain and heart, mind and muscles, body and soul together. It is the only mode of expression which melds together medium and message such that the two become inextricable. Song calls into service the entirety of one’s being, and captures shades and nuances which elude words completely. As the psalmist states, כל עצמותי תאמרנה – with all that I am, I shall serve You.
Our leaders throughout history understood this. The greatest king of Israel, David, wrote hundreds of songs, called psalms. The wisest king of Israel – his son Solomon – composed the Song of Songs, which the sages of the Talmud referred to as the “holy of holies.” When the first king of Israel, Saul, needed help overcoming his melancholy, he hired a musician. When would-be prophets sought divine inspiration, they played instruments. When Levites served in the Temple, they sang. As Moshe prepared to die, and as God set out to ratify the terms of the covenant which would guide His nation through thousands of years of history – they wrote a song. And, in this week’s Torah portion, when the Israelites left Egypt, the first thing which they did was sing. Song was the first act which our nation undertook as a free people, and the last which it undertook before the Torah drew to a close.
Today, music is a ubiquitous component of our religious experience. In the sixteenth century, the mystics of Safed, Israel, standardized the practice of going out into the field to greet the Sabbath day with songs – a practice which we commonly refer to as Kabbalat Shabbat, or “receiving the Shabbat.” Nearly two hundred years later, R. Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, returned from months of meditation in the Carpathian Mountains and began to spread the transcendental teachings of the Kabbalists throughout the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. The Ba’al Shem Tov’s focus on simplicity and soulfulness garnered mass appeal, and ultimately formed the basis of Hasidic Judaism, one of the most transformative movements in modern Jewish history.
Under the influence of Hasidism, Jews of all backgrounds have slowly begun to return to the spiritual elements of their faith – and song, in particular, has reclaimed its place alongside scholarship as a central pillar of our divine service. From the Hasidim, we have borrowed the Tish and the Kumzits – two forums for public song which have reinvigorated Jewish communal life. Moreover, thanks to leaders like R. Shlomo Carlebach, the ecstasy and spontaneity of Jewish song have imbued Jewish worship with infectious energy. On Friday nights, Jewish men and women from all over the world flock to Carlebach-minyanim, and nearly everybody – from the members of this religious-Zionist band to this African-American Gospel choir – draws inspiration from his moving melodies.
As R. Carlebach himself so movingly put it, “when someone talks he’s using worldly tools, but singing comes from the world which is beyond creation.” There are, by definition, no words to capture the power of song, try as we might. At the very least, let us hope and pray that each of us finds the courage and the ability access the wellsprings of song deep within – on all Shabbats, and on this, the Shabbat of Song, in particular.