I received in my e-mail inbox a link to a fascinating YouTube video: A violinist playing at a subway station in a Washington, D.C. Metro stop. What was interesting was that this was somewhat of an experiment or, more accurately, a “gentleman’s wager” (an un-PC expression for a dollar-less bet).
This was not your typical street musician looking to pick up an extra buck or two. It was Joshua Bell, world-renowned concert violinist, playing solo Bach partitas during rush hour. The bet was around the question of whether anyone would pay any attention and notice extraordinarily beautiful music being played by a consummate concert artist.
Guess who won the bet? The person who bet there would be significant numbers of passersby who would stop in their busy lives and take notice — akin to us Seattleites noticing “when the mountain’s out” even while driving to work in agonizingly slow rush hour traffic on 520 — lost.
Sure, one or two people stopped and dropped quarters into Bell’s violin case, a case that cradles a violin worth hundreds of thousands of dollars! But the video revealed countless passersby not paying any discernible notice to the artistry and beauty right in front of them. (Subway stations often have quite good acoustics, by the way, albeit a bit too echo-y.)
This interesting story of human obliviousness to beauty or, let’s say generously, obliviousness to beauty out of context, seemed to me a Midrashic parable, or what our sages called a “mashal.” Explanation/digression: Rabbinic midrashic parables are stories our sages created to explicate or explain a usually challenging narrative in the Torah, essentially interpreting one narrative by means of another, apparently more accessible one.
The “Joshua Bell in the Subway Tale” occurred to me as a “mashal” of many of our people’s response to Jewish life these days in the U.S. Here we have something of extraordinary beauty and power, attested to by its adherents throughout the history of this culture and this people, being ignored, passed by; our people too busy or oblivious or otherwise occupied to stop, observe, and appreciate. (Confession: I’m a snob, which means I don’t believe that music or other great art is simply a matter of personal taste. Beethoven, or in this case, Bach, is simply better, greater music than Led Zeppelin or whatever goofy noise teenagers listen to nowadays. Mozart is even much greater than Abbey Road, a noisy album even an old snob like me can appreciate!). But, parentheses aside, I also don’t believe that Shabbat or Pesach or “Shnayim ochazin b’talit” (the provocative opening mishna of Bava Metzia discussing the dispute between two litigants laying apparently equal claim to a found object, but pick any other nearly infinitely fascinating and compelling teachings from the wellsprings of Torah, both written and oral) are equal to whatever is “out there” in the marketplace of ideas and sensations competing for Jewish time, Jewish energy, Jewish wisdom.
On an aesthetic plane, I suppose one could argue whether Shabbat is more moving or beautiful than hearing Joshua Bell play Mozart. But Jewish life is not about aesthetics, a value we inherit somewhat from Classical Greece, though aesthetics play an important but limited role in traditional Judaism. Indeed, so much of Jewish life deals with ways of living one’s life and how a community should ideally live in “holiness.”
Jewish tradition concerns itself so often with limits. This emphasis on limits may be the core problem as to why so many pass by its beauty, opting for whatever else. Much of the message of our Wikipedia, cable TV with 700-plus channels, Google culture eschews limits. We celebrate freedom, bordering on an unbridled if not anarchic freedom.
The entire corpus of Jewish life and law embraces norms and rhythms of permitted and forbidden, kosher and non-kosher, categories of work and rest, pure and impure; the word kadosh/holy has as its root meaning “separation.” It is similar to classical music, with its rigors of form, melody, rhythm, instrumentation, yet mysteriously facilitating and providing a platform and framework for genius — in addition to the significant technical facility required to bring a score, a written code, to life. In addition to the discomfiting fit between authentic Jewish concepts of holiness — not the spiritual, superficial fluff of “holiness” as some sort of disembodied or out-of-body experience — and popular culture, the misfit is also expressed by the disconnected if not narcissistic self (cf. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone) in contrast to this collective identity known as “the Jewish people” or, classically, “Knesset Yisrael/Klal Yisrael.”
This reminds me of the wicked son’s question at the Pesach seder: “What’s all this to you, not him.” He denies his involvement in the collective Jewish experience of redemption and thus — and here’s the point — he denies a fundamental truth of Judaism.
The sages of the Haggadah declare one of their most serious opprobriums on this wicked one: He is a “kopher b’ikkar,” a denier of the essence of Judaism. Probably, more accurately, an essence, since there is considerable, ongoing dispute as to what the essence or ikkar of Judaism is. By denying the centrality of the collective Jewish people, elevating himself as an individual over the collective, he is deemed a heretic. (Oh, how modernity hates the word heresy; again, the culture-conflict between an unbridled individualism and a collective with norms and standards.)
Many devote their professional lives to reversing or stemming this seemingly inexorable march of assimilation. Assimilation accompanied by low birthrates and high rates of perpetual “passing by” (read: “opting out”). In many ways, the challenges of cultivating a classical musical audience are parallel to those facing Jewish professionals and organizations. Attend a typical Seattle Symphony or opera or chamber music concert — and we are truly blessed in this city by these wonderful world-class organizations and many other “minor” ones — and you’ll see what advocates observe as the “graying of the audience.” Many wonder where the next generation of devotees will come from once all these gray heads — and I count myself proudly among this “wise” elite — are no more.
And the “assimilation” or, more accurately, attrition is a serious problem. On the other hand, the concerns about the next generation both among classical music advocates and Jewish communal leaders are decades old. I recall reading a 1954 study conducted by the American Jewish Committee about the crisis of continuity, the lack of effective Jewish education, the ongoing disaster of assimilation and intermarriage, even if rates back then were much lower than the current roughly 50 percent. Sometimes I think we Jews just love a crisis mentality, even if the crisis is real. It’s the mentality, the drama, the “oy vey!” that we Jews so love. As noted Jewish historian, formerly of the UW faculty, Deborah Lipstadt famously quipped, “We Jews never fail to find the cloud in the silver lining.”
For those of us at the Samis Foundation, devoted to Jewish education and the continuity of the Jewish people, what other choice is there but to invest in effective Jewish education? We are truly blessed in our community to have such wonderful day schools and camps for those families possessing the wisdom and insight to not just “pass by” our glorious tradition. Even if we were not facing a crisis, which we Jews seem to so enjoy masochistically, this is the legacy Sam Israel bequeathed to the Jewish community of Washington State. If only more would pause for a moment and not just pass by, but stop and listen to this achingly beautiful way of life, which has sustained our people for 4,000 years.