Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 20 October 2018 / 11 Heshvan 5779

Spiritual Symphony

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Allen

Dear Rabbi,

Recently I heard of the musical role of the Levites in the Temple and it reminds me of the role of musicians and music in the aristocratic courts of Europe throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I was wondering what your thinking on this would be.

Dear Allen,

While I understand why this suggestion resonates with you, my take on this is not harmonious with yours. I’ll explain why.

It is true that the aristocracy in Europe practiced and enjoyed both religious and secular classical music. But, as such, the masses had little or no access to this culturally elevating experience. And of the aristocracy, many, if not most, had only very rudimentary musical understanding and ability. And their musical taste was often banal and mundane.

The Levites, however, were not a political or monetary aristocracy, but a learned one. They were the most Torah-knowledgeable and spiritually elevated of all Israel. This, coupled with rigorous, exceptional musical training, not only made them musicians par excellence, but infused their music with the most spiritually uplifting of intentions. What’s more, this was openly shared with, and experienced by, the masses as an integral part of the Temple service.

In addition, while the European aristocracy patronized art and artists in general, including music and musicians, it was primarily for their own aesthetic and social gratification and indulgence. As such, their relationship with musicians was essentially exploitative, while the musicians themselves often viewed their patrons’ musical tastes and appreciation with contempt. The result was often “underfed” artists who were in constant tension between pleasing their musically plebeian patrons and realizing their own musical genius. Even someone as musically brilliant as Mozart lived a life of poverty and died and was buried with ignominy.

In contrast, the Levites, the professional musicians of the Holy Temple, were supported and patronized by the entire Jewish People, who donated vast sums to the upkeep and running of the Temple and its many services. The people had great appreciation and admiration for the Levites, whose worship they valued not for their own delight, but for its beautification of G-d. Simultaneously, the Levites viewed themselves as humble servants and emissaries for the Jewish People whom they honored before G-d. And just as Israel had a part in the sacrifices offered to G-d via the priestly kohanim, so too did each Jew have a role in the Divine music offered to G-d via the Levites. In fact, when a person came to the public precincts of the Temple and heard the heavenly melodies of the Levites, he was enveloped in rapture and was transformed into a better, more elevated, refined and spiritual person.

Finally, for the greater part of the European court-music period, for various reasons, aristocratic patrons limited their sponsorship of music to chamber music. This resulted in limiting musical expression both quantitatively and qualitatively to small orchestras of specific instruments.

However, already in ancient times, the Temple employed a vast number of musicians who played a tremendous variety of instruments, many of which are not even know today. Thus, long before the invention of the modern symphony, the Temple maintained a Grand Symphony Orchestra which performed in unison with a tremendous choir of angelic-voiced Levites, who together played and sang the most ethereal and spiritually uplifting melodies that the human ear ever heard.

So, European court music is far from being akin to the music of the Temple, whose scale and tenor is far above anything we can possibly imagine. And this is because the music of the Temple reverberates with and inspires Divine service and prophecy, for whose return we await with longing.

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