‘Mah tovu’ and Tannhauser – separating masterpiece, creator
Sweet honey is regurgitated by an insect. The royal blue (tchelet) dye used for tzitzit is harvested from an impure slug called hilazon.
Paternostro conducts the Israel Chamber Orchestra Photo: Michael Dalder / Reuters
As they say, “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” The beautiful pearl is found
in the mucousy flesh of a bottom-feeding oyster.
Sweet honey is
regurgitated by an insect. The royal blue (tchelet) dye used for tzitzit is
harvested from an impure slug called hilazon.
The list is long of
beautiful and wholesome natural phenomena that are created through less than
esthetic crucibles and cataclysmic occurrences.
Indeed one is hard put to
find anything that we treasure or value – from pearls to perfumes, from
mountains to newborn babies – whose delivery mechanisms are esthetic or even
benign in their own right.
What is true for natural phenomena is true for
creativity as well. Sublime art, poetry, architecture and music are rarely the
oeuvres of paragons of virtue.
More likely they are the handiwork of
madmen, misfits and misogynists.
Years ago, I turned my radio on to New
York’s classical station WQXR and was transfixed by a piece of music so
transcendent – at least to my ears – that I literally had a religious
experience. Imagine my devastation when the announcer identified the piece as
the overture to Tannhauser by Richard Wagner.
Here I was, the son of
Holocaust survivors, someone who would never think of owning a German car, and
yet I had been transported by the music of a proto-Nazi Jew-hater who was
lionized by the Third Reich.
How was I to reconcile emotions that seemed
so utterly unreconcilable? How could such a bastard have composed this piece of
music? Tannhauser is an opera in three acts that premiered in 1845. Inspired by
the poetry of Heinrich Heine, the opera focuses on the struggle between love
sacred and profane, and redemption through love. The various musical themes of
the opera are condensed into the orchestral and choral introduction that is its
One of the first prayers taught to Jewish children, and one
that traditional Jews recite every day of the year, opens with the phrase, “Mah
tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.”
These words are borrowed
from one of the most exceptional examples of sublime poetry in the Torah. And
therein lies the key to appreciating a piece like the Tannhauser
The author of Mah Tovu was none other than “Balaam Harasha,”
the evil Balaam who sought to persuade God to eliminate the Jewish
“The speech of Balaam the son of Be’or, and the speech of the man
whose eyes are open, the saying of him who hears the words of God, who sees the
vision of the Almighty, falling down but having his eyes open; how goodly are
they tents, O, Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!” (Numbers
Balaam was the would-be Hitler of his time, a prophet of God who
sought to curse God’s children. And yet his words are recorded in the Torah, are
taught to our children, and are included in our daily prayers.
here is profound.
The Torah is teaching us that there is much in this
world that merits our attention and deserves our appreciation despite its
source. If we can appreciate Mah Tovu we must learn to distinguish between
medium and message, poet and poem, painter and picture, composer and
The recurring debate concerning Israel’s unofficial embargo of
Wagner’s music is again in the news. And, once again, the boycott is being
maintained. Perhaps it is time to take a more sophisticated, Torah-based
approach to this issue. Rather than condemn Wagner’s music we should condemn
Wagner the man.
Yes, our orchestras and radio stations should play
But each performance should be preceded by an announcement that
makes it clear who the composer was as a person and why his memory should be
blotted out but not forgotten – as we are instructed to do regarding the evil
While it is our fervent hope that Richard Wagner is consigned
to the depths of Hell, we should be free to enjoy his music because we are able,
by virtue of the example of Balaam and Mah Tovu, to distinguish between the
medium and the message. We do not exalt Balaam when we recite Mah Tovu, nor do
we beatify Wagner by listening to Tannahuser.
Indeed, the Lord works in
The writer is an advertising creative director and
marketing consultant who spends his mornings in a Jerusalem kolel.