‘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 credit: Michael Dalder / Reuters)
Paternostro conducts the Israel Chamber Orchestra
(photo credit: 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 overture.
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 overture.
The author of Mah Tovu was none other than “Balaam Harasha,” the evil Balaam who sought to persuade God to eliminate the Jewish people.
“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 23:3-5).
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.
The lesson 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 symphony.
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 Wagner.
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 Amalekites.
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 mysterious ways.
The writer is an advertising creative director and marketing consultant who spends his mornings in a Jerusalem kolel.