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Judaism rejects the notions of beauty that underscore Christian classical music, from Bach to Mozart—but the music still speaks to us

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William Blake, Laocoön, c. 1826–27. (Collection of Robert N. Essick. Copyright © 2012 the William Blake Archive. Used with permission.)
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How should Jews feel about the religious music of great Christian composers (including the convert Felix Mendelssohn)? Norman Podhoretz has said that he “senses the Infinite” listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. A devout Orthodox rabbi of my acquaintance allows that he loves Mozart’s Requiem more than any other musical work. What does this music mean to Christians?

Among all the arts, Western classical music is the only true innovation of the modern West: We can read Aeschylus or Pindar just as we do Shakespeare or Keats, but the ancient world produced nothing that resembles Josquin des Prez, let alone Mozart. Alone among the arts, classical music is an artifact of the modern Christian West, and it is hard to extract it from its Christian context.

On a Good Friday some 30 years ago, in an undistinguished church in a mid-sized German city, I heard the most remarkable musical performance of my life: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with a combined amateur-professional orchestra, the church’s amateur choir, and hired vocal soloists. The Passion sets parts of the Gospel interspersed with devotional poems. It is ill-suited for the concert stage, for when performed as intended in church, on the saddest day of the Christian calendar, congregation and performers join the liturgical drama. (Strictly speaking, as an observant Jew, I shouldn’t have been in a church at all, although some Orthodox rabbis permit Jews to enter evangelical churches that contain no religious iconography, such as the one where this recital was taking place.)

Music helps the Christian to mourn the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and Bach’s great work makes this intensely personal: A palpable hush came over players and congregation when the bass soloist sang his last aria, “Make yourself pure, my heart—I want to bury Jesus myself.” As Franz Rosenzweig wrote in The Star of Redemption of Christian music, “He who joins in singing a chorale, or who listens to the mass, the Christmas oratorio, the passion … wants to make his soul stand with both feet in time, in the most real time of all, in the time of the one day of the world of which all individual days of the world are but a part. Music is supposed to escort him there.” But during the nine days before the saddest event in the Jewish calendar, the 9th of Av, rabbinic law forbids Jews from hearing any music at all; the most lugubrious hazzan in the world is of no help.


This past July, I dined in a kosher restaurant in Vienna with a young priest from an Austrian Stift who is finishing his studies in philosophy in Rome. As we finished the wine, Father A. challenged me: “What is your definition of beauty? My opinion of you will depend a great deal on your answer.” That is an important issue for Catholics, who believe that an earthly institution, namely the Church, holds the keys that unlock what is locked in heaven. If that is possible, God must make himself knowable in some way to humans, for example, by taking human form. One of these ways is beauty. Adapting Plato, Catholic theology equates the good and the beautiful by making them attributes of God.

“Beauty has two components,” I offered. “One is what we might call harmony: It unites all the elements of the object of perception into a whole in which the parts have a necessary relation to the whole.” That was right out of Plato, and Father A. flashed an arachnoid smile as I feinted toward the web.

“The other element is surprise,” I continued.

“What do you mean?” asked Father A., himself surprised.

“There are any number of things that meet the criterion of harmony—for example, geometrical constructions, crystal patterns, and so forth—but we don’ t necessarily consider them beautiful,” I went on. “They may be as dull as they are harmonious. The experience of beauty requires the sense of discovery of a harmony we hitherto did not perceive and whose existence we did not suspect.”

“That’s interesting,” Father A. allowed. “I hadn’t thought about it quite that way.”

“Would you agree,” I added, “that the concept of surprise is bound inextricably to the concept of expectation? I can only be surprised if something happens that differs from what I anticipated.”

“I suppose that is true,” said Father A.

“Let’s take the example of Mozart. Close to the end of the Andante of the 21st piano concerto, Mozart brings back the opening F-major theme not in its original key, but rather in the remote key of A-flat major. Would that qualify as a beautiful surprise?”

“By all means,” said Father A. He admires Mozart.

“And the surprise depends on our expectations about musical form, in this case, the practice of recapitulating a theme in its original key?”

“I suppose so.”

“And someone who had never heard Western classical music might have no experience of musical form, and no such expectation?”

No answer this time. Father A. guessed where I was going with this.

“And someone who was so used to post-Romantic chromaticism, where tonality changes all the time, might not find it surprising to hear a recapitulation in a remote key?”

“Perhaps not,” he said.

“If the perception of beauty requires surprise, and surprise depends on expectation, have we not reached the conclusion that beauty is not absolute, but depends in some way on the expectations of the beholder?”

“I will have to give that some thought.”

“Let us consider another side of the problem,” I continued. “Is the beautiful good, and vice versa?”

“That is what I believe.”

“Can beauty be placed in the service of falsehood and immorality?”

“Not the truly beautiful,” he said.

“What about Mozart’s opera Così Fan Tutte, in which music as beautiful as any Mozart ever wrote promotes outright lies.” The opera involves two young men who set out to test the faithfulness of their fiancées, by seducing the other’s intended. There is not a single sympathetic character in the work, whose music is on par with the Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni. That may explain why it is less popular: The men are cynical and the women slutty.

“If art employs beauty to promote falsehood, then I cannot consider it truly beautiful,” Father A. decided. “If you exclude Così, your idea of beauty won’t convince a single classical musician,” I said, and we moved on to dessert. The Greek idea of beauty, naturalized into Catholic theology by St. Thomas Aquinas, is entirely alien to Mozart’s quirky humor. One might even speak of Mozart’s Jewish sense of humor, for his librettist in Così Fan Tutte was the converted Jew Lorenzo Da Ponte, and his ironic view of Christian society belongs to a peculiar mode of Jewish irony.


Judaism does not accept the Greek concept of beauty carried over into Christianity. But how does Judaism—Torah and the rabbinic tradition—understand beauty? Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, director of the Strauss Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, observes that not once does the Tanakh call God “beautiful” (yafeh). God is called adir (splendid), and his voice is called hadar (majestic). As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein wrote:

The verse says (Tehillim 29:4), “Kol Hashem ba-ko’ach; kol Hashem be-hadar—The voice of God is power; the voice of God is splendor.” We perceive God in one sense as boundless, unbridled power. In another sense, we perceive Him in terms of values, of truth and goodness. … Hadar is presumably some kind of objective beauty, a moral beauty, a beauty of truth.

But that is moral beauty, not visual or sonorous beauty as in the Christian definition.

In the all of the Tanakh we find God and beauty mentioned only once in the same verse: “I have observed the task which God has given the sons of man to be concerned with: He made everything beautiful in its time; He also put an enigma [ha-Olam] into their mind [b’libam] so that man cannot comprehend what God has done from beginning to end” (Kohelet 3:11, Artscroll translation). What Artscroll translates (following the Targum) as “enigma” and Koren as “mystery,” ha-Olam, is rendered in its more common usage as “eternity” in other translations. Ibn Ezra supports the latter reading, noting that in the whole of the Tanakh, the word olam is used only in the sense of time and eternity. Perhaps the ambiguity sheds light on the implicit Jewish understanding of beauty.

Kohelet tells us is that beauty comes from God. We are obligated to say the blessing “shekakha lo b’olamo” when we see beautiful things. But God made things beautiful in their time. Creation is contingent; even the world itself will wear out like a suit of clothes, and God will replace it (Tehillim 102:26). Beauty is not an eternal characteristic of nature in its recondite essence, accessible to the adept through special knowledge, as Plato taught; much less is it an attribute of God. Beauty, rather, is temporal and hevel, or “fleeting” (rather than “vain” as Kohelet is usually rendered).

Next to this terse statement about beauty we find a statement about man, namely that God has put an enigma (eternity) into the minds of humans such that we seek after eternity, even if we cannot fully comprehend it. This reading of Kohelet 3:10 gains clarity if we read Kohelet 3:15 in the Koren translation by the 19th-century rosh yeshiva Michael Friedländer: “That which is, already has been; and that which is to be has already been; and only God can find the fleeting moment.” As I wrote in another context for Tablet Magazine, Rabbi Friedländer might have had in mind the celebrated wager that Faust offered the Devil in Goethe’s tragedy. Faust would lose his soul and will if he attempted to hold onto the passing moment, that is, to try to grasp what only God can find. The impulse to grab the moment and hold onto it is idolatrous; it is an attempt to cheat eternity, to make ourselves into gods.

That is not the standard reading of Kohelet 3:11, to be sure. Rashi comments that the day of our death is unknown, so that a man says, “Perhaps my death is far off,” and builds a house or plants a vineyard. Because the time of our death is concealed from us, we should rejoice with our portion and follow God’s law while we yet live.

But rejoicing in our portion throughout the days of our lives is never quite enough, for eternity is set in our hearts, which is to say that our hearts are set on eternity. St. Augustine paraphrased Kohelet in the opening words of the Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until we come to you.” We might think of beauty as an intimation of the eternity that God has set in our hearts. God has planted in our hearts the enigma of eternity, which is the same as the mystery of human mortality, and beauty is an intimation of that eternity. We do not say that God is beautiful, for we have never seen his form. For Jews, unlike Christians, beauty is not an attribute of God, but rather a fleeting human perception of God’s action in the world.

Judaism abhors the program of Matthew Arnold and others who saw in art a replacement for religion. But if we understand beauty through the eyes of Kohelet—as a fleeting glimpse of God’s action in the world—we also understand why we cannot do without it. God has planted eternity in our hearts, but the whole of his purpose remains hidden. All the more so do our hearts require these fleeting glimpses of God’s action in the world.

This may take the form of awe in the presence of natural beauty, which shows us God b’hadar, as in Tehillim 29. But God has made us his partners in creation, and human artists also can create beauty. The risk of emulating God is great. A king may share in God’s glory, as in the blessing for seeing a king (“Blessed are you, God, King of the universe, who has given of his glory to flesh and blood”), but a king who does not subject himself to the law becomes a monster who arrogates God’s authority to himself. Artists are at risk of the same kind of abuse of power. From the standpoint of Kohelet, idolatry can exist in time as well as images. A musician who fails to acknowledge the fleeting character of beauty becomes an idolater.

Jews can recognize the beauty in music composed by Christians on explicitly religious subjects, even though we reject the worship of Jesus of Nazareth. Norman Podhoretz is not wrong to love Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The classical music of the West, from the sacred counterpoint of Josquin des Prez in the 15th century through Brahms, makes Kohelet’s concept of beauty sensuous. It subordinates the musical moment to a teleological goal. That is, Western music creates tonal expectations so compelling that the hearer’s perception of the flow of musical time is guided by a sense of the musical future. Tonality—the system in which the horizontal unfolding of melody in time integrates with vertical consonance—has the unique capacity to generate a sense of the future.

Every tonal work has a goal, the resolution of tonal tension in the return to the tonic by way of a final cadence from the dominant. The Austrian Jewish theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) identified a “fundamental structure” underlying each movement of a classical composition that maps a journey away from and back to the tonic. The great composers subordinate every element of composition to the goal. Once the composer has created an expectation, it is possible to create tension by prolonging it, or create surprise and even humor by leading in an unexpected direction. Deep expectations of the future act upon memory through the judgment of our mind’s ear.

Popular music written for or derived from dance remains in the ordinary time of heartbeat, respiration, and walking. Classical music, though, can recreate time on two different levels: the quotidian clock-time of duration, and the experiential time of harmonic change. The juxtaposition of time on different levels enables the great composers to give us an intimation of eternity, a sense of the sacred in purely musical terms. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and other great composers, that is, give us a perception of the sacred through purely musical means that are independent of the religious content of the texts with which the music is associated. That is why it should be permissible for observant Jews to enjoy a Bach Passion or the Mozart Requiem, despite their discomfort at the Christian content. It is impossible for Jews to hear the Matthew Passion in the same way that the congregation of the German church heard it, as participants in an ecclesiastical drama, but the music speaks to us nonetheless.

A radically different view of musical time appears with the decay of the Christian West, from Richard Wagner. Wagner remains the consummate bard of narcissistic love, of passion for our own alter ego. Wagner wants to counterpose a love of pure impulse to the covenantal order of traditional society. As Wagner wrote in 1850 to the critic Theodor Uhlig: “Time is absolute nothingness. The only Something is that which makes us forget time.” Where the classical composers subordinated the moment to musical teleology and, in their best moments, evoked sacred time, Wagner set out to destroy time. Whereas classical composition ordered time in the spirit of Christian teleology, subordinating the individual moment to a long-range goal, Wagner set out to undermine the organic unity of classical form. This raises interesting questions about Gustav Mahler, who called Wagner’s music “the great and most painful revelation.” A convert to Catholicism, Mahler often is portrayed as the exemplar of a Jewish composer, although he embraced a decidedly alien aesthetic.

Music criticism has a two-fold task in a Jewish context. One issue is the technical competence and interpretative validity of performance, or the quality of new composition. But a more important issue is the spiritual purpose toward which music is made. If I am correct to argue that the biblical concept of time and eternity underlies the great tradition of Western classical music, then it would be a diminution of Jewish spiritual life to eschew it.

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Martin Cleaver says:

Most people who listen to and enjoy classical music are not Christians or anything else. The music may have had a Christian inspiration, or was commissioned by someone with plenty of money and a need for a Christian inspiration, but most of us just enjoy beautiful things. The religious context is largely irrelevant for your listening pleasure.
There are people who think that Jehovah, Allah and Yahweh exist. There are people who think religion is important, but fortunately they’re a minority.

    lejardin says:

    From whose posterior, precisely, did you extract these nuggets? Possibly you’ll want to check your facts in the future.

David P Goldman says:

80% of Americans and 65% of Israelis say they believe in God, Mr. Cleaver. We’re not a minority here, nor in Israel. You, in fact, are the minority, but who’s counting? I’m not prejudiced. Some of my best friends are atheists.

jason taylor says:

Good CAN be used in the service of evil, because evil cannot exist on it’s own. Martial valor can be used to support a tyrant, studiousness can be used to support an evil ideology and so forth. We see it all the time. Adultery can call forth loyalty between the wayward lovers. And the mafia is supposed to not inform on its own and some mafioso may even keep that code.

As for crystal patterns and geometric figures, many people do in fact call them beautiful. Islamic artistic tradition depends strongly on geometric figures. And quite a few people call a snowflake or a diamond beautiful.

GeoSmiley says:

I think your view of beauty is closer to the Christian view than you imagine. I would refer you to David Bentley Hart’s “The Beauty of the Infinite,” which is a philosophical/theological critique of modern philosophy through the lens of a Christian aesthetics. Integral to his argument is that the modern project denigrates beauty as fleeting and superficial, but that these characteristics are precisely what recommend beauty to Christians as a serious philosophical category. After all, Christianity is centered around the life of a particular Jew who lived in a particular time, and spent only a short 33 years on earth. Implicit in Christian theology is the acknowledgment that the absolute and eternal Goodness of God is only accessible to us through fleeting glimpses.

David P Goldman says:

I know David Hart (I worked at First Things for two years) and respect his writings, but the view really is quite different. Aesthetics is always something of an afterthought in Judaism. My argument here is that enjoyment of Christian-inspired art is permissible, even desirable, for Jews, but it is by no means essential. One can be a perfectly good Jew without ever hearing a note of Bach or seeing a single work of Leonardo. I showed an earlier version of the essay to a prominent Jewish authority who said, in effect, that there was nothing wrong with it; the question was, rather, how important the subject is to begin with. God’s relationship to he Jewish people is founded on the performance of the mitzvot (the term korban, for sacrifice, means an “approach”). The mitzvot should be performed beautifully (witness all the artistry that went into the Tent of Meeting as well as the Temple), but that is adornment. Christian aesthetic theology, from Urs v. Balthasar to David Hart, is very different.

The men in Così Fan Tutte can be considered “slutty” as well. I resent the term when used to speak only about women.

carlo lancellotti says:

I am not aware of any classical Christian source who would state that “God is beautiful” or, for that matter, that “God is true.” Because ultimately God is not a “thing” to which an adjective can be attributed, except with serious qualifications. That would sound as blasphemous to Christian hears as it does (I imagine) to Jewish ones.

The assertion that “beauty” (and “truth” and “justice” etc.) as a trascendental category ultimately resides in God as the source of all being, however, is a very different matter, and I am surprised that Mr. Goldman seems to conflate it with the mere attribution of beauty to God as an extrinsic characteristic.

He is correct, though, in pointing out that the aesthetic aspect must play a radically different role in Christianity (with respect to Judaism) because of the doctrine of the Incarnation. We can certainly speak of a “beauty of Christ.” However, I would add that one can find prefigurations of this notion all over the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament).

Allan Leicht says:

What a wonderful analysis. Thank you. How ironic that ego-messianiacal Wagner, irresistible as he may be, so paganized and secularized music that not even Parsifal could redeem him.

Allan Leicht says:

And, oh, just for the record, I believe the latest from Israel via a sulky Haaretz last week was that 80% of Israelis believed in God.

Ephraim says:

There is a pithy aphorism that succinctly sums up the difference between the Greek (and, ultimately, Christian) idea of beauty and the Jewish one:

“The Greeks saw holiness in beauty; the Jews saw beauty in holiness”.

In its essence, I think this is a true statement. For Greeks, beauty was primarily aesthetic, that is, sensual. For Jews, beauty is essentially a moral concept.

A joke:

A man from a large charitable organization visits a town looking for a certain Moshe Plotnick, a regular and generous contributor. He meets someone and asks where Plotnick can be found.

“Plotnick? Who’s he?”
“He’s the head of the chesed (kindness) committee.”
“Sorry. Don’t know him.”
“You know, he runs the soup kitchen and the orphanage.”
He’s also the head of the scholarship committee that gives out scholarships to poor families.”
“Never heard of him.”
“OK, he’s an obese hunchbakced dwarf with a hook nose, one leg is shorter than the other, he has a giant birthmark covering half of his face, and he’s wall-eyed.”
“Oh, you mean Plotnick the “shayner Yid” (“beautiful Jew”)! Of course I know him. Everybody knows Plotnick.”

Michael S. says:

How come you get to discuss music and beauty with a priest in Vienna, and I’m posting pictures of Snooki without make-up on my facebook page?

Mr. Goldman,

Your concept of beauty is reminiscent of the Scotist school who takes an opposing view to the Thomist conception of beauty as an attribute of God. The Blessed Duns Scotus would maintain that beauty is an individuating property given by God but not inherent in the objects themselves. This individuating helps complete with uniqueness something not found in the common. But all of this was contingent on God’s Will and how he individuated each of his creatures.

David Goldman says:

Might well be, but I haven’t studied Scotus on beauty. My thinking is rooted in Kohelet, but I doubt I would have read Kohelet this way without Augustine, or for that matter, Goethe.

Shmuel Klatzkin says:

The kabbalistic conception of tiferet is worth exploring. It is the balanced middle point of the sefirotic system, equivalent to truth and compassion, and involves a dynamic balance of expression (chesed) and delimiting form (gevura).


This is aa second try to post my comment which is that there are plenty of sublime intimations of eternity and great beauty in secular music without having to go to the specifically religious or devotional kind.
As a musical observant Jew, I would draw the line at devotional music because, to adapt a Mcluhanism, the message of this type of music is inexorably entwined into the “massage” of the piece as a whole. It is self-deceiving, I believe, to think that one can listen for the music alone. There is a bill of goods attached to such pieces which are fine for devotees of that particular faith but, in fact, disruptive and deleterious to those of another. I would liken a religious Jew who just has to listen to a Mass or Requiem dedicated to the figurehead of a competing religion, to a religious Jew who just has to eat pork. “What harm can it do?” he would ask, as he loses just a little — or, perhaps, a large — part of his soul.

David Goldman says:

Mr. Lindsay,
This is a difficult issue, but I don’t think McLuhan tells us much about how to respond to it. No-one forces you to listen to Christian religious music. I know frum Jews who do so. The question is whether it should be permissible, even desirable. Can you separate the music from the message? To some extent, it is indeed possible, in my analysis. I am willing to be corrected, but you haven’t offered a contrary analysis, only an assertion.

A contrary analysis would have to cover aspects going back to first principles. All I can offer is an analogy: religious Jews are not permitted to go inside churches, even though one.could always say one was only interesfed in the architecture. I infer from this that religious Jews should not expose themselves to the beauties and blandishments of other religions.

David Goldman says:

Tough call. The fact that some authorities allow entry into a church with no images makes clear that the visual representation of God is a major issue. I am talking about secular concerts or recordings of Christian religious music. What about art that is heard rather than seen? I argue that there is idolatry of time as well as of image, specifically in the case of Wagner. One sees kippot in the audience at Wagner operas — now, that’s an interesting issue.

Carolyn Kunin says:

Mr Goldman,

I am reminded of Meredith Wilson’s definition of great music – that which makes the unthinkable (I don’t have the right word, but meaning indicative of surprise) appear inevitable. As I recall, he gave as an example the opening of the Eroica.

I’ve thought that at his best, man does what God himself cannot -and for me the epitome of this is great music. But that is as far as my ability to philosophize will take me!

leslie epstein says:

I just came across Mr. Goldman’s great essay and am writing only to thank him for it. It made me wonder, as every such work does, why I am spending my time reading and thinking about anything else.

Well, I can’t resist adding that, for me, Quixote is a Jewish novel for the same reasons that Cosi is a Jewish opera.

Again, my thanks.

Herb says:

Harmony and surprise? I was expecting harmony and counterpoint. However, music is music. Not Christian, not Jewish, just music. There may be a Christian or Jewish theme (Idea) involved, but the music is still just music. We read all sorts of interpretations of Bruckner, but he wrote – beautiful music. His Te Deum is a magnificent work and may be intellectually interpreted in many ways. But, to it’s core, it is just music. Intellectualism and religious interpretation have no place in the listening of music. Is not music G_D’s gift to all the world? Who is not moved by the Overture to Don Giovanni, Mozart’s late symphonies, sit quietly and listen to Mozart’s concertos for woodwinds and you are listening to a composer truly touched by G_D. As my dear Mother would say as we sat down to dinner, “Enjoy!”

Alan Reader says:

I don’t want this comment posted. I only want to leave an anonymous message to David P. Goldman. (Anonymous, because I’m way too old to acknowledge any interest in “heavy metal” music.)

David Goldman’s article in the April First Things was very interesting and informative, as is this one. One of his most persistent interests is the way rhythm and tone can be combined to suggest aspects of God and eternity. (The FT article was on the same theme as this one, but altogether different.)

I’d like him to listen to a popular song that really isn’t within his normal purview. Here’s the URL:

This song is so well crafted in every way that even Goldman might be interested in listening to it. The instrumentation is very spare yet perfect, mixing distorted guitar and drums with soft classical piano and synthesized strings. The vocal harmonies are beautiful, the modulations of chord and meter are surprising and perfectly crafted (IMHO) to create tension and then resolve it.

I know from my experience and I feel on my unconscious and my lifelearned level, that we Jews brought up in Western civilization, have embraced the values of aesthetics based on the Classic Greek and Renessance perception more that the authentic Jewish thought would advise to. But can we imagine ourself and our children without the strong affection by Western Music? I cannot imagine my listening treasure of Requiem by Mozart missing from my collection and my grandchildren banned from it because ‘s underlying idea contradicts Jewish tradition…That actually a tricky question, and the esse is very good, BTW

Matti Kovler says:

To paraphrase, the Jewish idea of beauty might navigate towards Substance, while the Catholic (Greek carried over to Christianity) will most likely tend towards Manner. 
Thank you for the truly brilliant article.
Jewish Music Theater

Eric Weitzner says:

In my blog Jewish Bach, on, I attempt to unite the beauty of Bach’s B minor Mass with Hebrew liturgy.


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Judaism rejects the notions of beauty that underscore Christian classical music, from Bach to Mozart—but the music still speaks to us