The Clarinet is Not the Shofar

“When,” writes Abraham Socher, “the great Yiddish writer and folklorist S. An-sky said that the “people of the shofar must become the people of the clarinet,” one wonders whether he realized quite how completely the shofar, and the meanings carried by its blasts, could disappear from Jewish consciousness, or quite how impossible it would be for a people to be defined by their devotion to clarinets (or culture).”

Writing in a Mosaic forum on the future of Jewish culture, the editor of the Jewish Review of Books takes up the question of whether a culture can survive without the religion and culture that created it, a subject people of every faith ponder these days. What I thought most interesting is that his analysis warns against assuming that the products of the transitional period show us that it can, which many people in favor of some degree of secularization do.

He relays the story of Solomon Maimon, “a twenty-something talmudic genius [and] lapsed rabbi” of the late 18th century, visiting the chief rabbi where he lived. “We entered into a wide-ranging debate,” Maimon wrote in his Autobiography. . .”

Because this method wasn’t getting him anywhere with me, he turned to sermonizing.  When it, too, failed to produce results, he worked himself up into a holy fervor, and he began to shout: Shofar!  Shofar! . . . While shouting, he pointed to a shofar that happened to be lying on the table, and he asked me: “Do you know what that is?”  I riposted audaciously: “Oh, sure; it’s a ram’s horn.”  These words made the rabbi tumble back into his chair.  He began to utter lamentations for my lost soul.  Leaving him to lament for as long as he wanted to, I said good-bye.

Socher explains:

It is audacious to reduce a shofar to “a ram’s horn” only when both the speaker and his audience know that sounds of the shofar were heard at Sinai, that the shofar was blown in the Temple, that it calls one to repentance on Rosh Hashanah, and that it is blown on the occasion of an excommunication (which may have been what Rabbi Kohen had in mind). And one can only exit in insouciant triumph — and then tell the story — if the rabbi and the religion he represents retain their power.

Many of the great works of secular Jewish culture (of which Maimon’s Autobiography is an early instance) derive their energy from this heretical dynamic. They are not so much “rooted in the unique civilization” that gave birth to them as they are actively rebelling against it. Their voices were formed by this civilization, but their art — especially their distinctively Jewish art — often consists in raising those voices in protest (or irony). Secular poets like Bialik (or, later, Yehuda Amichai) were always just leaving.

He concludes: “I am struck by another, somewhat paradoxical thought. This is that such geniuses may be most likely to emerge from the sort of present-day Orthodox worlds in which Ahad Ha’am, Bialik, and An-sky are decidedly not names with which to conjure — worlds, however, that these figures themselves would have easily recognized.”

The same may be true for Catholics, but with, perhaps, a twist: The sort of geniuses who renew Catholic culture will come from within the Church’s equivalent of Orthodoxy, but they won’t be heretics creating in reaction. They’ll be people creating from the truths the culture and tradition gave them.

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