One of my regrets as a musician was that I never really learned to improvise. While great classical musicians of the nineteenth century improvised their own cadenzas during solo works, by the time I was studying music in the late 20th Century only the most brilliant performers would ever even consider departing from the notes on the page. The question of performance in classical music when I was growing up was not, "What original statement can I make?" but rather, "What new interpretation can I make?" Even that was pretty bold. More often the question was, "How can I be faithful to the music?" or "How can I play this piece the way the composer wanted it to sound?" Jazz was where improvisation happened. In jazz the imperative was to come up with something new, not to produce a faithful replica.
There is of course something lost and something gained in both these models. There is something deeply powerful in playing a sonata or a symphony composed by Mozart. We imagine we are playing the piece exactly as the composer intended it - and we may in fact be doing so. We feel we are re-creating a moment in history, that as we play the notes of Schubert we find ourselves in 19th-Century Vienna. If we find meaning in the music it is not through bringing ourselves into the music, but through subjugating ourselves to its directives. And this is of course what is lost in classical music and gained in jazz - the spontaneity, the newness and the risk of something less than a self-contained unit of perfection. By not taking the risk, we settle for works of magnificence; but by taking it, we might achieve different, deeper, moments of meaning, or we might fall short.
These tensions, between a prescribed piece and an improvised one, find expression in Parashat Ki Tavo. The parsha brings us several moments of scripted speech: the formula to be recited when one brings first fruits to the Temple (Deut. 26:5-9); ‘vidui ma'aser', the confession made over tithes (26:13-14); and the curses to be recited at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal upon entry into the land of Israel (27:14-26). In each of these cases, the Torah prescribes exact words to be recited at particular moments in the life of the individual and the community.
Pre-scriptions are a bold projection of power. When we utter the words of a script, the author, though he may be long since dead, still exercises authority over us. The formulae of Ki Tavo hold sway over the people who will recite them years and centuries later. And even today, thousands of years after the writing of the Torah, its words still wield great power over the many Jews who faithfully and precisely recite them every week in synagogue. Formulae, both verbal and behavioral, have accumulated over the centuries to create a religious life that can be almost entirely about subjugating individual expression to the demands of legal authority. Halakhic Judaism is much closer to classical music than to jazz.
And yet: The Rabbis of the Mishnah did a great deal of adaptation, if not improvisation. They invented an entirely new religion, built not around the Temple and the priests, but around the home and Torah study. But - and this is the crucial point - they were careful to root their claims in the same written text that had provided the foundation of Temple-centered Judaism. Their invention came through interpretation, and they were able to maintain the appearance that they were being faithful to the tradition in a seamless way.
The Rabbis' example is illustrated nowhere as well as in their treatment of the opening verses of Ki Tavo. As you may recall from Passover, the verses of the first-fruits formula, beginning with "arami oved avi," "My father was a wandering Aramean," provide the basis for the Maggid section of the Seder. Rather than simply read or recite the formula, however, the Mishnah instructs us "l'drosh," to interpret the verses (Pesachim 10:4). With this simple word, the Rabbis transform the act of recitation from an exercise in submitting to the Torah's script, to an act of partnership with the Torah. Individual experience is refracted through the lens of Torah, and Torah is refracted through the lens of individual experience. The Torah provides the basis for conversation, but the individual is expected to bring his or her own thoughts and reflections to the table, and in the process create something new.
Over the centuries, this model created an amazing tapestry of texts by authors separated by generations and continents, all weaving their words on a loom of a shared tradition of Torah. Michael Walzer puts it beautifully: "What makes this body of work a distinct and more or less unified tradition, and what marks its limits, is its intertextuality. A long series of writers have addressed… questions by referring themselves to the same authoritative texts and to the critical events on which these texts are focused: the exodus from Egypt, the Sinai revelation and covenant, the winning of the land… And the same writers, despite their radical dispersion and the absence of all modern means of communication, refer endlessly to one another, agree and disagree with each other's interpretation of both texts and events." (The Jewish Political Tradition, Vol. I, p. xxii-xxiii)
The achievement of modernity was to create a break with all that. This happened in Judaism just as it happened in music: What Schoenberg was to Beethoven, the Pittsburgh Platform was to Maimonides. And while in the first generation even the break itself was still part of the multi-generational conversation, by later generations the scripts of the past lost their status as the basis of discussion, and instead became museum pieces. As Walzer puts it: "Writers who opted out of the referential system and who avoided or escaped the common experience are not part of the… tradition." (ibid.) Since he starts with the Bible and engages Maimonides, Spinoza falls within the tradition, according to Walzer. But figures like Marx, Freud, and Durkheim, though they were Jews, were not part of this tradition, because they did participate in the process of textual interpretation - or rejection, in the case of Spinoza - that wove the tapestry together.
In our generation we are witnessing a return to Jewish texts among Jews of all stripes, just as we see a return to traditional forms - like tonality, melody and harmony - in music. There is a general consensus among many that the radical break of modernity, though it may have been necessary to achieve the level of individual freedom that it did, left behind a lot of valuable stuff. So we talk about "rebuilding community," "traditional values," and the like. This is a healthy movement, though dangers lurk in the shadows: the danger of losing ourselves in the text, of losing our freedom in the traditional forms. As we embark on this journey of fusing classical and jazz, individual and tradition, we would be wise to take our cues from the Rabbis and their model of a simultaneously tense and elastic relationship with Torah.
Written by Josh Feigelson, Campus Rabbi of Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University
Additional commentaries and text studies on Ki Tavo at MyJewishLearning.com.