The Chazan and the Neshama



Rabbi Dr. M. Turetsky. M.A.

The importance of music to the Synagogue, and the place which the Chazan has played over the centuries as its exponent is too well known to require a further presentation. In placing the following thoughts on paper, I would like to approach the function and task of the Chazan from another angle, and to see him in another light, as a type of interpreter of the mind’s inner world – the Neshama, Let me elaborate and explain.

Considered properly, there is nothing which leads us deeper into the heart of things than music, nothing which can bring us more convincing evidence that man belongs to a spiritual order, and is related intimately and irrevocably to a world unseen.

When we think of what music consists of, and contains, and what it suggests, we can appreciate the emphasis of music in our prayers, and why the Zohar should speak of the gates of heaven only being opened by music, and why Plato the great prophet of the ideal should have put it so high as an element of education and as an inspirer of virtue.

If we want to know our Maker, and what His relations are to the human soul, we have in this great realm of ordered harmony what might be described as an almost distinctive revelation ready to hand.

We speak of instruments and of players upon them, but a study of the elementary facts of music soon shows us that the primal musical instrument in life is the human ‘neshama’. Our consciousness is a keyboard incessantly played upon by an unseen performer. The very process of producing music may be described as that of disengaging spirit from matter. On the one hand, there are the metals, woods, wires, strings which are subdued from their roughness and wrought to fineness, on the other hand, human hands, eyes, ears, breath are trained to co-operate with these elements in a certain way. The result is that sounds are produced, notes higher and lower, united in a combination which is called harmony and which creates a certain sensation in the mind. Probing even further, we discover that these sounds are obtained by vibrations whose numbers and relations to each other are strictly calculable, can be expressed even in terms of mathematics.

Music is then under law. It is founded on abstruse calculations. Man did not make these laws. He fmds them there ready made. They have an unseen author, indeed a divine computer. But this is only the beginning. A study of music will show that a mind full of ideas has been there before us, laying out principles which man’s feebler Intelligence spells out bit by bit. What we next discover is that not only has there been here a pre-existent intellect but an intense aesthetic feeling. In other words, music is not only the revelation of a supreme mathematician, but of One who has the soul of a musician, and each neshama is an integral part of that divine source. This explains perhaps why the individual neshama finds in musical sounds, arranged as we have seen by a tremendous mathematical mind, a mysterious language addressed to itself, which it intititively understands and to which it immediately responds. To listen to a great Chazan is the experience of the neshama taking a leap of inner feeling in recognition of what, in terms of matter is only a series of aerial vibrations.

What mystery is this that the mind seems to greet the Chazanut as an old acquaintance, permitting it, with the privilege of a familiar to enter its most secret recesses, and to move it as a soul actually conversing with another soul? Plato would answer that such music is an old acquaintance, the human soul is old, coming into this world from a higher sphere where it knew these things, so that when it meets them now, it knows them again and can translate their depths and meanings.

Judaism would counsel a simpler solution. It is that man formed in the image of the Divine has faculties which, though human are nonetheless replicas of Divine ones. Man is musical because in an infinite way his Maker is musical. The emotion which an ordinary congregant receives on hearing warm and sincere chazanut, is an emotion which his Maker has put into it. Great Chazanim, indeed like composers, are not inventors or creators, they are interpreters of the human soul whose origins are Divine.

To fill a nation with music is assuredly one of the highest means of developing its soul. Its enjoyment is one of the highest forms of consciousness and the road it opens is the royal one which leads to the spiritual and eternal ‘Music’ is has truly been said ‘should be made a department of theology’.

It is little wonder that the great Jewish revivalists of modern times, the Chassidim, should have utilised music to such a marked degree. The Baal Shem Tov himself is said to have caught the divine spirit from his wanderings among the primordial forests of the Carpathian Mountains, by listening to the singing of the birds, by the whispering music of the leaves gently touched by the wind, by the droning sound of the bee and the gentle tread of the deer. He taught his disciples to worship with a fiery enthusiasm, they danced when praying and prayed when dancing, for the Tzaddik danced to the tune and music of the heavenly spheres.

In conclusion, it is told of one of the Baal Shem’s disciples who once asked his master: “How shall I making a living in the world?” “You shall be a Chazan” said the master. “But I can’t even sing!” the other retorted. “I shall bind you to the world of music,” said the Tzaddik. This man became known as the Chazan of the Baal Shem Tov who had no superior.

This simple anecdote contains all that needs to be said of the relationship between the Chazan and the Neshama.

(From the November 1974 edition)