Jews and Orchestras – by Peter Eisenstadt

Jews and Orchestras
Peter Eisenstadt

My friend Doug Gallant has posted on The Jewish Pluralist an interesting d’var torah on Parasha Vayakhel. It says many instructive things, but I want to

focus on one sentence, “Today we [the Jewish people] compose an orchestra with no redundant parts, no instrument more vital than another. A healthy Jewish people is one big caring family where each individual is as concerned for the other as for own self.” Doug uses this as a metaphor for the necessary unity of the Jewish People, the need to avoid divisions, factions, and strife, to learn how to play together from the same score.

This is a common metaphor—society as an orchestra. One example is one of Federico Fellini’s last films, Orchestra Rehearsal (1978) is a mordant satire on contemporary Italian life, where the disorganization of the orchestra is a commentary and metaphor for the chaos in late 1970s Italy. And the metaphor of musical harmony as a symbol of earthly or divine harmony goes back much, much further, to the ancient Pythagoreans, and the music of the spheres, and with a deep presence in classical and Christian traditions, in Shakespeare, in Milton. I am not sure how much this metaphor had been used within the Jewish tradition and religion, but I am sure it is present.

But I would like to focus on one particular use of the orchestra metaphor, in a Jewish but not necessarily religious context, by Horace M. Kallen (1882—1974) son of a rabbi, Harvard grad, student of William James, Zionist, humanist, and the champion of what he called “cultural pluralism,” and in many ways one of the founding elders of our blog, the Jewish Pluralist. In 1915, in an article called “Democracy versus the Melting Pot” he wrote against the idea of the melting pot, the forced Americanization of all immigrants into a single, identical mold. He called for:

A multiplicity in a unity, an orchestration of mankind. As in an orchestra, every type of instrument has its specific timbre and tonality, founded in its substance and form; as every type has its appropriate theme and melody in the whole symphony, so in society each ethnic group is the natural instrument, its spirit and culture as its theme and melody and the harmony and dissonances and discords of them all make the symphony of civilization, with this difference: a musical symphony is written before it is played, in the symphony of civilization the playing is the writing, so that there is nothing so fixed and inevitable as in music, so that within the limits set by nature they may vary at will, and the range and variety of the harmonies may become wider and richer more beautiful.

This is a wonderful use of the orchestra metaphor, an orchestra that plays together but emphasizes both its differences rather than its commonalities, an orchestra that makes things up as it goes along, improvising and experimenting, sounding more like John Cage than Tchaikovsky. And if there is a criticism to be made of Kallen’s orchestra, it is that each ethnic group contains its own multitudes. The Jews are an orchestra unto themselves, with all of our beautiful harmonies and sometimes our shattering differences. And each segment of the Jewish people is its own orchestra, with its own divisions—certainly Reform Judaism has produced its own raucous sounds, and each congregation is its own sometimes wildly dissonant. orchestra. And every smaller subdivision is also a full orchestra, as is every neighborhood, every block, every family. And then each of us are our own orchestras. None of us are Johnny One-Notes. We all make many different sounds, sometimes with our piccolos, and sometimes banging on our tympanies. And that is why, I think, when Judaism does speak of divine music, the emphasis is less on divine harmony than divine raucousness and noiseyness. Has there ever been a greater invocation of loud noise, and the many decibeled love of God than the final psalm, psalm 150?

Praise God in his sanctuary

Praise him in the sky, His stronghold.. . .

Praise him with blasts of the horn

Praise him with harp and lyre

Praise him with timbrel and dance

Praise him with resounding cymbals

Praise him with loud-crashing cymbals

Let all that breathes praise the Lord


And this is my orchestra. Orchestras within orchestras within orchestras, all of them playing furiously, loudly, seemingly oblivious to the other orchestras around them, praising God in their own way. And in their different sounds, their clashing sounds they make their own harmonies. And there are as many ways to be American as there are ways to play the notes. And by playing in our different orchestras, we discover ourselves. And though the first thing God created was light, perhaps his most important creation was noise.