Seeking Harmony and Finding Transcendence at The Cloisters

Experiencing the Beauty of Janet Cardiff's 'Motet'

A Fraction of the Whole: Janet Cardiff’s installation envelops listeners in a sea of sound.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
A Fraction of the Whole: Janet Cardiff’s installation envelops listeners in a sea of sound.

By Jay Michaelson

Published November 15, 2013, issue of November 22, 2013.
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And yet, I have had to admit, reading Haidt, wandering through “The Forty Part Motet,” and, most importantly, working through a painful episode in my professional life, that I am in the minority. Most people have more of a balance between the individual and the collective, and more respect for authority, than I do. I am an outlier. This is borne out by statistical data, by cross-cultural comparison, and, yes, by deeply absorbing the aesthetic logic of medieval chant.

To be sure, many of the last century’s enduring works of American art and pop celebrate the rebel — beat poetry, rock and roll. But these forms of art function as escapism, not archetype. We consume these myths of individualism – hold on tight to your dreams, never surrender — precisely because most of us are enmeshed in stories of community. The dream of riding a motorcycle into the sunset is appealing precisely because most of us are driving SUVs to the supermarket.

And how much do we really believe them, anyway? We still send our children to school, where they learn to sit in rows, do what they’re told, and respect authority. We believe that if we don’t do these things, they will not function in society. And we are probably right about that.

Anyone serious about Judaism as a source of religious, moral, or philosophical guidance must likewise wrestle with the reality that traditional Jewish sources relentlessly privilege the well-being of the collective over the self-actualization of any one individual. Biblical heroes may pursue individualistic quests, but most of us are not heroes. Most of us, Biblically speaking, are defined by tribe, role, gender, and position in the patriarchal system. We pray in first-person plural, not singular. And we are part of a system which is focused not on individual spirituality, self-fulfillment, or happiness, but on group cohesion, justice, fairness, and other collective goods.

This is the reality of Jewish tradition, and for three hundred years it has bumped up against modernity with the latter’s tilt toward individual reason and empiricism. Traditional Judaism is more like a choir than a solo performance. Its mainstream — not its mystical subcurrents, but its legal and cultural center — derive their meaning from collective enaction, not individual spirit. There have been many successful attempts to bridge this gap, but they remain bridges, not foundations.

Where does that leave the individualist, the introvert, and the contemplative? If we are willing to sing in harmony with others, then, of course, we may be joined to the collective body. Otherwise, perhaps our place is to wander among those voices, sampling from many of them, reflecting in our solitude on their transcendence.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor of the Forward and author most recently of “Evolving Dharma.”


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