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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.