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Judaism Is Mainly Text-Centered. Why Mark Its New Year with the Blunt, Inarticulate Noise of the Shofar?

 

Dov Lerner

Mosaic Magazine, Sept. 27, 2019

“Recognition of human ineloquence in the presence of divine omnipotence is no moral failing and no source of shame.”

Jewish civilization, in broad terms, is what anthropologists refer to as a text culture. Its religious rituals center on sacred writings, on the recital and interpretation of those writings, and on an underlying confidence that sanctity both resides in and emanates from words. Rarely is this linguistic focus more evident than during the High Holy Days, when Jews steep themselves in a deep liturgy penned by prophets, mystics, poets, and scholars.

How surprising, then, that the apex of the synagogue service on Rosh Hashanah should be the loud, blunt, inarticulate sounding of the ram’s-horn shofar. In a worship service almost defined by the eloquence of its written prayers, why mandate such an unintelligible noise?

 An answer becomes clearer by way of comparison with another word-revering culture: ancient Greece. In his Politics, Aristotle declares the flute unsuitable for the musical instruction of the young. The flute is too exciting: rather than leading to thought or reflection, its whistles elicit appetites and passion. Moreover, by inhibiting the flutist’s own speech, its very mechanics conspire in impeding erudition.

Aristotle therefore praises the ancients for their prudence in forbidding the instrument and suggests that its mythic inventor—Athena, the goddess of wisdom—was right to have discarded it. With its penchant for thwarting words, contorting the player’s features, and inflaming the passions of its hearers, this wind instrument “contributed nothing to the mind.”SOURCE

 

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