[Note–I usually would proof read and revise this essay for several more iterations, but it’s taken me so long to write this, to capture the urgency and desire which might help us overcome the anxiety which, for literally millennia, have colored this interval, that I’m publishing it as is. I’ll probably revise and repost next week. Or, perhaps not, as more ideas and thoughts scrabble for urgency. Thank you for bearing with me–RabbiZ)
Perhaps it’s not so appropriate to combine a tribute to Cecil Taylor, one of the “founders” of free jazz, with a rabbinic meditation of Jewish Spirituality. Especially inappropriate, one might say, in these days of Sefira, counting, the ladder of days beginning with the second night of Pesach, leading to the joyous highlight of our history and our year, entering into the most intimate of relationships with The Creator which we designate as Shavuot, Z’man Matan Toroteynu, the festival of Shavuot, the moment our Torah is given.
You see, this seven-week period which should have the emotional tone of joy and anticipation, that after the enormous jumpstart of being released from Egyptian slavery, we monitor (and guide) each days progress to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to all mankind. However, it also coincides with an especially disastrous period during the Great Revolt, The Bar Kochba war against the oppression of the Roman occupation shortly after the Bet HaMikdash is destroyed. And during this ver period, each year, we face some restrictions on our music. But, perhaps by reframing our usual experience with music, our usual experience with mitzvot and tefillot, we can find a way, especially during this hyper-vulnerable time, to renew our expression and experience of Judaism.
Think about that moment in time. Give yourself a moment to really think about it, try to experience the panic, the loneliness, the alienation. Everything I know is gone. Literally everything we knew about being a people, let along an Am Kodesh, Holy Nation is gone. With no pat answers, no expectation of continuity, perhaps largely as a logical defense and survival technique, as is often the case when exposed to zero predictability, we responded by creating a new expression of religion which will now at least strive for 100% predictability.
But, of course, the downside of 100% predictability is boredom and rote performance. Even from the first moments (end of chapter 4 of IBra when developing the new, text-rather than action path, our early sages worry and warn about boredom. Prayer that lacks urgency soon becomes mere habit.
Which brings me back to the late Cecil Taylor, the “free jazz” movement and the excitement of witnessing this intense level of spontaneous creation, with no artifice to hide behind. Not to mention creating music in real time at this level…. Although I don’t usually do this in this forum, here are some links to this type of music. (Remember, if you enjoy or are intrigued by this music, to share links to other performances in the comment section.)
Compare this music the the conformity we’re all familiar with in shul. Of course, we have times that we Jews, as well can build a tremendous amount of energy, but it usually looks like a circle of identically-dressed, black-clad men, stomping in a circle. Singing oy oy oy Ai Ai Ai. As individuals, we’re not encouraged to free our neshamot to soar. We don’t often let ourselves go “off-script” (or “off-score) and expose ourselves in our greatest creativity, greatest transparency, greatest unique inner fires.
Frightened and admonished by the story of Nadav and Avihu, we so strongly flee Aish Zar, a “strange” fire, that we never contemplate what a proper, familiar, legitimate fire could be. Just as most people have a difficult line to cross to expose their most authentic selves to even their closest friends, relatives and lovers, we’re terrified of revealing that authentic self to ourselves and to God.