An excerpt from Sound and Scripture:
Chapter 1 Biblical Chant — Rhythmic Speech
The Psalmist says of the teachings of theTorah “they are sweeter than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.” That “sweetness” flows not only from the brilliance of the ideas, but also from the sensual pleasure of listening to words crafted beautifully and set to music. The Torah makes its public appearance in an age of emerging literacy, in which there were no means of mass producing texts. The beauty of the sound of Torah is intentional. It is designed to hold the attention of a people who primarily hear rather than read the content.
The notion of pleasure in the pure sound of Scripture’s language is implicit in the work of sensitive English translators, from Tyndall, the herald of the King James Bible, to the present day. In the past century, 24 translators of the Bible began to write of the challenge of capturing not only the literal meaning of Scriptures but also their feel, so as to uncover the pleasure in listening to the Bible. Robert Alter wrote in the preface to his translation of Genesis: “Biblical Hebrew … has a distinctive music, a lovely precision of lexical choice, a meaningful concreteness, and a suppleness of expressive syntax, that by and large have been given short shrift by translators with other goals.”5 He also writes, “An important reason for the magnetic appeal of these stories when you read them in the Hebrew is the rhythmic power of the words that convey the story.”6
The power of the rhythmic speech of Torah was examined with passionate admiration by two leading Jewish thinkers of the 20th century: Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Both are known for contributions to Jewish and Zionist thought, and Buber has had influence in the wider world of theology and philosophy. What is less well known is their consuming preoccupation with translating the Bible. In 1925, they began work on a German translation of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. They were self conscious about their project and left a precious legacy — a series of essays titled Scripture and Translation7 commenting on the art of translating Scripture. The noted English translator of the Bible Everett Fox was inspired by their work. In the introduction to the English version of the essays, he writes that Scripture and Translation “is not merely about biblical poetics, close reading, translation theory, or cultural history — although it deals with all these issues in depth and in an entirely original manner…. It is above all a passionate, even utopian plea for the revival of the Bible’s ability to speak in living words, to renew what Buber called ‘the dialogue between heaven and earth.’”
The Hebrew Scriptures are noted for their eloquence and power of expression. When George Orwell in his essay “Politics and the English Language” reaches for an example of vivid metaphoric writing to contrast with banal contemporary prose, he picks a passage from Ecclesiastes. “I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.” Orwell wrote a parody of these same lines in twentieth century English and concluded by lamenting the inability of modern writers to attain this level of literary skill.
The quality of the Torah’s word craft is often missed. The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, in the introduction to his commentary on Shakespeare, makes the not-uncommon association between Shakespeare and the Bible as the two preeminent works in the Western Canon. He goes on to say that Shakespeare is in one respect superior. Not only does it offer dazzling insights into the human condition, but it also sounds beautiful, even when heard without regard to meaning. It is not hard to imagine how he came to this opinion, since he was more likely to encounter a fine presentation of Shakespeare than an artful chanting of Torah. Yet as much as I appreciate Shakespeare’s language, it is no match for a well-chanted Torah portion with respect to glory of sound. Alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and melody are brought to bear in the service of a text notable for its clarity, elegance, bluntness, and vivid description. Shakespeare, writing for the stage, designed his words to be complemented by the magic of actors and visual effects. Torah, developed in a time when effective oral transmission was absolutely critical, depends entirely on sound to transmit its message.
Artful recitation is important not just as a matter of pleasure, but also for clarity of expression and power. A sage once admonished that one should learn: “mipisofrim, ve’ lo mipise’ farim,” literally, learn “from the mouths of scholars and not the mouth of [their] books.” The common sense of this admonition is clear. It is the difference between reading about a subject and taking a class in which the material is presented orally. Oral presentation permits emphasis, clarification, and dramatization. I read Torah with a conscious awareness of the need to reach listeners. Verses must be parsed correctly and clearly. Dialogue should have the necessary dramatic feel; words said in anger should sound angry, for example. The rhythm of poetic passages can be brought out. The lists, enumerations, and genealogies in the Torah also have literary content and are composed with sound quality in mind. A good reading — musical, rhythmic, and flowing — brings these otherwise dry passages to life.
Rosenzweig emphasized the importance of receiving the Bible as a spoken rather than written work. The essay “Scripture and Word” begins, “Every word is a spoken word.” Rosenzweig along with Buber8 expressed the firm opinion that the Hebrew Bible was originally spoken (I would suggest, chanted), and that this was the way in which the people related to it — as a performed work. He asks us to think of the written text as we think of the script of a play. Is the play in the script, or in the performance? When the primary focus becomes the text, “It becomes the word’s ruler and hindrance. It becomes Holy Scripture.” He speaks of the need for the book to be alive, and avoid becoming “literature:”
The Bible alone among all books of the literary epoch … demands a pre-literary mode of reading — that is what the Hebrew word for reading means… the “keri’ah” or “calling out.” It is in response to this command that in all worship, scripture is customarily read aloud; it is in the service of this command that Luther has recourse to the spoken language of the people [i.e., translation]…. We must free from beneath the logical punctuation, that is sometimes its ally and sometimes its foe, the fundamental principle of natural, oral punctuation: the act of breathing.9
In the same spirit, Martin Buber, commenting on the Exodus story notes:
That this early saga, close as it is to the time of the event, tends to assume rhythmical form can well be understood. It is not due solely to the fact that enthusiasm naturally expresses itself in rhythm. Of greater importance is the basic idea characterizing this stage of human existence that historical wonder can be grasped by no other form of speech save that which is rhythmically articulated, of course in oral expression (a basic concept which is closely associated with the time-old relation between religion and magic.) This is sustained by the wish to retain unchanged for all time the meaning of the awe-inspiring things that had come about; to which end a transmission in rhythmic form is the most favorable condition.
An urge to transmit this sense of “historical wonder,” to enable “the revival of the Bible’s ability to speak in living words, to renew …the dialogue between heaven and earth” were imperatives that spurred the two German translators. Their work would be the last Jewish book printed in Germany in the early twentieth century. Then destruction befell the German Jewish community. But the spirit of their work lives on. They had immeasurable influence on the current generation of English translators. More importantly, Buber also labored tirelessly on the Zionist enterprise, and today the keri’ah, the calling out of the Hebrew Scriptures is again performed in a living tongue. The urgency of its message is no less than it has ever been. Buber and Rosenzweig noticed that the rhythmic cadences of the spoken word enhance the power of the text, but they miss one component of the art of presentation of Torah in chant. For full effect we need to hear not only its rhythm, but also its music.
NOTES TO THIS SAMPLE CHAPTER: