Songs & Sayings #13 - Hebrew Proverbs Ch. 13


This podcast episode is dedicated to Andrew Silaghi. Thanks for following along, Andrew.

The Songs and Sayings Podcast: Reading through the wisdom literature of the world.

By Menashe David Israel

Chapter 13 of Hebrew Proverbs

Further reading: 

The Wisdom Books by Robert Alter

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes - The Anchor Bible by R.B.Y. Scott

Proverbs by the Bible Project


--- Send in a voice message:

Support this podcast via PayPal and CashApp$MenasheDavidIsrael


My comments:

So we're back to the Songs and Sayings Podcast--and with an exceptionally practical chapter on appearances, being diligent in your work, the benefits of frugality, advice on how to choose the people you surround yourself with, and always, always: remembering to weave wisdom into everything that you do.

As with almost any translation between languages--for us Biblical Hebrew into English--there will always be certain differences in the structure of one language or another that affect how lines are interpreted in translation.

One of the things that I've been learning more and more while doing these podcasts is how little I actually know about these books, their themes, and their historical and cultural setting.

When I first set out to do the Songs and Sayings Podcast, I inititally had in mind the creation of an audio-anthology of Wisdom Literature; this is still one of the overarching goals. However, as I've spent time submerged in the depths of commentaries and translations, I've come to see how absolutely small the harbor of my own knowledge is, and how immeasurably large the ocean of my ignorance.

Whenever I read for these podcasts, there are probably fifty to one-hundred things that I could share about a chapter. But because of time and other limitations, it is really only appropriate for me to choose one or two things to share. I say all of this as an encouragement to you in your own wisdom studies, and your own wisdom practice. What sticks out to me may not be what sticks out to you. And certain ideas may stick out to us at different times and for different reasons.

While in Jerusalem, I've been taking classes in Modern Hebrew so that I can read and write the local language, and be a good guest of the country.

One of the things that I have noticed about Hebrew in these classes is that it's not a language with many--if any--"being" verbs. That is, words like: "am", "is", "was", "are", "will be"...there are others. Words like these are formally called copulas: words which don't have an inherent meaning but serve to connect nouns with adjectives, verbs, prepositions, and other kinds of words.

For example, in English we say, "I am hungry." The word "am" is the copula in that sentence. It doesn't obviously do anything for the apparent meaning of the sentence. But nonetheless, it is there. The equivalent in Hebrew to "I am hungry," is, "Ani raev." Which literally means, "I hungry." Notice that in Hebrew there is no copula between the words "I" and "hungry." This is because the link between the noun and the adjective is assumed by the context: A person says, "I" and then "hungry". The close proximity of the ideas of "I" and "hungry" leads the listener to believe that the idea of "hungry" must be very close the the person "I" who just said these two words so close together, and in whatever situation they were spoken in.

Now, exactly why a language like English has copulas, and to the question of what function exactly they serve, that is a conversation for another time. My own opinion is that at root it has to do with the philosophy embedded in the history of the English language. If you look up some information on the use of articles in Greek grammar, I think you can begin to piece together a reason and a difference--between the Greek approach to talking about the world--which makes being in the world more explicit--and the Hebrew, or Eastern, approach to talking about the world, which lets things sit in states that are more ambiguous and context-based.

In any case, verse two in this chapter is what brought this thought on copulas--being verbs--to my mind. It says, "From the fruit of a man's mouth he eats goodly things, but from the throat of traitors comes outrage."

Robert Alter notes that: the verb "comes" has been added to clarify the Hebrew, which has no verb there, or the merely implied verb "is."

Without the added verb the line reads: "From the fruit of a man's mouth he eats goodly things, but from the throat of traitors--outrage."

As I read this I thought that an em-dash or a comma between "traitors" and "outrage" would satisfy the implied being verb "is" just as well.

My other note for this chapter is from verse 23, which says: "Abundant food is in the fallow ground of the poor; But it is swept away by injustice."

Robert Alter says that this proverb "is cryptic, [and that] it might be a worldy observation on the contradictory nature of reality: destitute people have fields from which an abundant yield could be extracted, but they can't figure out how to do it; others are suddenly destroyed by disease or disaster for no good reason."

Alter goes on to say that this line sounds more like Ecclesiastes than Proverbs, which I think I agree with; not that there has to be a strict distinction. Where the book of Hebrew Proverbs seems to be more sure of the outcomes of taking its advice, Ecclesiastes take a more pessimistic stance: that even if you do heed all good advice, life may still not go well for you. At the end of the day, though, both books--in spite of some opposing viewpoints--do compliment each other.

But this verse sticks out to me especially right now because I have been thinking a lot about time — the time in a day, in a week, in a lifespan. We all have one thing in common, and that is time--the same 24 hours in a day until the day we die. The daily question each person has to answer is——Taking the whole of life into consideration; whatever physical, psychological, geographical, economic, relational, or political situations we find ourselves in—How can we make the most of our time? How will we decide? Well, seeking wisdom is a good start. And verse 23 seems to say that some people can in fact decide better than others. ☗

Read Proverbs 13 on the Bible App

The Haircut

and Dignity in the Details

This piece is dedicated to Jose in Turkey. Let’s have a Mediterranean rendezvous soon, Jose!

You have to let people do what they do. I went out for a haircut last week. I hadn't trimmed my hair or my face for about six weeks and so was beginning to look like a castaway. Usually, I just use a trimmer to put my beard and my head at the same length. When your hair situation starts moving into Andre Agassi territory—during the wig era—you have to make some hard choices about how you're going to accept yourself.

I never knew that I liked my hair until it started to thin. You don't usually notice a thing until it begins to breakdown. Anyway, I think I was in Berlin in 2015 when a barber told me that it'd probably be the last time I could grow my hair out. That was news to me. But I looked in the mirror ahead of me to see the mirror behind my head, and he was right. When I got back to the States I started shaving my head; it's much easier, no fuss, and also cheaper. 

I'm always measuring things by books, coffee, and airplane tickets. A $35 haircut can equal about seven lattes, or about three books. It can also be equivalent to about 1/7th of a $250 plane ticket. However, you can buy an electric razor that will last for quite a while for just under $20. Doing this math has allowed me to feel justified buying one more coffee, or one more book here and there. 

I had a Braun shaver that I used every few weeks until we flew  over to Israel in August. I didn't pack it because I was trying to save weight in my luggage. I didn’t want to bring anything with me that I thought I could get over here. The trouble is that Jerusalem does not have many general stores. Over here, most shops sell one thing only: A kitchen supply store, a store that sells bedding, a store that sells appliances, a store that sells hardware, a store that sells cleaning supplies. This is good, I think. Many small businesses, instead of just a few super-stores, allow for healthy competition, and provide the necessary ingredients for a wider middle class. I haven't found the store that sells razors yet.

Because I haven't found the men's grooming shop I have been to two barbers here. The first one was up Jaffa, I found it on Google and got a pretty good deal by American standards. 40 shekels, which is just over $11. But that was when we were staying further up the road toward the Shuk. Now we are closer to the Old City. So for this most recent haircut I visited a place Reagan and I had walked by called Nashville Barbershop. 

I went in the afternoon, and it was Wednesday——last Wednesday. Nashville Barbershop on the corner of some streets I don't know the names of, which is another funny thing I've noticed about myself while we've been here. I don't know the names of any of the cafes or restaurants or grocery stores or bakeries, but I can tell you where they are. Learning how to read Hebrew has actually started to reverse this a little bit, but I'm still very much a landmark navigator for now. 

So, Nashville Barbershop. Gold cursive English lettering on the glass windows outside. I open the door and a bell rings as I walk in. There’s a slow blues by Stevie Ray Vaughan playing over the speakers. Two barbers in the shop. One behind a chair, and the other behind the counter. "Do you have an appointment?" the one behind the chair asks me. "No," I say. "Do you have an opening in your schedule?" They motion toward a chair in the middle of the room and facing a mirror. The usual hair-grooming utensils in cups and drawers and on the small counter under the mirror.

"What do you want?" the barber says.
"Just a buzz and a shave." I say.
"What level--two? One?" the barber says.
"One." I say.
"Would you like a fade?"
"No. No fade."

He nods.

"And on the beard--what number?"

The barber looks at me and I can sense a slight hint of disappointment. 

I remember the first time I went to the barbershop further up Jaffa, when the man cutting my hair there asked if I wanted to have my hair and beard lined up. I told him that I did not. And then he said to me, "Why not? If you don't then it won't be beautiful." So I said okay. And Reagan actually liked it. I usually think that if it's too groomed then I won't feel like myself. I'd like to leave things a little unkempt. But the sharpness of lines does have its appeal, even to me.

I look at my face in the mirror and the barber places the white foam neck-wrap around my neck. He then puts the cape on me, turns on his razor at level one, and begins to shave my head. I see his face and detect boredom. I think to myself: This shop is empty, this guy is a barber. I have come in here asking for the most simple, and boring haircut possible, requiring the least expression of his skill. I should let him do what he does.

So just after half of my head is shaved I tell the man that, actually, I would like a fade. "From level 0?" he says. "Yes, that's perfect," I say.

After he finishes with level 1 on the top of my head, and 0 on the sides, he procedes to my beard. And again he asks, "Fade the beard, too?" I say, "Yes."

He then goes about trimming my beard. The left side, the right side, my mustache, my neck.

"With the blade?" he says.
"Yes." I say.

I never like these blades, I'm a trusting person, but razor blades are sharp, and I always end up with cuts on my neck. Maybe this is because in the past the barbers who used these blades on me did not always know exactly how to stretch the skin first so the blade does not drag. This barber does, however, and ends up doing a good job. I think also that he respects my change of mind, and my decision to trust him with this blade.

He goes through the steps of visiting a nearby sink to gather a handful of cream. He lathers the cream on my left and right cheekbones, and then on the lower portion of my neck. "This cream is very warm," I think, "that's a surprise."

After the shave with the blade, the man takes a warm towel and cleans my face, then he turns to the mirror to an empty bottle of what looks like perfume. But I know it must be an aftershave, and that my face and neck are going to sting like hell any minute now. He unscrews the spray bottle, refills it from another bottle, rescrews the spray bottle, sprays some of the liquid onto one of his hands and does a second lather on my face and neck. Sure enough, this stuff stings like saltwater on a papercut, except there are a hundred of them.

I tense my face, a sharp breath in and a breath out. Damn.

The barber looks pleased. I do look good, I think to myself. I like this. My wife will like this. I should get haircut-shaves more often. It feels like it'd be a nice ritual. My dad told me that when he was a kid he got a haircut every Sunday. Ah, I wouldn't do it every Sunday; that's too many books and coffees. But once a month, maybe--that I could do.

I pay. It's a little more money than I payed at the other place. But then this haircut required more instruments and more chemicals. You get what you pay for.

I'm walking home and I think about the dignity of the profession. The air is cold on my face and neck. I feel slight stinging. I should probably start wearing scarves here soon. You really do have to let people do what they do. I walked in with the idea that I wanted the most basic and simple service, requiring the least amount of skill. But the dignity is in the details. No one walks into a nice cafe and tells the barista not to do latte art. The barista is not only a coffee maker, the barista is also--and more importantly--a human being; and for the human being to do something without the natural tendency to also make that something artful--well that's just not human. In the same way, no sane person walks into an establishment for fine Italian dining to tell the chef to give them the food, only don't plate it, put it in a pile in a bucket--that's where it's going to end up anyway. Which is similar, also, to saying, don't even try to sort out your life or make it beautiful, you're going to die eventually anyway.

And maybe that is the depressing philosophy that underlays our less thought-through attempts at simplicity and minimality—the reason why a barber vacillates between boredom and dignity, rote work and craftsmanship.

Maybe we should be more maximal, slow down, take more steps in the haircut ritual, more art in our coffee, more arrangement with our food. Less time erasing details we don't understand, and more time learning to allow the details in, the details that truly make us human. ☗

Poetic Politique and Genius Versus Tradition

This essay is dedicated to Sarah C. Thank you for reading and following along, Sarah. Wishing you and Clint the most wonderful times in Scotland.

This Is Just To Say

William Carlos Williams - 1883-1963

I have eaten 
the plums 
that were in 
the icebox

and which 
you were probably 
for breakfast

Forgive me 
they were delicious 
so sweet 
and so cold

I am not a poetry expert. But I have given poetry a bit of thought. A few years ago, in an effort to get one step closer to completing Hemingway’s recommended reading list, I spent an entire Spring reading through the Oxford Book of American Verse. It was an eye opening experience for me to see the beginning of American verse in the 1600s or so; with fairly strict adherence to iambic pentameter lines, hardly any rhyme—just rhythm in traditional forms. And then to see that poetry progress from the English pastoral and Romantic styles it had brought across the Atlantic into a distinctly American urban and contemplative style.

During that Spring where I filled myself with American poetry, I also read a collection of William Carlos Williams’ poems, and another of Emily Dickinson’s poems. I read these two writers mostly because I had liked some of their poems in the Oxford anthology. I had also seen their names mentioned in countless articles in The New Criterion, First Things Magazine, and Lapham’s Quarterly, where I would always make mental notes that I should get around to them sometime. Finally I did.

What I have found to be one of the most interesting things about making reading a regular part of my life, is that once you start, almost immediately you begin to see patterns—vertically within disciplines, and also horizontally across disciplines.

On finishing William Carlos Williams’ Selected Poems, a thought came into my mind. I thought to myself, “William Carlos Williams reminds me of Jazz.”

He probably reminded me of Jazz for many of the same reasons that I recounted in my Philosophy of Jazz Music essay that I put out the other day. But I digress.

It was funny to me that Williams’ poetry reminded me of an early 20th Century free style of music. I love Jazz music, but I know that Jazz is largely an improvisational style, albeit hanging on a generally consistent AABA form. The funny part comes from a thing I’d noticed in myself since taking a few poetry classes in college, which was that I had become a snob about structure when it came to poetry. From what I had seen in the Blank Verse poetry I learned about in school,—and it really is pretty marvelous, what you can do with words by just setting a rhythm of strong and weak stresses and using substitutions every now and again—I had come to think that all poetry that didn’t use a strict form was really just laziness and child’s play. The real art was in learning the different poetic traditions and adding one’s own verses to them; everything else was hubris.

But William Carlos Williams, and Emily Dickinson both changed my mind. And also opened a new line of thinking to me. The line they opened lay in that slim space that marks the difference between tradition and genius.

If you had asked me about modern poetry before my reading Williams and Dickinson, I would have quipped, “Line breaks do not poems make.” Which, to this day, I do lean toward, at least in my own poetry.

I would say that because I had thought, as a rule, that if I’d seen any common theme in the creative habits of great artists, it was that inspiration without structure was not the way to create a good lasting body of work. For any kind of longevity, a good poet has to move beyond the idea that inspired successions of pretty words can be enough to carry the weight of meaning for a poem; as the words in poems like that break under that kind of pressure—unless the poet is some kind of genius.

It turns out, though, that such geniuses do exist.

So what exactly makes these artists geniuses? I think the answer to that question is twofold. On the one hand, the genius doesn’t care very much for the rules, or, if he does, he uses them in a highly original way. And on the other, the genius doesn’t care very much for himself; he cares more than anything in his world about the message of his poem.

One way to shine a massive light on the idea of poetic geniuses and what they do is to compare them to their law-abiding counterparts, the traditional poets. And this, I think, can be done by looking at the science of government, no less. The difference between traditional poetry, and genius poetry can be compared to the difference in government between republicanism and monarchy (despotism). Now forget about any political allegiance that you may feel to either presidents or kings and just walk with me down this road.

Let’s take republicanism first: the traditional style.

For a nation to be a republic—like the United States is—means that that country is ruled by laws. These laws are chosen and agreed upon over time by the people and their representatives, and passed down by tradition and custom. Concerning the constituting laws of a republic, it takes overwhelming agreement of the law-making powers, which are far removed from the leader of the country, to make a significant change. So, though the president may change every term, the fundamental constituting laws of the country will, more or less, stay the same regardless of the person in power.

This country-ruled-by-law idea is similar to the idea behind a villanelle poem, say.

A villanelle has a very specific set of rules that define what it is: nineteen lines, iambic pentameter, five tercets followed by a quatrain, two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines.

These rules are the laws of the poem; the laws of the poem land. So, regardless of the poet who has been given the power of the pen—to write the villanelle poem—you can rest assured that you can know pretty well what kind of poem you’re going to get when all has been written. Having the poem determined structurally by laws makes the writing situation such that the poet has just to fill in the blanks of the poem. The good poet will work within these confines creatively, of course, and that is what can make the dance within a specific ruleset so exciting. But it takes a lot for even a mediocre poet, who only filled in the blanks, to make an utter failure of a fixed verse form.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas - 1914-1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

On the other end of the poetry spectrum you have the monarchical or despotic style of poetic writing: the genius style, as I call it.

For a nation to be a monarchy it has to have a monarch, that is a person who rules over that land unequivocally and by their own will. The monarch comes up with the laws of the land, changes these and other received laws at their sole discretion, executes the laws, and has the power to preside in judgement over any question concerning the laws. Additionally, when an older or deceased monarch leaves power, and a new monarch comes in, the laws of the land are left open to complete overhaul and rearrangement. The laws of the country being in this kind of volatile state, the people can never be sure what to expect until they know the character of the new ruler. If the ruler turns out to be just and magnanimous, we call it monarchy; and if the country ends up with a tyrant for a ruler, we usually call that despotism.

The poetic analogue to monarchy is the free verse poem. The free verse poem does not require any specific form. The writer can pull from previous traditions or not, use any number of lines he wishes, any kind of exotic rhythm, any kind of rhyme scheme, and any kind of surprise to upset the whole. The free verse poem is, in essence, lawless and completely at the mercy of the writer-despot.

So, where most of the quality of poem-life in a traditional poem is determined by the form of the poem—similar to the laws of a republic, most of the quality of poem-life in a free verse poem is determined by the writer of the poem—similar to a monarchy.

Now, to look at this from a reader’s point of view, let’s take the free verse poem—a poem with no rules (monarchist). The reader may not know the poem is free verse (lawless), so the only thing to judge about a free verse poem is whether or not the poem seems good or bad; whether it has worth as being meaningful to the reader or not. If not, the poem is identified as just a collection of words with little worth.

Contrast that with a blank verse poem. Which follows a form so distinct that you can sense that it must have a structure without knowing anything about poetry. The reason for this being the repetitive rhythm, number of lines, and stanza pattern. If the blank verse poem is bad, it still has the identity and dignity of the verse form that it belongs to. That is, it still matters as a contribution to a traditional form—though its poetic significance is subjective.

So, a set verse form—following a certain poetic law code—allows the words within the poem to not have to bear so much weight individually that the whole thing falls apart if each and every one of them isn’t gotten exactly right. The structure (laws of the form) bear most of the creative weight—and make for a more forgiving poem as whole; which is why a formless poem, either uninspired (dead) or inspired (genius),—there's no middle ground—really has to be exceptional in order to be any good. Every word bears the weight of the whole poem on its shoulders. And if even one buckles under that weight, the whole poem comes crashing down in failure. This is quite a perilous feat, but, when pulled off, it is completely amazing.

All of this is just to say that when I discovered William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson for myself, I realized that it was possible to reach moments of genius in poetry where the perilous formless steps of the writing journey are so perfectly chosen that everything you believed about tradition can be thrown out of the window—at least for a moment; exceptions do not rules make. And even though I think this genius chaotic lawlessness is not sustainable, and is hard to be emulated—perhaps why great artists are always ones in many millions—it takes real mastery to achieve a complete freedom of movement that is at once beautiful and good. A manifestation of excellence that is precisely the kind of inspiration we need to draw us to the arts we love in the first place. ☗

Wild nights - Wild nights!


Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!

Notes From Jerusalem: #001

Notes on recent work, and thank-you's.


First of all, thank you guys so much for following my work and subscribing to my email list.

These essays and notes and reflections really are works of love for me. And nothing makes me happier than knowing that they are being read.

Being an artist is like being a person who always stands in front of a magical void, a void which only responds to certain kinds of creativity that are launched out into it at certain times and at certain frequencies; if the recipe and timing of a thing are not right, then whatever it is goes out into the nothing and returns no sound, no echo to let the artist know that there was some resonance of the art with some one part of the void.

Of course the metaphor is not perfect. Your precious audience is no void, they are another kind of being entirely. But maybe sometimes we treat them like a void, in an impersonal way, and then the art falls flat on no one’s ears. That is probably the trouble.

But I wanted to treat you guys as you are, my friends, people, individuals with faces and personalities, and hopes and dreams, and stories, journeying on many different arcs toward many different things.

I’ve realized since I started paying attention to how writing is conducted, that all of my favorite writing has been travel writing, in some way or other. Journalism while navigating the world and its wonders.

For me, when I came to Israel in August, I knew that whatever I experienced here would be new and fresh, so I decided to document my impressions of being here so that I could figure out what I think about this place, and how I feel.

I noticed that one of the intriguing things to me about writing is that I often don’t know what I think until I sit down and meditate on whatever it is before me, really laboring toward putting my thoughts into words and statements that make sense of the intuitions and moods that I’m experiencing.

It’s toward achieving that effect—and in the travel style—that I have been written my latest essays.

Here are three of my latest favorites:

  1. The Philosophy of Jazz Music; And Existentialism in Israel

  2. A View From Somewhere: Reflecting on Akko, Israel

  3. Jerusalem - Sometime in September, 2019


I also wanted to give an update to you on the Songs and Sayings Podcast.

We are 12 episodes in to our first wisdom book in my ongoing project to read through the wisdom literature of the world.

After spending much of August and September doing the tourist thing over here, life is finally settling down to where I can pull out the books again and take the time to write and record these very fulfilling and educational podcasts.

I am also preparing for a couple of interviews that I’ll fit into this season before we finish out the next 19 episodes. Thirty-one chapters in Hebrew Proverbs.

So stay tuned.


There are some new subscribers on my email list, and I wanted to thank you guys—for following my work so far, and for playing the audience as I explore worlds of ideas and place, and share my thoughts and findings with you.

Special thanks goes out to new subscribers and dear friends: Garrett, Andrew, Sarah, Landry, Jose, Arielle, Becca, Madeleine, Kéren, Alayna, Emari, Nathan.

Thank you :).

Share Reflections by Menashe David Israel

The Philosophy of Jazz Music

And Existentialism in Israel

This essay is dedicated to Garrett Herzik. Thank you for reading and following along, Garrett.

Recommendation: Pairs nicely with a listen through Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”.

MONTROSE, HOUSTON—My sister and I have discovered a cafe nearby that we really enjoy. By all accounts it is the most interesting cafe in Houston. In no other cafe here do you hear as many languages being spoken as in this one. They sell terrible European coffee and cigarettes behind the counter. They are open past midnight. Outside, regulars play chess and drink wine as cars drive by.

I don’t know what it is about this place that draws me to it. Houston is the most international city in the United States; I heard that somewhere. However, it is so spread out that a person has to deliberately visit many neighborhoods, many miles and minutes apart, to experience this fact. Not so in the Montrose harbor of our discovery where you can pull up a chair, set down your glass of red, and write or read, or talk, or watch the many people from many places speaking in many tongues.

It’s a shame, I think to myself, that I didn’t know about this place earlier during these past four years I’ve been in Houston. Of course the coffee is nothing like any of the third wave places. But just sitting here, listening to their Bob Dylan and Miles Davis records, I know that I would have been willing to accept the tradeoff of good-coffee-and-a-plain-white-walled-cafe-like-any-other-thirdwave-cafe-in-neo-America-playing-lo-fi-and-campfire-music-from-Spotify for so-so-coffee-in-a-Euro-American-oasis-playing-Dylan-and-jazz-on-a-jukebox in the Houston-billboard-neon-lights-box-mall-islet-of-Post-Modernia.

GALILEE, ISRAEL—My wife and I are driving around Galilee. We are staying in the Golan Heights at a lovely little lookout called Peace Vista. We have spent the day visiting churches and parks. Now we are driving over and around rocky hillsides at dusk. The lights of Tiberias—City—glow in the distance. I get a sudden urge to turn on “I Loves You Porgie”, the Bill Evans rendition.

When we were still in Houston a month and a half ago, this was the song that Ji and I listened to the last time we were leaving that gem of a cafe we wished we’d discovered sooner. I remember driving the twenty or so minutes home with her and asking if she knew what the philosophy of Jazz music was. She said, “No…” So I launched into a sermon on human freedom, individualism, authenticity, Truth and the ways it has been derived throughout history: Revelation and tradition, reason, individual experience; Pre-Modernism, Modernism, and Post-Modernism; pre-Science, Science, post-Science; and how these movements in thought and ideas have been viewed, and how they have treated texts and authority over the past 3,000 years or so.

Anyway, my wife and I spend most of the week driving around the Golan: to wineries, war memorials, now-deserted hilltop battlefields; to the northernmost point of Israel and its border with Lebanon. Back down, with Syria all along our left side,—long double-layered razor-wire fences. Sometimes we pass tanks on the road as we drive toward our temporary home that overlooks the Galilee where Jesus walked. You would not want to be caught up here in the middle of a war, I think.

But we are in Galilee driving through the rocky hills now. “I Loves You Porgie” is playing in the car,—our little metal cocoon—and something about this music fits so well in this place. Looking out the windows, and reflecting on everything we’ve seen the Jazz turns our windows into movie screens, where the music and the picture have achieved a perfect prosody. The story in the film being so matched and complimented by the musical score that at once some third, greater thing has emerged from the two.

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—After Galilee, we spend a few days in Sfat, formerly known as Israel’s artist city, at least to me. We feel very out of place there. Where is the art? Almost all the people there are on the same page of music, the same script. But it is not the script I remember seeing and being attracted to ten years ago. So we go to Haifa, visit the Bahai gardens, the beach, and buy a couple of books on a street with a name I don’t remember. A Michener novel on travel in the 60s, and something by Umberto Eco.

Shortly thereafter our vacation ends and we make our ascent to the City of Peace. We are on Ben Yehuda St., on some night. It may be a Wednesday night. And we are at a cafe, to have some drinks and possibly play a little bit of chess. I heard they play chess here. Around 9 o’clock, a band begins to play, and lo they are playing Jazz! Again, My Gosh - What is it about Jazz music here? I guess they have Jazz at this cafe-bar six nights a week. The bands and staff take Sundays off.

I ponder this question, though. I think on Jazz in Houston. I think on Jazz in Galilee. I think on the time I tried to play Jazz in Hawaii and how it just didn’t seem to fit the surroundings. I think on Jazz in other places. I conclude that from what I know,—somewhere in me—that if I can gather my thoughts together properly, I may be able to draw out some semblance of an answer to what it is about Jazz music here.

What is it about Jazz music in Israel?

Well, in order to answer that question I have to pull off the stream of my consciousness and onto the riverbank, where I can try to polish my thoughts. I have to sit on the river bank and do my best at a bit of layman’s history of philosophy.

To start, I’ll just come out and say what I think the philosophy of Jazz is: I think the philosophy of Jazz music is Existentialism.

Yes, Music and Philosophy are separate disciplines, but just as with everything else that humans make and do, musical movements are always at least ambiently philosophical. I will try to justify this claim in what follows.

So, what is Existentialism?

Existentialism is one of the latest answers to the age old questions: What can we know? How ought we to live? In what ideas can we trust?

The philosophies and religions that have attempted to answer these questions have always come with a promise: that if we would just accept their interpretation of the world and mankind, then this place would become paradise — all evil and injustice would be extinguished — and all the people in it would become saints — perfect people, according to the standard du jour. Some version of “Paradise and Sainthood” is always the promise.

We have to ask ourselves, of course, whether or not these systems of interpretation are true; whether or not whatever interpretation of the world being offered to us has the predictive power to bring about what it has promised.

Everything we believe about the universe, and about human beings in the world, rests on our attitude toward truth, and how we can derive it. So in a cursory mode of explanation, Existentialism is one after-Modern response to the latest return of the questions: What can we know? How ought we to live? In what ideas can we trust?

So how do the Existentialists answer? Well, the Existentialists flip the priority of answering these questions; they turn Descartes’ cogito ergo sum on its head by asserting that existence precedes essence, and therefore sum ergo cogito; that is, there is a being-in-the-world that I am, and I think because I am a being-in-the-world that thinks. From this foundation the existentialists derive a way of being-in-the-world for humanity that ends up looking a lot like Jazz.

But lets talk about the history of attitudes toward truth for a moment, because that is really the thing that is going to illuminate this whole idea for us about the philosophy of Jazz music and why I think the current state of Israel is so suited to Jazz.

Existentialism comes into realization in an era in philosophy called post-modernism. Many people find it hard to define postmodernism, and appropriately so, because it seems that everyone who subscribes to this philosophy, knowingly or not, seems to be psychologically allergic to definition of any kind. Nevertheless post-modernism can be defined. But it has to be defined in relation to modernism, and pre-modernism, and their respective attitudes toward the concept of truth.

Lets start with pre-modernism. The thinking of people in pre-modernity went something like this: If a premodern person wanted to find out what was true about the world or about man, or if they wanted some special insight into what they should do at a certain moment in time (how to please God or the gods, how to get to Heaven, or how to avoid Hades), they would seek out a person who had access to divine information, someone who had had special contact with entities from beyond everyday experience. Instances of this can be found in Moses, Plato, the Oracle at Delphi, Jesus, Paul, Confucius, Mohammed, and many others. The thinking of premoderns was that truth came by divine revelation. So if you wanted to find out what was true, you would have to find an inspired wiseman or woman, or someone who could read palms or perform magic, and they would have the power and authority to tell you what was true. Believe you them.

Of course many of these wise and inspired people were not always around to continue their work. They would die like everyone else, and what would happen generally is that their teachings or sayings would be recorded into books, and then the interpretations of those books would be formed into traditions, and these books and traditions would eventually come under the lock, key, and care of the institutions that formed around them. Thus these institutions would become the gatekeepers of what was true; interpreting the texts in their possession for the untaught masses—sometimes to their benefit, sometimes to their detriment.

The trouble with institutions, though many can be good and perfectly useful, is that some end up slipping into corruption, sometimes even becoming opposed to the very traditions they were created to protect and pass on to others. If history is any measure, often when they do this they become self-contradictory in structure, inviting quick disintegration of their authority at the slightest amount of opposition to their double-nature. A good example of this from premodern times is the Church.

Originally created to protect the people of the Christian faith from what they thought was heresy, and to establish the rule of God on Earth, the institution of the Church gave the same promise that all inventors of belief systems give: “If you just do things our way, the world will be paradise, and you will all become saints.” But this did not end up being the fruit: the Church changed as it grew, from focusing on treasure in heaven to treasure on earth, from conversion by preaching to conversion by sword. The leaders found themselves keeping their laypeople from being able to access their own sacred texts; even going so far, at one point, as to outlaw the Bible. Many priests, bishops, and popes ended up using their authority to tax churches wholesale in the name of such silly schemes as getting themselves and others out of the jail of purgatory faster, or to pay for sins that Jesus apparently didn’t cover. Meanwhile, a few men of the cloth spent much of the money from these taxes on personal indulgence, whims of luxury, exotic lasciviousness, political favors, and foreign wars.

In the millennia from the reign of Constantine in the early 300s C.E. to the invention of the printing press in 1440 C.E., the Church had largely failed to deliver its promised world paradise. Meanwhile, European interaction with the Byzantine East and the rapid spread of new printing technology created growing networks of individuals and ideas that would challenge the Roman hierarchy of authority in the West and usher in what we now know as modernism.

So if premoderns sought truth from divinely-inspired authority figures and tradition-wielding institutions, where do you think moderns sought truth? The answer is that they eventually realized that each person could use his own mind to apply reason to whatever question under his consideration and thereby arrive at the truth of a matter. This conclusion was arrived at by a European reacquaintance with Classical authors and ideas: Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, to name a few.

During the long Modern moment that began officially with the Renaissance, the idea that truth could be arrived at by the use of reason was applied everywhere. This modern mode of thought also became realized in what would become Protestantism when the Reformers realized that individual reason also meant that they didn’t need middlemen between themselves and the scriptures, or between themselves and Jesus. They could interpret their holy texts without the help of those clergy who often seemed to have a hidden proclivity toward power-mongering and other forms of malevolence.

Along with the new religious movements, the new philosophy built increasingly complex systems of thought, as rational and intricate as any symphony by Bach or building by Palladio. Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant each describing the world as they thought it was and should be — and man as he was and ought to be. And, just as it was with premodernism, the Modern mind’s way of thinking expressed itself in new arrangements of the world; in art and architecture, music, philosophy, theology; all making the same promises: See the world in this new way and it will become paradise and you will all become saints.

But people would eventually see that modern reason would not make good on its promise. In 1789 the first major sign of the insufficiency of reason made itself known in the French Revolution. The French, who were famous for their modern philosophers, art, architecture, and music, found themselves and their society in the throes of a less-than-ideal world that reason could not explain. So they sought their cure in destroying relics of premodernism: the monarchy, the Church, and their system of property. And indeed they went so far in their mission against these premodern relics that they even built a temple to the “God of Reason” and murdered by the tens of thousands those who were not persuaded of their cause.

The French Revolution was not the end of modernism or the cult of Reason. It can be said that the Western mind hoped in the promise of Reason as the ultimate way to organize the world and its people all the way up until the two world wars of the 20th Century, where “reason alone” showed that its logical conclusion was technological power too great for any one man to wield and theories that dehumanized entire groups of people while super-humanizing others, leaving what was supposed to be the paradise and saint-home of Europe in a pile of rubble and ashes.

Then in 1914 the World War caused the great breach in our European existence. The paradisiacal life before the World War, naive despite all its sublime spirituality, could never return: philosophy, with its seriousness, became more important than ever. —Karl Jaspers

Out of this chaos came the realization that reason must not actually be the way to paradise and sainthood. Because pure reason, when really examined, contradicts itself; it disproves and annihilates itself. In real life, categories are more porous than logic would dictate, and when the underlying logic of a system is violated, the system fails. So it’s no wonder that the Europeans who loved reason so much, and tried to organize their whole existence according to its precepts, would end up massacring each other not only once but twice in half a century. And in Russia and China, where modernism had spread, the results were similarly horrific. To the survivors of these events, it seemed that every man must go his own way in the world.

Enter post-modernism: Truth is not derived from inspired people, because there are no entities to inspire, no gods, no angels or daemons; neither is truth derived by reason, since reason only results in contradiction and thus annihilation. In fact, there is no Truth and no way for anyone to share a point of view about existence in the world; there can only be individual experience which is, and must be, different for every person.

Next to these propositions is the idea that there is no God—that is, no highest ideal by which we are justified or judged—and even if there is, it is not possible for us to know this ideal personally. Indeed, if we can come to no common, universal agreement about knowledge or truth, how can we even begin to answer the age-old questions? There are no answers. No, the post-Modern view is that my view of the world can never be the same as any other person’s view of the world, therefore what is true for me can only be true for me, and even when others’ experiences are different than mine, the fact that they are different, or even contradict each other, doesn’t nullify the fact that they are all true. My experience of the world defines the world as it is for me and for no one else. As such I find myself in a state of isolation and loneliness in a world that I only think I share with others, but that is because I am deceived.

The post-modern worldview can feel bleak. That it can make any promises at all must be a contradiction. But promise it does; a similar promise to the pre-modern and modern promises: that if we would all just just organize our individual existences according to our own personal—lived—experiences, then the world would become a perfectly just paradise, and we would all become enlightened saints.

Quietly, something enormous has happened in the reality of Western man: a destruction of all authority, a radical disillusionment in an overconfident reason, and a dissolution of bonds have made anything, absolutely anything, possible. —Karl Jaspers

I know I’m taking a while to get back to Jazz and Jerusalem, but bear with me. For now it is necessary to make a few more quick points concerning the place of Existentialism in the larger history of thought.

Existentialism is a response to the postmodern world that the West has inherited after two failed civilization-wide experiments: premodernism and modernism.

For the pre-moderns, truth could be received from a higher power, translated into words, and then codified into a text. The text, therefore, was supreme as an authority, and the gatekeeper to the text was of high importance: the librarian, the scribe, the priest interpreting the text for others who could not read or make sense of it.

The moderns, finding books everywhere because of the printing press and trusting in reason, decided to find the truth of the texts themselves. Even though they downgraded the authority of the gatekeepers, they still believed in the authority of the text.

But the postmodern posture toward words, texts, and interpretation is that a text can never be properly understood because we can never experience the author’s perspective. Personal interpretation is elevated and authorial intent diminished. “Meaningless, all is vanity,” says the Preacher.

Of course there are still people that approach truth according to each of these three main methods, and some mix and match at certain times and in certain places. People still follow divinely-inspired gurus; others the same old premodern traditional institutions. Some believe only in reason alone, that is, that Science is the last word on all matters of truth and life. Still others discard both revelation and reason in favor of personal experience.

So what does Existentialism propose?

Existentialism looks at the failure of the scripts of premodernism, and modernism’s systems of human reason, and says that the only thing a man can do in a world where he is the center of his own existence is to embrace his own individuality; to take responsibility for that individuality by practicing and embracing radical freedom; and then to explore that individual freedom sincerely. If he does these things he will be authentic.

If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it…Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. —Jean-Paul Sartre

So Jazz, as I see it, is perfectly existential in its approach to music. And when I look at the history of ideas, it seems that it was almost inevitable that a musical style like Jazz would appear.

Since its inception Jazz has come in many flavors and varieties. Anyone who is curious enough can find out more about the major movements and sub-movements with a quick Google search. But despite its evolutionary nature, there have always been a few prime ingredients that make Jazz what it is. These elements are first an attachment to classical music. This attachment is necessary because classical music of the modern period was highly rational, and the practitioners of Jazz needed something to rebel against and remix — an approach to the musical text that would allow for musical rearrangement on the fly, which brings in the next element: improvisation en ensemble.

Up until Jazz, the European musical tradition had not placed a high emphasis on improvisation in ensemble music. The way of the day was that a genius composer would come along like a god, and then—with god-like authority — write a musical score which would be treated much the same as a sacred text. Then the musicians, in the role of the human beings in relation to their god, would come and interpret the score with the intention of getting as close to the intention of the god-composer as possible.

But right in sync with the philosophical attitudes of the day, Jazz artists dethroned the composer-god, and enthroned the player-interpreters, placing them each in the position of composer-god. So in contrast to classical music, in Jazz the soloist in an improvising ensemble would be the one who judged among them, establishing the musical direction by his feeling and his mood, directing the music in the way that it should go.

“God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.”
—‭‭Psalm‬ ‭82:1‬

Philosophy does not happen in a vacuum. There were historical events and forces that worked in concert with philosophy and other art forms to move these musicians toward a musical style that could more or less reflect the world around them. Beyond music, the Existential approach can be observed in James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, who both introduced the hyper-individualistic stream-of-consciousness style of literature in the same narrow moment that Jazz introduced its solo-celebrating stream-of-consciousness style of music. We could also point to the Modern styles of painting in Picasso, Matisse, Dalí and others, where the received text of the human form and the accepted ideas about the relations of objects in the world are treated in a way that de-emphasizes the text and reemphasizes the place of the artist-interpreter.

When Jazz first appeared, some called the style “escapist”. I think it was. Escapism from the World Wars, from great depressions, from the communal angst that follows the mass experience of death and destruction, from the knowledge that atomic weapons are hanging over every head.

Modern Israel has existed for 71 years now, and in that time she has participated in eight recognized wars, had more terrorist attacks than can be counted, and the cities near Gaza live in constant fear of rocket fire. Bring up politics with a native citizen, and you will get mixed reviews, opinions, and emotions about what it is like to exist in this place surrounded on all sides by countries you could very well go to war with again in the future. Then take into account the many competing internal factions, political and religious, and you have a country riddled with tension.

To remain truthful religion needs the conscience of philosophy. To retain a significant content philosophy needs the substance of religion…If religion were not the life of mankind, there would be no philosophy either. —Karl Jaspers

So why does Jazz fit so well here? It fits well because, in a corner of the world so strung tight with communal tension, Jazz is a form of release for the individual. In Israel, Jazz music calls out as a testimony to all who will listen, saying that not every moment in the music of life need be scripted. Beauty, what is holy, and sincere, authenticity, individual expression — each of these can be made-up-created-cultivated, as you go, and as you experience the world. The existential philosophy of Jazz music runs in sharp contrast to the many groups in Israel that live completely scripted lives. It also runs contrary to those who think they can live with no script, since in order for music to be music at all there must be a motif, a call, a reason; an antecedent that is answered by a consequent. Anything less results in chaos and nothingness. Throughout the life of a song, the pairing and journeying of ideas —moving apart and coming together— are what make music that is deeply interesting and deeply meaningful.

“Only music,” wrote Nietzsche, “placed beside the world, can give us an idea of what is meant by the justification of the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.”

As I sit outside this cafe in Jerusalem, these thoughts and this music fill my mind. This is why Jazz music fits so well here—like a perfect melody in a perfect cinematic moment. Will it always be appropriate? Probably not. And I think that we should hope that Jazz doesn’t always fit here. ☗

Reference List

Loading more posts…