Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The scene is not uncommon. A group gathers to study the ancient language of a scriptural passage or liturgical text. As they delve into the themes and imagery, judgments are made and ideological lines are drawn. One person accepts it as unquestioned truth. Another finds it hopelessly linked to a distant time. Someone else searches for hidden meaning. Another relates it to current events. The points they argue and sides they take reflect the group’s composition: a traditionalist, a rationalist, a mystic and a political activist. As always, their lively exchange ends in respectful disagreement. They put down their books, finish their coffee, shake each other’s hands, walk into the sanctuary, and disperse among the congregation. In a few minutes, they will be singing the words they were just debating. And they will be happily absorbed in the melody.
To the casual observer, this scene illustrates the dichotomy between study and song. The first is an intellectual activity, inviting scrutiny, deconstruction, reconstruction and reasoned dispute. The second is an emotional experience, disarming the analytical urge and inviting the flow of passions. Because the first involves critical thought and the second uncritical feeling, studying is generally viewed as more virtuous. To be moved by music containing words we struggle with is a case of lower capacities overtaking higher faculties.
There is, however another, less hierarchical way of looking at it. Anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo challenged us to appreciate emotions as “embodied thoughts.” They are not, she contended, involuntary or irrational exertions of the animal self, but the result of a deliberate and engaged body. Like cognition, emotion is a genuine and considered expression of who we are. It is the body’s way of reasoning.
As word-centric beings, we tend to dismiss the non-verbal realm of feelings as primal or crude. We take a dualistic stance, dividing thought and emotion into firm categories. We appraise the mind as literally and figuratively above the body. The intellect is the basis of our superiority as a species; feelings arise from our base biology. According to Rosaldo, this viewpoint is a reflection of culture rather than reality. While the mind processes information in words, the body processes information in sensations. One is not necessarily better or more efficient than the other. Both constitute our humanity.
This perspective helps us decipher the liturgical scenario above. Despite the differing views expressed around the study table, the heterogeneous group joins in the joyful singing of passages they had argued over moments before. Objections they raised with the text and one another remain unresolved. But as the words melt into music, so do their intellects melt into feelings. Their thinking brains are quieted, their thinking bodies stimulated. The debate is put on hold until next time.
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