As I think of the various movements of Bach’s Mass in B minor that Sara Levy pondered, more than two hundred years ago — determined, as she was, to give the Mass a second life as a sacred Jewish choral piece — I feel myself particularly drawn to her Jewish version of the Et in Spiritum Sanctum. Following the mystery and drama of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Et in Spiritum Sanctum comes as a gentle portrait of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, and a statement of belief in one holy Church:
Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem, qui ex Patre Filoque procedit, qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur, qui locutus est per Prophetas. Et in unum sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam. (And [I believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified; who hath spoken through the Prophets. And [I believe] in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.)
Why am I so drawn to this movement, even more than to the other intimate arias in Bach’s Mass? Partly because of the sweet, pastoral quality of the music, a Bass solo aria in A major, in gently rocking triple meter, accompanied by two oboes d’amore; partly because I feel that the transposition into Hebrew works magically well, as if there existed a celestial B minor Mass whose terrestrial Hebrew counterpart was revealed to Sara Levy through ruăḥ hăḳodĕsh, the Holy Spirit. I know this sounds fanciful, but matters of faith, as I have learned, do not have much to do with reason, or with the supernatural.
Evidently Sara grasped — whether through her normal intellectual faculty or through a vision — that the elements of the Et in Spiritum Sanctum could be placed in close correspondence with the elements of four of Maimonides’ principles of faith, numbers six through nine. These four principles encompass the belief that the words of the prophets are true; that Moses is the father of all prophets; that the Torah was given to Moses in its entirety; and that the Torah shall never be changed.
Here is the key to the correspondence between the Latin and the Hebrew elements: The “Holy Spirit” (Spiritum Sanctum) corresponds to “Moses our teacher” (moshĕ răbenu); the “giver of life” (vivificantem) to “father of the prophets” (av lăn’vi’im); “who has spoken through the Prophets” (qui locutus est per Prophetas) to “all the words of the prophets are truth” (ĕmĕt kŏl-divre n’vi’im); and “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” (unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam) to “this Torah shall not be changed, and there shall never be another Torah (zot hătora lo tŏḥŏlăf, ṿ’tora ăḥĕrĕt lo tihyĕ).
The Hebrew version reads as follows:
Ṿ’shĕmoshĕ răbenu hu haya av lăn’vi’im, ṿ’shĕhay’ta n’vuato ămitit. Shĕhătora hăm’tsuya ‘ăta v’yadenu, kŭlah hi nit’na lo. Ṿĕ’ĕmĕt kŏl-divre n’vi’im. Ṿ’zot hătora lo tŏḥŏlăf, ṿ’tora ăḥĕrĕt lo tihyĕ. (And [I believe] that Moses our teacher was the father of the prophets, and that his prophecy was true. That the Torah we now possess [literally, that is now found in our hands] was given to him in its entirety. And that all the words of the prophets are truth. And that this Torah shall never be changed, and there shall never be another Torah.)
In the beginning section of the movement, Bach sets the words “Spiritum Sanctum” on rising and falling eighth note triplets, and for the word “vivificantem” he adds sixteenth notes to speed up the rhythm, painting the idea of the Holy Spirit as “giver of life”; in the Hebrew version, the rushing sixteenth notes of “av lăn’vi’im” portray Moses’ supremacy over other prophets. In the vocal material that follows, “vivificantem” and “Spiritum Sanctum” alternate in similar eighth note and quarter note figures; in this way Bach shows them as synonymous, exploiting the fact that they have precisely the same rhythm. In the Hebrew version, Sara is able to do the same with “av lăn’vi’im” and “moshĕ răbenu.”
Does the pastoral character of this movement fit the person of Moses? Well, he did have a short career as a shepherd, tending Jethro’s flock in Midian. And if we can say that the Holy Spirit, as a force that gives life, has a mysterious, even frightening side, we can equally say that Moses, whom we usually think of as a remote and terrifying figure, has a familiar, even intimate side as the person who taught us the Torah. The music also has a dignity which suits Moses well, as does the low Bass voice.
There is a tender moment in the Et in Spiritum Sanctum which Sara manages to carry over beautifully to the Jewish version. In measures 66-70, the Latin “adoratur” (worshiped) is lovingly drawn out, as if to emphasize the rapture inspired in the Christian worshiper by the Holy Spirit. In Sara’s version the word “v’yadenu” (in our hands) is similarly drawn out, as if to emphasize the loving feelings of the Jewish people for the Torah: “the Torah that is now in our hands.” The musical setting of the Hebrew word v’yadenu brings to mind images of pious Jews embracing a Torah scroll that has been taken out of the ark, or carrying a newly written Torah to the synagogue, like a bride being escorted to her new home.
The final vocal section of the movement (measures 105-132), which in the Latin Mass is devoted to the Church, becomes in the Hebrew Prayer a lyrical affirmation of the eternity of the Torah: “zot hătora lo tŏḥŏlăf, ṿ’tora ăḥĕrĕt lo tihyĕ (this Torah shall not be changed, and there shall not be another Torah).”
The Hebrew text of this movement, Ṿ’shĕmoshĕ răbenu, raises two questions which are worth thinking about: the nature of prophecy in general and that of Moses in particular; and the meaning of the Torah in Judaism. Each of these is an enormous topic, but I will say something about them.
On the nature of prophecy, our best source is again Maimonides. In The Guide for the Perplexed (Chapter XXXVI) he writes: “Prophecy is, in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man’s rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty; it is the highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain; it consists in the most perfect development of the imaginative faculty.” In order for prophecy to occur, the perfection of the imaginative faculty must be combined with “mental perfection acquired by training” and “moral perfection produced by the suppression of every thought of bodily pleasures, and of every kind of foolish or evil ambition.”
In his Commentary on the Mishnah (Sanhedrin, Chapter 10), Maimonides specifies four ways in which the prophecy of Moses differed from that of other prophets, and supports them with biblical texts:
1. Whereas God speaks with ordinary prophets only through an intermediary, through an angel, with Moses He spoke directly, without any intermediary. “With him [Moses] I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord.” (Numbers 12:8)
2. Whereas ordinary prophets only receive prophecy during a dream or state of lethargy — “in a dream by night” (Genesis 28:12), “a night vision” (Job 33:15), “in visions of God” (Ezekiel 8:3) — the word of God came to Moses by day, in a state of alertness; for example, while he was standing “between the two Cherubim [that are upon the Ark of Testimony]” (Exodus 25:22). “When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream: not so my servant Moses.” (Numbers 12:6-7)
3. Whereas ordinary prophets, when receiving a prophecy through an angel, are seized by a powerful fear, and experience a profound physical weakness, as if they are about to die — “because of the vision I am seized with pangs and retain no strength” (Daniel 10:16) — Moses, even when God spoke to him directly, did not experience any weakness or fear. “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.” (Exodus 33:11)
4. Whereas ordinary prophets are not able to receive a prophetic vision of their own will, but only when God wills it, Moses could receive the word of God whenever he liked: “Wait, that I may hear what the Lord will command concerning you.” (Numbers 9:8)
On the meaning of the Torah, we should begin with a classical midrash from Genesis Rabba on the first verse of Genesis, “In the beginning (b’reshit) God created the heaven and the earth.” Like any good classical midrash, it opens with a verse from another part of the Bible, a verse that on the surface appears to be unrelated to the verse being explained, but turns out to hold a key to its meaning. The opening verse is Proverbs 8:30: “Then I [Wisdom] was beside Him [the Lord], like a master-workman (amon); and I was daily His delight, rejoicing before Him at all times.” The word amon can be read and translated in various ways: omen (educator), amun (hidden), or uman (craftsman, master-workman, architect, little child, confidant, one raised by the same adult). It is the last reading, translated as master-workman or architect, that is used in the part of the midrash that we are reading.
In chapter 8 of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified; she calls out to men, pleads with them to heed her words, and, starting in verse 22, recounts her ancient relationship with God: “The Lord created me, the beginning (reshit) of His way, the first of His works of old.” From this latter verse the rabbis of the Midrash infer that the Torah is called reshit. According to an ancient Jewish tradition, the Torah was created before the Creation proper, and is also called Wisdom (ḥŏkhma). Therefore the author of this midrash is able to interpret the first verse of Genesis as follows:
“[The word] amon [can be read as] uman (craftsman); [hence the opening verse, Proverbs 8:30, can be read as follows:] The Torah [or Wisdom] is saying, ‘I was the instrument of the handiwork of the Holy One, blessed is He.’ According to the custom of the world, when a king of flesh and blood builds a palace, he does not build it using his own knowledge, but relies on the knowledge of an architect (uman); and the architect does not build it using [exclusively] his own knowledge, but relies on blueprints and tables, [as] he needs to know how he is to fashion the rooms and openings. In a similar way, the Holy One, blessed is He, looked in the Torah and created the world, as the Torah says, ‘Through the Torah (b’-reshit) God created….’”
As we see, the Torah is not just the Law given to Israel by God; it is the very foundation of knowledge and creation. Those of you who sense a close connection with the Christian Logos are not wrong. It is clear — is it not? — that the first three verses of the Gospel of John, usually considered to be the least Jewish of the Gospels, is a very early midrash explicating the same verses, Genesis 1:1 and Proverbs 8:30, as the midrash we just read; except that in John, the Torah is replaced by Christ, who is identified with God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being that has come into being.” (John 1:1-3; see the essay by Daniel Boyarin, “Logos, a Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Oxford University Press, 2011.)
The Talmud is full of sayings, interpretations, and stories that demonstrate the importance of the Torah as a part of the cosmic order, and as an object of reverence and study. Here are two small examples.
In Tractate Avodah Zarah (3a), Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish is bothered by the fact that in the narrative of creation, it is only after the creation of man and woman, on day six, that the letter he, representing the definite article, is used to summarize the day’s creation: “And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day (yom hăshishi instead of yom shishi).” (Genesis 1:31) Rabbi Shimon seems to be of the opinion that “the sixth day” is a reference to a particular “sixth day,” namely the sixth day of Sivan, the day on which, according to tradition, Israel received the Torah. Why is there this link in Scripture between the creation of humans and the receiving of the Torah? Rabbi Shimon explains: “It teaches us that the Holy One, blessed is He, set a condition with Creation, saying, ‘If Israel accepts my Torah, well and good — but if not, I will return you to a state of formless void.’”
In Tractate Shabbat (30a), Rav Yehudah says in the name of Rav: “What [do we learn from] what is written [in the verse from a psalm of David] (Psalms 39:5), ‘Tell me, O Lord, my end, and what is the measure of my days; I would know how transient I am.’? David said before the Holy One, blessed is He: ‘Master of the Universe! Tell me, O Lord, my end.’ [God] answered him, ‘There is a decree before Me, that we do not tell [a person of] flesh and blood his end.’ ‘And what is the measure of my days?’ ‘There is a decree before Me, that we do not tell a man the measure of his days.’ ‘I would know how transient I am [i.e. on what day of the week I will die].’ [God] said to him, ‘You will die on the Sabbath.’ ‘Let me die on the first day of the week [i.e. the day after the Sabbath, so that my burial and mourning may start right away].’ He answered him, ‘The reign of Solomon your son would already have arrived, and one reign cannot overlap another even by a hair’s breadth.’ ‘[Then] let me die on the eve of the Sabbath.’ He answered him: ‘[You yourself have said before Me (Psalms 84:11), "Better one day in Your courts than a thousand [anywhere else]“; I prefer the one [extra] day that you will sit and busy yourself with [the study of] the Torah, to the thousand burnt offerings that Solomon your son is destined to sacrifice before me upon the altar!’”
In Judaism, there is a tendency to emphasize the divine nature of the Torah; it is the concrete manifestation of God’s existence, the purpose of His Creation. At the same time, there is a tendency to avoid any attribution of divinity to Moses, who is God’s servant.
In the book of Exodus, when Moses takes longer than expected to return from God’s presence on the mountain, the people speak of him disparagingly as “that Moses, the man, who brought us up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:1). The pointing in the Masoretic text makes it clear that “Moses, the man” is to be read as a single phrase, disjoint from the phrase that follows, emphasizing that Moses is only a man. Later on, in the book of Numbers, God explains to Aaron and Miriam that He has an especially close relationship with Moses, that He speaks with him “mouth to mouth,” that Moses “beholds the form of the Lord” (Numbers 12:8). Just preceding this (Numbers 12:3), we find the following editorial comment: “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth.” I suspect that Sigmund Freud, who knew his Hebrew Bible better than he liked to advertise, was thinking of this verse when he chose the title for his monograph, Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion (The Man Moses and Monotheistic Religion); regrettably, in translating the German title into English as Moses and Monotheism, Ernest Jones preserved neither the Jewish erudition nor the irony in Freud’s original title.
Another example of the tendency in Judaism to downplay the importance of Moses has been pointed out by commentators: the fact that Moses is strikingly absent from the story of the exodus from Egypt, as it is recounted in the traditional Haggadah of Passover. The only exception is the quoting of Exodus 14:31: “And Israel saw the great hand that the Lord wielded against the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses.” It is a small exception, mentioning Moses only as God’s servant; otherwise Moses is left out, presumably in order to emphasize that God alone is the source of redemption, and that Moses does not share in His divinity.
I am afraid that I have already indulged my taste for Midrash more than the reader may like; but there is another Talmudic midrash, in Tractate Shabbat (89a), with which I should like to end. It is a story, told in the name of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, about what happened when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from God:
“When Moses ascended to the upper realm, he found the Holy One, blessed is He, attaching crowns to the letters [of the Torah]. [Moses remained silent.] [God] said to him, ‘Moses! Is it not customary, in the city you are from, to extend a greeting of peace?’ [Moses] answered before Him, ‘Is there any servant who extends a greeting of peace to his master?’ [God] said, ‘You should have helped me!’ Immediately [Moses] said to Him [as in Numbers 14:17], ‘So now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, as You have spoken!’”
What is happening in this story? It appears that when Moses arrives in the celestial heights, God is still putting the finishing touches on His Torah. He is attaching “crowns” to the letters, like the future scribe who, when copying the Torah onto parchment, will add crown-like ornaments (tagin in Aramaic) to decorate seven out of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Moses, out of respect, remains silent while God continues His difficult task; but God reproaches him for being impolite, and then for not helping Him. When Moses realizes that God requires his encouragement, he immediately pronounces the same words that he will pronounce on a future occasion, when he will need to influence God to increase His power on the side of ḥĕsĕd (mercy, or steadfast love), so that God will pardon the rebellious Israelites: “So now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, as You have spoken, saying: The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression.” (Numbers 14:17-18)
This midrash is told with simplicity and warmth. it shows God painstakingly completing His Torah, making it beautiful, crowing its letters with glory. And it shows the familiarity between God and Moses. Moses treats God with respect, but does not hold back from challenging God’s notion of politeness. And God is not bashful about telling Moses that He, the Holy One, needs Moses’ help. But many things in the story are puzzling. Why does God allow Moses to approach Him to receive the Torah, when He has not yet finished writing it? Why does God expect Moses to interrupt Him with a greeting? What is the nature of the help that God requires? And why does Moses pronounce a formula that properly belongs to a future episode in the biblical narrative? Charles Mopsik (Les grands textes de la cabale, pp. 46-57) sees in this midrash a rabbinic antecedent of kabbalistic theurgy. God calls upon man to participate in His work, and to pray for His success. The short prayer uttered by Moses has the effect of amplifying the divine power, while the effect of human transgression is to diminish it. Moses, though not divine, is the figure most frequently portrayed by the rabbis as someone whose actions have a direct effect on the Divinity.
It is time for us to descend from the celestial heights and listen to a recording of the Et in Spiritum Sanctum. And we must try to sing along, with as much pastoral warmth as we can call up, using the words of Sara Levy’s text about Moses, the prophets, and the Torah: Ṿ’shĕmoshĕ răbenu.