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Kabbalah and Jazz: The Mystical Foundation of Improvisational Music

November 14, 2021 | by Rabbi Adam Jacobs

According to Jewish belief, everything is music.

Every person has their own musical ladder – a distinct melody that allows one to draw down spiritual sustenance into this world, writes Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira in his great work To Heal the Soul. This melody is exclusive; it can't be performed by anyone else. It's so individualized that to use someone else's ladder is like putting someone else's saliva into your mouth to sing. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov expanded this idea and went as far as to say that each and every blade of grass sings its own melody as well.

Very poetic, but what does it actually mean?

Does Science Say Everything is Music?

As science developed the technological capability to peer deeper into the essence of matter, the familiar notion of minute balls or dots of matter was formed – electrons, protons, neutrons and the like. This picture now seems to be inadequate and the concept of Superstring Theory – a relatively new attempt to explain it – may be more accurate. Developed in the early 70’s, Superstring Theory is an attempt to harmonize Einstein’s General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics. The theory suggests that the tiny matter contained in the proton is actually composed of ultra-small one-dimensional strings of energy, the vibrations of which give rise to all of physical reality.

It just may be that the universe is created and sustained through sound and is actually singing its own tune.

It just may be that the universe is created and sustained through sound. More than that, it actually is singing its own tune. (Did you know that black holes emit a B flat 50 octaves below middle C!)

I recently had the pleasure of discussing this with Brown University physicist and musician Stephon Alexander who elaborated on the ancient history of the connection between physics, cosmology and music and how even the clinical world of physics may be fundamentally connected to a more ethereal one. (Click here for Rabbi Jacobs’s discussion with Professor Alexander.)

Let there Be light

There is a connection between vibration and creation. This connection might also help to explain why God is depicted as having chosen the medium of speech (as opposed to thought, deed or anything else) to create the world as outlined at the beginning of Genesis where it says “and God said, let there be light.” (Interesting side note: String Theory only works based on a model of the universe that contains either 10, 11 or 26 dimensions which happen to be ly significant numbers in Kabbalistic thought.) Music is obviously another vibrational form of creating – but what exactly is being created? What does music mean?

Sound, Emotion, and Creation

Noted Austrian musicologist Vicktor Zuckerkandl spent his career trying to explain the curious appeal of music. He wondered, “How can tones have meaning? Words have meaning because they relate to things; sentences, because they express something about things. Tones do not relate to things, do not express anything about things, represent nothing, betoken nothing, indicate nothing. What is it then that is meaningful in tones, that allows us to distinguish sense from nonsense in successions of tones?”

Good question.

Music is some kind of language – a code that transmits emotion from one being to another but try as we may, there is no cogent description to be had as to what, exactly, it is, nor how it works. Like many of life’s foundational pleasures such as love, beauty and meaning, it is no simple task to explain its appeal. For better or worse, this elusive goal has kept poets and other wordsmiths in business for centuries. It would seem as though the musician is tapping into something very deep – perhaps even into the hidden reservoir of creative energy that animates the universe itself.

The Kabbalah in Jazz

Jazz has a much to say about this. Jazz, by virtue of its improvisational nature, forces the players to intently focus on the here and now. The musicians are balanced on a tightrope, not knowing precisely where the other side is and needing to depend on each other to get there. This trusting, inspirational flow is similar to our relationship to transcendence in general – the less we are weighed down by the past or fretting over the future, the more of that natural creative (and spiritual) “vibe” we can access.

Many musicians know that they have become a vessel for something bigger.

Many of the jazz players I've spoken to and played with acknowledge this dynamic. They know that they have become a vessel for something bigger. It's their version of a religious rite, though they might never call it that.

When I gave my graduate recital at the New England Conservatory, there was a moment during the improvisations that I simply ceased to be in control of what was unfolding. I became an observer of the performance, aware of it but no longer directing it. Melodies and musical ideas that I had previously been incapable of playing flowed from my fingers. It was fantastic, and for those moments I needed nothing else from life. The applause came as a shock, and then it was gone.

Kabbalah explains that there are five spiritual dimensions and that at the intersection of the highest two, four energies merge: Eden, souls, Torah and music. This implies that each one of these concepts is a doorway to the others. Music is the language of reality itself and its building blocks. Musicians also know the feeling of deep connection to the other players and it's magical while it lasts. Since the root of one's soul emanates from the top of that fourth world, it would follow that music is also a doorway to the merging of people on a soul level. Pleasure, wisdom, unity and transcendence are all byproducts of the true musical experience.

Click here to hear The Secret Chord – Rabbi Jacobs’s podcast on music and spirituality

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