Storytelling and Song: A Response

A response to Keaton Hill’s reflection by Dr. Walter Ziffer

Dear Keaton,

I want to make an observation based on my own experience and by doing so emphatically support what you quote from Adichie, that story telling and song are able to encourage people's lower instincts such as maltreatment of "the other" and all kind of malignant behavior, etc. The Nazis were masters of using false stories and rousing song that influenced even my sister and myself to the point where we admired the SS marching by and singing beautifully, I must admit, songs that aroused within the listeners hatred and Nazi supremacist ideology. What I am trying to say is that the "cognitive" aspect you mention is all important because it is that aspect that determines whether the story telling and the song are for the good or for evil. It is the substance, in my opinion, that is the determining factor whether what is done is for the good or for evil. Singing and singing with passion is the mode of transmission only! Important, of course, but still only the instrument of transmission.

And that, of course, brings me to the mode of how Torah is being transmitted. Rabbi Sacks, kol hakavod, is an important Jewish wiseman whom I respect but...the best way of transmitting Torah is by living it. I am not at all sure that the good rabbi makes a distinction between meaningful and constructive Torah and much that actually tends to be a teaching that encourages dispossession of one's neighbor and dehumanization. That, too, is  found in the Torah. The latter, to my chagrin, is also being chanted, often passionately, on many a Shabbat in synagogues around the globe. So, as Judaism is concerned, let us guard from being over enthusiastic with passionately singing Torah. In my opinion, Torah is a human product (Sacks would not agree!) with much that is admirable and of great and timeless value but also with much that is value limited because of its human and therefore limited outlook.

Let me assure you, that this is in no way a criticism of your meditation. I value your thought and words. This is simply a word of caution from a Jew who has seen the many faces of Judaism.