Bach was quintessentially Jewish. And in seeking to break free from these laws, Beethoven was the true Christian. Might the gulf between Bach and Beethoven mirror that between Judaism and Christianity?by Norman Podhoretz / December 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
I once shocked a devout Lutheran friend by telling him that Johann Sebastian Bach was really Jewish. I knew perfectly well, of course, that Bach had been a Lutheran-indeed, the greatest glory of that Christian denomination- and I was mainly being provocative. Then I added that, compared with Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven was the true Christian. Here again I knew that Beethoven, although a Catholic and capable of composing the Missa Solemnis, had not been so deep a believer as Bach. Yet I was being at least half-serious in assigning Bach to Judaism and Beethoven to Christianity.
A similar thought must have occurred to whoever originally described Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier as the Old Testament of keyboard music, and Beethoven’s piano sonatas as the New. So far as I know, this analogy has never provoked surprise or outrage; the very fact that it stuck suggests that my own more outlandish extrapolation of it has some basis in a widely shared intuition about the two composers.
Still, I will concede that “outlandish” is the right word to describe my position. For a start, Lutheranism may be at a further remove from Judaism than any other Christian denomination. From a theological point of view they are almost polar opposites.
Judaism puts its stress not on belief or faith, but on action-what Christians call “works.” To be an Orthodox Jew means to dedicate one’s life to following the Law or (in Hebrew) the Torah as handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Torah consists of a written text (the Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament) as interpreted in enormous detail by what was originally an oral tradition. After the 4th century it was set down in writing as well, and became known as the Talmud.
Perhaps the best secular analogy to the relation between the Bible and the Talmud is the one between the American constitution and the entire corpus of Supreme Court decisions, including all the dissents from those decisions. But whereas the compendium of Supreme Court rulings does not include the congressional debates preceding them, the Talmud does reproduce the exegetical arguments among the rabbis, leading up to their final decisions.