Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Problem with Perfection

The Problem with Perfection

At Jewish Newport

July 9, 2022

By Aaron Ginsburg

Edited by Beth Ginsburg Levine

Also at

The band Aesthetic Perfection
Exoport, CC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons
On Shabbat we were a small group, fifteen men and a handful of women. Our shul, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, is small, and our voices filled the room. Several of the guests were lawyers attending a convention of family lawyers from New York State. In the Parsha, Chukat, Moses and Aaron were punished because Moses struck the rock to get water rather than speaking to it as G-d commanded. They were told that they would not be admitted to Eretz Yisrael. Unfortunately, Moses and Aaron did not have members of the New York Bar to speak to G-d in their defense.

One of the guests, Attorney Ira Treuhaft, spoke highly about the kosher food by Andrew’s and Ahava that he received at the convention.

Ira gave a brief dvar after services. Parashat Chukat begins with the ritual of the red heifer. A perfect red heifer (in plain English, a cow on which every hair is  red)  is sacrificed. The ashes are the base of a mixture that is used to purify people who come into contract with a dead body. It’s a ritual that is hard to understand.  

The person who performs the sacrifice, even if it is performed perfectly, becomes ritually impure. Ira told us that Judaism is skeptical about perfection. 

A quick perusal of the literature shows that although Judaism strives for perfection, it recognizes that is unobtainable. We know this both from our own experiences and from science. If people set their goal as perfection, they are bound to be a disappointment to themselves, and to be disappointed in everyone else.

This week I was discussing Carl Orff with a friend. Orff was a German composer. His book Schulworke is very influential in music education. He wrote his most famous work, Carmina Burana, during the 1930s in Nazi Germany. The Nazis decided they liked it, which was not a given. They had their hang ups about anything that had a taint of modern. Orff was rewarded financially. He never joined the Nazi party. For years many people avoided concerts that included his music. 

Richard Wagner  was notorious for his antisemitism. He was a writer as well as a composer. An 1850 essay, Judaism in Music,  criticized Jews and the Jewish composers Meyerbeer and Mendelsonn. He repeated an idea from the French philosophers of the 18th century, claiming that Jewish speech was "intolerably jumbled blabber", a "creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle", incapable of expressing true passion[6] which prevented them from creating song or music. The essay was not a best seller and had no discernible influence. In spite of these opinions, he had many Jewish friends, including Mendelsohn. In his writing he expressed his antisemitism repeatedly.  Wagner died long before the Holocaust. He was a favorite composer under the Nazis who also approved of the three B’s, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. 

The subject of Wagner’s antisemitism came up in Cleveland when Christoph von Dohnányi, the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, was preparing Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Asked about Wagner’s antisemitism he said, “You have to know about it, but then you have to forget about it pretty much.”

Christoph von Dohnányi was very aware of life in Nazi Germany. His father Hans, his uncle, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other relatives were in the resistance to Nazism. They were executed on April 9, 1945, when Christoph was 15 years old. 

Von Dohnányi, who is not Jewish, is sensitvive to antisemitism. In 2011 he canceled appearances at the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest, saying he did not want to "appear in a city whose mayor entrusted the direction of a theater to two known, extreme right-wing anti-Semites."

These reflections dealing with the Holocaust might seem dated. But how should we treat the legacies of people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were slave owners, and Aaron Lopez of Newport, who was involved in the slave trade?

Human beings are not perfect, nor are heroes!

Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!


Judaism in Music

Von Dohnányi on Wagner's antisemitism

about Carl Orff

about Christoph von Dohnányiányi