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"Venerable Monuments of Philosophy and Poetry": On the Musical Origins of Biblical Poetry in Haskalah Exegesis and Political Theology

Tue, December 18, 2:30 to 4:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Backbay 2 Complex


In the traditional consciousness of Jewish exile, the topos of the lost music of the Hebrews has played a central role in marking both the attempt to come to terms with the dialectics of exile and the anticipation for redemption. Entwined at crucial historical and cultural moments with the Christian theological anti-musical accusation against the Jews, the topos, epitomized in Psalm 137, constructs music as the medium of the bond between God and his nation through the Levites' singing of psalms in the Temple. Music has thus come to demarcate the temporal boundaries of exile, from the destruction to the renewal of the bond with God with messianic redemption.
A watershed that marks a shift within this topos in its traditional form, and arguably points to a shift also in the concept of exile, is found in Moses Mendelssohn's Hebrew commentary on Exodus 15 in his translation of the Pentateuch (the Bi'ur). Reiterating the loss of the art, or wisdom, of music of the Hebrews in exile, Mendelssohn foregoes the anticipation for its messianic return, claiming instead its fundamental constitutive presence in Hebrew Scripture.
Re-assessing the significance of this critical moment in Haskalah thought, the paper further explores the meaning of Mendelssohn's transformation of the attitude toward the state of exile and the paths he thereby opened for a new concept of salvation in which the musical and poetic imports and aesthetic sensation of Hebrew Scripture play a key role. Drawing on instances in Mendelssohn's Jerusalem, in which, as the paper shows, the intimate act of singing psalms is tightly bound with universal salvation, as well as exegetical, para-exegetical, and literary writings by maskilim of the following generation-Joel Bril and David Friedländer-the paper traces the Haskalah's new sense of religious confidence that is located not so much in divine revelation but in the indisputable, if lost, musical origins that lend Hebrew biblical poetry its rhetorical-ethical wealth as a novel mode of universal salvation.


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