Thursday, December 20, 2012


In written music, there is a symbol called the caesura. It looks like two bold slashes across the top of a line and it means something almost unique in the complicated world of musical notation: that the counting of time ceases and only resumes when the conductor gives the nod to the orchestra to continue playing or when solo performers feel the moment to resume upon them. That sounds interesting enough in its own right, I think—that the system in effect permits time to stop and to stay stopped for as long as the conductor or performer wants—but it’s also interesting to compare the caesura to a similar, but not quite identical, concept in musical notation that has the same effect but an entirely different philosophical underpinning. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself….

In musical notation, different kinds of notes denote the length of their duration with respect to each other. A conductor can have the orchestra play a piece of music at a faster or slower tempo, therefore, but if the musicians are reading their music carefully, the relative length of each note will remain constant: no matter how fast or slow the piece is being played, therefore, a half note will always be twice as long as a quarter note and a quarter note will be twice as long as an eighth note. But musical notation also allows a composer to step out of the system by marking a given note with a sign called a fermata, something like a half-circle with its ends pointing down and a dot in the middle. With this sign, the musician is given the right to hold a note for as long as he or she wishes…regardless of how long the note “should” be held. Are you still with me? It’s a way of handing the right of personal, creative expressivity to a performer, a way of permitting a pianist or a cellist or any musician, even a singer, to hold a note for as long as seems right at the moment. And rests too can have fermatas over them…which denote that the performer or the conductor can prolong a pause in the music for as long as seems right at the moment.

The fermata, therefore, is part of the system. It permits a performer or a conductor to respond to his or her own sense of artistry, to the feel in the room, to the specific kind of magic the music has summoned up in his or her breast at some specific moment: at a specific performance or in some specific place, or even in the course of a specific time of that person’s life. It is freedom…but wholly within the system. It is artistry absent anarchy, thus expressivity well within the confines of the very system it briefly ignores.

The caesura is different. It is wholly outside the system. It isn’t about the length of a note or a rest licitly being extended here or there, but about the system itself halting in its tracks. Counting isn’t prolonged—it ceases entirely. We are not talking about elongation, even of silence, but of a break between two parts of the piece…and one the conductor or the performer can hold onto for as long as seems necessary to make that specific point: that what is about to come is wholly different from what came before.  Caesura comes from the Latin word meaning “break” or “gap” and that is exactly what it denotes:  a break that separates totally what came before from what follows. It is, and by far, the rarer of the two signs because it denotes the rarer of two foundational emotions: the desire totally to start anew as opposed to the desire slightly to reform.

I believe there are fermata moments in history too, as well as caesura moments. In my mind, a fermata moment would be when the normal rules are stretched for a moment to accommodate some new development in history or even within society itself. In the wake of a big storm, a city suspends the alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules that generally pertain. The system is left intact, just briefly put on hold. Then the snow melts, at least eventually, and the rules go back into effect. This is a fermata moment: malleability without revolution, flexibility that—in the minds of most—enhances the system by making it more responsive to the needs of the people it was presumably invented in the first place to serve but without suggesting a break with the past. Just the opposite, actually: the fermata is licit creativity well within the confines of the system that tolerates it occasionally.

But there are also caesura moments in history, moments when the counting stops entirely, moments where that break is not about the inherent elasticity of the system but about the repudiation of the system itself.

I believe that the most meaningful response to the events of last week would be for Americans, speaking for once with one voice and without respect to partisan politics, to declare Newtown to be, not a fermata in the ongoing history of the American people, but a caesura moment, one that will permanently separate what came before from what will not have to follow.  The assaults on innocents that preceded last Friday’s massacre are known by the names of the places in which they occurred—Aurora, Columbine, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, Tucson, etc.—because, like hurricanes, they have simply become too numerous to keep straight in our minds without giving them names. Gun violence has reached such epidemic proportions, in fact, that even the statistics sound made up, too fantastic actually to believe. Is it really possible that 2,800 children die from gun-inflicted injuries every year in our country? Is it possible that more preschoolers die from gun violence each year than police officers in the line of duty? Is it possible that someone dies from a gunshot wound every twenty minutes in our country, day in and day out, week after month after year? I believe all of the above statistics to be correct. But even I can’t quite believe them to be true.

There are clearly a lot of issues involved here. In my opinion, however, this is not “about” the Second Amendment per se, or not chiefly about it.  That amendment, widely interpreted as granting citizens the right to own guns unless the government has some overriding reason to prohibit them from doing so, is seen by many as the ultimate guarantor of the freedom of our citizenry. Thomas Jefferson himself once said that “the strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” The large majority, if not all, of our founding fathers clearly agreed with that sentiment. Nor can or should Jewish Americans divorce their response to Jefferson’s quote from their feelings about the Shoah, about the helplessness that ensued in uncountable quarters throughout Europe as a fiendish government went to war with the unarmed Jews of its vassal states. But I do not believe that the right of citizens to bear arms is the real issue here. Criminals will always ignore the law. Irrational people by definition behave irrationally, and that irrational behavior can include acts of extreme violence. The overwhelmingly large majority of Americans who own guns do not murder other people with them.

Nor do I believe that this is about our national failure to care thoughtfully and kindly with the mentally ill among us. The Newtown shooter seems clearly to have been a troubled young man. If he had been convicted of a serious crime, he might have been sent to prison. But for someone who is just a bit off—withdrawn, surly, disconnected, weird, even creepy—we have no obvious solutions: surely people in a democracy cannot be locked up because they might commit a crime some day! But when guns, including semi-automatic weapons, can easily be acquired by “regular” people who have no obvious need for them, they become simultaneously available to anyone with access to that person’s home, including (as in Newtown) that person’s children and friends, not to mention that person’s cleaning lady or plumber or carpet cleaner.  And somewhere in the warp and woof of those two issues as they intersect—the impossibility of keeping guns out of the hands of people who merely have access to the homes in which they are licitly kept and our national disinclination to treat the unusual among us as advance criminals whose activities the government should reasonably restrict—in the space between those issues lies the real problem, the one we appear to have no idea how to solve.

We live in a society that considers violence normal. In a study undertaken by Professor Norman Herr of the California State University at Northridge, the average American child will have “seen” eight thousand murders on television before finishing elementary school. (If you are reading this electronically, you can see the study here.)  After a while, that  level of violence becomes normal, acceptable, even expected in the context of what television depicts as normal, day-to-day life. And, of course, it never really seems to matter much either because the actors who are killed show up the next day on other shows as good as new! Slowly, children learn that guns are normal, that violence perpetrated with guns is normal, that death is coterminous with the end of a TV show, and that, ultimately, it is rational to regret that guns kill people…but only in the manner that people regret that terrible diseases also kill people, or that hurricanes or tsunamis do, but not to feel personally challenged to do anything about it.

Where do we go from here? The President and many members of Congress have been talking in these last days about the need to begin a serious nation-wide effort to find a solution to these horrific acts of random violence that are plaguing our land. That’s laudable, but the citizenry must now also speak out and give notice that we are going to hold our elected officials to their word, that we will settle for nothing less than an effective solution to this terrible disease that has infected our society. I believe that Newtown has the capacity to become a true caesura moment for American society, an event by its very nature so horrific that nothing can now be the same as it was.

As I mentioned from the bimah last week, there are large, first world, industrialized countries out there like Japan or Holland that have the tiniest fraction of gun-related fatalities that we do. Those countries are all democracies, all places in which the rights of the citizenry are considered sacrosanct, yet in which massacres like Newtown simply do not occur. That being the case, I intend to keep my representatives in the Congress and the President on notice that no aspect of domestic policy matters more to me at this moment than finding a solution to this epidemic of gun-related violence. Citizens seeking a meaningful way to respond to Newtown should do no less.

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