In Search of Similarities: A Brief Meditation on Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis (1925-2014)

In Search of Similarities
A Brief Meditation on Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis (1925-2014)

Igor Stravinsky wrote in Poetics of Music, “Contrast is everywhere. One has only to take note of it. Similarity is hidden; it must be sought out, and it is found only after the most exhaustive efforts.”*

Stravinsky unlocks a powerful mystery here. What is the glue that holds together works of great conflict and contrast? This insight applies to understanding the structure of all the fine arts. But it also may apply to a healthier approach to daily living. The search for similarity may be a kind of “missing link” that lets the creative mind appreciate and tolerate others who seem so different to us in a world increasingly divided by violence and fundamental attitudes.  

But that seems quite a jump. Let’s go back to Stravinsky’s idea and how seeking similarity applies to a piece of music. In a Classic or Romantic sonata, the secondary area contrasts with the primary area. It is in a different key. Its themes may be lyrical, whereas the primary area’s themes might be dramatic. If the primary area is mostly loud, the secondary area may be mostly soft. If the primary area ascends, the secondary area may descend.  If the primary area is jagged and rhythmic, the secondary area might be smooth and measured. While they are important to notice, these differences, says Stravinsky, are obvious.

The valuable search for us listeners is to hear past the obvious contrasts to discover the hidden similarities. So in a Brahms sonata, perhaps we discover the melody of the first theme has now been accelerated and softened to become the accompaniment of the second theme. We may discover the second theme of a Beethoven sonata with its descending arpeggio and turn is actually the inverse of the first theme with its ascending arpeggio and turn, that in fact despite their contrast, they are the same tune played from different perspectives. We may look even deeper and discover that the top line of Beethoven’s dramatic final chords spell out in stretched-out rhythm the very notes of the rapid turn motif that has characterized the entire piece. When we discover these hidden similarities, we come to realize that a music so full of contrast on its surface is actually deeply unified, deeply connected, deeply bound together.

The search for similarity leads to a better understanding of the relationships between all the parts of a whole. This is the pursuit for unity lurking beneath contrast. Stravinsky’s observation was much on my mind this week during the moving funeral and gatherings that mark the passing of celebrated scholar, social-activist, and poet, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. I think it is a fair summary to say this man’s life was dedicated to helping people see beyond their differences and divisions to appreciate their deeper unity and connectedness with each other.

He founded Jewish World Watch, an organization that provides aid to victims of genocides around the world. In creating it, he said he imagined his grandchildren asking him, “Where were you during the Rwandan genocide?” just as today we ask of the many who remained silent during the Holocaust. Many years earlier, he had founded the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous to provide assistance to those who, despite personal danger, reached out to help victims during the Holocaust (a cause brought to world attention with Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List). Just this past week before his heart finally gave out, this 89 year-old scholar-activist was hard at work on a response to speak out on the racial injustice we see unfolding in today’s headlines about the many killings of unarmed black citizens by police throughout our country.

When I first met Rabbi Schulweis, I discussed the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra bringing together students from all over our city, with their wide divergence of cultures, ethnicities, and religions, to form meaningful friendships through a love for classical music.  He brimmed with enthusiasm and responded with a story about a prime motivating force in his own life. As a child whenever he prayed with his grandfather, and they came to recite the Shema, the important Jewish prayer that reads “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one,” his grandfather would draw out the final Hebrew word echad (one) for a very long time, as if he never wanted it to end. Rabbi Schulweis read deeply into that, reading in it a life mission to help people appreciate their inter-connectedness, their essential unity. That realization and relationship to connect with others creates what is holy, that is what is meant by invoking “God.”

Schulweis “walked the walk.” He had a particular concern for the Jewish community to overcome the divisions between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements. But his organizations reach beyond the Jewish community to embrace all community. He reached out to Armenian leaders to help bring recognition of the Armenian genocide. He reached out to Christian and Muslim leaders. A priest from the Catholic Archdiocese spoke at one service this week with the same tone of reverence and intimacy for Schulweis that the many rabbis who studied with him also shared. The stories had a consistency—strength of character, dignity to everyone around him, a fierce unhesitating desire to speak up and act against injustice, and a natural humility that never let him take himself too seriously.

Above all, though, was his insistent plea for unity, to work together to find our similarities and place less weight on our differences. It’s hard to imagine our world not being a better place, less tense, if this was our first response to crisis and not our last.  

*Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, p.32, Harvard University Press, 1942.