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Ring the Bells

For a long time I did not hear the beauty of church bells; or more accurately, I did not wish to hear it. They sounded only like Christianity, which in my early years was a vexing triumphalist sound--the pealing of history, from which my honor as a Jew required me to recoil. When the tintinnabulations of the Church of St. Francis Xavier on Avenue O reached my ears, they brought the message that I was a member of a minority. I was not acquainted with the liturgical schedule of the church, with the practical reason for the ringings--though I might have surmised, based on my own experience of the aesthetically nullifying effects of the repetitions of ritual, that Christians who heard the bells religiously, in their ancient role as a signaling device, also did not attend to their beauty. When the bells sounded, it was a time for prayer, not for music. Art demands detachment, but religion forbids it. (There is an old joke about two jazz musicians walking along a street when a huge bell falls out of a church steeple and crashes disastrously behind them. "What was that?" one asks, with alarm. "F sharp," the other replies.)

Still, no soul is only Jewish or only Christian, and eventually the beauty got to me. And then I had another problem. It happened in graduate school, when life is slow enough for spiritual incidents. I was loitering in the magnificent little cloister at Magdalen College. It was a late afternoon in an Oxford autumn, and the yellow spears of the waning sun were landing in the severe stone geometries of the place and striking the walls like friendly lightning. Suddenly I heard the harmonies of a choir rehearsing evensong--a piece by Byrd, I later learned--in an adjoining chapel. Fixed by the lights and the sounds, I was overcome, and elated by, an unfamiliar contentment, and I thought: this is Christian beauty and I want it. I was shocked by the thought. I remember thinking also that we, I mean the Jews, have nothing like this. This was another variety of minoritarian torment. Soon the joy passed, perhaps because the singing ceased, and my confusion passed with it. As I strolled home along Addison's Walk, I got it clear in my mind that Christianity may in some of its expressions be beautiful, but beauty is not Christian. Religious or cultural or national definitions of beauty are conceptual mistakes. So I returned, you might say, to my senses. And the next day I returned to Magdalen to consult the chapel schedule, so that I might hear the choir again.

I was reminded of the evolution of my relationship to the ravishments of other traditions when I read about the controversy at Harvard about the broadcast of the Muslim call to prayer in Harvard Yard. It was sounded from the steps of Widener Library--where a great Jewish scholar once spent many decades in the groundbreaking study of early Islamic philosophy--for several days during Islam Awareness Week. (Is anybody not aware of Islam?) The sound of the adhan in the quads startled many people, and provoked ferocious opposition. An editorial in the Crimson denounced it as an infringement upon the liberty of others, who were forced to listen to an affirmation of a faith in which they do not believe. What troubled the eloquent authors of the editorial was the text of the summons, which included the words "I bear witness that there is no lord except God" and "I bear witness that Mohammed is the Messenger of God." "This puts the adhan in a different class of expression than, say, the sounding of church bells or the displaying of a menorah," they maintained, "because it publicly advances a theological position." Indeed it does, though it is important to add that almost all of the alleged victims of this aural coercion could not understand a word of it. For all they knew, they were listening to a recipe for kanafi. And the menorah is, in its fiery silence, a religious symbol of a religious holiday, even if most American Jews prefer to think of the occasion historically or commercially. Is the sight of it, therefore, an optical coercion? As for church bells, see above. Moreover, the secular integrity of the setting was long ago surrendered. In the middle of it stands an imposing Christianish chapel, which, despite its hospitality to people of all faiths, could never be mistaken for a synagogue or a mosque. Years ago I was among a company of Jews--I think it included the dean of the faculty, though I may be mistaken--who festively carried a Torah through Harvard Yard, and this was no more "halacha at Harvard" than the adhan is "sharia at Harvard." Even before there was multiculturalism, there was respect for human variety and pleasure in it. An open civil space will always be cacophonous. There will be affirmation and alienation, sometimes even within a single individual; and there will be indifference, which is in its way one of the accomplishments of pluralism. When I was at college, the arrival of spring was reliably announced by the defiant blasting of "Sympathy for the Devil" from dorm-room loudspeakers turned toward the campus. I did not share the theological position that it advanced, but I was exhilarated. In a Dionysian frenzy I played frisbee until dark.

There are also other controversies of diversity at Harvard: one of the university gyms has been restricted for six hours a week for the use of Muslim women whose religious observance does not permit them to work out in the company of men. As a matter of principle, this troubles me--I believe in integration, and in the challenges that the experience of integration presents to the insularity of traditional identities (Woodrow Wilson once remarked that the purpose of a college education is to make a man as much unlike his father as possible), and the customization of places according to identity can be carried to absurd and unfair lengths; but these Muslim women would not be at Harvard if they, too, did not in some way believe in integration, and it seems humane to allow their abs some respite from the pressure. But the adhan, like the church bells, sounds magnificently American to me. Indeed, the ringing of the bells began, long before democracy, in a proto-democratic moment, in 313, when the Edict of Milan established the "Peace of the Church" and the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire came to an end, and Christians could be summoned publicly to prayer. And who was Constantine compared to Lincoln? As I write, the bells of Lincoln's church across the street from my office are chiming, and sweetening yet another hour of this Jew's day.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. 

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