Music and Mysticism with Jason Caplan of the Universal Language Room - Conversation with the Rabbi

Episode 16

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Published on:

23rd Sep 2021

Music and Mysticism with Jason Caplan of the Universal Language Room

Rabbi Michael Beyo and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk with Jason Caplan about his spiritual journey through Torah and music, his creation of the Universal Language Room, and the writings of Rabbi Abulafia.

Jason Caplan is an entrepreneur, musician, and founder of The Bridge Institute and Beit Abulafia. He has devoted his life to interpersonal communication and bridge building through improvisational music. In 2004 Jason began to create and implement The Universal Language Room, a musical experience that guides participants to exchange ideas and communicate through melody and rhythm. No music background is required. Facilitators show individuals how to create simple melodic statements and share them in a dynamic and fun experience.

Participants in the Universal Language Room enjoy the music interaction within the group and engage with each other. Each session leads to a greater sense of well-being, belonging, and community. Jason's musical work and the Universal Language Room is inspired by his ongoing study and engagement with the mystical teachings of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia. Jason also leads his music group, Naqshon's Leap, a multi-faith music group in Memphis, TN. Follow Jason Caplan on Facebook and Twitter.

Conversation with the Rabbi is a project of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, neighborhood organization that has served individuals and families inclusive of all races, religions, and cultures since 1972. Visit us online at https://www.evjcc.org

The Conversation with the Rabbi podcast is supported by a grant from Arizona Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act.

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Phoenix, Arizona. Learn more at https://phx.fm

Transcript
Announcer:

From PHX.fm, this is Conversation with the Rabbi, featuring open, honest dialogue, and sometimes unconventional perspectives on the world we all share.

Adrian McIntyre:

Welcome to another Conversation with the Rabbi. I'm Adrian McIntyre. Our featured guest today is Jason Caplan. He's the founder of the Bridge Institute and Beit Abulafia. Jason is committed to teaching music as a universal language, and we're looking forward to this conversation, which is going to take us into some interesting realms about spirituality and practice and music and meditation. Our host is of course, Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley JCC. Welcome to the show again, Rabbi. It's always good to see you.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Good morning, Adrian. Thank you for being with me again today hosting the Conversation with the Rabbi episode. And thank you, Jason, for joining us from Tennessee. I am really excited to hear and learn from you about what you do and why you do what you do.

Adrian McIntyre:

Jason, Memphis is known for music. The roots of so much of what we enjoy today have connected in one way or another to Memphis. Tell us about what you're doing. What is the universal language room? How did that get you to what you're doing now with Beit Abulafia? Give us an entrée to your world.

Jason Caplan:

Great. Well, thank you for having me, Rabbi Beyo. Thank you, Adrian. This is really exciting to be here and talk to you both about this and be in conversation with you. In a nutshell, I started out in Richmond, Virginia, and went to school at Emory and studied their Judaism. And I grew up Conservative, basically secular Jewish. And I found my spiritual roots at Emory with the local Orthodox community. And I started taking jazz lessons at Emory, studying Torah, and so that's really the seed that was planted, and I've been developing that for the past 25 or 26 years. From there, I went to New York City, and I studied at Yeshiva University. New York City is the global city. I could go visit my Sikh friends in Queens. I went to the Baha'i centers in Lower East Side. So I kept getting these themes together: universal, language, music, spirituality. I met my wife in New York City, and we moved to Virginia where I grew up, our two daughters were born there. And so to bring you up to speed, I was looking for a different job and a city where I could play some more music. And Memphis came up, so we flew here, got to the airport there playing Albert King in the airport. And I look up with this squirrel found food look. And my wife said, no, no, you can't move our family here based on the music in an airport. I was like, sweetie, it's too late.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

That's funny.

Jason Caplan:

No, really. And it's a magic city. It captured me from the first step. I'm really not exaggerating. First step I put into Memphis, I was just captivated.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I've been to Memphis. It is a nice city. A little bit too humid for me, but overall it's nice. But you're used to Atlanta. And I also used to live in Atlanta. We probably went maybe to the same synagogue, or maybe we started with the same rabbis. And again, Jason, great to have you here. When I was doing some research on what you do, my mind kept bringing me to Hasidic niggunim.

Jason Caplan:

Yes.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

And I want to ask you is there a connection between what you do and Hasidic melodies?

Jason Caplan:

I think that's very good, Rabbi Beyo. The ones that I really love, the Breslov or Chabad niggunim, the idea of melody without words and everyone sharing it together is at the core of what I'm doing. And it's not that it all flowed from the Hasidic world, but certainly that's what's captivated me from the beginning. A group of people singing together, locking in together, conveying so much emotion and feeling, but you don't have to describe what you're going through to the person next to you. They don't need the details, but they can tell from the way you're singing with them. So it's a very shared experience, a very cathartic experience to do that. And so it translates into this project.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

There is a concept in Hasidic teachings that a lot of Hasidic melodies do not have words, because words constrain. They have strict definitions. So the Hasidic melodies don't have words because we're trying to connect to something that is non-definable, at least in our terms, not constraining. So is that what you do?

Jason Caplan:

That is the idea. So, if you took a Hasidic nigun and everyone was singing together and you pointed to somebody and said, go ahead and make your melody while we're doing the group singing, that's the way I could describe the Universal Language Room, is I give people the idea of how to make simple melodies while everyone's playing. They can say a melody and then someone can respond. So it's a little bit more individualized within the group setting. And that's how I get people to communicate all their feelings and thoughts without using the constraints, as you mentioned, of language, but they can communicate a lot more just with music.

Adrian McIntyre:

I'm struck as an anthropologist and linguist who, although I'm not in the academic world anymore, spent a lot of time trying to wrap my head around the way language and expression take various forms. And really the way in which human communities engage in a remix of form -- "adaptive reuse," to borrow a term from architecture, of different forms, both linguistic and non-linguistic. So much of the roots of our human expression, our artistic, creative output are in fact, non-linguistic in the sense of, they're not segmented with words. They are streams of sound, streams of color, streams of movement in the form of dance and so on. And, well, I don't have an established theory about this, this isn't something that I've written books about, others have. There's a performative dimension, to get a little nerdy here, of non-segmented self-expression, streams of sound, streams of color. What are your thoughts, Jason? Does that sound familiar?

Jason Caplan:

Adrian, you're hitting it on the head. The idea of the streams is what I've been fascinated by. And when you play music and you get in front of people, sometimes you hit that moment and the audience knows you hit it. And I was always wondering why can't I repetitively get to that moment? That's where I found Abulafia with the ideas and manuals and techniques of how do you get into that stream? Or how do you get your radio dial to get right into that groove to pull that stream in? And how can you do that consistently? So that I really would think if I could sum up my work by what you mentioned, it's the streams. How do you get into the stream, and how do you teach other people to get into the stream? Because once happens, there's that magic. I see all these smiles come on people's faces. They said, I thought I had to train for 20 years to get that.

Adrian McIntyre:

It's like what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called flow. There's a sense of that experiential connection to something. I'm sure that Rabbi Beyo's going to have many thoughts on this, but before we dive any deeper, please give us just a brief overview sketch. Who is Rabbi Abulafia? How did you find his work? How does that show up in what you're doing now?

Jason Caplan:

Great. So the Universal Language Room, I've been doing for about 15 years, then I moved to Memphis. And it did okay. I did it pretty well in New York. I did it pretty well in Virginia, got some backing. But in Memphis, it was just the right soil for this seed. And I got support from the Memphis Jewish community here. The Federation here has a grant with their Federation to go out to the older population and start teaching it there. And I made connections on the Memphis TV and so forth. So it really started picking up speed and people kept asking, well, what can you give us to keep working on after you leave? And I said, that's a very good challenge. Thank you for that. So I kept reading books and Hasidic books and Kabbalistic books. So I came across Abulafia again, who I was aware of, and he's got these four letters -- alef, bet, gimel, dalet -- four Hebrew letters, and he's got them written all over the page. And I thought, sure, I don't know what that means. Well, one day I went and picked up one of my jazz manuals that had four note numbers, all permeated 24 different ways. And I thought, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, it's a match. I put one on top of the other. I said, this is the decoder key of an 800-year old Kabbalistic manual. So Abulafia became my tzadik, my righteous guide. I took his Kabbalistic manuals and would teach it to people in a very simple way. And they would say, oh, and I saw that decoding experience keep happening. So I've delved into his world and it's been very fascinating.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

The world of Abulafia, was it a world of music or a world of mysticism?

Jason Caplan:

Right, great point. He mentions music a couple times, that you could take his system and apply it to notes of a guitar. He didn't get too far into it. I found very few quotes. So I feel like that's my own [Hebrew word] that's my own innovative idea, how to take his esoteric, mystical, otherworldly system and make it simple, accessible, and practical through four notes of music.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Which seems to be a little bit of a contradiction in terms. It's like how to take Kabbalah, which is a very esoteric, non simple system with lots of different layers upon layers and in a certain sense, simplifying it in something as simple as what you're describing.

Jason Caplan:

Yes, yes. So I think that'd be my question to you. Do you feel that that's what the Hasidic masters did? They took the complexity of Kabbalah and brought it into the nigun, and into the teachings for the simple people. I feel like I'm trying to repeat that.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Well, on that point, I completely agree with you. I think that the Hasidic masters, they tried to take the esoteric teachings of Jewish mysticism, specifically the Zohar, and Sefer Yetzirah, et cetera, and others. And they tried to demystify it in a sort of sense or making it "mysticism for dummies," [laughs]. I'm not saying it in a facetious way. I am saying it because to study the Zohar directly, it's very complex.

Jason Caplan:

Absolutely.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

To study some of these texts, they're not linear. They're not linear text necessarily. And Hasidut comes and tries to make it more accessible to those that are not mystical masters, so to speak.

Jason Caplan:

Yes.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

But then when you do the workshops that you do, is your inspiration more Jewish music and traditions? And then we can discuss what that is. And as well, I presume, regular music, secular music. So also you are probably in a way mixing the two.

Jason Caplan:

Yeah, absolutely. I think that's a great point, Rabbi Beyo. The idea for me is that I give people the tools without any preconceived notions. So the music that they feel and hear, it develops on its own. I don't refer to it as Jewish. Certainly the Universe Language Room is not a Jewish project. Even Beit Abulafia is a universal project, but he informs that universalism. But I love giving people four notes and saying, go with it. They're like, well, what should I play? I said, I don't know. I don't know what you should play. I'm just giving you the tools.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Could you give us an example?

Jason Caplan:

Yeah. I brought my guitar. Can I play the guitar?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Please.

Adrian McIntyre:

Absolutely.

Jason Caplan:

Yeah. So, as I tell people, there's a major scale. These are the white keys on your piano, so there's nothing intimidating by that. And you just take four of them. And those four notes have 24 permutations. You can go [plays a melody on the guitar]. I'm doing four, six right now. And so I get them to just practice those permutations and feel comfortable with them, like saying in Hebrew, "I want ice cream," just simple phrases. And then from the simple phrases, the permutations happen on their own. So four notes and maybe a note on one end or the other end, like a guest in a home, comes in. So it sounds kind of like this [plays a melody on the guitar]. How simple is that? But you heard music happening, right? So if I add two more permutations and I cover a major scale, it could end up being like this. Now that's just a major scale, but I've given it a set of four and I've told somebody to permutate it, and I get great results. I mean, I've been playing a while, but I get great results from people with that kind of, here's the tool, start seeing how it wants to arrange itself.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

And people come to your workshops because ... what are they searching?

Jason Caplan:

People want instant community. They're in their home on social media, and they're just sitting there in front of a box. I mean, if I was an alien, I would just feel so sorry or be laughing for the human race, because you have all this technology. And then people are at home in front of one box, missing out on all the connections out there. So people come and nobody wants to talk about politics or the state of whatever. They just want to connect with another human. And we have so many mine fields or traps or clicks in language where people say, what? I'm offended of this or that. You can't even talk. We're really walking on eggshells with each other. So if I say, look, we're not going to use language at all. Just communicate with music to the next person. Then, when you finish, turn to the next person, communicate to them, look them in the eye, and then give another melody to the next person. And smiles just start coming up, just start coming up. Everyone plays together and they get that sense that we're all in this together. We're all humans. And we transcend that other stuff, which we have to come back to, but at least you get a break from it for a while. That's what people are looking for.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Do you end up recording the completed versions?

Jason Caplan:

Yeah, we get the completed version and then we send everyone a copy so they can remember what it felt like and get that moment again and get inspired to come back.

Adrian McIntyre:

I forget the name of the phenomenon that happens when a large number of birds are flying together in these incredible swooping formations. But there is a phenomenon in the world in which things can be orchestrated, movements can be orchestrated, without being coordinated. And I probably at some point in my life read and forgot a book on chaos theory that addresses this. But the idea that people, and whether it's a drum circle -- I went to Berkeley, so I know drum circles -- or a jazz band improvising their way through something and creating something that they didn't plan. But in that moment, it emerged in such a way. You could map this into so many different directions. But there is something about the improvisational joy of creating something together with others. It's not many places in life where that shows up, really.

Jason Caplan:

I think that's right. I think that that's part of the mission is to make it show up regularly. If somebody could get up in the morning and do one of these universal language rooms then go to work, we have a much more collaborative than competitive society. And I'm not doing anything that new. I'm just teaching it in a way where people say, oh, I don't have to sit in the audience. I don't have to listen to the jazz group. I mean, I love listening to jazz groups, but I love more being on stage. And I love to bring people up and say, well, here's how it feels when the music first hits you. This is how it feels. I mean, in the audience is good too, but it's much better up here.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

You said that you use the four notes. And when I was thinking about that, I could not, not think about Yod-hey-vav-hey.

Jason Caplan:

Yes.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

That one of the names of God written in Hebrew is four letters. Is there any connection?

Jason Caplan:

That's a great connection, Rabbi Beyo. Abulafia talks about seeding the name, where you put vowels into the Yod-kay-vav-kay and he would show how you could say it different ways and look at it in different ways with different vowels. So all those permutations Abulafia talks about. I mean, I use the word ADON for Lord of the Universe, alef, dalet, vuv, nun. I like that one, just so I don't write a yod and a hey together on paper, which we really shouldn't do.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah.

Jason Caplan:

But you're hitting it right on the head there that the four is really a sacred number on so many levels, but in terms of getting the permutations out, if you do three, it's not enough. If you do five, it's 120. So four is 24, that's workable. And I think that's why the special name of God, the Yod-kay-vav-kay has that number.

Adrian McIntyre:

I'm reminded of a brilliant folklorist, Alan Dundes, who was at Berkeley when I was studying there, just an incredible, interesting person. He passed a number of years ago, but he wrote a wonderful, somewhat tongue in cheek analysis of what he called Western "civilization," and he smirked as he said it. And in which he described how Western civilization is "three-determined." And he talked about the role of the threes, the triads in everything. And of course, Semitic languages have a trilateral root. So how do we get from that three world to this four that you're talking about, which seems to have an adjacency to the centrality of three, but is intentionally not doing the three thing?

Jason Caplan:

That's a great point. I would ask for more discussion on that with you, because I'm not familiar with ... I know music. Western harmony is based on thirds. That's chordal, so I teach people how to put the chord in the left hand and the four in the right hand. And that probably has something to do with it, but the deeper implications with Western Civ, that's a great point. I'm not sure.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

If I had to give my two cents, I would say that three is, as Adrian said, it's a natural number. Meaning it's a number that is at the base of so many languages or at least Semitic languages. And maybe four is a representation of outside of nature, similarly to why do we do the brit milah on the eighth day? Because seven is a natural cycle, and the brit milah circumcision is supposed to connect us a covenant with God that is beyond the natural cycle of seven.

Jason Caplan:

Beautifully said.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

So maybe, mystically speaking, we found a connection between the three and the four.

Adrian McIntyre:

Yeah, it could be.

Jason Caplan:

This is good. Well, there's always three in the Kabbalistic tree, as you look down the tree, and there's four worlds that go to it. So that theme of three and fours plays out a lot, all through the mystical writings.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah, but I think Abulafia, even though Abulafia was a student of Maimonides, meaning they did not know each other, but Abulafia does praise Maimonides very much so in his writings. And Maimonides was not Kabbalist at all, but Abulafia has a lot of respect for Maimonides. And at the same time, Abulafia is probably one of the preeminent Kabbalist, especially when it comes to numerology, when it comes to gematria. Gematria is the Aramaic word for geometry, which is the connection between letters and numbers, which is so foundational in Jewish mysticism. I remember, just on this as a side note, when I was at Boston University, there was a donor that gave $18 million to the law school, to the Boston University law school. And he was a Jewish donor. And so, one of the higher ups at the university, we were having meetings. He says to me, "Rabbi, I need to ask you a question. Why 18? We tried to push him to 20, and we know that he has the extra two. And he was stuck on 18. There was nothing that we could offer him that would move him from 18." And I say, yeah, let me explain to you. 18 is a very important number in Judaism. So I think that it's important. People get connected in their regular life to numerology, to symbolism. And again, I think it goes back to symbolism and what words are not. Words are not symbols. They are meant to tell you exactly what they're supposed to tell you.

Adrian McIntyre:

Technically they are signs, not symbols.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Right.

Adrian McIntyre:

They are signs that designate a signifier, so there's a much tighter structural relationship.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Right, thank you. But it's also interesting how when we were talking about Abulafia and I'm connecting it to Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, the entire first half of the book, the first volume of The Guide for the Perplexed is Maimonides going through various words and trying to tell us how we should not read them in the way that they are, that in the way that we think we should read them. And that there are multiple other ways to understand words. So I feel that in a certain way, Jason, what you're doing, you're doing something similar. You're taking note to music that people usually understanding a certain way. And you're saying, no, look, from just four notes, you can have so much more.

Jason Caplan:

Very well said, very well said. Well, I want to make a point that you spoke so well about, Rabbi Beyo, about when I came through the baal teshuva, meaning Jewish return movement to Torah, I went deep into the Hasidic world. But that world, for good reasons and for reasons I don't understand, does not want to deal with Maimonides and rational religious philosophy, so they just push it to the side. But I couldn't push that out of my soul. I love studying Maimonides. I love rational religious philosophy. And I know it does get a little dry. It does get a little dry. So that's why I love Abulafia so much is he's the tzadik who says we can do both. You can study Sefer Yetzirah. You can study Maimonides. They're both saying the same thing. And he shows, as you were mentioning, how you can decode language. When we say, "this justice will stand," we don't mean justice is actually standing on something.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Right.

Jason Caplan:

And that's what Maimonides wanted to say about the Bible. Now that we've had the Bible for ... the Torah for 1200 years at his time, or 2200 years, I mean, he's saying now I'm able to tell you that God doesn't have a hand, or these words mean this. I will explain it to you. And he actually wrote it for one student. I don't know if he wanted it mass published. That’s a whole different story.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah, he did ... you know, I ... I've spent the last, at least 25 years of my life studying The Guide for the Perplexed every day.

Jason Caplan:

Wow. Okay, great. Yes.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

And I get to teach it, and I'm writing my own commentary on it.

Jason Caplan:

Wow.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

That's my life, my lifelong journey.

Adrian McIntyre:

Rabbi Beyo, let me ask you about this, because this has come up in a number of our conversations on this show. We were just recently even discussing with one of your guests, how you have rejected so many of the labels that are often assigned by others, and sometimes willingly embraced by people, because you didn't want to get caught up in the politics of a variety of different things. And you've said, you've settled on this idea that you identify as a Sephardi Jew.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yes.

Adrian McIntyre:

Now, we're talking ...

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I don't identify, I am.

Adrian McIntyre:

Correct.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

It's easy to identify when you are.

Adrian McIntyre:

Well, and it's how you talk about yourself as well, is what I mean by the identification piece.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah.

Adrian McIntyre:

We are now discussing Abraham Abulafia and Maimonides, two Sephardi Jews. Lived and died in Spain, yes?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

No. Maimonides was born in Spain, but because of persecution, had to flee Spain, went to Morocco, ended up living the rest of his life in Egypt. And then ultimately, he was buried Israel, but he lived most of his life in Egypt.

Adrian McIntyre:

Okay. How do you situate the work of these writers, thinkers, teachers in our contemporary world today? It's something you've just said, you engage in a daily practice of reflection and discovery and scholarship. Jason, you have found threads of this, and this is not a single thing, I'm aware, but something that bridges the rationalism and the mysticism, and you're bringing that into your work. I'd love you both to talk about what that accomplishes for you personally, why that matters to you, why these are the sources that you turn to today in the 21st century, in Memphis and in the Valley of the Sun here in Arizona? Why those sources? Jason, let's have you go first.

Jason Caplan:

Oh, okay. So I started with Beth Jacob, the Kollel, which is a Lithuanian Ashkenazi tradition, which I love. I started with Chabad, which is also European Hasidic group. But those groups, what I wanted to see was a more humanistic, broader, universal picture than I found in the Sephardic world. So after I left Emory, I went to Yeshiva University, I studied in the Sephardic program. I went to Hakham Ben Haim and I studied for four years with the Hakham, and I met a lot of Sephardi people. So, I mean, I live in the world of Ashkenaz, but intellectually, I've unearthed the world of Sephardi for myself.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

You remind me of the Kuzari that says, "I am in the west, my heart is in the east."

Jason Caplan:

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. That's exactly right. And O found that Maimonides ... oh, I will mention one teacher that really affected me a lot was José Faur. He wrote a book called Homo Mysticus, where he explains The Guide of the Perplexed in Arabic, which you missed a lot of Maimonides' mysticism, because we always read in Hebrew and English. In Arabic, it's very, very alive with mysticism, with the Arabic words. There we go. And there's the Horizontal Society.

Adrian McIntyre:

For our listeners, the rabbi just reached behind him on the desk and pulled off the two books that Jason was just talking about. Go ahead.

Jason Caplan:

Yeah. So Faur wrote to me some emails, I wrote back. I had a really nice connection. So I still love the world of Ashkenazi. I don't look at it as Sephardi good, Ashkenazi bad or anything like that. I mean, I take from all of them, but unearthing the Sephardi worldview, and I learned Arabic, there is a wonderful rich tradition of the kind of synthesis our world needs, particular our Jewish world needs of rationalism is good, universalism is good, particularism is good. You can meld those together, and that's what spoke to me. I'm very curious to hear Rabbi Beyo's thoughts.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Jason, you stole some of my words, but I'm glad that you did. I agree with you very much. So Faur was definitely one of the greatest Sephardi scholars in our generation, very Maimonidean. Homo Mysticus is a wonderful book for those interested in a Maimonidean approach to Judaism. Western world, Western civilizations, in my understanding, very linear. They start from A and they go to B. Then from B, go to C. There is very much a, "if I am right, you have to be wrong. And if you're wrong, I have to be right." Middle Eastern societies are much more circular, much grayer. If you are right, it does not mean necessarily that I'm wrong. We can both be wrong or we can both be right. Maimonides is so loved because, in his own way, he is very complex to read because he's gray in so many areas. The Sephardi tradition doesn't say that the truth can only be Judaism, or the truth can only come from certain places. In the Ashkenazi tradition, that's why you have a schism. You have Reform Jews that say we are absolutely right. You have Orthodox Jews that say, no, we are absolutely right, as we were discussing earlier, Adrian. In the Sephardi tradition, we don't have this schism because as Maimonides says, you have to accept the truth, wherever it comes. And truth does come in multiplicity of facets. The Sephardi world is much more able to integrate itself within its surrounding, because there is no dichotomy between secularism and religion. There is no dichotomy between science and religion or rationality and mysticism. They need to coexist because we ultimately belong to this world, to this universe. We, as a human beings, are complex beings, but we're ultimately a unit. And so then we cannot have internal conflicts. We have to look for the truth. And when we find it, wherever it is, we have to accept it. If I could, I have a magic wand, I would teach a Maimonidean approach to Judaism to everybody, because it's much less dogmatic. It's much less narrow minded. And it allows in a certain way, to a multiplicity of truth, that they're all the same. Meaning a religious person today, I often hear people that were raised religious and they are not anymore because they say I can't accept a religion that says that the world is 6,000 years old when science proves 14 billion years. And Maimonidean approach doesn't force you to choose between the two. You can urbanize them. A Sephardi approach is much less categorical than an Ashkenazi approach. That is my experience, having lived and been raised in an Ashkenazi world, as a Sephardi Jew in the Ashkenazi world. And then deciding to focus more on my Sephardi heritage.

Adrian McIntyre:

It's no accident that power structures find more justification in the harder, dogmatic, rationalist writings than in the looser, more resonant, mystical ones. It's no accident that public policy turns more to Emile Durkheim than Michel Foucault as a source of inspiration and a moralistic view of society and how it should be managed and controlled. It's no accident that those who saw more unity, and whose thought was perhaps at some level more supple, have not become as easily embraced by those who seek to organize, govern and control. So we end up with an interesting challenge. How do you, rabbi, having stated that you want to eschew the world of political infighting, how do you maintain this reflexive practice of scholarship and leadership in your own daily life, in systems that are so dominated by the more narrow, rigid categories, labels, terms, et cetera? Is such a freedom within those constraints, is that possible?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

It's difficult. And maybe that's the reason that I chose to work at a JCC, where subconsciously, maybe, that's where I wanted to work, because it's such an open organization. We are not Orthodox, we're not Reform, we're not Conservative. We're open to everybody, Jews and non-Jews alike. We're here to provide community. We're here to provide entertainment. We're here to provide education. And nobody is here to tell me, "what you do is wrong, what you do is right." No, we are here together trying to figure it out. And the one thing that we do know is that we want to be together as a community and to do good for society and for our community. So I think that in a certain sense, that is where I choose to be and where I choose to lead, because I would not fit in a traditional Orthodox synagogue. I would not fit in a Conservative or Reform organization. I needed to be able to be who I am. And probably who I am comes from my Sephardi heritage of taking the good wherever you find it, and taking the truth wherever you find it. So I reject the confinements of the "ortho" in the "doxa."

Adrian McIntyre:

Jason, the world's not organized for the creatives, the mystics, the artists, the self-expressed. Is there something in your work that is in some ways a challenge to the doxa in which we find ourselves? Or are you rather seeking to be left alone from it and cultivate that fourth space, maybe, outside or adjacent to the structures?

Jason Caplan:

Adrian I hone in on the fourth space, but I would stick it in the doxa. So I would have a synagogue that has a universal language room, so it's supposed to be a house of God. So you say house of God, but you have to wear a kippah, and you have to have this and that. Well, then it's a house of Judaism. So if we say it's a house of God, it should have one room where anybody can walk in of any gender, sexuality, whatever it is. And just say, oh, I'm in house of God, and people want to talk to me through music. And there's nothing to disagree about. That to me is the universal house of God.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Unless it's Shabbat.

Jason Caplan:

Unless it's Shabbat. Then you got to put away the guitars, which I love. I love not playing guitar on Shabbat. I love having a break from it. But that's what I mean is let's say there's a weeknight and everyone comes over. And I've been to a lot of interfaith dialogues, but I don't get into it because I know what they believe, I know what I believe. And it's like, okay, when you say, I'd like to be left alone in terms of theology and doctrine, why we're different, why we're the same, I feel like I've run that track so many times. But if you can just get people say, oh, I'm human and there's one God who all of us in his image, or in the image of the creator, that's what b'tselem elohim means. And that's the revolution of the Torah. Boom. And we just haven't felt the total revolution of that phrase. Now that's what I'm trying to, in my own way, help nudge further.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I was thinking that there is a question in Judaism, whether we are allowed to use music from other traditions in our religious practices. Can I take music created specifically for the Catholic Church, for example, and use it and maybe change it, or not change it, for my prayer? So, that's a question that exists in Judaism.

Jason Caplan:

Right.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

It makes a lot of sense that one of the greatest Sephardi rabbis of our generation, Hakham Ovadia, specifically says that yes, we're allowed to. We're allowed to take the melodies of other traditions and use them in our tradition as well.

Jason Caplan:

Absolutely.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

And I think that that is ... a little bit tangentially, it's a little bit similar to what you were discussing, being able to just use melodies. It doesn't matter where they come from. And just use them as a communal way to thank God, worship God or just embrace community.

Jason Caplan:

I don't think it's tangential. I think that's the core, rabbi. I think that's a beautiful mashal, a beautiful example of what I'm trying to do, is to say the world's open. You do have to filter things that may not be positive or might not fit with your values, but be open to it and have some type of thing that filters it. Be open to the world and, and hold true to your values. But if we could teach that synthesis and we could teach that act of going to the world and picking out what connects to your soul, you'd have an orthodoxy that's orthodox and universal. And I think that's what young people are looking for. I'm pretty sure.

Adrian McIntyre:

And you know what? I hear some real ... "redemptive" is not the right word, it's too heavily tied to a Christian moral tradition that I don't embrace, but maybe "revolutionary" actually is the word that I'm really looking for. There's a promise or at least a possibility, Jason, in hearing what you're talking about that I like personally, which is it doesn't actually require the synthesis. It does not require the masterful, totalizing, put-it-all-together in a single framework. It is the performative, it's the fleeting. It's the, "we came together Tuesday for something transcendent, and Wednesday is different." It's a remediation. It's drawing elements and putting them together in a new way and creating something else and then moving on. It is that stream that you talked about.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

The performative is such an essence in Judaism. Many people, including myself ... I think that Judaism should not be categorized as a religion, but a way of life. And it's so based upon the performance: how do we behave both within ourselves and with others?

Jason Caplan:

I want to mention one thing that you're both hitting on, that Rashi, the great commentator, at the end of the Torah says, what was Moses' greatest act? Was it going out of Egypt? It was smashing the tablets. And I think that's what Judaism and it's what Moses gave to us was that, yes, we have the tablets. But you have to, in a sense, break them every day and then put them back together every day. And once you let a week go by, a month go by, a year go by, then it becomes stilted, or I don't know what the word is. It becomes frozen and it is a very difficult thing to do. But Adrian, I think you just hit it in terms of that revolution or redemptive part of, how do you keep the structure of the loyalty to your faith and what Moshe gave to us? And yet break it like he did, but without breaking it? It's just a very complex thing. And so you do have your Ashkenazi Orthodox that say, no dropping the tablets, hold them in your hands, watch your step. You have Sephardi who say, look, we can look at this again. You have Conservative, Reform that say, we're going to redo the whole thing. We're all having that debate, but we don't know why. And we don't know the framework for it, so we can't talk about it. So, with music and this whole Abulafia thing, it's the performative ... I love that word. I'm going to take it a lot. That's that performative experience of feeling what it like to feel information go back and forth and to have that experience

Adrian McIntyre:

Well, and I'll give you some orientation to this as well, because in the discipline of anthropology, which has, in some ways, tried to profoundly grapple with this anthropos, this human thing, and find some logos -- or logoi, in the plural -- that is appropriate to this anthropos. There was much interesting work done on structure. And where you find the truth of the human thing is what's underneath the appearances in its structure in a very linguistic and dualistic approach, binary oppositions, the raw and the cooked, et cetera, et cetera. Right? And there's some profound possibilities in the structural tradition, which have been lost because people now dismiss it as completely inadequate. In the same way as I think there's some profound things in Freud's writing that have been dismissed by the empiricists who say, yes, but he was just a guy fantasizing about his mother and interpreting dreams and so on. Most of the people who say these sorts of things haven't read either Lévi-Strauss or Freud. But there's also something in this business of the performative, which is where you're looking for. The observable phenomena is not underneath things in some hidden world that you can only access with your very rationalist application of theories and methods. It's in the everyday-ness of it, in the practices, in the ephemera. And there's something that, Jason, I think you're working in, whether this is conscious or not, that has wholly embraced that realm as a realm, not only of scholarship, certainly you a scholar's attentiveness to your work, but also in the realm of experiential practice. And you're including people in this journey together. And to me, that's just fascinating and wonderful.

Jason Caplan:

Well, thank you. Thank you. It's been such a joy to have an idea and then see people resonate with it and say, I can express my individuality. I can be part of a community. I can think rationally. I can touch the mystical zone. It's a tool that is like that Swiss army knife that can do a lot of things I've always wanted to see from religion that wasn't there. So I took this journey to go find it myself, and then bring it back and say, it's not really mine. I came with a couple ideas. I'm going to do a couple translations for Abulafia, but see where you can run with it. Go take this and make it your own thing, and that's where I get a lot of joy.

Adrian McIntyre:

Let's wrap up here with you sharing with us, what are you currently working on? How is this evolving? Where can folks go to learn more or connect with what you're doing? Give us a sense of where you're at and where you're headed.

Jason Caplan:

Great. Well, I want to say a huge thank you, Adrian and Rabbi Beyo. This has been such a discussion. And Rabbi Beyo, your email's going to be lighting up with Hakham Faur discussions, so be prepared.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Thank you. Wonderful. I look forward to it.

Jason Caplan:

Both of you. I mean that, both of you, and I want to continue the conversation. I've gained a lot. And right now, the website is URL1.com. So Universal Language Room 1 dot com. And we are with the older population right now, going into nursing homes and geriatric centers to ease the isolation from the pandemic. I have a new class at our Memphis JCC, Beit Abulafia, which will be on zoom. So the JCC here has been embracing it and seeing a lot of the good that I've done. And now seeing this Jewish angle, but still universal. And then I teach people one to one and I give them the skills. And it is really amazing when they get this aha moment. They'll play with the four notes and we're on zoom. And I'll say, well, try again. And I'll say, look, don't pick anything, just let your fingers run across the piano. Then come back to the four. And they're like, oh, my gosh, I feel something happening. I was like, well, don't explain it to me. Keep it private. I feel like I'm a marriage counselor between somebody in their own soul. And I see them coming together and it's quite beautiful. So ultimately, the big, big vision is that people could get up in any city across the world and visit a universal language room, converse with somebody through music and embrace collaboration, because we're getting so hyper competitive in this world. It's getting a little scary, and we need to infuse that collaboration.

Adrian McIntyre:

Jason Caplan is an entrepreneur and musician. He teaches music as a universal language through two organizations, the Bridge Institute, which is a 501(c)3 organization, and Beit Abulafia. He keeps the lights on by working as a financial advisor for nonprofit hospitals and universities. Jason, I am struck by the breadth of your knowledge and your commitment, and I just want to thank you for taking some time to share that with us on this show.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Thank you very much.

Jason Caplan:

Thank you. It was a pleasure and a berakhah. I really appreciate both your time.

Adrian McIntyre:

If you enjoyed today's show, please subscribe to Conversation with the Rabbi in your favorite podcast app. You can also find the latest episodes online at ConversationWithTheRabbi.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I'm Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Conversation with the Rabbi.

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About the Podcast

Conversation with the Rabbi
Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, talks with an eclectic mix of faith-based and secular leaders from around the world.
In an era of political division and polarized debate, we are losing our ability to hear each other. The volume of our disagreements is at an all-time high, while our ability to communicate with kindness and empathy is at an all-time low. This podcast seeks to change that by engaging people from different backgrounds and beliefs in good old-fashioned conversation.

Listen in as Rabbi Michael Beyo and anthropologist Dr. Adrian McIntyre spend time listening, sharing, and discovering common ground in an effort to understand and appreciate the wondrous diversity of our human family. From interfaith dialogues to discussions with business and nonprofit leaders, this podcast shines a spotlight on the different ways we can learn to live, work, and worship together in a contentious and conflicted world.

We invite you to use these conversations as a lens to open up new understandings of self and the other, to develop empathy for diverse viewpoints, and to explore what is possible when we listen to others with respect.

Conversation with the Rabbi is a project of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, neighborhood organization that has served individuals and families inclusive of all races, religions, and cultures since 1972. Visit us online at https://www.evjcc.org

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Phoenix, Arizona. Learn more at https://phx.fm

About your hosts

Rabbi Michael Beyo

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Rabbi Michael Beyo is CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center in Chandler, Arizona. He was born in Milan, Italy and has lived in Italy, England, France, Israel, and the United States. An Orthodox Jewish scholar with a successful career providing religious guidance to all the Jewish denominations, he was ordained as a rabbi in Israel, where he earned three Rabbinical Ordinations of the highest honor. In 2015 Rabbi Beyo moved to Arizona from Atlanta, where he had served as the Chief Development Officer for Hillel of Georgia, overseeing 12 colleges and universities. Prior to that he served as the Executive Director and Rabbi of Boston University Hillel, as well as the Jewish Chaplain for Boston University. Rabbi Beyo brings over 25 years of professional, entrepreneurial and non-profit experience in education, cultural, humanitarian, social and religious sectors. He successfully ran several start-ups in Israel before dedicating his career to the nonprofit world.

Adrian McIntyre, PhD

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Dr. Adrian McIntyre is a social scientist, storytelling strategist, and internationally recognized authority on effective communication. His on-air experience began in 1978 at the age of five as a co-host of "The Happy Day Express," the longest-running children's radio program in California history. Adrian earned his PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a Fulbright scholar and National Science Foundation research fellow. He spent nearly a decade in the Middle East and Africa as a researcher, journalist, and media spokesperson for two of the largest humanitarian relief agencies in the world. Today he advises and trains entrepreneurs, executives, and corporate teams on high-performance communication, the power of storytelling, and how to leverage digital media to build a personal leadership brand.