The music we listen to and the songs we sing tell us a great deal about ourselves
Feeling That Song
The fellow wandered into an Aish HaTorah Essentials class years ago. “Rabbi” he called out to the famed Rav Motty Berger, “I’ll stay if you can show me my soul.”
“You listen to music?” rejoined Rabbi Berger. “There’s your soul!”
“What I didn’t know at the time,” recounted Rabbi Berger later, “was that this guy was obsessed with music and had spent hours every day lying on the lawn with two massive speakers adjacent to his ears. He stayed.”
The world is becoming increasingly cynical and doubting, but one way to demonstrate the realness of spirituality is through the power of music.
Where do you feel music? There’s no satisfactory scientific answer, but there is a metaphysical one.
Research shows that a baby’s perception of music precedes his ability to discern or understand words. Awareness of music is the basis for acquiring language, which is predicated on distinguishing tones, modulation, and pitch. Music has an effect on all humans, particularly on babies.
“There’s nothing as delicate as music and that explains why the young soul [of a baby] is so affected by it, because he’s still connected to the place he previously was before he was born.” (Ramban, Sha’ar Hagemul)
Among the malachim, exquisite songs are sung (Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, Manos Halevi) and babies, recently arrived from celestial spheres, are more sensitive to the spell of music. That’s one reason babies are easily lulled to sleep with lullabies.
Before we were born, we heard the most beautiful, satisfying melodies; the void left in its absence yearns to be filled. This explains why if we feel restless or empty, listening to music soothes. We can transcend limitations and difficulties and connect to a higher reality.
What’s the Score?
If you look around, people are so easily sucked in by the easy high that music can deliver. But is it real? Where does it take us?
Let’s take a kumzitz where all the participants are on a high with inspiration. Emotional connection is crucial to our Yiddishkeit, and without it we’re lost. But it’s the concrete change that follows those experiences that shows our mettle. Emotions are unreliable and dissipate; we confuse feeling good with being good.
I was once at the Krakow cemetery where many great Acharonim are buried. There were numerous tours there and one particular well-meaning, enthused group of girls sat near a matzeivah singing.
This isn’t the forum for a halachic treatise on the subject of kol ishah. The girls, pure and naive, may have been clueless. But the people leading the tour certainly understood that the graveyard kumzitz was making the yeshivah groups there uncomfortable. They were aware that the great posek buried at that spot gave no license for women singing when men were around. All this without the question of what pesukim and prayers are appropriate in a bais hachayim. Certainly not a rousing rendition of many of the musical selections chosen there that day.
I have no doubt that the group experienced something very intense, but whether it was authentic spirituality makes an interesting debate. It’s vital to measure our closeness to G-d not only by how we feel, but by how committed we are to doing it His way.
We’re used to the fact that over millennia of exile, we’ve been influenced by every civilization we’ve encountered — and our songs reflect that.
What’s less realized is how much they were affected by us.
The early history sefer, Emek Habachah, relates that in 1171, during the Crusades, a mass murder of Jews took place in Blois, France, when they refused to convert. An eyewitness reported that as they burned, the kedoshim sang our traditional Yamim Noraim Aleinu melody. The murderous knights and their peasant collaborators were mesmerized by the tune and adapted it into their liturgy, where one can hear it until today.
This is one of many examples of Jewish ideas being absorbed outwardly into the wider culture.
The original Jewish music was brought down by Moshe who was taught all the secrets of music on Har Sinai (Gra, brought in Pe’as Hashulchan) and this powerful music was passed down through generations of Leviim in the Beis Hamikdash.
Where did that music go? Songs are not forgotten overnight and many of the strains from the Beis Hamikdash were certainly absorbed into Jewish prayer. We still have many niggunim of long ago, mostly as part of the Yamim Noraim davening. It’s something to think about before going New Age with the nusach (see Rema OC 619).
Rabi Meir teaches: Where does one find [a source for] resurrection of the dead from the Torah? “And then Moshe and all of the Jewish People will sing this song.” It doesn’t say “They sang” but “will sing” and so we have a Torah source for the resurrection of the dead. (Sanhedrin 91b)
On a simple level, resuscitation through song is experienced all the time. People are down and out, and music can facilitate astonishing healing and renewal. Techiyas hameisim, in a sense.
Reb Elimelech (Mike) Tress described a siyum at the yahrtzeit of the Sfas Emes in the DP camps. When the Gerrer bochurim, despondent and heartbroken, sang the Skulener Rebbe’s classic, Zechor davar l’avdecha, all life seemed to return to them. He describes how it was as if they were back in the Rebbe’s beis medrash in Poland.
Song has consistently accompanied Jews, through good times and bad. The cantonists of the late 19th century were Jewish boys as young as seven who were conscripted into the Russian army for a minimum of 25 years. The Divrei Chaim of Sanz would tell of one group of draftees discussing their plight.
“You know,” one said, “in our homes, when tragedy struck, everyone would say Tehillim. There’s no greater trouble than this!”
“But we don’t know Tehillim,’” said another boy. “And we don’t have a siddur!’”
“So we’ll sing the tune of our parent’s Tehillim,” said a third. They sat, and with all their heart, sang the Tehillim melody of their homes.
These boys were miraculously released, and the Divrei Chaim said he has no doubt that their pure melody rising to Heaven is what brought about their salvation. (Shaar Yissaschar, Maamar Teka B’Shofar, Os 9).
Changing My Refrain
I wanted to change over exclusively to Jewish music, so I figured I’d force myself to go cold turkey on non-Jewish music. It didn’t work. Then I heard a speaker (thanks, Rabbi K!) who explained that it’s hard for someone used to non-Jewish music to advance because it’s like getting yourself off sweet grape juice and on to fine wine. The fine wine is a deeper pleasure, but it’s an acquired taste and takes time and effort to develop. He recommended finding a Jewish song I connected to, and concentrating on the words, the meaning, the experience. As I did that, and expanded my repertoire, my non-Jewish music couldn’t compete. It slowly faded out of my life and one day I found myself weaned.
The hunger for fulfillment through music can be satiated in many ways, some spiritually healthy and nourishing, some not. When you’re used to eating potato chips instead of dinner, your body gets fooled with that easy carb injection and it’s hard to stop. You feel full, but uneasy, because chips are not the real deal.
The craving for music sometimes drives us to get hooked on cheap replacements. Slowly replacing the easy fix with something meaningful allows us to grow, and through a less painful withdrawal process.
Everyone Together Now
I’ve heard one should only listen to music from a good Jewish source. As you listen, the heart and soul of the singer is connected to yours and you want to ensure that what you’re getting is solid.
“…An individual listens to the song of fools, as the sound of thorns beneath a pot, so is the merriment of the fools” (Koheles 7:6).
“Even if he’s an individual, an ish, which denotes someone G-d-fearing, and would not become light-minded just by listening to a song, and there is benefit, because the song lifts his spirit and gladdens his heart, if fools are the ones singing, there’s no way it won’t cause him to become more foolish… [The sign that the song is foolish is if] the song isn’t composed in a straight way as should be with [the proper use of] instruments.” (Metsudas Davis ibid.)
This concept is far from one-dimensional. Many holy niggunim are borrowed from folk songs and beautiful melodies taken from non-Jewish sources. Sol O Kokosh Mar of Kaliv and Chabad’s use of Napoleon’s March are two of many examples. The holy sparks of these melodies have inspired Jews for hundreds of years
In addition, there’s the idea that music doesn’t absorb tumah (Yabia Omer OC 7 and others). Rav Nissim Karelitz was asked about singing songs of a singer who had made unfortunate moral choices in his life. Rav Nissim said that if there’s nothing unrefined about the songs, it’s fine to sing them, even as part of davening. It matters less where the song comes from and more if it’s intrinsically uplifting.
Just Beat It
When I get ready for Shabbos, I need music. If it’s slow, I get nothing done. But if it has a good beat, it’s amazing what I find myself accomplishing.
Why the misconception that uplifting music has to be slow and boring? If there was no tempo in music, we wouldn’t be able to dance and where would we be, come Simchas Torah? Marching around the bimah to Tishah B’Av cantata songs? The drum, responsible for rhythm, is one of the musical instruments listed in the Torah (see Tehillim 150). The drum, like other instruments, was able to help bring a person to prophecy, which is why Miriam had one at the Yam Suf (Shemos15:20 Alshich).
However, it’s noteworthy to look at Rashi there: “The righteous women of this generation were sure G-d would be doing miracles for them and so brought drums out of Egypt.”
Drums are the sound of Africa, from the descendants of Cham, whose name means heat. In essence, anything attached to Cham and Mitzrayim, his grandson, is a tool of lower-level animalistic impulses. Drums are a mixed-message instrument. When the pace is good and the music dynamic, dancing can connect people in a beautiful way, like at a wedding for example. Conversely, it can transform an event into one that would do Egypt proud. The trick is to “take it out of Mitzrayim,” as was done by the women at the Yam Suf.
If you’re not sure, see how the music makes people move. The bottom line on beat: Does it enhance our higher side or strengthen a lower, base one?
Harmony or Dissonance
I have a really good voice. I’ve done voice training and sing at any opportunity. It’s frustrating to know I can’t sing in front of men or do anything sweepingly public with my talent. I have such mixed feelings about this gift Hashem gave me.
This is a very tough nisayon. You’re really talented and struggle over how to express that talent.
Used correctly, “music is what raises Man to passion for G-d” (Rav Hirsch, Tehillim 4:1) and yet the Gemara (Chagigah 15b) asks how the Sage Rabi Elisha Ben Avuyah lost his faith, and answers that “Greek music didn’t cease to come out of his mouth.” This battle is ancient.
Intense spiritual power will always be accompanied by strong conflict. The music industry is replete with challenges, for men as well as women. Many frum singers and producers talk openly of the difficulty of retaining standards, of refusing opportunities, of sanctifying their talent by withholding it rather than being indiscriminate in where and how they perform or record. Great personal achievements are very often through desisting rather than participating.
Yuval is noted in Sefer Bereishis as a founding contributor to humanity. He established the discipline of music, a “great wisdom” (Ibn Ezra), a “glorious wisdom” (Haksav V’Hakabbalah). He’s called Yuval, which means “drawn,” because music is magnetic. Did he discover that music can pull moods in different directions (Netziv) or that it lures humanity toward immorality (Malbim)? It is both, and in the enigma that is Yuval lies the paradox and challenge that is music.
You’ve been hit hard by this, working to reconcile your performing talent with halachic reality. In the secular world, there’s huge regard for entertainment and massive emphasis on self-actualization. We catch that undercurrent and it sets us up for a grueling Jewish values versus secular influence wrestling match, which I see getting progressively harder.
Of course, there are many opportunities that may not be as glorious as those in more questionable forums, but are avenues nonetheless. Outside culture celebrates using talents to their absolute fullest. But judicious use of every gift we’re given is the hallmark of a thinking, striving Jew.
I run a camp and use a lot of Israeli songs. I had some kids last summer visiting from Israel and their eyes went wide when they heard the music that was playing. I guess they understood the words and I didn’t.
Of course, if lyrics are indiscreet, being recorded by Jews, or being sung in Hebrew, doesn’t convert them, and they remain halachically out of bounds. If they’re sung in Hebrew, it might feel better, but it’s a lot worse. The letters of the alef-beis are used for prayer and learning Torah. The holier something is, the more serious their misuse.
I can’t stand my kids’ music. Would someone explain why this is called Jewish music?
“None of these new sounds” comes the cry from the elders. But every time and every country has its Jewish sound. Traditional Moroccan songs sound anything but heimish to Ashkenazic ears, and music as innocent as Miami Boys would seem Western to Yemenites.
Clearly, what’s considered good Jewish music is not absolute.
Many of us remember when today’s classic oldies were considered modern. Yes, to a large extent that’s due to a downward spiral. But the reality is that every era and land we’ve encountered has left its musical mark, with the choice in our hands to use it wisely.
Once lyrics are okay, most music that we listen to falls into the ultimate gray area of “kedoshim tihiyu,” striving to be holy. In undefined areas of life — for example, how much emphasis to put on food, what’s considered refined language, and quality of Jewish music, halachah isn’t black and white. But it’s a mistake to say, “if it’s not assur, it’s fine.” From each individual’s starting point, we’re enjoined to move to a holier place.
Untraditional formulas, like New Age Hebrew soul music, or songs with English lyrics that have a sort of Jewish message — positive or negative? There’s no clear answer because it depends on which direction it takes you. One person’s inspiration is the next person’s impiety.
Therefore, let’s present Jewish music as music that strengthens you to be more Jewish. If certain compositions reinforce your affiliation, broaden your commitment, or spur you to higher devotion, that sounds pretty Jewish to me. If it takes you in a less Jewish direction, it doesn’t cut it.
Just a few months ago, I was at the Michlalah Purim chagigah in Yerushalayim. The cracks in the planet were about to give way to pandemic pandemonium. We felt it in the air, and the atmosphere was charged. We danced, and sang, and cried, and laughed, all through music. A great unknown lay ahead, but there was a sense of creating an immortal moment through that song and dance. I know my incredible students can still feel the music, the energy, the togetherness, as I do.
It was the music of 19-year-olds — not staid, not retro, not polite. But it induced a transcendence, gave us strength for the future, and uplifted all of us. That is the power of Jewish music.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 703)
Batya Weinberg has been involved in numerous aspects of Jewish education for over 30 years. She’s a senior lecturer in many seminaries and a noted student advisor
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