Sunday, September 17, 2006

Jewish Music I

The Gemora in Gittin says you cannot go to sleep or wake up to music, and the Halachah is so. However, what we do nowadays by using a CD player for an alarm clock or a way to put us to sleep by distracting our minds off tomorrow's global final, is not the type of going to sleep or waking up to music that the Gemora is talking about. So if your music has any therapeutic (for lack of a better term) or utility (such as an alarm clock) value to you, you can do it.

However, that being said, there are still opinions that would disagree with the above, and prohibit going to sleep and waking up to music in any case.

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Because of the Churban Bayis, Chazal decreed that not to play or listen to music, and even not to just plain sing even without any music for non-Torah purposes, rather, we are only allowed to sing Zemiros or psukim, or praises to Hashem, or songs at a Seudas Mitzvah (Shulchan Aruch OH 560, Magen Avraham, and various poskim).

Nevertheless, the prevailing custom nowadays is that if the music is not live, we listen. The reasons:

1) Teshuvos Maharshag II:125 writes that someone who is sad may listen to music on a phonograph to cheer him up.

2) Teshuvos Chelkas Yaakov I:62 writes that the decree of Chazal did not include phonographs since they did not exist at the time the decree was made. And even though many instruments did not exist then, only a phonograph is sufficiently different than the ancient instruments by virtue of the fact that nobody actually plays it live, that we can say it was not what Chazal had in mind when they prohibited music.

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Any music that does not discuss Hashem, such as the Chicken Dance, except at a Chasanah or other Torah celebration, is considered regarding this halachah as non-Jewish music. However, it is a million times better than the "real" non-Jewish music, since the lyrics are not lewd, and you are not involved in the general pop music culture, in which, even if you only want to listen to the "clean" songs, you will be tempted not to.

So whatever you listen to in the Jewish music world, if you are coming from the secular music world, you are B"H traveling in the right direction and have accomplished much. Hashem will reward you for staying away from Eminem.

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Piano is the same as any other live music. Again, there are heterim, but some people don’t want to rely on them. If someone is past the level where he would be doing worse than listening to music, then according to the Chasam Sofer he should not listen. If he wants to, he would have to find another heter.

Torah cannot be used as entertainment. the source for this is the Sefer Chasidim, where he describes someone who thought he had a good idea, that is, he made a game similar to "geography" but with pesukim. Someone said a posuk, and the next guy had to find a posuk that started with the last letter of that one etc. The Sefer Chasidim says this is a bad thing, since Torah is not made for entertainment, even if by playing this game they will be prevented from doing worse.

Which is the same as singing Torah, pesukim or Chazal. But the heter for that is, we are supposed to get inspired by hearing the Nigunim, which is not entertainment but growth. If it’s just plain entertainment, then it is wrong.

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If you're a girl, you can listen to the female singer Kineret. I don't know what goes on at any individual concerts, but that has nothing to do with her. In fact, some of her songs (no, I've never listened, obviously) are good Mussar. We often talk about our belief in Hashem, but Kineret's CD is one of the only places in the world where you'll hear about that G-d "believes in me." A very, very important idea.

All these singers - especially those who sing for women - have great potential to inspire the masses to frumkeit. If the message has real content - like the above - and not just a bunch of "yeah yeah we love Judaism let's do chesed" words, then its all the more worthwhile to listen.

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Music is a very sublime form of expression, and a person's music is a kind of product of his soul. Therefore, even music without words can have an effect on you.

The Mishna Brurah 560 (Shaar HaTziyun, laws of Tisha bav) brings in the name of the Shelah that a woman should not sing a baby to sleep with a non-jewish melody, because it can have an affect on the baby's neshoma.

This is true even though the baby cannot understand one word, even if the mother is singing with the words.


Now even if we're going to say that this lady is not only humming the child to sleep but singing the words as well (which doesn't really seem to be the case), but here we're talking about a little child who doesn't understand any of the words. So if only the words are the problem, how could words you don't understand have a bad influence? It's just gibberish!

And if someone's going to say - which doesn't really make any sense - the somehow, words do have an effect even if the baby doesn't understand them, they will then have a problem with the Gemora in Chagiga 3a which asks why do we bring babies to Hakhel (the reading of the Torah) if they don't understand what it means. If words have an effect without knowing the meaning, then we would have a simple answer to the Gemora's question -- we bring the babies for the good effect the words have on them.

And when you say "I hardly pay attention to the words," that, too, won't matter. The words are still there, you’re still listening. They still get into your head, and stay there. It is known that even while sleeping, people can listen to instructive tapes and it will make an impression on their minds. To wit: Lack of attention does not negate the effect of the words.

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Okay, here's the bottom line:

1) If the words are Divrei Cheshek (lewd), it is Asur.

2) If there are no such prohibited lyrics, or no lyrics at all, it is a Dvar Mussar - advisable for your soul - not to listen.

3) Also, it could be prohibited because of Aveilus for the Bais HaMikdash. This prohibition, however, we have traditionally not enforced much because it is better that people should listen to Goyishe melodies than engage in worse activities, which would probably happen if we didn't let them even do this.

Songs by religious Jewish composers but not praising Hashem would have the same Halachic issues as #3 above.

There is no difference between boys and girls regarding this.

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Listening to non-Jewish music is not Halachicly prohibited, at least not the tune. That is simply unhealthy for your soul, as the Mishna Brura quotes in the name of the Shelah. However, the words of the song may qualify as "divrei cheishek", having sexual connotations, and therefore are prohibited as per Shulchan Aruch OH 307:16.

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Israeli secular music is the same as any other secular music; even worse, in a way. The Rambam writes that inappropriate songs in Hebrew are worse than those in Arabic because the Hebrew ones pollute Lashon Hakodesh besides their disgusting content.

Even though Ivrit is not loshon hakodesh, we discussed in the Yiddish/Hebrew forum that Ivrit still has elements of Loshon Hakodesh - certain words, and the letters themselves - that certainly are holy and should be protected.

The fact that there are Jews who would listen to Oprah Haza but not Christina Aguilera is a result of the Zionist anti-Torah attitude that blurs the vast difference between Israel/Hebrew with Jewish.

Songs that aren't inappropriate but simply mundane and bereft of any holy content are definitely unfitting for Hebrew, which is a holy language - or rather, the elements of Hebrew that are found in Ivrit. However, it's not much worse than talking mundane, non-holy things in Ivrit, which people do every day. There are those who will not talk Ivrit at all because of this, and there are those who will only speak it when necessary. These are a small minority of G-d fearing Jews, though their point is well taken.

The formula here is simple: Israeli songs are no different than American songs; Ofrah Haza, Zohar Argov, or Rami and Rita - take your pick - are no different than Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and 50 Cent (well, maybe 50 Cent, but maybe not...) Make believe these were those and you'll be fine.

The real problem with Israeli music is when people feel more "Jewish" by listening to it over American music. If you relate to the trash , or even the mundane, put out by the Israeli low lives as more "ours" than the trash put out by the hip hop artists in America, then you have a Jewish Identity problem.

The problem is when Israeli music - secular Israeli music - is sold in Jewish music stores and Judaica stores. It is no more Judaica than the KTU Miracle on 34th Street.

If there is any reason to stay away from Israeli music I would say, more than anything else, it is this: to avoid the idea that Israeli music is somehow more "our music" than any other secular compositions in any other language.

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Unfortunately, not all the music cataloged as "definitely Jewish", is. MBD's entire song "Yidden, Yidden," for example, is, from beginning to end, a German 80's song called "Dschingis Khan". And it's not the only "definitely Jewish" tune that was lifted from the goyim.

Even among the "oldies", the New York School of Jewish Song's "Btzais Yisroel mimitzrayim" is actually, note for note, a Greek syrtaki (type of dance).

Even Shlomo Carlebach was influenced by the French folk singer George Moustaki (they even look a bit alike). And compare the Irish folk song, "What should we do with the drunken sailor?" and Shlomo's "Odchah Hashem b'chol levav", then tell me what "definitely Jewish" means.

And it is no secret, nor need it be, that many Chassidic niggunim were actually non-Jewish melodies that were "sanctified" and used at the tisch.

On the other hand, the way we perceive Jewish music, there are very few Jewish melodies that sound nearly as heavenly Jewish as Kitaro's "Silk Road" (particularly the "Enchanted Evening" version) and you would be hard pressed to find a more appropriate sounding "chupah march" than "Milky Way," by the same artist.

Yanni and John Tesh are sold today in Jewish music stores and their music is sometimes accepted as more Jewish than those of many Jewish composers.

When MBD came out with "Let My People Go", a number of Roshei Yeshivos declared it to be plain goyish music composed by a Jewish artist.

It's hard to define Jewish music today, since our music has for so so long been so so mixed up blended and influenced by and with any and all types of music that exist, and the only one criterion that determines what music is sold as "Jewish" is if the "Jewish market" is willing to buy it.

And marketing is a very messed up way to a spiritual concept, such as "Jewish music".

Music has tremendous power over us. It has the power to make us happy, sad, angry, optimistic, or hopeless. It can get a lazy guy moving, make our hearts beat faster, and make us shed tears. The Vilna Gaon writes that if someone could theoretically harness the power in music they would be able to actually “revive the dead” with it.

Music sits in your head even when you don’t know it’s there – how often do you find yourself absent-mindedly humming a tune without even deciding which tune to hum? Or to hum it at all? That doesn’t happen with non-musical information. You don’t absent-mindedly recite the Gettysburg Address. Tosfos in Megilla says that if you learn with a melody you will remember what you learn better.

Music comes from a person’s soul, says the Kuzari. The tune can have an effect even on the soul of a little baby that hears it, says the Shelah. So music is really a form of communication, soul-to-soul, that comes from somewhere deeper than the place where we make conscious decisions, and penetrates to there as well.

So I guess that Jewish Music would be music that comes from a Jewish place within a person’s soul, or at the very least, music that contains a Jewish feeling, meaning, a feeling that the Torah would encourage or at least approve of.

Now even Jews, because of the impact that their deeds and thoughts have on their souls, may have non-Jewish influences within their own souls that can be expressed in their music. And so, too, a non-Jewish melody can be “repossessed” by the Jewish soul, using the melody as a medium for the expression of exclusively Jewish sentiment.

Recognizing music as possessing Jewish sentiments is a matter of sensitivity. To be sure, to a certain extent, we do possess the sensitivity to recognize some musical sensations as thoroughly non-Jewish (such as the veneration for death in many metal tunes). But for the most part, as we can see from the above examples, we no longer possess the sensitivity to recognize music that’s coming from a Jewish place within someone, from music that is coming from elsewhere. And it’s no wonder. Since we have mixed and matched both our music and our souls with foreign influences for so long, it becomes almost impossible to sense the Jewishness and non-Jewishness in our music altogether. We have for the longest time commercialized the creation of song, cranking out melodies while being concerned more on the sale than the soul, that it’s unclear to me that today’s music is an expression of anything except market trends.

Music, really, is a lost art. Lost because we are not sensitive enough to recognize the message of Jewishness – and to discern an undesirable message of non-Jewishness – but also because there is very little left in our big business music industry that actually has a message anyway.

What we have are nice, catchy tunes, melodies to dance to, and songs to sing. But all that isn’t “music” in the religious sense. There may be an exception or two, but in general, we’re talking about a business rather than a religious experience. Or at the very best, something somewhere in between.

Our music today is a lot like us: mixed up and confused.

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The phrase "Jewish" when referring to music is not quantifiable, like when you're referring to someone with Jewish mother. Calling music "marginally Jewish" or "Jewish" or "reconstituted Jewish" is just words. If the music has words that are only Torah-oriented, and the melody is not obscene or even disrespectful to the words, then nobody will have a problem with you listening to it.

The issue of whether its origins are purely Jewish or not does not touch upon the permissibility of your listening to it.

It's a pity, though. Because if our music wouldn't be mixed up the way it is, if it would be purely an expression of the Jewish Neshoma yearning for Hashem, it would do a lot more for us than it does now.

But that's not to say that what it does now is always bad. It's not. Not at all.

So enjoy your music.

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Listening to what we call Jewish music is definitely better than listening to non-Jewish music, and sometimes it's even inspirational. But two things:

First, it does matter that our music is mixed up, and it's not like the chassidic melodies. There, the Rebbes made sure that the music provided the right message, Today, that's not always the case. As an example, take the old Yerachmiel Begun's "elokai ad shelo notzarti aini kedai." The jumpy tune that it is sung to is completely at odds with the solemn message of the words. The tune is supposed to be a tool to better impact the words on your soul. But in this case, it messes up the message and gives the wrong meaning to the words. Now in all fairness to my friend Yerachmiel Begun, I heard from him many years ago that this was the fault of the person who did the arrangements.

But that’s part of the problem today, and that’s a big difference between our music and the Chassidic nigunim. Our songs, even after they are composed, go through many steps to make them marketable. All of this affects the message.

I remember, many years ago when I was a teenager, I was at a wedding in Brooklyn, where, during one of the dances, the choson’s Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon Schechter approached me – I was standing watching the band – and, visibly disturbed, he asked me, “What IS this song they are playing?” (emphasis his)

I thought for a moment. It was the high part to the oldie (it was new, then) “ki kail po’el yeshuos otoh”, it starts “V’kayravtanu makkeinu”.

“Vkayravtanu,” I told the Rosh Yeshiva.

“THIS is V’kayratanu???” He said, really puzzled, and somewhat upset.

“THIS? THIS? Is ve – kay – rav – tanu ??? V’kayravtanu???” he said, again.

He felt that the song, which by today’s standards would be considered almost chassidish, was too jumpy for the serious thought of asking Hashem to “bring us close, our King, to your Great Name.”

I learned something from that. To me, maybe, that song was inspiring. It certainly didn’t seem incongruous. But to someone who was more in tune with the words than I was, the song made no sense.

But I am sure, that, despite his objections to the tune, he was happy that they weren’t playing the Beach Boys.

So all I am saying is that what we call “Jewish music” is relative. If it inspires you, fine. But we just need to know that on a higher level of spiritual sensitivity, we would need to be inspired by other means.

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It's not true that all real Jewish music is sad, not at all. There is nobody as happy as a real Jew, and nobody's music would express happiness like real Jewish music. Some words are happy and loud, some are serious, some are solemn, but none are sad, because Jews aren't supposed to be sad. There's a big difference.

It's a wonderful thing that this music that is sold in Jewish stores is better than the junk in Coconut, but that doesn't make it Jewish. Listen, Christianity, the Rambam said, was a step up for the goyim because it took them away from atheism; and Islam is a step up from Christianity. But would you have any objection to saying that these religions are not really what the Torah is happy with? Even though they are improvements for some people, who would not otherwise improve. So too, the "Chicken Dance", on Neginah's Dance album, is better than Gangsta Rap, but that still doesn't make it Jewish. And Shlock Rock may be better than Lil' Kim, but that doesn't make it an expression of the Jewish soul.

One more thing: It's vital, whenever you do listen to this "Well at least it's not Jeannie in a Bottle", you MUST not think that it is what Jewish music is supposed to be. Don't allow the Satan to tell Hashem, "Well at least the people who listen to Christina Aguilera KNOW that it's not Jewish music. These people are taking Your (Hashem's) expressive soul music and saying that Shlock Rock is it!"

Don't go there. Listen to what you must, but don't fool yourself into thinking it is more holy than it really is.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous wannabe said...

Taon,

Thanks for doing this! I've seen a couple other of the frumteens blogs and I really like the way yours is organized. I've been through most of the Jewish Music section at frumteens and I never saw half this stuff, so thanks for organizing it this way.

I guess I don't really have any other comments. Tizkeh l'mitzvos!

11:17 AM  
Anonymous taon said...

thanks, I appreciate it.

11:39 AM  

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