Sunday, September 17, 2006

Jewish Music II

If someone thinks Jewish music is stupid, and Rap is not, he is out of touch with his soul, and perhaps a lot more than that. I think that instead of focusing on the beauty of Shlock Rock, focus instead on the beauty of Judaism in general, get him more in touch with the beauty of Torah and appreciation of the music will come in its wake.

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"Multicultural Jewish Music" is an oxymoron.

Jewish music is not "cultural", but an expression of the soul. If you mix that with expressions of other, non-Jewish souls, that is not eclectic, but mixed up, since the two entities - the Jewish soul and the non-Jewish soul - are at odds rather than complement each other.

In fact, Jews are not a "culture" in the sense that other nations are. Rav Saidah Gaon said we are a nation only because of the Torah, not because of any culture. We say that gefilte fish is "Jewish" food, for instance, but it is only a colloquialism. The adjective "Jewish" has nothing to do with gefilte fish, since the adjective "Torah-dik" does not fit with gefilte fish.

But "Jewish music" is real. It means music that is an expression of the Jewish soul. If it is today merely an expression of Jewish culture, than it is not more Jewish than gefilte fish. That's exactly my point. It could really be Jewish; rather than merely colloquially Jewish.

But we're not only mixing other cultures into our music; we're also mixing in a commercial effect. "What makes a song qualified to go on a record?" I asked one of the popular Jewish composers who shall remain nameless here.

"If it can sell" was the answer.

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I know it's hard to stop listening to non-jewish music. Try this, sometimes it has worked:

Listen only to ONE CD of non-Jewish music. Pick any one you want, and when you listen, listen only to that one. Over and over.

In about 2 months you should be sick of the CD. Now is the time to put in the effort to stop.

The way the radio stations get you to listen to their music is they sneak in some new songs among the old, known ones, so that you slowly get used to the new ones and before you know it they're also old. Well, hopefully, the radio will not be as appealing to you at this time since they will have songs playing that you are unfamiliar with, since you haven't been listening for 2 months.

Even better, if you can do this right before sefirah, so that when you get sick of your CD you won't be listening to any music at all for another few weeks.

Using this method, you can break away a little, and then put in all your strength to break away all the way.

Hatzlachah.

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I was once at a wedding where the 9 piece band, which included 2 drummers (one had like bongos and assorted percussion thingies), a "mixer", and 2 singers, played Jewish music exclusively. It was as loud and as lively as a yeshivishe chasana gets (oif simchas was not played). It was really inspiring. So although what they are playing certainly is not what the seforim have in mind when they refer to "Jewish music," it nonetheless works, apparently.

One more note: Rav Aharon Schechter, who I mentioned previously expressed surprised to me long ago - about 25 years it must be - about the incongruity of the words "v'kairavtau malkeinu" with its melody, was there last night as well. His dancing and general participation was a big part of simchas choson.

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I don't see what is traditional or Jewish about taking a Carlebach tune and superimposing Grateful Dead arrangements into it. Carlebach songs are clearly Jewish, in the sense that they facilitate the penetration of the words that they are being sung into the psyche of the listener or singer. I don't know if his songs actually enhanced understanding of the words the way real Jewish music used to, but nowadays, it is perhaps the best we can do.

But to take those tunes and superimpose on them Grateful Dead type arrangements, which is basically all Reva L'Sheva does to them, I don't understand why that is considered a positive thing. If it helps attract people to Judaism, ok, I can hear that, but that doesn't mean that they did not make the song much less Jewish in the process.

In other words, they are not bringing the non-Jewish-acting Jews up to the level of Jewish music, but rather bringing the music down to the level of the non-Jewish-acting Jews.

Which may be fine, but the subject of discussion here is not the kiruv potential of certain music, but its Jewishness.

It is therefore not surprising that the same frum teenagers who, when listening to certain Carlebach songs feel comfortable sitting solemnly but happily thinking about the message of the words, will, when hearing the same song played by Reva L'Sheva, start "rocking" like simple club hoppers with a beer in one hand and cigarette in the other.

At a certain wedding, Kalba Savua was playing Carlebach with a reggae twist. A man with a grey beard approached the band and asked them to stop. This happens sometimes, at frum weddings when the band gets a bit out of control, that the Rabbi will politely rein them in.

But this wasn't the choson's Rosh Yeshiva that made the band stop.

It was Shlomo Carlebach.

"Chevra," he said to them, "Can you please play it the right way?"

Carlebach considered the rocked up versions of his songs to be not his songs at all. "It's nice and sweet and cute," he once said to his "chevra" on the West Side when they played for him a metallic version of one of his songs, "but it's not my song."

Those who were the biggest mavenim on what being Jewish and close to G-d means, enjoyed Shlomo Carlebach's songs. Rav Aharon Kotler ZT"L was particularly fond of "lulai soraschah". Yet I have no doubt that Rav Aharon would not find the same place in his heart for the rocked up version of the same song. It's just not within the realm of human imagination to conjure a picture of Rav Aharon listening to that stuff.


Rav Shlomo Alkabetz ZT"L (the author of "lecha dodi") writes that the reason music affects a person so deeply is because music is the language that the soul was used to before it came down to this world. The angels are constantly singing to G-d, and that was what the soul was accustomed to hear when it was in heaven. (Manos Halevi, Esther).

So here's the question: What do you think the melodies sung in heaven by the angels sound like? With no cultural influences, no commercial agendas, no Yetzer Horah, and no deadheads that need kiruv, do you think their music sounds more like lulei soraschah by Carelbach, or the metalized "mah tovu" by Reva L'Sheva?

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Producing art is not the job of Jews in this world. We have an infinitely more important job, and there is no need nor should there be a desire on our part to compete with the art of the goyim. Let them be busy writing music, be it classical or "oi" - it will keep them out of trouble - but for us, we have better things to do.

Nigunim however, certainly do have a place in our religion, but it is not an "art". Rather, it is to help inspire us to Torah and Mitzvos and awaken religious feelings in the Jewish soul.

To that end, Modzitz, not Mozart, works.

As an aside, praising Goyim even for something that is correct, especially contrasting them with Yidden, is prohibited by Torah law under "lo siachanem". The Chinuch writes that the "reason" is because we do not want to encourage Jewish people to mistakenly believe, by seeing enthusiastic praise for accomplishments or relative little worth, that we value for us, what the Goyim are supposed to be doing on this world.

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Not everything a Jew sings is Jewish music – plenty of rock singers are Jewish (you can find a whole gallery of Jewish so-called celebrities bedecking Manhattan’s Jerusalem II pizza store on Broadway – a public display of Jewish shame – or check out Scott Benarde's book, "Stars of David: Rock and Roll's Jewish Stories”. Nebach.)

Regarding those Jewish/Goyish boy bands, they do indeed churn out a muddled concoction of Goyish Jewishness, and worse yet, Jewish Goyishness, to an extent and with an intensity that pushes the envelope far beyond anything that the confused and the confusing have yet produced.

Take, for example, the Chanukah “party” that Blue Fringe-Moshav Band-Soul Farm played recently in BB King, a Times Square blues club. (Soul Farm got top billing)

The promotional material announces: “Hanukah Party featuring Soul Farm Moshav Band Blue Fringe”, with a picture of the Soul Farm trio, with an illustration of Maha Kali, the six-armed Hindu Goddess of death and destruction, sitting on a Psilocybin mushroom (aka “shroom”), but instead of her usual attire of severed arms of her victims, and a belt of severed heads, on the Soul Farm insignia she is wearing cut off shorts and a cut off tank top with “Soul Farm” inscribed across her chest. In each of her six arms she is holding various religious and cult symbols, including the Muslim crescent-moon.

Besides for a few non-Jews who happened to be there, eating supper for the usual menu of non-Kosher food and/or drinks, the place was packed with Jewish teenagers, mostly girls. The mixed-seating, mixed-standing, mixed-crowding, mixed-bumping crowd ranged from very Modern Orthodox to BY girls, and the same for the boys. There were non-religious youths there too. But, especially in the case of the girls, who don’t wear yarlmukas, it was often hard to tell the difference.

The bar served drinks all night long, and minors were continuously asking their “legal” friends – in fact, they were asking anybody in the vicinity – to buy them drinks. Kids not yet able to get a driver’s permit (even in Ohio) were walking around sipping Pina Coladas and Jack Daniels.

In this atmosphere Blue Fringe played “Ani Maamin”. I am not kidding. But don’t worry – their performance wasn’t too Jewish – they also played a song by Radiohead. And then there was their “new” song, not yet released. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

Your desire is for me,
Come on lover,
Let us lie among the trees

The song is called “Shir HaShirim".

One of the Blue Fringe boys introduced the band and welcomed the crowd, and at the same time expressed his pride and delight at being able to play in BB King. He was present when the club opened up, he said, when BB King himself played there, and he has been to the club many times since, and he never imagined that he himself would actually be playing on the stage of that prestigious club. He was quite proud.

But at least Blue Fringe wore Yarlmukas; Moshav band and SoulFarm did not (although the leader of the Moshav band wore his hat on stage most – but not all – of the time). Don’t worry though – in case anyone forgot that this was a Chanukah party, the Moshav band leader actually lit the Chanukah menorah right there in BB King. With a brachah. In case anyone forgot that it was a Chanukah party.

In the back, 14 and 15 year old kids were making l’chayim.

The Moshav guy mentioned about how the miracle of Chanukah actually took place in Modiin (where the Moshav is located). I think this was before he lit the Menorah. No mention of Torah or of Mitzvos, occurred during the entire evening. “Light” was mentioned, though, as was “love”, many times – in fact, Moshav did a song translating the first several pesukim in Bereishis that speak about light, and they did a song about “the motherland”, which I assume referred to Eretz Yisroel. The most Jewish sounding song of the evening was – sigh – “L-rd get me high.”

There wasn’t any real club dancing on the dance floor – it was mostly jumping up and down and screaming, but her and there a boy or girl got up to dance on someone’s shoulders. Oh, and there was some body surfing, too.

Was this a Jewish concert? I certainly hope not. And I wonder whether the Chinese folk enjoying the music as much as their clam chowder though it was Jewish or not. But the problems with such a farce are obvious. If someone wants to do the club scene, let him go a few blocks east to Latin Quarter and do it; but let’s not fool ourselves – Chanukah celebrates the victory of light over darkness, or holiness over the profane. But even, chas v’sholom, had we not have merited a ness and darkness would have won out over light, at least we would still have known that darkness and light are opponents. The worst is when Light accepts Darkness as a friend. Hatzileini nah miyad achi miyad Esav – the Satan acts some times as our enemy, and sometimes it acts as our brother. Darkness is most dangerous when it becomes a brother to the Light. It used to be, Darkness would say “Let’s destroy the light.” Nowadays, Darkness got smarter. It says “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

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Some of the music - like that "shir hashirim" song - is certainly nivul peh and assur, never mind a bizayon to Hashem and His Torah. I can't say it's assur to listen to their kosher songs, but assur isn't the point. The point is it's all goyish music disguised as Jewish, and any time you blur the edge between jewish and goyish culture or customs or music or whatever, you are endangering your spiritual sensitivity to right and wrong.

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There is an idea prevalent in chasidishe seforim that discusses using gashmiyus or even badness and making into goodness or ruchnius. The simplest form of this is lets say you make a bracha on an apple - that apple now becomes an instrument of avodas Hashem, through your spiritual ability to make a bracha. A goy’s bracha for instance, is not halachicly a brachah so it would not have the same effect.

Chasidim were interested in harnessing the power inherent in music - even if it was created through a bad soul - and using it for avodas Hashem. The way this worked was, let's say a rasha would compose a song. This would work kind of like taking an atom bomb made by evil people and using it for good. So a tzadik would take a song, which let's say was composed by a rasha, and redirect the passion and emotion in the nigun to use for something positive. This would work because the passion and intensity of the tzadik was so overwhelming on the side of good that it would carry the emotion in the song along with it, like flotsam in a tidal wave. If, however, your neshoma is not overwhelmingly directed to Hashem, the contrary is likely to happen - instead of you sanctifying the song, the emotion in the song can effect your soul in a negative way.

This all sounds quite mystical, and for the most part it is. The idea that a song carries the energy signature of its composer is in the holy seforim. But you can see, just a bit, how this works on a very simple level, by observing how two people can sing the exact same nigun, about the exact same subject, and even use the same words, but their "intent" makes it's mark, such that when the first person sings it, the melody itself evokes certain feelings, and when the second person sings it, it invokes almost opposite emotions.

This is why when an old Jew with a gray beard sings a song, the nigun flows well with the message of a good, hard working man trying to help his family - not that that nigun was made by any tzadik of course - but the same nigun used by someone like, l'moshol, Gwen Stefani, bespeaks hedonism, and a completely different set of feelings. The melody itself changes its message with the singer.

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The seforim tell us that music is a soul-to-soul communication. It evokes emotions, thoughts, and moods. In shamayim, the angels compose music. The GRA writes that if someone really would be able to control musical compositions, they could resurrect the dead. Music is not just a form of art. It comes from deep in the soul. And it goes deep into the soul.

The soul of the composer leaves its stamp on his music, and it impacts, ever so subtly, on the soul of the listener.

Jewish words can still be goyish music, if the soul of the musician, or his intent, is polluted.

Nowadays we don’t bother checking the souls of the composers, but we are still concerned with the effect that the music has on us. And it does have an effect.

Music that brings a person higher - awakens the Jewishness within him, or even adds some Jewishness to it - is Jewish music. Music that awakens a desire to shake ones hips or perform jiggles or gyrations that have no Jewish value, is anti-Jewish.

The reason it is so hard to define what music is Jewish is because it is equally hard to define what "feelings" are Jewish. Music evokes feelings. If the feeling is Jewish, so is the music.

But one thing we do know. "Jewish" means the Torah. Music that brings us closer to the Torah and performance of Mitzvos, is Jewish. That which does not, is not.

Even if a song is "soulful" it can still be anti-Jewish. Spirituality is good when directed in the proper way; it is bad when directed in the wrong way. In and of itself, it is neither.

Sometimes "spirituality" is used by the Yetzer Horah to convince someone he does not NEED religion - he's "spiritual" enough without it (we've all heard this somewhere or another). And since the Yetzer Horah can use it, the Yetzer Horah may also therefore produce it in order to further his own goals.

Neither spirituality nor soulfulness, nor peacefulness are "Jewish" per se. Only 613 things and our attachment thereto are worthy of the adjective "Jewish."

Music that achieves that connection is "Jewish" (or rather, "helps Jewishness"). Music that does not, is not.

I’m not saying the music has to have a certain sound to be considered Jewish; on the contrary, I mean that it is not the sound but rather the feeling it evokes in the person.

And therefore, just as it's often hard to recognize feelings of Jewishness among the many other imposter feelings, it’s equally hard to recognize Jewish music among the imposters as well.

Part of the feeling evoked in the listener depends on the very soul of the composer (not the singer), whose soul left its stamp on the tune.

That's why the Mishna Brura says you should not sing even a little baby to sleep with a non-Jewish tune, because it may have an adverse effect on the baby's Neshomah.

It is true that often these composers fit words to music that doesn't fit, and that's a problem, but not the only one. I know many of these composers and musicians. And it is clear from them - and from their music - that they are simply trying to make a buck. Some of these people make a real good living off Jewish music, and so the more that sells, regardless of how "Jewish" it is, the better it is for them. Composition of Jewish music is largely consumer-driven and that’s a big problem.

Music doesn’t even have to have words in order to be considered Jewish or non-Jewish. The Mishna Brura's example of non-Jewish music is where the listener is a baby who can't even understand the words.

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It's true that the Seforim indicate that music even without words has an effect on you on some level. And the souls of the authors of classical music are just as goyish as that of the Back Street Boys.

However. This reminds me of my father-in-law ZT"L's moshol he used to use in his drashos:
The shrink wants to see if the patient is crazy, so he shows him a drawing of a guy.

The guy in the picture has one arm, no nose, three fingers on his other hand, and no toes at all.

"What's missing?" the shrink asks.

"His tie", the patient answers.

That told the shrink the patient was crazy.

Even though the guy in the picture WAS missing a tie.

Same thing with us.

It's true that on some level music that expresses the insides of the goyishe neshomo effects us. But you have to take a look at yourself and see if in your present state of living, if not listening to classical music is like putting a tie on someone in pajamas. I mean, I would imagine that if you read newspapers or magazines, or browse on AOL or the web, that you're getting more goyishe influence than you do from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Not that two wrongs make a right, but you have to take Yiddishkeit step by step, and you can't take on something that you're not ready for yet. And if you do read magazines and read newspapers and chat on AOL for example, to look at yourself and say "I have to cut out classical music" is kind of looking at that picture and saying "He needs a tie!"

So I don't want to discourage you from trying to rise in your level, I just want you to understand that we need to climb a ladder rung by rung. And if you try to reach for a rung too high for where you are now, you can fall off altogether, or miss your chance to rise that one rung higher, or perhaps even worse, convince yourself that you're on the top. Know what I mean?

The main problem with Goyishe music is the words. They're total sewage for the soul. That those lyrics affect your soul you don't need the Mishna Brura to quote any Baalei Mussar for -- it's obvious to anyone with a brain. And if all the music you listen to avoids that soul polluting factor, you've accomplished a lot.

Even among the songs themselves there's such a difference in level of shmutz. If you listen to Lil' Kim, for instance, and your friend listens to Abba Teens, you can't say you're both listening to "Goyish music" equally.

So listen, it's true that all Goyish music effects you. but so does everything else you see and hear. And you have to take things step by step. So assess what rung in the ladder you are on, and climb appropriately. Don't worry about the classical music. Worry about the magazines and the radio and the news and the papers and the gossip and the small talk in school and the advertisements and all the soul pollution that accosts you each and every day of your life. If, in the fight to avoid real dirt, classical music gives you a bit of relaxation to gather some more strength for the real battles, then throw your hands up to the sky and thank Hashem Who helped you save your arms and legs and fingers and toes . . . even if you don't yet have a tie.

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