Sure! That’s Jewish Music!

By Rabbi Yossi Rosenberg

Years ago, the superbly talented Abie Rottenberg put out an album titled A Time to Laugh. Among the many healthy laughs which the album provides are some uncanny satirical looks at today’s Jewish, and frum, world. There is one specific selection which I’d like to try and describe. In it, we hear a mock secular game show, with two contestants vying to win a game called “Name that Nationality,” wherein they must guess the nation of origin of the short music clips which the game show host plays.

One contender is an eminent non-Jewish musicology professor, who seems unbeatable. The second contender is the rather indistinct-sounding Mrs. Perlman, a Jewish housewife, mother of six, from New York. The host plays the first music selection, which clearly comes across as being Arabic music. The professor presses his buzzer first, and, when called upon to give his answer, confidently identifies the music as Arabic. To his surprise, the host says that his answer is incorrect.

“Mrs. Perlman,” asks the host, “Do you know the answer?”

“Sure!” Mrs. Perlman responds. “That’s Jewish music!”

“You’re absolutely right!” exclaims the host excitedly.

The host then goes on to play the next short music clip, this one with obvious Western overtones. As before, the professor buzzes first and confidently identifies the song as American music, of the Western variety. Once again, the host informs him that his answer is incorrect.

“Mrs. Perlman,” he asks yet again, “Do you know the answer?”

“Sure!” comes the unwavering response. “That’s Jewish music!”

For the second time, the host yells out, “That is absolutely correct! Now for the third and final selection, listen closely.”

The third clip is played, this one very European sounding. The professor buzzes, and this time he laughs at how easy it was. “There is no way I can get this one wrong,” he says. “That’s German music, and from my own hometown too. How could I not recognize it?”

Yet, to his complete and utter shock, the host says, “I’m sorry, professor, but that is incorrect. Mrs. Perlman, if you get this one right, you will become our new champion. Do you know the answer?”

Mrs. Perlman does not hesitate even for a second. “Sure!” she responds, unfazed. “That’s Jewish music!”

The bells and whistles are set off as Mrs. Perlman is pronounced the new champion of Name That Nationality.

The humor in this piece belies the very real question it begs. What is Jewish music? How do we know when a song is Jewish and when it isn’t? What makes music Jewish in the first place?

As the “Jewish music” industry explodes and enters newer and grayer areas, it is high time that we asked and addressed this question. Especially now, as we celebrate Chanukah, we reflect on the triumph of true values over the misguided and misguiding Greek influences. This is an ideal time, then, to have a serious discussion about what music is Jewish, good, and uplifting, and which kind is foreign, even harmful, and spiritually polluting.

In truth, music is a somewhat difficult topic to discuss, and to write about in particular. I say something is wild, you say it is leibedig. I say a song is lifeless, you say it is slow and haunting. I call something goyish, you call it exotic. I give New Age music a bad rap, while you rap about the wonders of music in this new age. This is because music is impalpable and can’t be measured in any conventional manner. You don’t feel music with your fingers; you feel it in your heart and soul. Music can’t be touched, but it touches us in the deepest of ways.

For this reason, many put forth the argument that there is no definitive good or bad when it comes to music. In contemporary times, questionable or coarse music is often cunningly presented as merely something new and different. Of course, such presentations are facetious. Music – although intangible – can bring out powerful specific emotions and passions in people. It can bring out the animal in us and then leave us depressed, but it can also uplift, inspire, and invigorate.

To anybody who ever experienced the potency of music, there is no need to prove its remarkable efficacy. Anyone brought to tears by a soul-stirring Rachem, or literally lifted from a black mood by a life-infusing rikud’l, knows the power of music. Those not as in touch with music should keep in mind that shirah was recited at the most auspicious moments in our history. The Leviim sang and played instruments in the Bais Hamikdosh. When Moshiach will come, we will sing a new shirah. One who ponders these things cannot play down the awesome potential of music.

Now let us get back to the question of what exactly constitutes good or bad music. The term ‘good music’ may be more apt than ‘Jewish music,’ because good music is not necessarily ‘Jewish’ per se. There is no denying that throughout our wanderings in golus, the music we sang reflected the countries we came from. Depending on which shtetel any reader’s grandparents may be from, their zemiros might be sung to marches, waltzes, or more complicated compositions. Sefardic music has an undeniable Arabic sound to it as well.

It is well-known that many Chassidishe rebbes ‘borrowed’ songs they heard locally and put Jewish words to them. I personally heard from Rav Yisroel Belsky that these rebbes did so only in cases where they were confident that the tunes expressed positive emotions and had no negative undertones. There is a song about the yemos haMoshiach which, lbch”l, Rav Chaim Brim zt”l often sang. He told us that it was originally a Bedouin tune, which a musical Yerushalmi heard on the way to Meron and later adapted.

On the other hand, there clearly is such a thing as bad music – and we are referring to the tunes themselves, not to the words sung. As high as music can bring us, that’s how low it can pull us down. Rabbeinu Bechaya writes in Chovos Halevavos (Shaar Haprishus, ch. 5), “Keep away from types of zemer, niggun, s’chok, and rinah, songs and tunes which bring one to abandon their service of Hashem and their performance of mitzvos.”

Any person involved in chinuch will attest to the fact that when a boy or girl begins a downward spiral in their commitment to Yiddishkeit, r”l, the first and most direct adverse influence on these children and teens is almost always bad music. In this very paper’s Chinuch Roundtable, Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark, dean of Beth Jacob Seminary of Montreal, and mechanech of generations of Jewish children, recently went a little off topic specifically so as to write a few lines about the “hot new songs” of today’s “Jewish music” scene. These words, written by someone dealing in real-life actual chinuch, should not be taken lightly:

“I take exception to the singing of the ‘hot’ new songs. Those songs degrade the Shabbos table and should not even be sung at any other time… Niggunim and zemiros are supposed to elevate you spiritually to a higher madreigah… ‘Vilde’ music (which is very hard to describe, but which is recognizable when sung) pushes your soul in a direction that is alien to our hashkafa and growth in avodas Hashem. The wrong kind of music not only affects your inner feelings towards our Torah way of life, but also causes your children to associate with children who are not ‘eingezapt’ with our traditions and would lead them to behave in other ways we do not approve of.”

So while music does not necessarily need a mesorah from Sinai, and can even reflect sources from outside our machaneh, it is an extremely delicate and dangerous task. Anyone who cares about their children at all will be very careful with the music they allow into their homes and cars. Allowing openly unrestrained, untamed, and even animalistic sounds, regardless of how many Hebrew words might be thrown in, is – pardon our forthrightness – simply a dereliction of our duty. We have a responsibility as parents and guardians of our children’s emotional and spiritual health to care for them just as we care about the food they eat and the schools they attend.

It is easy to say, “Listen, every age has its own sound. Our parents thought our music was modern, and today’s music might sound different to us too.” It is easy to say this, but it is not easy to believe ourselves when we say it. Whom are we fooling? Sure, music can be different compared to what we are used to. Still, anyone with G-d-given ears can understand that some of the noise out there today is not just ‘different’, but extremely offensive, and can bring out the worst emotions in ourselves and others. We should not allow anyone to insult our intelligence or self-respect by trying to sell us the argument that a tune we know and understand to be crass or boorish, is merely a ‘different’ or ‘new’ sound.

There are many slow and heartwarming songs composed over the last few decades that have a distinctly American sound to them. These songs might not be the same style as that which our parents or grandparents were used to. Some may prefer that their children listen to music that is more ‘heimish’ and familiar. Despite that, these tunes are not coarse. They don’t pull those who hear or sing them down, rather, they uplift and inspire them towards a greater yearning for Dveykus BaShem. These are examples of tunes that are different, but are not bad music.

The same can be said for faster-paced tunes. There are virtually no geshmakeh niggunim composed today in the same tempo and style as the ones sung in Europe. Today’s tunes are just different. Even so, the rousing and heartening songs coming from Belz and Viznitz, played at virtually every wedding nowadays, cannot be compared with the wild and tumultuous sounds of some of the “hot” new “hits.” So there is no comparison between nice, albeit different, tunes, and those that are just cheap and tasteless.

Besides for the blatantly repulsive sounds out there today – which are hard to miss – there are many shades of gray, and many subtle nuances which those lesser inclined in the field of music might not immediately recognize for what they are. As a general rule, watch the people singing and dancing, and see the way the music affects them. As someone once quipped, “Music used to move the soul; today, it moves the body.”

Keep in mind, too, that music reflects the intentions and emotions of its composer. As such, composers who are steeped in Torah and Yiddishkeit are a far safer bet than those who are steeped in today’s non-Jewish music and culture. There is no way to compare music composed by Rav Shmuel Brazil, for example, a rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv in Far Rockaway, with songs composed by someone you would be horrified if your child would associate with in real life.

In fact, on the jacket of one of his recent releases, Rav Brazil wrote the following, which best sums up our discussion:

“There is much controversy today about the definition of ‘Jewish’ music and song… I truly fail to understand this dilemma, for it can be answered by simply asking ourselves: ‘What was Jewish music meant to be for?’ In the times of the Bais Hamikdosh, it was a medium to inspire and uplift both the body and soul… Its function was to ignite introspection, enabling one to strive for greater growth between man and himself, man and his fellow man, and man with his Creator… Although times have definitely changed, and the pulse and rhythm of music with it, the purpose and meaning of Jewish music remain constant and absolute.

“So there you have it: a simple litmus test. If…you experience some or all of the above feelings, then, and only then, can you know that the authenticity of ‘Jewish music’ is present. If not, call it something else, but don’t let yourself fantasize that it has anything to do with the original product just because it has holy words… Disco beats may stimulate the physical body to perform complex choreographic movements, but one must determine whether if by doing so, he has removed himself from the eternal rhythm and beat of his neshama.”

No one could have said it better.

When selecting tasteful music, it is important to bear in mind that it is not only wild or chaotic music which can be unhealthy for both our emotional and spiritual health. Slow music does not automatically connote refinement. Many slower numbers can leave us quite depressed, or yearning for things far from ruchnios.

Music is one of the deepest and strongest mediums in the world. It can uplift and inspire like few other things can. It can enhance any Shabbos tish, any simcha, any kumsitz, and any family get-together. There are so many touching, wonderful, heartfelt and geshmakeh songs out there. On a personal level, music has accompanied me from my childhood, through my teen years, and into my adult life. Losing yourself in a song, and feeling its awesome power and magnetic pull – in both good and bad ways – is a force I have learned to respect. Jewish music is too powerful, too important, and – yes – too holy, for us to sit back and allow it to be tampered with.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin (101a) says, “One who takes a posuk… and makes it into a song [at an inappropriate time or for the enjoyment of partygoers, as opposed to singing for purposes of Yom Tov joy (Rashi)]…The Torah itself dons a sackcloth and comes before Hashem, crying, ‘Ribbono shel olam, your children have turned me into an instrument for frivolous purposes.’”

Imagine someone going to Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita and singing, “Hey! Reb Chai-chai-chaim! Reb Chai-chai-chaim! Bum bum, doop doop, Kan-kan-kanievsy!” Wouldn’t we be outraged at the misuse and abuse of something so dear, respected and holy? Would we dance to such a ditty at our weddings? It is doubtful that we would ever sanction the outrage by saying, “How nice to hear someone using the names of Torah sages in his songs!”

Do we feel the Torah’s pain when it is abused in a similar manner?

We are under no illusions of affecting today’s music industry in any major way. This is a discussion amongst our circle of readers, which, to the best of my knowledge, is quite a respectful group. Let each of us dwell on the issue and do what we know to be right in our own homes, cars, and simchos. As far as the ‘industry’ is concerned, we do have one practical suggestion, though. If anyone feels a need to compose tunes which do not reflect the sensitivities and feelings of most frum, civilized people, please, keep our Torah and our seforim out of it. By all means, sing about sunsets, about exercise and dieting, about health, wealth, love and friendship. Our Torah deserves a modicum of respect. Agreed?

This article was written l’zchus refuah sheleimah for Baruch ben Baila.

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