Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 9 December 2006 / 18 Kislev 5767

Is Classical Music in Harmony with Judaism?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Stephanie in RI
Dear Rabbi,

I enjoy listening to classical music. Particularly if I’m upset, or want to relax, or even if I just want to tune out what’s going on around me and concentrate on things I’m doing like reading, studying or whatever. Is this OK? Is there any problem with listening to classical music according to Judaism?

Dear Stephanie,

Music is considered by Judaism to be one of the seven classical, pure wisdoms. Music is therefore viewed as being very uplifting, and conducive to such higher states as Divine inspiration and prophecy. For these reasons, music was an instrumental part of the service in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Of course, as with most things, music can be holy and pure, or it can be an expression of, and can engender, un-holiness and impurity. The music used by the Jewish prophets and mystics to attain inspiration, and the music played by the Levites in the Temple, was based on ancient, Divinely inspired nigunim (tunes). As a counterpoint, music has always accompanied the pursuit of idolatrous and immoral states of ecstasy as well. Even today, certain types of music specifically play on such base inclinations.

Most classical music, while not as spiritual as the ancient Jewish melodies, is nevertheless refined and elevating. It is usually pleasant to listen to, and often intends to convey majestic, subliminal impressions and ideas. Accordingly, while it would be generally preferable to listen to refined, uplifting Jewish music, listening to most types of classical music is also okay.

Exceptions would be: liturgical music that conveys religious ideas contrary to Judaism or music with lyrics expressing immoral ideas and feelings. Some people refrain from listening to music composed by notorious anti-Semites as well, even if the music itself is “purely” classical.

Regarding your general use of music for lifting your spirits, relaxation and concentration, if the music is acceptable, that’s fine. Thus Maimonides noted that since physical, emotional and mental health is a prerequisite for spiritual growth, if a person is ‘singing the blues’, “he should attempt to remove the depression by listening to good music, by taking walks in beautiful gardens and by looking at beautiful buildings and art forms” (Shemone Perakim ch. 5). Ultimately, though, this should always be with the intention of inspiring one to acquire wisdom and positive attributes, and to come closer to G-d.

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