Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 12 June 2010 / 29 Sivan 5770

Jew Tunes

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: David

One of my friends recently asked me if I liked a certain singer. When I told him that I do not listen to non-Jewish music, he asked me why. What do I tell him? What makes music Jewish? Especially now, when many introductions for songs and sometimes the songs themselves are copied from non-Jewish music? Thank you for your time. And by the way, you people “rock”.

Dear David,

In Judaism, music plays a very elevated and potentially spiritually uplifting role. In fact, musical inspiration is viewed as flowing from the Kabalistic sefirot of Netzach and Hod which are the source of prophetic influence. Thus, music and prophecy are intertwined, and music is used to induce the prophetic state. Thus we find regarding the great prophet Elisha, “And Elisha said, fetch me a musician. And it was that when the musician played, the hand of the Lord came upon him” (II Kings 3:14,15).

Music was also an integral part of the service in the Holy Temple where hundreds of Levites played a multitude of instruments (many of which are not known today) more various than in a modern symphony. This was done with great precision and harmony, as befitting the Palace of the King of Kings. So instrumental was this uplifting, authentic Jewish music to seers and priests seeking spiritual elevation in prophecy and service that it was played even on the Sabbath.

And if, in Judaism, the number seven represents harmony and balance in the physical world, [for example - the seven days of Creation (time), seven conjoined equal circles (space), the seven colors of the spectrum (light) and the seven tones (sound)], music has the ability to transcend the physical realm in that the eighth tone increasingly ascends higher and higher scales.

These are some of the ideas that create the tenor of true, authentic Jewish music. However, Jewish mystical sources also note that just as there is a pure realm from which flow inspiration and prophecy, there is also a corresponding impure realm which is the source of magic, witchcraft and idolatry. And similarly, the power of music is instrumental in inspiring the influence of this dark side as well.

Nowadays, even though we don’t have truly pure Jewish music, music from a truly impure source is also not that common. Rather, what makes much of non-Jewish music out of tune with Judaism is its mood and content. Basically, lewd and violent tunes and lyrics are unacceptable and spiritually damaging. Therefore, non-Jewish music which is refined and uplifting and which is inspired by ideas consistent with Judaism (like much of classical music) is acceptable. On the other hand, music dubbed Jewish, but modeled after genres whose tunes or lyrics are generally lewd or violent is very questionable.

However, as mentioned, even mainstream modern Jewish music is not authentic Jewish music in the spiritual sense described above. And even what’s called “Chassidic” music today, aside from just a few tunes which are based on authentic, inspirational melodies composed by Chassidic masters of old, is more commercial than spiritual. Still, to the extent to which the tunes and lyrics are positive, contemplative and Jewishly meaningful, they can be considered a form of Jewish music. But one must still be careful to listen to and use this music in the context of a mitzvah in purity and holiness and not as background music for unacceptable behavior.

We await redemption from our spiritual exile when our souls will reverberate in harmony with G-d’s will, producing the music of prophecy whose message, together with that of the Torah, will proclaim to the world, “He is our Rock and our Redeemer”.

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