Jewish Musicism By: Doni Joszef 5tjt.com Published: Friday, June 22, 2007
So, maybe the fact that some secular songs touch us in a deeply meaningful way is just an unfortunate result of modernization and unhealthy exposure. Maybe Jewish music is inherently perfect, while English music is inherently evil, and it is we who have the problem. Or… Maybe we’ve left out an important ingredient of the mix. Perhaps Jewish music has the potential to be deeply inspiring—yet, something is missing. It is that something that so many of us are looking for in Jewish music. This missing ingredient is the key to all artistic beauty, and when it is lacking, the soul remains untouched. The following parable may better illustrate the point.
Imagine two fields. One field contains the seeds for a beautiful garden with magnificent flowers. The other field contains the seeds for banana trees. Clearly, the garden filled with the seeds for stunning flowers should be far more pleasing to the senses than the banana field. Nevertheless, if the flower garden receives no water, while the banana fields are continuously nourished, there will be no comparison. The flower garden will remain desolate while the banana field will be flourishing with life. In the same way, Jewish music has the potential to be Divinely thrilling and inspiring—far beyond the realm of secular music. Nevertheless, if it lacks the key artistic ingredient, it will remain flat and dull. So, what is this missing ingredient? Before we continue, allow me to clarify several terms under discussion.
I realize that phrases such as secular music and Jewish music are extremely vague and require a more definitive qualification. As we know quite well, the term secular music can include an endless variety of genres—spanning from 16th century symphony compositions to horrific heavy-metal screeching to a Barney-the-Dinosaur theme song to a Beatles love song. And, similarly, the term Jewish music can include anything from a Chassidisheh niggun, to a techno-remix rendition of Hava-Nagilah, to the classic kiddy-version of Ma Nishtanah, to a Sephardic drum-beat. Indeed, the realm of music is truly endless. It is, thus, difficult to use such broad terms when discussing the matter at hand. I will qualify my usage of the term meaningful secular music to songs that speak to the soul rather than the body. When I discuss a type of secular music that moves us deeply, I don’t refer to hip-hop or techno beats which are meant to move the body into a groove that originates in clubs and bars.
I obviously don’t refer to the monstrous noises of heavy-metal bands and alternative rock stars. Again, these beats and (so-called) tunes are meant primarily to move the body into rage or aggression. I surely don’t refer to the teeny-bopper boy-bands and poster-girls who are merely pop-icons for teenagers to adore. For the purposes of this essay, the types of secular-music that are deemed moving and meaningful are those that stem from the soul for the sake of entering another’s soul. (“Dvarim hayotzim min halev, nichnasim el halev!”). Chazal (Midrash Rabbah Eichah 2:13) clearly state: ‘Chochmah bagoyim taamin’—There is wisdom among the goyim. Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, the truth remains that, although the outside world has not been blessed with the gift of Torah [Torah bagoyim al taamin], they have certainly been blessed with poetic and artistic wisdom. Indeed, we find numerous songs of pure poetry that touch on some very personal truths of human nature.
I, personally, am very inspired by so-called jam bands. These are artists who truly live in the moment of creativity. They jam—they don’t rehearse the melodies or rhythms beforehand. They simply play from the heart—following the lead of the music. It’s been said that true artists allow the painting to paint them—they don’t know what the painting will become until the final brushstroke. In the same way, a jam band has no clue where their songs will lead them—they let the song write them. This genre of music has been an ongoing source of inspiration for PHP—as our most powerful musical moments have been those that were least planned.
By no means do I intend to categorize secular musicians as major league stars while demoting Jewish musicians to little league amateurs. Chas v’shalom! In actuality, the emes is quite contrary. As illustrated in the above mentioned banana-tree analogy, Torah-based art has the potential to touch the soul in a way no other means can. A talmid once approached the Chazon Ish, zt”l with an interest to read psychology literature so that he may better understand the dynamics of human consciousness. The Chazon Ish told him to trash the psychology books and open up a Chumash. “If you learn Chumash with Rashi in the right way, you will discover every psychological insight there is to find!” Today, many of us read self-development books—not because they are more insightful than Torah, rather, because we have lost the ability to see through the smokescreens of modern-day distraction to discover the true pearls within the wisdom of Chazal.
In the same way, if we understand the Torah’s approach to music, we will, bezrat Hashem, gain the ability to tap into the wellsprings of this Divine art in a way no secular source can. If we want to discover the beauty of Jewish music we certainly must identify what exactly is Jewish about music. The root of this entire issue involves one of the most sacred facets of avodas Hashem: CREATIVITY. We mustn’t underestimate the centrality of this Divine koach in Judaism. We often associate art and creativity with bohemian, hippy lifestyles—dwelling in solitude—living on herbal tea and forest berries, meditating in the fields, wearing a tie-dyed shirt, hemp-pants, and a worn out pair of hand-made moccasins. Far from the typical yeshiva bocher or magid shiur. This is simply because we have a misguided perception of the nature of creativity.
To understand the dynamics of this special koach, let’s identify the Torah’s ultimate artist persona. At first glance, the paradigm artist would surely be Dovid HaMelech—a musician whose poetic portraits continue to touch the deepest realms of every one of us. In truth, however, Chazal tell us that there is an artist whose masterpiece is on an entirely exalted level—Hashem! The Gemara (Berachos 10a; Megilah 14a ) tells us: “Ein TZUR k’Elokainu, ain TZIYUR k’Eelokainu”—‘There is no rock (tzur) like our G-d—There is no artist (tziyur) like our G-d!’ The ultimate artist is HaKadosh Baruch Hu. His creativity is the epitome of all creativity. His masterpiece is the paradigm of all masterpieces.