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Recovering The Transformative And Ethical Power Of Music

Recovering The Transformative And Ethical Power Of Music


After decades of dry piano, violin, and guitar lessons, I finally retired without any real merits forfeiting my hopes of ever becoming a rock star or fiery composer. Only recently have I realized that music is still at the core of my Jewish spiritual and ethical passion. Singing at protests, including melodies into activist storytelling, and opening my heart to new ideas and ideals while listening to powerful symphonies have changed the way I feel and interact with the world.

Some rabbis argue that music is really only an ancient relic of the past reserved for the Temple and is generally prohibited today with only a few exceptions. Others suggest that there is some spiritual value that we can derive from music today. I would suggest, most importantly, that there is an ethical value to can be attained when we allow ourselves to be elevated by music.

Music has a very early origin in the Jewish tradition. Right at the beginning of the book of Genesis we learn that the harp and flute were created by our first musician Yuval (Genesis 4:21). The Torah teaches us to be proud of the creation of music as one of man’s great early accomplishments. After the splitting of the sea, Moshe led the people in a song of liberation and Miriam led the women. Further we’re commanded to continue to make music on our festivals: “And on your joyous occasions, your fixed festivals and your new moon days, you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well being” (Numbers 10:10).

We learn in the Mishnah that there was an orchestra in the holy Temple that consisted of twelve instruments and a choir of twelve singers. In addition to singing in prayer, the rabbis of the Talmud encourage us to sing the Torah we study (Megillah 32a). The Mishnah itself originally had trope and was learned as a song and the Torah is also a song that we sing each week.

Yet, after the destruction of the Temple, the primacy of music in Jewish worship was challenged. We must understand this. There was an early Rabbinic position that it was forbidden to enjoy music since the destruction of the Temple since we should not experience joy in such a time of loss (Gittin 7a). The danger of inappropriate music is told through a story about Elisha ben Avuha who lost his way because he got too caught up in Greek music. “Greek music never ceased to emerge from his mouth” (Chagigah 15b). The rabbis are teaching us how powerful music is and that we must be very careful what music we allow into our souls. Lyrics matter, the meaning matters, and the energy created inside of us by music matters.

While many Jews refrain from listening to music during the three weeks of mourning, the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, Rabbi Moshe Isserles informs us that both vocal and instrumental music are permitted, at normal times of the year, for the fulfillment of a mitzvah (560:30). The Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo) goes even further explaining that listening to music “to hear pleasant sounds or to hear something fresh” is permitted. Rabbi Soloveitchik taught that the prohibition applies only to music of profane revelry but not to classical music or the like.

The concern was that if the world is broken, we cannot just sit in peace and allow music to be lessened to a mere outlet for blissful complacency. Music enjoyment at its worst can just be a form of hedonism. However, music can be used deliberately to inspire, to elevate, and to help refine one’s sensitivities to the next level.

There is an element of ethical and spiritual refinement that one can achieve through music. By embracing an elevated peace and harmony, one can be opened up to creation and a sense of the transcendental. Discovering harmony within oneself can assist one to find it in others and in the world. Where do we begin?

Cynthia Ozick, the 20th century American writer, explains beautifully that if one attempts to make music from the wide end of shofar, it makes no noise. One must blow the shofar from the narrow end. To express ourselves as part of a collective, we must begin with who we are as individuals. To actualize ourselves as humans, we must first sing as Jews. Particularism is the channel toward a universalism that has depth. Our music must contain our unique essence before we join a communal “choir.” The Kuzari describes the Jewish people as an orchestra where each instrument and voice is needed to actualize the potential of our destined song. The change that we can create in the world as a collective is much greater than what we can do alone.

As Jews, we have our own song and when we master it, we have a greater talent to create our own personal song. Mozart was a great composer because he mastered the classical form. Beethoven, on the other hand, broke through the classical form and changed music forever. Beethoven is a model for us. We master the particular songs that we’ve inherited in order that we can then create and innovate more deeply. To sing in solidarity with humanity, we must first master the song of our people. By understanding ourselves, we can better understand others.

There is, of course, a responsibility that comes with how we collectively engage in music. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that the word chazzan (song leader) comes from the word chazon (vision). A song leader has the opportunity to be a visionary and to lead others to a new place through music. This is a great responsibility. What are the words we advocate? Where do we lead others with our seductive melodies?

Further, Rabbi Nachman explained that each of us has a niggun (a melody) inside of us and that we are to spend our lives in search of that lost melody. Each day, we are learning to refine ourselves to connect with our own unique inner music.

Leon Wieseltier, the American writer, explains this well in his justification for praying from traditional liturgy. If one goes on to stage with no lyrics, the entire time they are thinking about what words to sing. But if one already has the lyrics then they can focus on how beautifully they are singing. We have a Jewish liturgy that can inspire us to live more compassionately. Do the words of our song truly affect us?

All these words aren’t outside of us, but within our spiritual depths. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, explains that song is an expression of our essence. He proposes that we unite our potential through four songs: our personal song, our Jewish song, our human song, and our global song.

There is one who rises toward wider horizons, until he links himself with all existence, with all G-d's creatures, with all worlds, and he sings his song with all of them. It is of one such as this that tradition has said that whoever sings a portion of song each day is assured of having a share in the world to come. And then there is one who rises with all these songs in one ensemble, and they all join their voices. Together they sing their songs with beauty; each one lends vitality and life to the other. They are sounds of joy and gladness, sounds of jubilation and celebration, sounds of ecstasy and holiness. The song of the self, the song of the people, the song of humanity, the song of the world all merge in her at all times, in every hour (Orot Hakodesh, Volume II, pp.458-459).

In doing this, Rav Kook explains that we actualize the true meaning and purpose of Yisrael (the Jewish people) as Shirat Kel (the song of G-d). This is a moral choice with eschatological implications.

Music can not only be pleasurable and relaxing. At its best it can offer us the potential to strive for a new state of being and a new becoming. Finding our own music is a crucial part of our own religious journeys since music can take each of us to a new place that we have never been before. Music can pull us beyond ourselves and into ourselves at the same time. Spiritual activists must find their inner song and learn to merge it with the song of others in the world to achieve an eclectic yet unified global orchestra. Life is a song worth singing at our best.

Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” will be coming out in early 2012. 


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