By Rabbi Yosef C. Golding, Special to Matzav.com
The year was 1975. We were putting the final touches on the second JEP recording (some of you may recall those days and that type of music). I was a talmid of Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt”l in Mesivta Torah Vodaath, and my chavrusa and I came across a gemara in Meseches Sanhedrin (Perek Cheilek, daf 101) that caught me off guard and sent me into a frenzy:
“One who recites a passuk of Shir Hashirim and turns it into a type of song, or one who recites a passuk at a banquet hall at an inappropriate time, brings misfortune to the world because the Torah puts on sackcloth and stands before Hakadosh Baruch Hu and says, ‘Ribbono shel Olam, Your children have made me like a lute that scoffers play.’”
I rushed to Rabbi Pam and asked him if this refers specifically to Shir Hashirim because it already is a song? He smiled and said, “No. I’m afraid you are learning the wrong pshat. If Shir Hashirim, which already is a song, cannot be made into a song, certainly one may not do so with any other passuk in Tanach.”
“But Rebbe, what about all of our Jewish songs…and records (CDs and MP3s, today)”?
Rabbi Pam answered, “If for a JEP gathering you bring a group of non-religious children together and you want to bring them close to Hashem, then the song is wonderful. If you are leading Pirchei children and you want to ignite the hearts of the kinderlach to bring them closer to Torah, wonderful. But if you take a guitar on stage and sing pesukim to entertain the audience, then the Torah dons sackcloth and complains to Hashem, and this brings misfortune to the world”.
When I hear some of the “Jewish” melodies being produced today by some of our young song writers, I wonder if they ever heard of this Gemara. I wonder if they realize that writing a tune to a passuk is a very serious undertaking. I wonder if we, who have allowed this to happen, have sunk so low in this long galus that we have become inured to this blatant chillul Hashem?
Is It Jewish?
Another incident during my beis midrash days in Torah Vodaath is relevant to this discussion. I was standing in the back of the beis midrash when the Mashgiach, Rabbi Moshe Wolfson shlit”a, tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to a nearby table, and said,” Yossie, please take those books out of the beis midrash.”
I looked and saw what I thought were some nicely bound Hebrew booklets. I asked, “Books? Aren’t they sefarim“?
Rabbi Wolfson told me sternly, “Just because something is written in Hebrew does not make it into a sefer. Please take them out.”
I submit the same holds true with Jewish music; Just because there are Hebrew words to the song does not necessarily make it Jewish. Many of us are bombarded with Israeli music in pizza stores or, at times, over the radio, and the lyrics are often-times counter to what we would ever want our children to listen to. “But it’s Jewish, isn’t it”?
No, it isn’t.
We have a responsibility to inform those wonderful purveyors of Jewish music that we want to hear Jewish music, not Hebrew music. (This does not mean that there isn’t wonderful Jewish music from Israel being played. It just means that we have a responsibility to be more demanding and more selective of what enters our ears, and those of our children.)
I was recently at a concert in which several Jewish acts performed for the benefit of a wonderful charity. I have seen firsthand the fantastic results that this charity has produced. And I will continue to support this charity. But I was stunned to see young Jewish boys dancing around the stage like non-Jewish performers, singing holy words of Torah and tefilla, gyrating, as if they were imitating the rock stars of the 60s. And the audience applauded! Is this not exactly the opposite of what should be happening? Is this how we should be training our children? Are these the role models, the heroes, we want our children to emulate? Of course, there are children who need to build their self-esteem, and maybe being part of a choir is good for them. But they are the exception, not the rule. Our children should be taught that idol worship should be reserved for idolizing young, budding talmedei chachamim and osei chessed, not entertainers.
A Guide to Song Writers
Although I never actually composed a song, I was indirectly involved in the construction of many musical compositions, most notably for JEP and for Uncle Moishy and the Mitzvah Men. Many times we asked our rabbinical advisors she’eilos that arose. For example, Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, JEP’s first rabbinical advisor, gave us clear instructions that no passuk can be shortened, no word omitted, and no two pesukim can be combined to change the true meaning of these words. Harmony was an exception, since the pesukim were not actually being quoted. I remember a song produced some 40 years ago that omitted the word “Alokeinu” from the lyrics. I actually heard people, many years later, quoting that passuk from Tehillim whilst skipping the word Alokeinu. I have since heard a different melody, using the same passuk, being sung the same way! I respectfully submit that our young song writers of this generation use the following barometer when composing: If the song does not result in kavod Shamayim, then don’t write it. Don’t be afraid to ask your rav; the responsibility is greater than you understand it to be.
I Shouldn’t Have to Say This, But…
There are times when we see a particular “Jewish” album in a Hebrew book store when we must tell our children; this is not for our level of Judaism. We must rise above the albums that are clearly meant to imitate non-Jewish music, using non-Jewish music appended to words of Tanach, clearly on the fringe of acceptability. Maybe that music is good for kiruv, maybe it will stop someone from listening to secular music…but it’s not necessarily for us!
A Plea to the Producers of Today
We turn to the talented songwriters, performers, and producers, to understand what a great impact they can have upon Klal Yisroel and beseech them that they have an opportunity to use their music, regardless of genre, for a greater good. The performer should not merely prance around on stage for an hour, mindlessly belting out tune after tune…. There should be dialogue, peirush hamillos, a story, chizuk, inspiration, a plea for greater connection to the Almighty through music, …and we must be able to say wholeheartedly, tavo alav beracha - may he receive Divine blessings - for doing so…even if it isn’t always the kind of music that you and I appreciate. An evening of Jewish music should reinforce within the audience that music is a gift from Hashem with the potential to inspire the appropriate emotion of the moment, whether Simcha shel mitzvah or longing to be closer to Hashem, or to return to Yerushalayim…and that their evening was well spent spiritually. Jewish music is a calling, not merely a way to make a living.
If everyone involved made it paramount that their audiences be uplifted overall….or better yet, if the audiences demanded that performers use their talents for that goal…it would go a long way towards bringing the true Shiras Levi’im closer to realization.
Rabbi Golding, currently Executive Director of Rofeh Cholim Cancer Society (RCCS), produced and directed the first four JEP Records in the 1970s, and served as Technical Advisor for many Suki & Ding productions, most notably Uncle Moishy and the Mitzvah Men. The author wishes to acknowledge the constructive comments from Yisroel Lamm, Abie Rotenberg, and Moshe Hauben, much of which has been incorporated into the text of the article. This piece was adapted from a full-length article originally published in The Jewish Observer several years ago.