Opinion: The Jewish Music Hechsher Idea is Ludicrous; However…

Tuesday January 19, 2010 1:23 PM - 37 Comments

cdsBy 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.)

“Idol” Worship

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.

{Matzav.com Newscenter}

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37 Responses to “Opinion: The Jewish Music Hechsher Idea is Ludicrous; However…”

1. Comment from Aaron
Time January 19, 2010 at 1:45 PM

Rabbi Yosef C. Golding –

A big Yasher Koach for courageously writing this Emes for everyone.

2. Comment from David
Time January 19, 2010 at 1:46 PM

Thank you Matzav for publishing this much needed article.

Rabbosai, please take it to heart.

3. Comment from Rebbe
Time January 19, 2010 at 1:48 PM

Bravo Rabbi Golding.

After reading these little talked about facts brought down in this article, it is no wonder that the Gedolim on both Eretz Yisroel and in America unfortunately find it necessary to assur certain music and entertainers.

4. Comment from Joe Hill
Time January 19, 2010 at 2:04 PM

This article is a much needed reminder. Very well written, to the point, and indeed very true.

5. Comment from MDshweks
Time January 19, 2010 at 2:05 PM

That’s what’s so special about listening to JEP and PIRCHEI. It makes all the difference when you know it wasn’t produced as a buisiness, but as holly-work. The same feeling is there by Carlebach and the Chassidishe music.

6. Comment from midwesterner
Time January 19, 2010 at 2:09 PM

The Elokeinu song he refers to is probably Eileh Varechev from the old Or Chadash record. When they (actually it was mostly new guys) performed for HASC some 20 years later, the zetzing of the words changed slightly and Elokeinu was fit back in.

7. Comment from Tanna Kamma
Time January 19, 2010 at 2:14 PM

Wow, does he hit the nail on the head!!
The truth is, it was Suki & Ding who produced the golden hit albums of MBD & Fried such as “Just One Shabbos” “V’chol Maaminim” “Around the Year” “All-Star Jerusalem” “Hallel”, and you can tell that he kept to everything he writes above when selecting songs.
Unfortunately, these gems are a thing of the past…

8. Comment from Anonymous
Time January 19, 2010 at 2:26 PM

Wow. So glad someone finally said this. The “Jewish” music scene is out of control. Many musicians seem very foolish with their antics obviously to imitate the goyim.

9. Comment from Shraga
Time January 19, 2010 at 3:14 PM

“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.”

I’m afraid that, unfortunately, Kavod Shomayim is the furthest thing on the mind of most of todays song writers. Many, if not most, songs today are a real Chillul Kavod Shomayim. Halevay that Rabbi Goldings words should spur some of these song writers to Teshuvah, but what are the chances of that…

10. Comment from Anon
Time January 19, 2010 at 3:18 PM

Several years ago, a friend of mine walked out in the middle of a “famous charity” concert out of disgust. This friend has (unfortunately) been to goyishe concerts, but he told me that when he goes to a “Jewish” concert, he expects it to be just that: Jewish. The disgusting stuff that gets put on these days is anything but…

11. Comment from JEP and JO Fan
Time January 19, 2010 at 3:25 PM

I guess this is the place to lament the passing of the JO and “old age” of JEP.

12. Comment from i wish
Time January 19, 2010 at 3:29 PM

very well said, however; i think this although it is a big issue and should be outspoken and worked on really is just the end of what seems to be a big picture.. D-N-A are the real issues taking over our youths and only once the D-N-A will be fixed will we see that music issues will automatically be fixed!
(((((dna Drugs and alchol)

13. Comment from Mordechai Avigdor
Time January 19, 2010 at 3:33 PM

Yasher Koach Rabbi Golding for giving expression to the Haskofos of our Gedolim on this topic.With a little more introspection our musical artists will breath a real Yiddishe Neshoma into their productions and avoid the annoying calls for Hechsherim on albums.Todays musical artists have become role models for their listeners.I hope they will take that role earnestly.

14. Comment from notallthere
Time January 19, 2010 at 3:39 PM

Let’s all remember that the Gedolim of yesteryear walked off the dance floor by a Chasunah that was playing “Shmelkies Nigun”.
Things change and we just need to calm the music down not assur it completely.

15. Comment from someone somewhere
Time January 19, 2010 at 4:34 PM

As a frum professional musician, let me submit a different perspective.

When people publish articles like this one, THOUGH IT IS NOT THEIR INTENTION TO DO SO, they give ammunition to the kannoim who published “guidelines” earlier this week. Those kannoim use these types of articles and “run with them” to drive us frum musicians out of business!

I don’t think today’s Jewish popular music is so holy, or so refined, etc., but it is definitely better than the shmutz that goes for music in the outside world! If there is going to be music floating around in the frum world, let it be this and not the trash from the world around us that shares the same structure, rhythm, etc. but has words of pritzus and everything ossur.

And if there is no more of this type of music, and frum musicians who compose and play these songs are driven out of business, it is the music of the outside world that will make it into the frum world, not the holy music of 30-40 years ago.

Not that I am disagreeing with this article — or with the complaints and issues propagated by the va’ad l’mishmeres neginas yisroel (or whoever they are) — but I am worried about how far people will take their words!

16. Comment from Monseyer
Time January 19, 2010 at 5:38 PM

#14 - Are you sure that it was Shmelke’s Nigun?? If I’m not mistaken, that tune was composed by Rav Shmuel Brazil back in the 70’s, and is truly a hartzige niggun. Maybe those “gedolim of yesteryear” were upset about the musicians or the dancing style? And is there any particular reason you don’t want to post which Gedolim you’re referring to?

17. Comment from Anonymous
Time January 19, 2010 at 6:44 PM

“And if there is no more of this type of music, and frum musicians who compose and play these songs are driven out of business, it is the music of the outside world that will make it into the frum world, not the holy music of 30-40 years ago.”

Why can’t the frum musicians just write frum music, instead of being driven out of business?

18. Comment from Anonymous
Time January 19, 2010 at 7:35 PM

#14,

It’s rather the other way around. The disgusting music being put out today is what gives the kannoim their ammunition. And you know what? There still is goyishe music out there which is less wild and hefkeirusdik than some of the stuff you can buy at Eichlers.

19. Comment from jewish music lover
Time January 19, 2010 at 7:43 PM

lipa… keep on rockin! WE LOVE YOU!

20. Comment from Baki
Time January 19, 2010 at 8:09 PM

The title has ZERO to do with the article. In fact, from reading the article, it seems quite likely that he would find it not to be enough!

21. Comment from truth be told
Time January 19, 2010 at 8:27 PM

There is no music like ‘Abbie Rottenberg’ music….and no music like “AR’ music particularly his English songs. They are heavenly, spiritual and awe inspiring.

22. Comment from someone somewhere
Time January 19, 2010 at 9:48 PM

#17 Some people will NEVER be happy with any Jewish music that is less than 50 years old.

23. Comment from tzippi
Time January 19, 2010 at 10:03 PM

Was this Rabbi Golding’s title?

And Rabbi G., may you go maichayil el chayil ad 120!

24. Comment from Anonymous
Time January 19, 2010 at 11:01 PM

Yosef Chaim and Ding are brothers. Both are good people. This is an interesting subject and the answer is not as clear as one might think.

25. Comment from AM
Time January 19, 2010 at 11:03 PM

# 21

I fully agree with you. The title “Dveikus” is most appropriate for his music.

26. Comment from World Saver
Time January 20, 2010 at 1:05 AM

Why is the fact that it keeps the goyish music out not a good enough reason to be allowed to produce todays jewish music the way it is?

We do not live in an ideal world. So the music that will “get to us” is not either ideal. Is this so hard to understand?

27. Comment from Dr. Arnold Berger
Time January 20, 2010 at 4:00 AM

This is an interesting subject which
requires a nuanced assessment. As an Orthodox
rabbi, I actually sympathize with the haredi
viewpoint on this subject.

However, I believe that the religious
level of the audience must also be taken into
consideration.

On a philosophical level, without
issuing any “psak”, I am of the opinion that
the quality of music does have an impact on
the audience. Plato, Aristotle and Confucious
noted this phenomenon. Reading these philosophers, one can conclude that this issue
was seriously discussed and debated among
the intelligentsia in the past.

In plain English, intellectuals understood that music can have either a positive or negative effect on people; hence
the concern. I highly recommend a book
that deals with this subject: “The Torah Is Not
Hefker”. It has a haskama; thus, my haredi brethren should not have any problem with it.

To my delight, the book discusses
the viewpoints of the philosophers I cited
above. One of its themes deals with the impact
vulgar music has on social mores.

In particular, reference is made
to an excellent book entitled “The Closing
Of The American Mind: How Education has failed
Democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s
students.” This seminal book was written by
the American professor, Alan Bloom. In this
segment, he writes about the pernicious effect
of rock music on the young generation.

In addition, there is a relevant
commentary on the deleterious effects of rock
music on modern Chassidic melodies.

In my opinion, Jewish music
should retain its traditional structure.
It is not good to emulate the lewd
rhythms and cacophonous tunes which unfortunately pass as music nowadays. Musicians who perform at religious gatherings
should not be allowed to impose their style on
the audience without authorization of the people paying for the performance. (For
the sake of kiruv, it seems to me that a more
flexible approach would be appropriate in
accordance with the level of religiosity of
the audience.)

In the final analysis, it is up to the
consumer to make his concerns known. If people
object to loud music played at chasunas, the musicians should be advised of the situation.
Musicians should respect the religious sensibilities of their audience.

28. Comment from deveikus fan
Time January 20, 2010 at 4:57 AM

the song “Holu Lashem Ki Tov” on Deveikus 2 is a non-jewish country song. The question of how “Jewish” Jewish music needs to be is complex and goes back at least to the time of the Rishonim.

29. Comment from Isaac Balbin
Time January 20, 2010 at 7:27 AM

Aside from the ‘worship’ and ‘antics’ who decides whether kedusha can be manifested in a song?

Yesteryear, they considered Waltzes heilig. Guess what. Those that waltzed were depraved.

R’ Ovadya paskens you can not only use Arabic music in Shule, but you can even take songs they sing in the mosque and put new words to it.

It’s all so subjective. Making absolutist statements makes no sense.

Sole Kokosh Mar anyone?

Sigh.

30. Comment from MominJ-m
Time January 20, 2010 at 9:27 AM

#15 and #26, I think that you are underestimating the spiritual qualities of the Jewish neshama to be inspired, no matter where the person is holding right now. Music is a medium and it is possible to produce true music with Yiddishe ta’am that can appeal to a broad public if it is of high quality. Even if you identify more with your body than with your neshama, when your neshama hears inspiring music it is affected. And likewise when you hear animalistic music with a wild beat, it arouses the animal side of you. And yes, maybe it is better to rock to goyish songs if you feel you must rock rather than to words from Tehillim for example, and not become too desensitized to be inspired from true Jewish music. At least then you are not confusing kodesh with chol.

31. Comment from Chava
Time January 20, 2010 at 10:37 AM

MominJ-m #30 said: “And yes, maybe it is better to rock to goyish songs if you feel you must rock rather than to words from Tehillim for example, and not become too desensitized to be inspired from true Jewish music. At least then you are not confusing kodesh with chol.”

Very well put.

32. Comment from Music2
Time January 20, 2010 at 3:12 PM

As someone who has been involved in Jewish music for many years, I find this discussion to be quite interesting. While Rabbi Golding does make alot of sense and has some very strong points, I think that a very important item is being left out. There are some extremely talented singers, groups and composers out there today. Rabbi Golding can ask his brother who does produce concerts why these people are not hired that often to perform. Their music is beautiful. You ask why? Because it’s about money! And the more trashy and goyish an album sounds, the more it sells today! The more seats that are sold for a concert! A good idea might be to give some of the more Jewish sounding artists some publicity that they might not be able to afford. You’d be surprised at what a little exposure can do. This Hechsher and the bans that we’ve seen previously are probably crazy ideas. So, why not some POSITIVE talking. Give recognition to those that are actually spending the money and refuse to step over the line of sounding goyishe. Just remember that every yid knows when his neshama is inspired and moved by a niggun. You know when you’ve heard a memorable song. Not one that makes you shake all over and then it’s forgotten the next day. WE the consumer are going to have to change if we ever want the real Jewish music to be left standing.

33. Comment from ziedy
Time January 26, 2010 at 8:34 AM

It is relevant to note that one of the most popular new bands hired by many chasanim is called ‘rock on’ when translated from the Hebrew. The type of music bands perform usually are triggered by the choson. That is really the only part of the wedding they care/get involved about. Flowers? Linens? menu? not nogaiah… But the band… The more backbeat thumping the better. But when you really think about the matzav this is one of the few outlets the boys have. They practice their dance steps in the dorm and love to show them off at the wedding. Better that then al the other garbage out there.

34. Comment from Dr. Arnold Berger
Time January 26, 2010 at 11:53 AM

Re #33 “This is one of the few
outlets the boys have.”

Your point is well-taken. This
is definitely not a black and white
issue.

Although from a philosophical
vantage point, one can argue about
the need to be concerned about the
effects melodies can have on the
audience, it is not always easy to
pass a value judgement on the nature
of tunes. (It is far easier to do so
with regard to lyrics.)

35. Comment from YS
Time January 27, 2010 at 5:27 PM

Dr. Berger,
First off, thank you for posting comments using clear writing, proper punctuation and paragraphs. Thank you for respecting the readers.

Second, you mentioned R’ Luft’s book, “The Torah is not Hefker”. It may interest you to read a point by point review and rebuttal of this book by an erlich Jewish musician.

http://blogindm.blogspot.com/2008/10/in-review-r-ephraim-lufts-torah-is-not.html

I think you will find it very interesting to hear the topic addressed from the perspective of a frum professional.
/YS

36. Comment from Dr. Arnold Berger
Time January 28, 2010 at 1:16 PM

Gentleman:

Please note that I have not nor do I intend
to endorse blogger #35’s views or music
website.

37. Comment from another frum musician
Time January 28, 2010 at 6:52 PM

it’s all about taste! Artistic issues can’t be “ruled”. Listen to the first few Nigunei Belz productions. A lot of “modern” sounds and beats are employed, but when listening to the production AS A WHOLE one can hear that they are being utilised toward a generally TASTEFUL end.

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