Guest Posting From Rabbi Dovid Sears - "Who Took the 'Jewish' Out of Jewish Music" Revisited
I sympathize with what has been posted here recently about the current state of Jewish music. In one of the comments, someone invoked the article I wrote for the Jewish Observer about this ten years ago (which did nothing to improve things). Just to clarify my position: what I objected to was not so much a particular music style, or the influence of foreign musical ideas, but the spiritual bankruptcy of the current Jewish pop music. The niggunim we sing in shul are so profound -- while the commercial stuff tends to be awful (at least to my ears), mimicking cheap night club music and everything that is superficial and slick.
This is not an accident!
Our art reflects our values and our inner life. Chassidic niggunim are deep and stirring because the people who produced them were focussed on the spiritual life. Some Chassidim still are. By contrast, today's Jewish pop music, too, is a mirror of who we are and our values -- which I need not describe.
The solution is not more issurim and charomim, not adding more things to the "black list." It is to engage in some long-overdue cheshbon ha-nefesh, and to get back on track! And part of the blame goes to our approach in chinnuch. If we leave seforim that deal with the inner life out of the yeshivah curriculum, inevitably we will pay the price for such neglect in producing talmidim who may be experts in lomdus, but who are still in kitah alef when it comes to Yiddishkeit as a derekh in inner growth and hiskarvus to the Eybishter.
My Rosh Yeshivah, the Bostoner Rebbe of Flatbush, shlita, once discussed this problem and basically took the same position. Thus, his yeshivah included a Maharal shiur every Sunday, a mussar shmuess on Erev Shabbos, regular haskofah shiurim, and in more recent years, a weekly shiur in Chassidus. I would have preferred even more -- but this definitely made a difference for talmidim who were searching for guidance in these areas. (I don't know if they had better taste in music, but given the Bostoner repertoire, I would hope so!)
Yossele Kvetch wrote: "With all due respect, our medieval paytanim were awesome tzaddikim, but they were not as great writers as William Blake or Dylan Thomas or Robert Frost, and not too many frum instrumentalists compare to Leo Kottke or John Coltrane or Andres Segovia or Pablo Casals..."
It seems to me that we are comparing apples and oranges. The societies and cultures that produced those great artists and others like them need to be understood on their own terms. So do the Jewish societies and cultures that produced our great paytanim and songwriters and musicians. (Our paytanim were extremely skillful and brilliant, and the poems they wrote were extraordinary for what they were. However, they were not created in a vacuum, but often show the influence of medieval Arabic verse.)
I'm not an expert in any of this, but I would think it more legitimate to compare religious poets with religious poets -- let's say Yehudah Halevi with Rumi -- than writers who have almost nothing in common. You can't compare modernist poets, who were actively breaking away from their traditions, with Jewish religious writers living in the shtetl or even in larger Jewish enclaves, coming from such a completely different mindset.
Moreover, many of our greatest religious writers were working in media that have no parallel outside of the Jewish world. For example, Rabbi Nachman's kalaidoscopic discourses are art forms of their own; so is the prose of Rav Kook.
The same thing applies to music. Instrumentalists of other rich musical traditions have been in a very different position than our own, and those who would make comparisons have to consider this.
We are told that the Levi'im devoted their lives to composing and playing music in the Beis HaMikdosh for centuries, and were unmatched in the ancient world. A famous Islamic Persian musician once told Andy Statman that Jews were the official musicians of his country for generations, and that many core ideas of Indian classical music migrated from Persia eastward, where they developed into one of the most profound musical tradions in the world. However, Ashkenazic Jewry was basically relegated to an outcast existence, and we lost most of our ancient culture, especially our music. There were only limited economic opportunities for players; but strong folk traditions nevertheless developed, and in many countries Jewish musicians were sought out even by the gentile nobility. In the 19th century some assimilated Jews became famous classical musicians and composers, while "klezmer" players remained an integralpart of Jewish village life.
Instead of comparing clarinetists Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein and tsimbalist Josef Moskowitz to Coltrane, Segovia, and Casals, I would suggest comparing them to folk musicians like Appalachian virtuoso Hobart Smith or Dixieland clarinetist George Lewis. When seen in this light, I think the great klezmorim can hold their own!