Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Conversation On Niggunim

At the end of January, my friend Yitz of Heichal HaNegina sent me two scanned pages from the sefer HaNiggun v'HaRikud B'Chassidus that referenced a discussion in Degel Machaneh Ephraim (Parshas Vayeira) about niggunim.

Rabbi Tal Zwecker, who is working on a project to translate Degel Machaneh Ephraim into English, was kind enough to provide me with a translation of the section of Degel Machaneh Ephraim that was referenced in HaNiggun v'HaRikud B'Chassidus:

"Sometimes a tzaddik sits among others and engages them in conversation including stories about life and this physical word that seem on the outside to be idle and trivial matters. The truth is however, that the tzaddik's thoughts are connected through dveykus to Hashem on high, and that which he is saying although it appears to them as simple idle conversation regarding this physical world, is in truth the tzaddik's thinking about deep holy, spiritual matters.

This is true in all worldly matters that people discuss with the tzaddik, whatever topic they speak to him about he will always perceive in those discussions holy matters. This is akin to what I heard from my master and grandfather, may his merit shield us [The Holy Baal Shem Tov] that which the nations of the world sing songs all contain fear, awe, and love of Hashem, which is found unclothed in them from above to below in all the lower levels."

Interestingly, the sefer HaNiggun v'HaRikud B'Chassidus adds a sentence and implies that the Degel taught "the ability to refine and uplift these sparks from songs and stories is the domain of only truly righteous Tzaddikim." This teaching, however, does not seem to come directly from the text.

When I asked Rabbi Zwecker why this clause was added, he responded:

"I think that its probably true. The author felt that it was important to emphasize this point and that we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking (as some do) that we could all take goyish music and make it holy and take idle conversation and gossip and transform that into kedusha.

Many early Chassidic teachings like this one were misused by people who tried to portray the Baal Shem Tov, Chassidus and his Tzadikim and Chassidim as rebels, romantics and hippies.

The author probably felt that it was important for this teaching to be taken into the right context.

Similar concepts are even argued about by the Rebbes themselves (although this one about music I have not seen a counter argument.)

For example the Alter Rebbe of Chabad in Tanya teaches that even though the Baal Shem Tov taught that extraneous thoughts during prayer are seeking to be redeemed by uplifting them and rectifying their tikkun, he felt that Tzadikim only could do this and all others who try are fools. Whereas the Meor Einayim of Chernobyl clearly says that this can be accomplished by anyone even beynonim (i.e. the average Jew."

Commenting on Rabbi Zwecker's thoughts, Yitz added:

"I believe I have mentioned this numerous times, not specifically to you [although I've at least hinted at it], but on various blogs including Beyond BT. There seems to be an attitude "out there" that we can just take "goyishe" music, put Hebrew words to it, add a little Jewish-sounding musical background instumentation, and presto! you have "authentic Jewish music." I know that this is not YOUR attitude, but many out there seem to feel this way.

And I would say that nothing could be further from the truth. That is not to say that Jewish music over the generations did not "borrow" or adapt music from its host culture and bring it into its sphere. My wife once asked Rabbi Nachman Bulman ZT"L [dean of Yeshivas Ohr Sameach in Yerushalayim] what makes Jewish music Jewish, per se. His answer was: "If it's been through the crucible of Jewish experience."

In the words of R. Velvel Pasternak, a contempory Jewish musicologist, "Those who opposed chassidism, and many music scholars who made little effort to understand the soul of chassidic music, never failed to emphasize that foreign elements can be found within its melodies. However, even the borrowed motifs never remained as they had originally been. They were worked and reshaped into a new form, the form of the Chassid. From this a new melody resulted, born of spiritual Judaism, which became the individualistic melody known as the chassidic niggun."

And later he says, "The surprising and interesting thing about chassidic music is that it could take the foreign elements of the surrounding cultures, and create a unique body of song with its own definite characteristics."

The father of the first Modzitzer Rebbe, Rebbe Shmuel Eliyahu of Zvolin, said: "When someone presents a song/tune [Rina is the word he used], he takes on a heavy responsibility. For the rise and descent of the soul are in the mouth of a niggun - it all depends of the menagen [the singer or instrumentalist] - what he plays and how he plays it. A niggun can bring one up to the highest heights, or, chas v'shalom to Sheol Tachtis - the Depths."

Additionally, it is interesting to look at the source for the Lubavitch attitude to music found in the beginning of Sefer Haniggunim. There introduction to this sefer is a Sicha of the Frierdike Rebbe that explains that the composer of a song puts his Nefesh in to the song. So that when we listen to a song, we are affected by the Nefesh of the composer.

That means, that when you listen to a song composed by the Rebbe, you are affected by the Rebbe's Neshama. When you listen to a song composed by a Chassid, you are affected by that Chassid's Neshama. And on the other side, when you listen to music composed by a non-Jew, even a classical composer, and even if a Jewish band is playing that music, you are affected by that non-Jew's soul, which is probably not very beneficial to a Tayere Yiddishe Neshama. [a precious Jewish soul].

Sefer Haniggunim also notes,

"It is appropriate to emphasize that with all the importance and positive attitude of the Jewish teachings to Shira and Zimra, and with all its ma'alos, in Judaism, music was never considered an end in itself. That is, music for the mere beauty of music, as the other [non-Jewish] nations did. Jews regarded music as important in regards to uplifting the spirit, to rise up in levels of prophecy, or for the uplifting & outpouring of the soul in fervent service of Hashem. From the religious point of view, music did not reach its apex and its true import except as a means for transporting a person, from stage to stage, in the scale of Kedusha, of uplifting and raising the soul; and only then did it receive its true form and essence. Not so is the realm of secular music, plain songs meant for man's pleasure. These are devoid of all spark or sound of Kedusha. These songs, on the contrary, were denigrated and despised by our Prophets." (see Yeshayahu 5:12; Amos 5:23 and 6:5)

Finally, after reading Yitz's thoughts above, I recalled an e-mail discussion that I had with Rabbi Lazer Brody in January 2005 when I asked him for his thoughts on my posting on Jewish music. Rabbi Brody replied,

"Rebbe Nachman of Breslev writes that it's important to listen to music played by a G-d fearing musician, otherwise, a person will have problems in emuna. These problems are often subtle, but the higher you go, the more you must take things into consideration."

Indeed, it appears that the issue of Jewish music is quite complex. Hopefully the points raised above will lead to yet further discussion on this topic.


At April 25, 2006 at 6:54:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

A beautiful presentation!

I just feel I should add that many of us found our way into Yiddishkeit [a return or discovery of our Judaism] in no small part due to the music that we listened to, which opened our minds & hearts to new ideas, some of which were quite spiritual. While we may owe a debt of thanks to some of these popular music "stars" [and it's amazing how many of them had/have Jewish roots!], we need to know that at some time it's time to "move on" and connect ourselves to "music that's been through the crucible of Jewish experience."

At April 25, 2006 at 8:49:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

An interesting perspective, from Rabbi Berel Wein, can be found here:

At April 25, 2006 at 8:27:00 PM EDT, Blogger Dovid said...

Interesting! I just posted on the topic myself. I have to investigate this sicho in Sefer hangunim. But thanks for the reference.

At April 26, 2006 at 12:27:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your article is very inspiring and thought-provoking. I agree with your approach and think it's a very important subject.

One minor point- Rabbi Zwecker speaks about beinonim and calls them "the average Jew."

This may be the case according to some opinions, but my reading of the Alter Rebbe's Tanya indicates to me that the level of beinoni is a very high one indeed - free from all sin in thought, speech and action - although not free from the inclination to sin. The Alter Rebbe says it is a level we should all (that is, all of us 'average Jews') should aspire to.

Hatzlocha Rabba!

Yosef Dahne

At April 26, 2006 at 3:18:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Yosef, Although you are correct about the Baal HaTanya's concept of the Beinoni, the more common understanding is the one mentioned by Rabbi Zwecker. Furthermore, when one wants to discuss the Tanya's version, he often refers to it as "the Baal HaTanya's [or Alter Rebbe's] Beinoni."

At April 26, 2006 at 6:30:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Dovid & Yosef Dahne: Thank you for your comments.


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