Thursday, August 16, 2007

Guest Posting From Rabbi Dovid Sears - "Who Took the 'Jewish' Out of Jewish Music" Revisited

(Painting by Martina Shapiro)

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!


At August 16, 2007 at 7:22:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here! Here! Agreed 100%.

I also have trouble listening to most of the contemporary Jewish music out there. I just don't find it to be very good, neither on a technical nor an expressive level. Two things in particular bother me about the expressive side (again, just my impressions):

1) Lack of vulnerability/sensitivity - music of the popular music is emotianally impenatrable, "Aesthetically Flat." There is very little nuance or variety within a song itself for me to latch onto (Perhaps this is R'Sears's "spiritual bankruptcy.")

2) The music comes across, to me at least, as having more to do with putting a pale alternative to secular music on the market that with creating a positive Jewish musical, religious, or artistic experience.

At August 16, 2007 at 7:54:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At this stage, how do we recreate the broad Jewish audience's good taste that will lead it to demand the best and not the worst?

At August 16, 2007 at 10:45:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Populat Jewish music is a part of popular American music. It follows the same conventions and developed among the same lines. That can't be helped.

Your point of comparing the same phenomena is absolutely correct. We need to classify Jewish music into different forms and then we can assess it correctly.

At August 16, 2007 at 11:30:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabbi Dovid Sears: Sorry for off topic. You might be interested, my friend wrote an article about vegetarianism in Yiddishkayt, referencing your book:

At August 16, 2007 at 11:30:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is a link:

At August 16, 2007 at 11:33:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

shekoach reb sears. b'ezrat H' i work in a hospital and what helps patients alot is a soft bamboo flute or a soft song(israeli or niggun).
it was great to hear about the level of musicianship of the leviim and how its influence goes back to persia, india. where can we learn more about this?
and, where can we learn about the actual training of the leviim, both musically and spiritually both before and during the time of the bet hamikdash?
i've attended many shuls and, honestly, the happy minyan is the closest i've ever felt to a real soulful music connection to our traditions. the carlebach melodies are very special and they are sung with sincerity.
you make an essential point about what is being taught in yeshivot. i compare it to medical schools: how many doctors are given adequate or any substantive training in "bedside manner" to effectively communicate and connect with patients/families so they can feel that someone cares. similarly to your point about much emphasis is on a certain type of knowldege and how little is on cultivation of the inner life?(of course,not blanketly describing all yeshivot) certainly this is a huge and central part of our tradition, look at sfat for example.
and, where is the disconnect in recordings and public performance? in other traditional cultures, they have no problem with someone singing or playing an acoustic instrument with real feeling. no electronics,keyboards etc. for example, at american indian powwows all over the country every weekend they play the big drums, sing, dance etc. as i said, for me, happy minyan or a similar hassidishe situation or comparable sfardi place is where the real singing happens. and, at happy minyan, this is the only place where people dance regularly on shabbat.
i think we need more information about who we really are as am yisrael. what our true traditions are and how we can come back to them. i think the jewish cultures from around the world can show us: from persia, morrocco, yemen, easten europe etc.
perhaps a key idea is the more acoustic/un-plugged the sound, the closer to the real soul of the music.
and, realistically, just as during the times of the temple, the am saw fit to cultivate real artists, why can't we have that today also?
why can't there also be yeshivot for musicians? where they cultivate learning and musicianship in order to be of service to H' and israel?
personally, as a struggling, committed artist for over 30 years, i think it's about time people recognized the long hours of sincere labor that musicians put in to really develop their craft. and, to develop in a way that cultivates a true sense of spiritual service in the music.
i learned alot from listening to john coltrane, traditional american indian singers...and then discovered that my hassidic great grampa used to sing niggunim all the time.
thanks for your piece. it's an idea that merits more development and discussion.

At August 16, 2007 at 11:35:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

צוליב דער טעטיקייט פֿון צוויי חסידישע וועגעטאַרישע רבנים — הרבֿ יונתן גרשום פֿון מינעסאָטע, און הרבֿ דוד סירס פֿון באָראָ-פּאַרק, דער דירעקטאָר פֿונעם ברוקלינער "ברעסלאָוו־צענטער".

אין זײַן בוך "Vision of Eden" האָט הרבֿ סירס געזאַמלט אַ סך אַרגומענטן לטובֿת וועגעטאַריאַניזם און וועגן פֿאַרשיי­דענע עקאָלאָגישע ענינים, אַרײַנגערעכנט צענד­ליקער ציטאַטן פֿון קבלה-ספֿרים, חסידישע מעשׂיות און אַנדערע תּורה-קוואַלן. דאָס בוך איז גוט באַלאַנסירט: דער מחבר פּרוּווט נישט איבערצוצײַגן יעדן צו ווערן אַ ווע­געטאַריאַנער, און ברענגט אויך אַרגומענטן פֿון "מינימאַליסטן", וועלכע האַלטן, אַז ס׳איז כּדאַי צו באַגרענעצן דאָס פֿלייש־געברויך ביז אַ מיני­מום, אָבער נישט אָפּ­זאָגן זיך אינ­גאַנצן פֿון פֿליישיקע מאכלים, בפֿרט שבת און יום־טובֿ. דוד סירסעס בוך און אַרטיק­לען זענען פּאָפּולער אויך צווישן די אַלגעמיינע, לאו-דווקא ייִדישע וועגעטאַרישע קרײַזן.

At August 16, 2007 at 11:38:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

also, pls see
"inner rhythms, the kabbalah of music" by dovber pinson.

rav greenbaum of has written about music related to breslov tradition.

At August 16, 2007 at 11:43:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabbi Dovid Sears: Now on topic - very well said. The only way to "fix" it - is to fix the focus. To restore the real values of Yiddishkayt, even to chasidim - real values of Chasidus. But this is unfortunately only part of the problem. Another part - to learn old nigunim to know at least what it should resemble!

At August 16, 2007 at 11:46:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

also must note that john coltrane was influenced by jewish music. his most famous piece "a love supreme" concludes with "psalm" which has words sounding like a tehilim. several of his melodies: psalm, the promise, attaining, song of praise, have what could be considered a jewish sound. his saxophone was once described as a "cantorial tenor(saxophone)". his wife a'h, told me that when he composed 'song of praise' he was inspired from a sentence in isaiah.
and, re american indian music, at a powwow a chmash birdsinger mentioned to me: in your book it says that we all come from the same ancestor, right?

At August 16, 2007 at 11:58:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a yid: pls translate the yiddish here and perhaps summarize the link for us? thank you!!

At August 16, 2007 at 12:05:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon: Big task, I simply have no time for it. In summary it speaks about the issue of "vegetarianism" and meat eating from perspective of Yiddishkayt, researching some original sources.

At August 16, 2007 at 1:58:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

in all my experience working in a hospital and in life there is nothing more helpful to the soul than a soft prayer sincerely sung.

never underestimate the power of an elder or any sincere person softly singing from their heart with a good intention. just as the Besht spoke about the power of simple jews saying tehilim, i feel similarly about a song.

the more am yisrael sings together and cultivates music as a spiritual art to help and uplift the people: treated with the same care as medicine and rabbanut...then we will see good progress, b'ezrat H'.

At August 16, 2007 at 3:12:00 PM EDT, Blogger Moshe David Tokayer said...

Rabbi Sears,

Thank you so much!! When I was a kid ('60s), all we had was Chassidishe music and Carlbach. I never could relate well to the modern "Hassidic" music. To me, it sounded as if the singers were screaming. The old time chassidishe stuff and Carlbach's music always hit home.

At August 16, 2007 at 3:15:00 PM EDT, Blogger Moshe David Tokayer said...

I just had a recollection of Rav Bulman zt"l on a Friday night about 30 years ago in Yerushalayim singing a complicated Chassidishe niggun and then lamenting on the state of modern Jewish music!

At August 17, 2007 at 9:51:00 AM EDT, Blogger Yaacov David Shulman said...

So, the question isn't how rotten the world of Jewish music is but what can we create, either in our mining from the tradition or, what new forms can we experiment with that are the deepest and most authentic to our experience of Torah.

Or are we afraid to be who we are in our musical expression, because we think that we cannot well-enough embody and express the Torah, but must only be receivers--so that even when we do create music, it comes out necessarily flat and propagandistic, becuase we are afraid to put our idiosyncratic selves forward into and through it?

Let's try little "holy arrogance," I suggest.

At August 17, 2007 at 7:45:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"holy arrogance" might better be translated as "holy boldness" a breslov idea (likutey moharan v. 3 english ed.)

i think it's a valuable question that's being discussed.

one simple answer is: when music is recorded/produced for distribution it seems then to lose it's soul, even much 'religious' music. so, how can music that's recorded become more authentic?
simplify: acoustic sounds, one singer, focus on sincerity. a good example is "shir hamaalot" by yosef karduner.

At August 20, 2007 at 8:08:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also wonder if there isn't too much pressure on the better musicians to put out product after product to a formula even when real inspiration is lacking. Even the best have ups and downs creatively.

At August 20, 2007 at 12:59:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

there is no way the leviim of the bet hamikdash would tolerate the cmomercialized stuff that passes for music. sorry.

i think the jewish world needs to be much more conscious and conscientous about this.

now, the leviim, at thier very high level, could probably tell that perhaps the intention of some of todays jewish pop music in the religious world is good; but, what acutally comes out is not what's really helping.

then again, what the heck do i know? maybe it's what people need?

At August 24, 2007 at 12:03:00 AM EDT, Blogger J. "יהוא בן יהושפט בן נמשי" Izrael said...

I agree that Jewish poetry ("piyutim") are fundamentally different from Western poetry. Can't compare Coleridge or poe to Eliezer Haclear or Ibn Ezra.

As for music, authentic Jewish music is forgotten... "Vayhi Kimnagein Hamnagein" and the music of the Leviim was pure kdushah, Worship of G-d, not Guns'N'Roses. (actually I believe that the leitzanim at that time were also making fun of that music "ha ha look at those stupid rabbis and their wussy music! Why don't you come to Ashur and Moav to see Keithar Richardeus live!".

Today there is few good "Jewish" music. Yehuda Glantz, The Piamentas, Metalsih and Danni Maman are excellent & super professionals. There's this new guy Ari Boigneau or whatever I saw him once, he's very good, and clearly influenced by Jeff Beck. Than you got Klezmer which IMHO is more than Carpathian folk. Much more modified. There's also this ghetto music which is incredible. That's more chazzanus-like.

As for myself? Well that's my business. Let's just say that on many a Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull and Uriah Heep raise a glass in the Court of the Crison King, alongside buddies Judas Priest and Pink Floyd, while Frank Gambale checks the Weather Report.


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