Wednesday, August 08, 2007

"Only Ugliness And Impurity"

Yossele Kvetch commenting on Rebbe Nachman & Don Ross:

There have been "real ehrlicher Yidden" who listened to classical, folk, and other secular music forms. There are teshuvos and other rabbinic discussions about this, and basically there is no issur if the music doesn't have provocative lyrics or isn't inherently connected to avodah zara in the mind of the listener. The rest is all a matter of kedushah.

Music like all art is not just a spiritual medium, but a form of emotional and intellectual expression. Therefore, we have something to learn from all people, Jewish and non-Jewish, within the bounds of halachah.

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...

Says Rav Kook [Mishnato shel HaRav Kook]:

"It is a mean eye that causes one to see only ugliness and impurity in everything beyond the bounds of Israel, the unique nation. This is one of the most awful, debased forms of darkness. It damages the entire edifice of spiritual virtue, the light of which every spiritual soul seeks."

Chokhmah ba-umos taamin!"

PS: The fact that Modzitzer niggunim sound like European classical music from the turn of the last century, Chabad niggunim sound like Russian folk songs, Viznitzer niggunim sound like gypsy songs, and so much Sefardic music sounds like Arabic and other non-Jewish middle eastern musics can't be a coincidence. We heard this stuff and adapted certain parts of it to our music -- just as Jewish music, in turn, influenced that of the people with whom we lived. There has always been a certain amount of cultural cross-pollination, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The main question is whether or not we are "elevating" our influences by having the right intentions, or whether we are loosing touch with our own spiritual roots and aspirations.


At August 8, 2007 at 8:23:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yossele Kvetch said, "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..."

Are you including the great Sephardic poets and writers in this? If so, I would question it. The Ramchal in the 1700's was another master poet and writer.

At August 8, 2007 at 8:37:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yossele also said, "...and not too many frum instrumentalists compare to Leo Kottke or John Coltrane or Andres Segovia or Pablo Casals..."

To this day, there have been many great Jewish musicians, conductors, and composers who were not frum (typically, they were brought up in assimilated families). See, for example,

Assuming that HaShem spread innate Jewish musical talent around evenly in all Jewish communities, why has this not expressed itself much lately in the frum world?

At August 8, 2007 at 8:51:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

The fact that Modzitzer niggunim sound like European classical music from the turn of the last century.
Excuse me, but which composers exactly do you think influenced their music? To the best of my knowledge, it may have been the other way around! What do I mean? There's a famous story about how Toscanini came to Palestine & wanted to hear authentic Jewish music. He sent his son-in-law, who happened to be Jewish, to find out where he could hear it. The answer was the Modzitz shtibel in Tel-Aviv! So the story goes that he himself went there & sat in corner where no one noticed him, & wrote down the notes of the niggunim that were sung! Shortly thereafter he played one of the niggunim at a classical concert, & the audience was astounded!

Secondly, the only classical piece I know of that sounds a bit like Modzitz is a waltz from Shostakovitch, which has parts very similar to a waltz composed by Rebbe Shaul of Modzitz [2nd Rebbe]. I checked the dates - Shostakovitch was 11 when R. Shaul composed his waltz - so who was influenced???
To the best of my knowledge, the Modzitzer Rebbes were incredibly gifted Jewish composers, in every sense of the word, & didn't spend time listening to secular music. I'm sure they heard earlier Chassidic music, but that's about it!!!

At August 8, 2007 at 8:55:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Regarding Bob's comments:
1. POETRY: Rav Yehuda HaLevi, author of the Kuzari, was a gifted religious poet. Rav Kook composed some lofty poetry as well. I'm sure there's more, we're just not that familiar with them.

2. MUSICIANS: Roman Kunsman z"l was a gifted flutist, who also composed. He was comfortable in a jazz setting as well. Shimon Lanzbom is an excellent guitarist. Again, I'm sure there are more musicians out there, we just don't know of them. Also, the "market" for religious music is quite limited, so it's hard for a great musician to aspire to be another Coltrane or Miles Davis.

At August 8, 2007 at 9:43:00 AM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Rav Hirsch, Dessler (I believe), and Hutner all composed poetry at some point.

At August 8, 2007 at 11:36:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I once got into an argument with a bochur learning in a Chaba"d yeshiva. He was giving me stress over listening to non-Jewish music. I said like my rav, that music's "kashrut" is only determined by the emotions it evokes (if music makes you more G-d-aware, puts you into a mindset where you're ready for tefillah, etc., then it's fine, no matter what, and this will vary from person to person; if music is detracting from your ruchnius, then it's not fine).

He retorted that we should only listen to Jewish music. I said, again, like my rav, that we don't know what Jewish music is, that the music the Levi'im sung in the beis ha'Mikdash is lost on today's composer. He said basically that Chassidish nigunim are the closest we have. I said, "I'm sorry, if you can listen to 'nye zeritzi chloptzi (chto iz nami budyet)' (a Chaba"d song *in Russian*) then I can listen to Linkin Park."

It's only naivete to assume that this ghetto-ization of Jewish music began with Moshe Rabbeinu. "Borrowing" from non-Jewish composers just didn't have the same meaning it does today. ESPECIALLY with Chaba"d -- I mean, come ON, L'Chai ha'Olamim to the tune of "La Marseillaise", the French national anthem?

And, in his Maspik l'Ovdei Hashem, R' Avraham son of the Ramba"m finds sources in Tana"ch for some MUSLIM practices. In fact, the halacha (Yoreh Deah 178?) says you can totally take gospel music and change the words -- the Beit Yosef also must not have wanted that we should have a musical repertoire consisting only of Shwekey.

At August 8, 2007 at 12:06:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I question this sweeping and absolute statement:

"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."

Before one can make such a sweeping and absolute statement, one would need to be an expert in both the Hebrew and English languages, as well as a scholar of Hebrew literature and English literature. A deep knowledge of Hebrew literature should include the works of the great Sephardic poets and writers. In addition, we need to be aware that many of us may have an unconscious western cultural bias which makes it difficult for us to "fully" appreciate the writings of our gifted medieval paytanim who were also awesome tzaddikim. While I question his statement concerning some very gifted and holy Jewish writers, I would agree that the main mission of our people is not to be the very best artists. For example, Moshe Rebbenu conveyed to us the following message:

�See! I have taught you statutes and social laws, as Hashem, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard and fulfill them, for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes and who shall say, �Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation!� � (Deuteronomy 4:5,6)

In his commentary on the above passage, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:

"Whatever arts and sciences may characterize the cultural heritage of other nations, yours - the Jewish art and science - is the knowledge and skills needed to build up all of your personal and national life upon two foundations: your awareness of God and your awareness of your duties to other human beings. This is the art and science of knowing the Divine Law and translating it into reality, the art and science of truth and a harmonious life. This knowledge and art of living will be regarded by the other nations as your distinguishing feature."

Although beauty and art have a role in our service of Hashem, the outer beauty and art must express the inner beauty and art of the soul of our people. I therefore prefer the holistic unity of physical and spiritual beauty which is found among the great and gifted Torah-committed writers and poets of our people.

At August 8, 2007 at 12:08:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Talmid said...

BTW, Likutei Mohoran 3, in the BRI english translation footnote 1 says that "listening to a wicked singer, such as, one whose intent in singing is only for great wealth or fame, will damage a person's ability to serve the Creator. And on the contrary hearing the song of a singer who is virtuous and worthy helps one to serve God".

The supplementary anecdotes in the back says that Reb Nachman said LM 3 after an incident with a Chazan, who turned out to be an adulterer.

At August 8, 2007 at 12:31:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is an important discussion. glad to see john coltrane mentioned. he evolved into a truly devotional artist, who, btw, was influenced by chazzanut. listent to "psalm","song of praise" and "the promise".
one comment mentions about using non-jewish music but changing lyrics. my question is:with some songs or forms, is the deepest nature of these not appropriate? does it take a true tzaddik to elevate it properly?
i think we have to be careful here. although i'm aware that jewish people have used non-jewish songs and forms and elevated them.

At August 8, 2007 at 12:54:00 PM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

I don't have the time to write as much as I'd like, but Rav Hirsch was a big fan of the poetry of Schiller.

Also this add article is very shiach:

At August 8, 2007 at 12:57:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Talmid - nice reamrk for those who forget about it. Hazal said, that Acher became an apikores, because he listened to Greek music... It wasn't exactly rap you might guess.

At August 8, 2007 at 1:08:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What exactly is the difference between Greek music today and generic Mediterranean Jewish music?

At August 8, 2007 at 2:01:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

does it take a true tzaddik to elevate it properly?
Yes, indeed!!! This is a dangerous game that people are playing who think they can take non-Jewish music & "kasher" it by putting it to Jewish lyrics. It takes many years, & a lot of avoda, to do such a thing.
The examples that y-love mentioned above:
1. I don't know enough about the Russian song you mentioned, as to who it was that "brought it in" to the Chabad sphere of Negina. If it was one of the Rebbes, there should be no problem with it.
2. The Marseillaise was set to "L'chai Olamim" by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l himself. I remember that Farbrenghen. [No, I wasn't there, but my Chabad friends told me about it]. There is an inyan in Chabad about "taking away" a song from the goyim, especially their national anthem, to weaken that nation. Interestingly enough, the first Rebbe, the Baal HaTanya, did a similar thing with "Napoleon's March," which is sung till this day in Chabad on YOM KIPPUR, no less!

At August 8, 2007 at 2:12:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

From the website:
1. "This march was played by the armies of Napoleon. When the Alter Rebbe, who opposed Napoleon, heard the tune, he transformed the tyrant’s anthem into a tool for spiritual victory, by designating it a Chassidic Niggun."

2. "This march is remarkable for its joyous, rhythmic character. It was played in 1812 by the armies of Napoleon when they crossed the border near Prussia in their invasion of Russia. The Alter Rebbe had left his native town of Liadi when the armies of the enemy were approaching. He asked that the march be sung for him and, after a moment's contemplation, designated the march as a song of victory.
It is traditional with Lubavitcher Chassidim to sing Napoleon's march at the conclusion of the Ne'ilah service on Yom Kippur, before the sounding of the Shofar.
The singing of this melody symbolizes the victory of the Jewish people over "Satan" and that their prayers have been accepted and they are assured of a Happy New Year."

At August 8, 2007 at 2:57:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Yid:
First of all, pls see Chagiga 15b, Acher listened either continuously or exclusively to Greek music (zemer yavani lo pasak mipumei, contrast this to lines like lo pasak pumeih mi'girsa in regard to masmidim). Ostensibly, these songs either were mixed with avoda zara or, at a minimum, Greek non-Jewish concepts (e.g., beauty-worship, praising athleticism, etc). Rash"i (DH "lo pasak...") says there that he should have refrained from listening to the Greek music b/c of the destruction of the Beis ha'Mikdash (see also here, Acher also had other Hellenic issues, and the site also brings down that "according to Maharsha, therefore, there must be something intrinsically heretical about the songs Acher was singing.").

Yitz -
Again, this depends on the song. The Alter Rebbe ztvk"l no doubt, felt the "triumph over ha'Satan" vibe upon hearing Napoleon's march; the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztvk"l no doubt was driven to sing "L'chai olamim" upon hearing "La Marseillaise".

Like my rav said, music's permissibility is determined by what it brings out of the listener.

A recent gadol (now it's my turn to be vague :)) said that music is not m'kabel tumah.

At August 8, 2007 at 3:58:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Forgive me, but this take on Modzitz sounds a bit naive to my ears.

Many types of Modzitzer niggunim (not all, but many) radically depart from other musical trends in the Chassidic world. And outdoor classical music concerts were popular in those days... So it doesn't seem unlikely that musically-inclined frum people heard them, too.

The style of Modzitz sounds a lot like the Russian romantic composers to me (even though Modzitz was in Poland): Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, etc. The light classical arrangements on the early R' Ben Zion Shenker records were actually not such a mis-match -- although I would have preferred more folk-oriented instrumental arrangements.

But I don't mean to dismiss this music as derivative, whatever its influences might have been. Certainly the Modzitzer Rebbes and other composers in their kehillah were very creative and original in their own way.

I would like to respond to some of the other comments, too, but have no more time!

Surely we had some great religious poets, and there are some wonderful Jewish musicians out there. I was just speaking in very general terms.

At August 8, 2007 at 4:17:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Yossele, with all due respect, if your knowledge of Modzitzer niggunim is limited to the recorded music sold in music stores, you are privy to, at best, some 10% of the output. Modzitz has collected some 3,000 [!] original niggunim, composed mostly by the Rebbes, but also some of the Chassidim... I need not say more! If you haven't heard the Ezkera, the Akdamus niggun, Reb Shaul's "operas", the Imrei Aish's "Chamols", and the Nachalas Dan's "Slach Nah"s, you don't really know Modzitz music!

Y-LOVE: another Chabad note:
"Nye Zhuritzi Chloptzi -- Sung by Chassidim as they traveled to the town of Lubavitch to visit the Mittler Rebbe, the words allude to their hopeful yearnings: When they reach the Rebbe, they will drink from “the well of Torah and Chassidism,” and lack nothing."

Again, I would estimate a Chassid of the Mittler Rebbe was on a much higher spiritual level than us puny Jews... :))

At August 8, 2007 at 4:31:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I remember reading in "Maggid Mesharim" how the Beis Yosef and other devout Jews of Tzefat, on their way home from the synagogue on Friday night, used to stop outside of the Sufi house of prayer to listen to them sing devotional songs. However, the Maggid (a spirit-teacher who used to appear to the Beis Yosef and speak through his mouth while the latter was in a trance) told him to stop doing so, because he had a higher calling...

Rav Avraham ben HaRaMBaM was widely considered the gadol ha-dor in Alexandria and the Middle East; but he did not hesitate to fuse Sufi practices and Judaism, and even dressed like a Sufi and arranged his synagogue like a Sufi house of prayer. It was his conviction that the Sufis had somehow inherited the lost traditions of the Bnei HaNevi'im, which he calls the "pe'er (splendor)" of Israel. Scholars are still hoping that the missing parts of his Sefer HaMaspik will turn up in the Cairo geniza and we will be able to learn just how far this Sufi connection went in his theology.

Whatever the case -- this shows that some of our giants were not averse to learning from other traditions, even in areas that overlapped with Yiddishkeit... But, of course, these people were spiritual giants.


I know the Modzitzer music LIVE -- including the niggunim you mentioned, and the people who sing them. I can't say more without incriminating myself!

At August 8, 2007 at 4:36:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Y Kvetch: On the other hand Reb Chaim Vital was critical of sufi practices (Reb Avrohom Abulafia speaks about them also, saying that they lack true traditions).

Anyway, it was never advocated for common man to do it. Researchers of spiritual practices like Reb Chaim Vital did it for the sake of research, but they didn't say that everyone should.

At August 8, 2007 at 4:44:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can see it now, some ancient Beach Boys belting out Let's Go Sufin'

At August 8, 2007 at 6:20:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yitz: I'll take your not responding to that which I said 2x (and even put it in bold) as agreement b'derech shtika k'hoda'ah :)

Y-Kvetch: O rly? I'm going to try to find that in my copy of Maggid Mesharim because I'd love to see that.

However -- from the story we see that the Beit Yosef got this instruction from his malach but didn't codify it in the Shulchan Aruch...not even for the other "devout Jews of Tzfat". We also could possibly be m'dayek in the Rash"i from Chagiga 15b that ACHER should have not listened to Greek music (haya LO l'haniach...learning not like the Maharsh"a that the music itself was "heretical"), being R' Meir's rebbi could have made it unfitting for him to do so (es passt nisht).

At August 8, 2007 at 6:28:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Y-loce: stensibly, these songs either were mixed with avoda zara or, at a minimum, Greek non-Jewish concepts (e.g., beauty-worship, praising athleticism, etc).

Doesn't sound realistic. This would mean, that Acher was apikores already then. But it says that he became one because of that - meaning later. One is not permitted to have hanoo from avoydo zoro or the like in any way. I doubt that Acher didn't know it.

At August 8, 2007 at 8:06:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

y kvetch, can you pls tell us if there are english sources re tsfas jews and sufis?...
chevre: what about the rap of today? matisyahu, ylove, etc? what is your impression?

At August 8, 2007 at 8:52:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds funny for a joke, but I personally don't relate to such things.

At August 9, 2007 at 1:57:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


# 1: S. Gotein discusses the Jewish- Sufi connection in his books. However, I read them in libraries and do not own them. You'll have to look around. But he is the main academic authority on this period, and strikes me as the best of the bunch.

There's a highly biased but interesting essay on the same subject in the Translator's Introduction to Rabbi Ovadia Maimonides' "Treatise of the Pool." The translator (Paul Fenton?) actually falsifies a source from Rav Chaim Vital's diaries to support his wishful thinking that the latter learned from Sufi masters. I looked up the original in Sefer HaChezyonos, and it said the opposite! But his essay is still worth reading.

Ditto Zvi Werbelowsky's study of Rav Yosef Karo: Lawyer and Mystic, or something like that. This book, too, reflects the secular-academic Gershom Scholem-school mindset, so you should read it critically (if at all).

The best thing would be to study the sources in the original, if possible.

# 2: As for the current Jewish music, including Matisyahu -- it seems like our entire American Jewish culture is having a massive adolescent "identity crisis." But maybe something good will eventually come out of this mess.

At August 9, 2007 at 4:34:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Y-love: Yes, I do agree that it depends on the song, & on the listener, BUT... certain songs DO have intrinsic Kedusha, & there are probably some with the opposite. What we seem to be discussing is probably something like 'klipas noga' that could go either way...
That said, I would also say that what Baalei Teshuva listen to when they first "come into" Jewish observance should probably NOT be the same as that which they should be listening to 10, 20 and more years down the line. While we may need a "transition stage" to enjoy some of our old rock, rap, or reggae music in our early stages of "return," we should probably move on to more "kosher" music as we progress. This point has been discussed on the Beyond Teshuva blog.

At August 9, 2007 at 6:35:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...


Above you commented:

"I'm sorry, if you can listen to 'nye zeritzi chloptzi (chto iz nami budyet)' (a Chaba"d song *in Russian*) then I can listen to Linkin Park."

While I certainly agree that their are numerous occasions where Jewish music sounds identical to non-Jewish music, comparing a niggun with Russian lyrics that was sung by the rebbeim of Chabad to a CD with a Parental Advisory/Explicit Content label on it seems to me to be a bit disingenuous.

I originally brought up the music of Don Ross because it is solely instrumental and I was curious why his guitar playing would be considered verboten by some religious Jews.

At August 9, 2007 at 9:09:00 AM EDT, Blogger Alice said...

Thank you for sharing that beautiful quote by Rav Kook.

At August 9, 2007 at 1:10:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think we have to be really careful with pop-music forms. in todays world, they are not folk songs. they are often mostly electronically generated commercial devices aimed at the lower impulses, G-d forbid, of human beings.
there are many "artists"(pls note quotes) who are unaware that they are participating or expressing within such degenerate and harmful areas.
if possible at all, it would take a very pure person to elevate such forms.
i think anyone who grew up with or is drawn to this type of music must be exceedingly careful. i would encourage them to actually take a substantial break from it so as to see much more clearly.
i think there's a difference between what we may like and what is good for klal yisrael. if we are musicians, we have to sincerely try to be as pure as we can in our intentions.
i don't like all the rock in hasidic cirlces. the actual vibrational effect of the electronics/volume is harmful, in my opinion. ditto for rap etc.
one can't help but wonder about the story of rabbi akiva and his students near rome...they heard what was described as some kind of clamor/ was a procession of musicians and a parade of people. what the rabbis heard/sensed was the vibration...the idolatry that was reflected in the sound.
this is what concerns me re jews and today's pop-music.
in fairness, i understand that maybe H' is using some pop-form musicians to reach out to those who might not be accessible;however, the means does not justify the ends. the means are essential, so to reach out to people, we must use healthy forms.
if rock/rap people umplugged things and really got quiet internally about their avoda..i wonder what would be expressed musically?
being deeply conscious and careful about the effect of rhythms, textures, sounds and ideas from today's pop-music world as well as other musics is important for the health of israel and all peoples.

At May 29, 2008 at 6:48:00 PM EDT, Blogger Yehudha said...

The same old argument all over again; some Jews say all the good stuff the goyim came up with they actually took from us, others say we took everything from them. Jews are people, goyim are people, we invent great things, they invent great things, we take from them, they take from us....
I say; enjoy good music, whereever it comes from. some jews make good music, some make lousy music. (actually, I never heard a chabad niggun that I like, but that's a matter of personal taste.)
Some goyim make good music too, enjoy! Unless of course, it's antisemitic stuff or just bad taste.
BTW, taking a national anthem from a nation to "weaken" it sounds pretty much emunoth shepheloth to me, no disrespect meant to your rebbe.


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