Recently the major Charedi rabbis of Israel announced a ban on mixed concerts, even when the sexes are seating separately and the performers themselves are very, very kosher. Obviously, the power of song is highly seductive and dangerous. Having been to some of these “kosher” concerts, the truth is that sometimes the atmosphere does become very charged, almost reminiscent, if I may recall my dissolute youth, of the Beatles concerts I attended forty years ago. So it’s not as if I don’t recognize what it is that they are worried about! But, of course, we are in the grip of a wave of restrictions. Even going to the opera is now regarded as forbidden for fear that heavily overweight sopranos might seduce the unwary yeshiva bochur. Why, I wonder, are they not equally worried about men’s voices seducing women? Perhaps the Levites in the Temple were an unattractive lot!
To be fair, it’s seduction that is the problem in rabbinic eyes, not the song itself. Song has always been a very important part of the Jewish religious tradition. In Biblical Hebrew, the words for “song” and “poetry” are the same, “shira”. Whole chunks of the Torah are poem-songs. Some commentators have even suggested that the whole of the Torah must be read as a Song of Heaven. The obvious songs of the Torah are, of course, the celebration of crossing through the Red Sea, the songs of Numbers 21, and Moses’ rather stern farewell poem Haazinu. Then came the great poetry of the Psalms, that still remain the essential songs of praise of religious worship both in Judaism and Christianity.
The song that created the greatest problems for the holy men was the Biblical Song of Songs. On the surface it read like an erotic love poem. But when Rabbi Akivah insisted it was a love song between God and Israel, he won them over. In fact, it is now regarded as the essential metaphor for the way we are supposed to experience the Divine presence. That speaks volumes about the way our tradition, despite Maimonides, has viewed sensuality and emotion as being the ideal way to experience God. But I fear a sort of medieval Christian asceticism has infected the body of Judaism, and the link between seduction and song came to the fore in a Judaism that wanted to distance itself from its Christian tormentors as well as show it was holier.
It was ecstatic mysticism, and then Hasidism that brought joyful singing back. My late father Z”L, was fond of saying that the trouble with the Lithuanian Mussar movement, whose motto was “Turn from Evil and do Good”, was that they spent so much time turning from evil they hardly got round to doing good. The motto of the Chasidim, on the other hand, was “Do Good and Turn from Evil”, so that they focussed on good deeds and enjoying the legitimate pleasures of life, he said, and that way they turned from evil. Indeed, my father himself moved from Mussar towards Hasidism in his later years. My experience in certain areas of the Hasidic world led me to observe that while this worked for one section, others were so busy enjoying themselves, and not always legitimately, that they clean forgot about the “doing good” part.
But I digress from song. It has always been an essential part of our tradition, in good times and bad, on happy occasions and sad ones. I find it fascinating how many American songwriters came from Jewish stock. Burt Bacharach, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, George and Ira Gershwin, Marvin Hamlisch, Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, Paul Simon, and Stephen Sondheim come immediately to mind, and I apologize to all the others I’ve left out.
It is an interesting phenomenon that a people, particularly with a literary and scholarly tradition, when oppressed, use song as a tool of resistance. One thinks also of black music. And it’s also true that Jews, in particular, are driven to succeed as a way of overcoming the barriers they often face. This would explain the phenomenal proportion of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, as well as financial wizards and musicians. Of course, it also true that Jews who abandon their traditions slowly assimilate into welcoming host societies and lose both their distinctiveness and their edge. But insecurity is a great stimulator.
Look at the way Israelis have succeeded way beyond expectation or number in establishing themselves around the world in almost any sphere you care to mention, from the worst to the best. Is this, too, because of their insecurity and alienation that drives them to succeed? Is singing the language of the underdog, the slave chorus of “Va Pensiero” of Verdi’s Nabucco? Is our success as a nation of singers because we suffer either persecution or alienation? After all when we first went into exile in Babylon we sat down by the waters and cried, and sang!
I’d rather look at the positive, at our tradition of song and poetry combined. And who better to express its beauty than the great Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook? Here’s what he writes, in one of my favourite pieces of modern religious poetry, though of course it sounds so much more beautiful in Hebrew:
One man sings the song of his own soul, for it is there that his satisfaction is complete.
Another sings the song of his people, transcending the bounds of his own individual soul. … feeling close, with tender love, to the Jewish people, singing her songs with her. …
A third man’s soul expands beyond the Jewish people to sing the song of man, his spirit embraces all humanity, majestic reflection of God …
And a fourth is transported still higher, uniting with the entire universe, with all creatures, and all worlds, with all of these he sings … Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak haKohen Kook. Orot haKodesh II, 444.
It is, indeed, our religious tradition to sing and to praise the Lord, Halleluiah, to serve through joy, even if it sometimes it means singing alone, at home, in private and despite those who regard singing with suspicion. It is true in the western world popular song is associated with some of the least attractive or moral aspects of modern society. I think it is this that worries the holy rabbis. But those who misuse song shouldn’t deprive us of ours. The previous Viznitzer Rebbe used to say, “A tune [as opposed to words] cannot become contaminated.”