Music is a ubiquitous human experience. In the modern world especially, we are inundated with an endless flow of sounds ranging from the simplistic to the intricate, which elicit a full spectrum of emotional reactions. As Jews, we must ask ourselves how to react to the daily experience of music. This discussion must begin with a pragmatic question: What is the place of music in our spiritual lives? What religious function does it fulfill? The archetypal instance of music in the Torah is shirat ha-yam, the Song of the Sea.[i] The beauty of this song is familiar to us from our daily prayers. The context of this shirah is also well known. At the splitting of the sea, Bnei Yisrael witnessed miracles of unprecedented proportions.[ii] They were exposed to the unobscured hand of God, who was acting openly in history to save His chosen people. And yet, Tanakh is replete with stories of great miracles which did not elicit shirah. We are led, therefore, to ask what other factor catalyzed the experience of keriyat yam suf and allowed for it to become the well-spring of song.
This missing element is identified by the Mekhilta:
Great is faith before the Almighty for in the merit of faith the holy spirit (ruah ha-kodesh) rested upon them (Bnei Yisrael) and they sang a song, as it is written “And they had faith in Hashem and in Moses His servant. After this did Moses and Bnei Yisrael sing.”[iii]
The position that the Song of the Sea was the result of ruah ha-kodesh is broadened by the Mekhilta into a standard for all shirah.[iv]
Unlike the Western school of music which built an intellectual musical “language” around tonal, and later atonal, structures, or contemporary popular music which relies heavily on emotional expression, shirah is the result of neither intellectual, nor even emotional productivity. Rather it is the impression of a revelational experience. The spontaneous declaration of shirah “indicates the elevation of the soul to lofty heights from which it looks out, having been crowned in the most clarified manifestation of its intellect.”[v] shirah is a spiritual expression wherein the soul enunciates an experience of God. The song constitutes a permanent record of the encounter which generated it. The Song of the Sea, with its powerful description of God’s sovereignty and its clear depiction of His presence in history is the primary example of this spiritual-musical expression.
This conception of music is highly idealistic. In everyday life we are not aroused by ruah ha-kodesh, and even if we were, this revalational model only accounts for the production of music. It does not address the consumption of music. How then are we to place our everyday encounter with music into a spiritual framework? To this end we may consider another characteristic of music. Not only does shirah emanate from ruah ha-kodesh, we find that the converse is also true. Exposure to music may lead one to the heightened spiritual state required for prophecy.[vi] Is this influential power in music reserved for prophets and prophecy? What kinds of music have the potential for such inspiration? When the Temple was destroyed our Sages banned the public performance of music.[vii] In the midst of a discussion about a different topic the Gemara wonders why the vast Torah knowledge of the infamous heretic Aher did not protect him from falling to heresy. In answer to this the Gemara offers that Aher was vulnerable because “Greek melodies never left his lips.”[viii] At first glance we would assume a simple explanation of this response. An affinity for Greek music is indicative of the systemic influence of Greek culture on Aher’s worldview. This resulted in the weakening and eventual undermining of the Torah’s own influence.[ix] Rashi, however, takes a strikingly different approach.[x] He posits that Aher’s mistake was that he did not heed to the general ban on music. Implied by this comment is that had the Temple still stood there would have been nothing problematic about Aher’s musical tastes. This conclusion runs contrary to our sensibilities. How can it be explained?
We have already seen that shirah is the product of an acute divine encounter. Perhaps the aesthetic experience of listening to music can also engender a recognition of the Creator, albeit in a more limited sense. The existence of the Beit ha-Mikdash concretized God’s presence in the world.[xi] From within the context of a society which centered around the Temple service and which was legislated for by the Sanhedrin[xii] the spiritually enlightening elements of any music could be appreciated and deployed in the service of God. By experiencing the sublime beauty of music and identifying this beauty with its Creator, the musical-aesthetic experience could be sanctified. Even those tunes which stemmed from societies as philosophically at odds with yahadut as Greece could be engaged without concern for undue external influence. The loss of the Temple destabilized this religious cultural context. Without it the values and ideologies of those who produced music, with which musical works are indelibly impressed, threatened to undermine and replace those of the Torah.[xiii] In this tumultuous setting we may truly say that the “ear which hears music should be uprooted.”[xiv] Aher exposed himself to these influences and in the end their power was so hypnotic that even his Torah erudition was unable to combat them.
Today we avail ourselves of leniencies which permit listening to music despite Hazal’s decree. Nevertheless it behooves us to tread carefully, avoiding the potential pitfalls of musical exposure, and instead harnessing the affective power of music and its strong aesthetic appeal as a platform for enhancing our relationship with God. This approach to music is a complex one. It requires careful thought as it is applied to daily life. In this issue of Kol Hamevaser we address some of the issues which arise as music is considered from halakhic and hashkafic perspective. The collective staff of Kol Hamevaser welcomes its readers to a new year. We look forward to much intellectual and spiritual growth together in the months ahead.
[i] See Shemot Rabbah to Beshalah 23:4 which indicates that shirat ha-yam was the first shirah.
[ii] Mekhilta de-Rabi Yishmael, Beshalah 6.
[iii] Ibid, with emendations from Hagahot ve-Biurei ha-Gr”a where applicable. All translations mine unless otherwise noted.
[iv] See Birkhat ha-Netziv to Mekhilta de-Rabi Yishmael ibid, s.v. ve-shartah aleihem.
[v] Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak ha-Kohen Kook, Ein Ayah to Berakhot 35a, note 2.
[vi] See Melachim II 3:? cf Pesahim 66b, and Shabbat 30b.
[vii] See Sotah 48a and Gittin 7a. Admittedly, the Mishnah in Sotah there ties the ban of music to the disbanding of the Sanhedrin. Rambam, however, explicitly describes the ban as response to the Temple’s destruction (Mishneh Torah Hilchot Aveilut 3:14).
[viii] Hagigah 15b
[ix] This interpretation is advanced by Maharsha to Hagigah 15b s.v. Aher mai. He criticizes Rashi’s explanation on the grounds that it does not account for the specifically Greek nature of the music in question. We consider a potential defense of Rashi’s view against this criticism presently.
[x] Hagigah 15b s.v. zemer yevani lo pasak mi-beito.
[xi] See Berakhot 8a
[xii] Consider Talmud Yerushalmi, Sotah 9:12 for an example of the extent of the Sanhedrin’s authority in cultural matters.
[xiii] In the modern day the extent to which popular music shapes our conception of notions such as love, success, and even suffering, and the insidiousness with which this influence is achieved are uncanny.
[xiv] Sotah 48a.