Jewish Music for Carnegie Hall

The cliché goes, “Music is a language of the heart.”  As a Yeshiva University music major, I believe this claim as long as we take out the last three words.  To say that music only speaks to the heart is like saying that Torah only speaks to the mind.  Like any other language, music can express intelligence, deep meaning, passion, cleverness, or anything a master composer wishes.  Different movements throughout both musical and Jewish history have given to modern times a variety of ways to approach music and Judaism, ranging from the emotional to the intellectual.[i] We can easily recognize the difference between a scholar or composer who strives for maximum emotional expression and a scholar or composer who thrives on intellectual exploration.  However, we must also recognize the difference between another set of categories which I call the advanced and the simple.

To elucidate, emotional/intellectual refers to the quality of the idea, while advanced/simple refers to how the composer or Torah scholar develops the idea.  For example, the Rav demonstrates intellectual Torah when he defines different religious personalities in Halackhic Man[ii].  If the Rav had simply provided definitions, then his thoughts would have been in the simple stage.  However, because the Rav builds strong foundations on each idea and makes connections to many aspects of Judaism, forming a coherent philosophical treatise, we can claim that Halakhic Man represents advanced Torah.  For Torah ideas that tend to set emotions aflame rather than the intellect, we look to many of the divrei Torah NCSY tells its participants.  For instance, I once heard a rabbi relate to teens on a Chanukah Shabbaton that looking at Chanukah candles without your glasses on puts you more in touch with the holiness of your soul.   Advanced stages of this kind of Torah can be seen in Hasidic works like the Tanya or Netivot Shalom[iii], whose authors develop sophisticated emotional concepts like dveykut, or cleaving to God, as well as other elements of inner Jewish experience for many pages.

The written word can also serve as an illustration for these categories.  Everyone understands the difference between intellectual writing  and emotional writing , but the difference between simple and advanced writing requires  clarification.  Instances of simple writing include aphorisms and baby books, where the author presents ideas and characters in an undeveloped and one-dimensional stage.  However, to write a good novel, the author is required to have an assortment of different characters and plot elements that all tie together to form an organized whole.  Harry Potter deserves accolades because of Rowling’s ability to develop the many characters and settings into one story that converges towards the single stream of Harry’s struggle with Voldemort, which climaxes at the end of The Deathly Hallows.  Almost everything she mentions has a point and hints to something that will happen later on.  Also, anyone who has seen a few episodes of Seinfeld can testify to the writers’ abilities to weave all kinds of plot elements and characters into a single thread.

The same system applies to music. Musical ideas can be intellectual or emotional.  Many of the musical ideas of Johann Sebastian Bach do not sound like a man outpouring his emotions, but rather like a scientist (as Bach described himself) exploring all the possibilities of triadic harmony.[iv] [v]  In today’s universities, many senior music professors write music with complex intellectual frameworks instead of the framework of feeling.[vi]

Usually, the populace gravitates toward music that treats emotional expression as the ultimate goal of music. Most of the artists that we hear about from classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven to pop and rock musicians place the greatest emphasis on creating music that expresses the angsts and joys of their hearts.  However, as stated before, both ideals can become advanced pieces of art.  If a composer builds his emotive or intellectual musical ideas into a skillfully weaved, coherent musical setting that can hold its ground for longer than a few minutes, then we call that music advanced. Throughout history, composers have developed different forms to create advanced structures.  For instance, the classical Sonata form developed by Haydn has a composer state a few different themes in a first section.  In a second section, the composer combines all his presented themes in creative ways.  The more advanced the piece of music is, the more each musical idea stated will fit in with the greater whole.

One popular example of this is Beethoven’s Fifth symphony.  The famous first theme consists of four dramatic notes, while the second theme is a sweet and lyrical melody.  Throughout the piece, Beethoven manipulates and combines both ideas with a sense of elegance and excitement.  We can hear the opening rhythm in the background of the second theme as well, giving the Symphony an even better sense of organized structure.  Like a good novel or movie, everything comes together at the end in a satisfying way.  However, if a composer just states his musical idea with the minutest amount of development (as in the high part in a pop song), then we call that piece simple.[vii]

All categories have their time and place. Yet in our beloved Orthodox society we see a great discrepancy between the way we use music and the arts and the way we use Torah and science.  We have emotional, advanced, simple, and intellectual Torah.  We have “chassidishe vorts”, thick books on Torah philosophy, and hour long shiurim on the proper feelings we must have during shofar blowing.  Science, in our times, has become incorporated into all fields of Jewish study.  Thank God.

However, the music produced for public Jewish consumption remains strictly in the emotional and simple stage. Most Jewish music we hear blaring on speakers, or sung during shul or at a kumzits consists of musical ideas with hardly any development.  There barely exists any forum for advanced Jewish music. Cantors and modern Carlebach followers[viii] have the skills to advance the music we hear in shul, the most apt setting for more advanced Jewish music.  However, we only invite them on an annual or semiannual basis, if at all.  The Shulhan Arukh testifies to the importance of a proper and deep emotional and musical experience when it states, “If a congregation needs to hire a Rabbi and a chazzan but can only afford one, unless the Rabbi is a Gadol Batorah, the chazzan should be hired first.”[ix] While we treat Torah as though it is our nourishment from which we must partake of all its different food groups, we treat our musical life with an unsettling narrowness.


This arrangement would be adequate if advanced music or any advanced emotional expression has no significance in our Jewish lives.  But it does.  The Rav states in Worship of the Heart: [x]

“Man is also able to approach God through his great and passionate love for Him, through an ecstatic experience which enables the finite being to transcend the bounds of finitude and to rise above the limited and relative to the heights of absoluteness and endlessness.  Man, many Jewish philosophers and mystics maintained, may reach God not only through the intellect, but also through the heart.”

Regarding music specifically, we plead in the musaf prayer of the festivals for the return of the “Kohanim to their service, and Leviim to their song.”[xi]  With this statement, we equate the fulfillment of the technical halachic minutiae of the sacrifices to the emotional experience of hearing the Leviim.  Why do the discussions of the complex experience of the modern Jew appear in our publications and community wide forums, but not in our music?

Aside from the halakhic and hashkafic sources, we admit that we need advanced emotional expression.  We admit it when we go to the symphony hall.  We admit it when we go to the movie theater.  We admit it when we complain about tefilah going ten minutes overtime, but beg for more when The Matrix ends at a short 136 minutes. I do not blame anyone or myself for acting this way.  Why should we have to sit in shul any longer than necessary if we don’t hear any significant musical expression of the words of prayer?  Praying more slowly only serves to highlight what is not musically there. People who feel a need for advanced music within a Jewish setting should have a place to go, but they do not.  While shuls should be fulfilling this need, they have instead become repetitive, drab, and simply a place to fulfill our requirement to daven.

To properly rectify the schism between music and Torah may take just as long as it took to properly rectify the schism between Torah and science.  We can start though, with a simple realization. To advance our Jewish musical life we must treat it as a field of study in its own terms.  Instead of trying to force Torah and Judaism upon an undeveloped musical framework[xii], we must first make our general musical language powerful enough to properly contain the deep concepts we wish to impart.  As I will show, we must give fields of knowledge the space they need to develop if we want to incorporate them into Torah life in the best possible way.


First we start with science, the 21st century’s biggest Jewish hit. Common sense and history dictate that any self-respecting scholar who wishes to become a master of the intersection between science and Torah must understand science on its own terms. Years must be spent in study (preferably with attainment of degrees) in the chosen scientific field before trying to combine it with Torah.  Torah on its own terms then meets science on its own terms, and the two can find where they can fuse. Gerald Schroeder (author of Genesis and the Big Bang) earned his doctorate in physics, and Rabbi Slifkin studied zoology in depth before illuminating the Torah with his unique perspective. Not to mention the Rav, who received a PhD in philosophy before integrating it with Torah.

To take this even further we look to the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society.  Through my time at YU I have had the privilege of participating in four top quality stage performances: 1776, The Foreigner, Twelve Angry Men, and Mister Roberts.  Lin Snider, a professional director, along with professional set designers, helped make shows that rival other universities.  We achieved success in implanting drama within the Jewish community by focusing on perfecting our dramatic art rather than performing mediocre plays with more overtly Jewish themes.  Had we done so, we would have lost respect from our audience and from ourselves. Drama would become just another hobby that some Jews do when they get out of the lab or the beit midrash.  Instead, we demanded the space for drama that the Jewish world allowed for science.  Namely, we let the rules of drama dictate our course, while keeping within Torah’s halakhic boundary. Only then could the honor of the Torah increase tenfold when we showcased high dramatic art within its framework.

We cannot treat music differently from science, Torah, or drama if we want to tap into its real power.  Like science and drama, music possesses its own history, traditions, and rules which require years of rigorous study to master (preferably with attainment of degrees).  Instead of settling for simplistic musical frameworks unfit to handle the depth of our Jewish texts and feelings, we can create advanced music in our community by studying and respecting music on its own terms[xiii].  Only then will we be able fuse Torah and music in the most sophisticated and powerful way.  Only then will we access the true power of emotion within Judaism, and only then will Jewish music be worthy enough to grace a shul, or at least Carnegie Hall.

Moshe Rube graduated from YC in 2013 with a BA in Music.  He is currently studying in the Semikha program at RIETS while pursuing a Master’s in Music Education and Performance at Lehman College.

[i]            For example, compare German Baroque (Scientific Intellectual Music) with Italian Classicism (Emotional Music) in the musical realm, and the Lithuanian and Hassidic approaches to learning Torah.


[ii]    For example, consider the Rav’s development and contrasting of homo religiosus, cognitive man, and halakhic man.

Joseph B Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 4-95.

[iii]   See Shalom Noah Brazovski, Netivot Shalom Al ha-Torah: Devarim (Jerusalem: Machon Emunah ve-Da’at, 1994), 89 for an example of a discussion on dveykut.

[iv]        It is impossible to fully understand this concept without listening to his music.  I have done my best here through the writing medium.  For further study I direct the reader to You Tube to listen to a Bach fugue or Toccata.

[v]    In fact, music critics like Johann Adolph Scheibe and even his own congregation lambasted him for loading his music with “artificial,” non-naturally emotive elements.

[vi]           See Milton Babbitt’s essay “Who Cares if You Listen.”

[vii]         Obviously, plenty of gray area exists. Depending on the skill of the composer and level of development, music can be somewhat advanced or somewhat simple.

[viii]          Such as Eitan Katz and Yehudah Green.

[ix]   Orah Hayim 53:24. Writer’s Translation.

[x]    Joseph B Soloveitchik, Sahlom Carmy (ed.), Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer (Hoboken, NJ : KTAV Pub. House, 2003), 5.

[xi]   Writer’s Translation.

[xii]   For example, consider the simple, constantly repeating melodic and chordal progressions present in Eli Gerstner songs, and most other Jewish pop music.  As stated, it has its place but is nowhere near advanced.

[xiii]   Granted, many do not have time for such study, but we can all at least recognize the breadth and depth of the musical language and the value in advanced emotional expression.