Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Secular Music

When asked to support their position, opponents of secular music invariably cite the Sha’ar Hatziyun, who writes as follows:

כבר הזהיר השל"ה ושארי ספרי מוסר שלא לזמר שירי עגבים לתינוק שזה מוליד לו טבע רע. ובלא"ה נמי איכא איסורא בשירי עגבים ודברי נבלות דקא מגרי יצה"ר בנפשיה ושׁוֹמֵר נַפְשׁוֹ יִרְחַק מזה ויזהיר לבני ביתו על זה [מאמר מרדכי].

The Shlah and other mussar books have already warned not to sing songs of passion to a child for this develops a bad nature within him. And without this there is also a prohibition with songs of passion and foul language for they cultivate the evil inclination in one’s soul, and he who guards his soul will distance himself from this and warn the members of his household about it (Ma’amar Mordechai).[1]

Let’s analyze this. The key term here is שירי עגבים, which I have translated “songs of passion.” In truth I think this is too ambiguous. From the juxtaposition of these שירי עגבים to דברי נבלות, foul language, it seems clear that these songs he is referring to are unequivocally “songs of lust.” What is certain though, is that he isn’t saying anything against secular music per se, but against שירי עגבים.

Often, these opponents come at it from a different angle. Music is a reflection of a person’s soul, they say, and music that comes from the soul of someone who is not an observant Jew is not kosher, just as food cooked in a non-kosher pot becomes loses its kosher status. These people generally have an aversion to any and all “non-Jewish music.” If we look through the early traditional halachic literature however, as far as I know we find no mention of such a concept. On the contrary, the Mishna Berura – the author of that same Sha’ar Hatziyun these people like to cite – indicates that there is no such issue. In discussing who is eligible to lead services for the congregation, Rema writes as follows:

וש"צ המנבל פיו או שמנגן בשירי הנכרים ממחין בידו שלא לעשות כן, ואם אינו שומע מעבירין אותו.

A leader of the congregation who fouls his mouth or who sings songs of the gentiles; we protest in order that he discontinue doing so, and if he does not listen we remove him from his post.[2]

The Mishna Berura qualifies:

ר"ל בניגון שמנגנים בו הנכרים לעבודת גילולים שלהם. וב"ח בתשובה סי' קכ"ז כתב דוקא בניגון שמיוחד לזה.

He means the songs which the gentiles sing to their idols. And Bach[3] writes that this is only with a song that is specifically designated for this.[4]

Similarly, the Chida writes:

בספר מעשה רקח פ"ח מהל' תפילה נשאל על המשוררים קדיש או קדושה לחן שירי נכרים והאריך לאסור, ובכלל הביא דברי מהרם די לונזאנו בס' שתי ידות דף ק' שכתב בשם ס' חסידים, ויזהר מי שקולו נעים שלא יזמר ניגונים ניגונים נכרים, ודקדק שלא כתב שירים נכרים דזה פשיטא דאסור אלא ניגונים נכרים כלומר אף דהשיר הוא קדוש הניגון נכרי יפסידהו וכו' ע"ש. ונעלם ממנו דברי מהר"ם די לונזאנו עצמו שם בספר שתי ידות דף קמ"ב שכתב וז"ל וזאת היתה לי סיבה גורמת לחבר רוב שירי על ניגוני הישמעאלים וכו', וראיתי קצת חכמים כמתאוננים רע על המחברים שירות ותשבחות לשי"ת על ניגונים אשר לא מבני ישראל המה ואין הדין עמהם כי אין בכך כלום עכ"ל. וע"ש מ"ש הרב מהר"ם ד"ל בענין זה ומה שהשיב על מהר"י נאגרה בשירותיו.

In the book Ma’aseh Rokeach he is asked regarding those who sing Kaddish or Kedusha to tunes of the gentiles, and he goes at length to forbid it. He included the words of the Maharam de Lonzano in the book Shetei Yados on page 100 who writes in the name of the Sefer Chasidim “and one whose voice is pleasant should be careful not to sing tunes of the gentiles.” He notes that the Sefer Chasidim did not write “songs of the gentiles” because that is obviously forbidden; he rather wrote “tunes of the gentiles” – meaning that even though the song (i.e. the lyrical content) is holy, the tune which is from the gentiles ruins it. But he missed the words of the Maharam de Lonzano himself there on page 152 where he writes in these words; “…and this was the motivation that caused me to write most of my songs to tunes of the Ishmaelites… and I saw some wise ones seemingly complaining badly about writers of songs and praises to God to tunes of those who are not of the Children of Israel, but the law is not with them, for there is nothing to this.”[5]

It seems quite clear that there is nothing inherently unkosher about tunes composed by non-Jews, inasmuch as there is nothing inherently unkosher about a kosher piece of meat that was grilled by a non-Jew (bishul akum notwithstanding).

Is there any style of music which is more kosher than another? I don’t believe so. We’ve all heard about the studies with the tomatoes that grew better listening to classical music than to rock n’ roll, but please. That doesn’t make something kosher or not. No beat, scale, or chord progression is causing someone’s evil inclination to develop more readily. If it is it’s because of the lyrical content or something else that the listener is subjectively associating the tune with, not something intrinsic. Different cultures interpret different sounds differently. I pass by a Syrian congregation and hear them singing their selichos to a tune which I absolutely do not find inspirational. Yet to them it is. This guy I know used to blast heavy metal in the car when he had a head ache, and it made him feel better. People are different, and it seems to me that it is mostly a matter of personal taste.

In conclusion, there does not appear to be any strong halachic basis to the claim that one should refrain particularly from non-Jewish tunes. Furthermore, I believe that a song should be judged only by its lyrical content. There is one exception, as the Mishna Berura mentioned; songs dedicated to idol-worship. Though as he said, this only applies to songs dedicated exclusively to idol-worship. One should definitely avoid songs with lyrics which cause one to dwell on things that cause one’s evil inclination to cultivate within one’s soul, and we all know those songs when we hear them. But otherwise there is nothing intrinsically wrong with secular music. On the contrary, there is a whole lot of immensely beautiful and inspirational music out there that isn’t Jewish. But that, of course, is my personal taste.


On that note, here's a great cover recently done by some friends of mine:





[1] 460:25
[2] OC 53:25
[3] Shu”t Bach HaYeshanos §127
[4] OC ibid. 82
[5] Birkei Yosef I §460:3

No comments:

Post a Comment