Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Day the Music Died

It appears that the ban-this-ban-that cancer so prevalent in Israeli haredi circles has spread here. A music concert, typical of what has been common in our community at least since I was in college, was scheduled to take place in New York’s Madison Square Garden Sunday March 9. Last week wall posters in Hebrew went up in Boro Park excoriating the concert as contrary to Torah values and likely to lead to impermissible mingling of the sexes (despite separate seating, which was not a fixture when I was growing up), and calling on the public to boycott the concert and not hire the performers for future functions unless they backed out. At least one copy of the poster appeared on a lamppost in Midwood, where I was able to read it. To the authors’ credit, the Hebrew was quite good; perhaps the practice of spending a year in Israel after high school is doing some haredim some good. The signers of the ban included the usual suspects, including many who signed a ban on a similar music concert in Israel and who signed the infamous Slifkin book ban. Not surprisingly, the main performer backed out under intense pressure, and the concert was canceled.
Speculation on the real reasons for the ban is flying thick and fast. There seems to be a fringe group that holds that almost all music is forbidden since the destruction of the Beit Ha-mikdash. A group of Jews living at the time of the second hurban, known as Aveilei Zion, actually sought to forbid eating meat and drinking wine. If God is not to eat sacrificial meat and drink the wine of libations (zevah u’nesakhim) as it were, then neither should we. The camp of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai countered that it should then be forbidden to drink water, since nissukh ha-mayyim, the pouring of water on the Altar on Sukkot, was also discontinued. The hurban was not to engender prohibitions on all the sensual pleasures that nature and nature’s God intended for human beings to enjoy. Needless to say, mainstream halakha is not like Aveilei Tziyon. Some contend that the lead performer, Lipa Schmeltzer, who is also a comedian, had made unacceptable jokes about some highly placed rabbis. If that is the reason, some highly placed rabbis need to get themselves a sense of humor. Some say that the style of music lends itself to anti-Torah thoughts or behavior. Since the specific “anti-Torah behavior” cited in the posters is mingling of the sexes, may I remind those people that we are not in Anatevka any more, thank God. Remember Tevya, on being informed by one of his daughters that she had found her own match without a shadkhan, exclaiming, “Where do you think you are, in Moscow, in Paris, in America?” Well, yes sir, we are in America and I for one am glad of it. Boys and girls will meet, fall in love, get married and make babies, and there is nothing anti-Torah about that; it is the first mitzvah. What do our “Torah authorities” think will happen when you systematically deprive young Jewish people of any chance to meet in a wholesome environment? Two things:1. A shiddukh crisis – ‘nuff said. 2. Young Jewish people will meet in an unwholesome environment conducive to all kinds of real, not imagined, aveirot. That boys and girls will meet and eventually make babies is what nature and nature’s God intended.
Some contend that the style of music, supposedly copied from secular music, is objectionable. R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch, R. Kook and others encouraged us to appreciate and enjoy what is beautiful in the secular culture – להכניס מיפיפותו של יפת לאהלי שם. Back in the ‘70s I took a girl to the opera; we now have, thank God, two wonderful children. And today I sometimes listen to – rap music! It would be difficult to imagine a more objectionable genre of music than rap, with its glorification of violence and disrespect of women. But music is a window on the soul, and I teach inner-city African-American teenagers. I need to listen to their music to get a feel for where they are coming from and, with God’s help, be able to reach them (see the book Skullcaps and Swithblades, by Dr. David Lazerson). So I will listen to rap music and, if ghettoized “gedolim” disapprove, why that’s just tough. And guess what? Good rap music does exist! I listened to a piece from Shaquille O’Neal that made me take a good hard look at how I was functioning as a father. Thanks Shaq, I needed that!

Where do we go from here? Do we allow the ban-signers, and remember they are a Who’s Who of haredi Torah authority in this country and their ban is but the latest, and certainly not the last, of a long train of abuses and usurpations, to impose on us a joyless Taliban-like existence? If you think we have a dropout problem now, well you ain’t seen nothing yet. I too would have dropped out of such an Orthodoxy. We should rather encourage the talented among us to continue performing – when God gives you a talent you’re supposed to use it, remember? If certain authority figures rooted in a bygone world disapprove, well, we are adults and we do not need their approval. And as long as we are cutting the umbilical cord, we might as well have what we had when I was growing up – mixed seating! Take a date there, or perhaps meet a girl or boy there. Make a point of attending such events – a concert is scheduled for the Sunday after Purim at the Armory at W. 168 Street in Manhattan, sponsored by the National Council of Young Israel and the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, separate seating available - so the tyrants will not be able to deprive the performers of their livelihood. Engage them at our private smahot, which will also have mixed seating for those who so desire. In short, let’s be normal again!

Hat tip: Emes Ve'emuna

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

On one hand, the Shulchan Aruch and the other major codes do specify that music and celebration are forbidden as a remembrance of the destruction of the Temples, unless they are connected in some way with a mitzvah (eg. wedding). That's what the books say.

On the other hand, in the last few centuries these laws have been observed more in the breech than anything else. Imagine someone puts up a stop sign on a deserted road and at first everyone stops even though there's never any traffic coming the other way. After a few years people start ignoring the stop sign. No one is delegitimizing it but somehow because of circumstance this particular stop sign is ignored. Even the sheriff doesn't have a problem with the situation. One day a new cop comes to town and, to make his mark, he starts waiting by the stop sign and nabbing all the residents who drive through it.

Technically, the new cop is 100% right. There's a stop sign and people driving through it are breaking the law. On the other hand, there was a reaonsable excuse for why it was being ignored.

Similarly here, it is undeniable and much to our discredit that due to our many sins and our spiritual dullness, we simply do not feel the loss of our Temples like we used to and like we STILL should, may Heaven preserve our damaged souls. But as a result, not listening to music or attending concerts does not make a difference to our observance of that particular mitzvah. Again, techincally speaking, the rabbonim were 100% right in banning it if they were going to go by the books.

But maybe that's one reason God, in His infinite wisdom, gave us an Oral Law. Because sometimes you need to go by more than just the book.

Sun Mar 09, 03:01:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

Although I vastly prefer New York to Boston, one of the perks of living here is that Harvard hosts a wide variety of lectures and seminars in all fields and they are nearly always open to the public. A couple of weeks ago, Rabbi Yaakov Elman of YU came up to give a talk about Persian influence on the Oral Law. He mentioned the Haredi ban on gentile music, then went on to say that much Jewish music was originally derived from gentile sources. He said that the Haredim get around this by ignoring history.

I thought of you yesterday, Doc. I had lunch at the home of my friend, the Orthodox rabbi I mentioned to you. In attendance was a young frum couple. The husband is an oncologist, the wife has a PhD in Biology. I told him about you, your exasperation over the AOJS throwing in its lot with the Christian ID crowd, and that you had written some weeks ago about frum doctors in New York who don't believe in evolution and have been counseling young people not to believe it either. He told me he believes in evolution - we have the evidence, we can see it in action - but he doesn't believe that humans descended from lower primates. I believe his exact words were, "I don't believe that we come from monkeys. I believe that God made man." He told me that he thought I'd find that most Orthodox (I imagine he meant Modern Orthodox) people would feel the same way. He went on to say that he knew it to be a contradiction - I guess he was acknowledging the fossil and genetic evidence of human evolution - but said that God knows how to resolve it; he doesn't have to. The wife came into the room in the middle; she didn't say anything, but I assume she agreed. And I had the feeling that they weren't completely comfortable talking about it. I mumbled something about Aryeh Kaplan, then sent them back into the dining room to sing niggunim.

Later, I told the rebbetzen about the conversation. I mentioned that I came upon a reference the other day to certain genetic markers that we share with chimpanzees, that are the result of virally-induced mutations, and that, because we've found these, geneticists can determine with greater accuracy the point at which chimps and our ancestors began to branch off from a common ancestor. I told her, "I'm sure that he [the doctor] understands it better than I do, and could explain it better... but he doesn't believe it!"

I really am giving up.

Sun Mar 09, 06:36:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no actual contradiction between believing that God created Man and believing in evolution.

What one simply must do is remember than Man has spiritual, intellectual and physical components.

As far as the physical goes, we are 99% identical to chimpanzees when it comes to DNA. I've heard it told that until the age of 12 months, a baby gorilla and baby human are almost identical developmentally.

But at that point, divergence occurs. We develop speech, chimpanzees do not. Yes, yes, I know all the work done on how they have a rudimentary form of communication but that's all it is - rudimentary. Chimps, whales, dolphins, none of them can express themselves with the depth of human language. They cannot write songs that will make you cry or tell you jokes that will make you laugh. They cannot experience love or hate like we do.

And that is what God created in us that makes us different and separate from the animals, a special creation unmatched in nature. As Rav Hertz in his classic chumash notes: we are not so much descended from apes as ASCENDED from them and Torah tells us to live up to that potential, not down to our physical heritage.

Mon Mar 10, 05:26:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

Hi Garnel,

I realize, of course, that we are almost identical, genetically, to chimpanzees. These markers were something else, if I understood correctly - mutations resulting from viral incursion into the human genome, as opposed to random mutations.

And I understand the rest of what you're saying. That's what I assumed the conventional opinion was among the Modern Orthodox. I was much discomfited to hear a young MO man with a medical degree telling me that he doesn't agree with this. The Christian fundies insist that scientists misread the evidence, making it all up as they go along. This fellow was admitting that the evidence exists and that it's being interpreted correctly - he just doesn't believe the inevitable conclusion! I don't know how to have a conversation with someone like that.

(Actually, chimps and gorillas who've learned sign language do engage in humorous wordplay and play practical jokes - but I take your point. Dolphins - who knows? Maybe there's a cetacean Shecky Greene - "A seal and a walrus go into a bar...")

Mon Mar 10, 08:42:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or, as Douglas Adams wrote, "So long and thanks for all the fish."

The evidence at this point is definitive. Who knows what the next scientific advance will bring? But based on the evidence and the inevitable conclusion, there is now an intellectual tension. The Torah says one thing but the scientific evidence say another. There are two ways to approach this. One is to say "Well, so much for that Torah stuff. Obviously it's wrong." Most people who do this justify themselves by insisting on a literal reading of the historical portions of the text.

The other approach is to remember Ramban's approach to Creation which is to say that the first chapter of Bereshis is impossible to understand on a literal level and is full of many "secrets". He meant kabbalistic stuff but we can interpret that today as hints of the science behind it. Heaven and Earth in verse 1? Could it mean matter and energy? And so on.

All one needs is a proper anchor and a willingness to have an open mind about certain things.

Tue Mar 11, 08:15:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

Usually a new sheriff is either elected by the townspeople or at least chosen by people who were. Who elected these “gedolim?”
Can you cite chapter and verse for a near-total issur on music in the Shulhan Arukh? It is difficult to understand, since the Shulhan Arukh was compiled by a Sefardi and Spanish Jews were not only connoisseurs of the arts but artists themselves, using both Jewish and secular themes in their work. Perhaps R. Karo was reacting to the despair that might have enveloped Sefardi Jews after the expulsion from Spain. At any rate, art and music go to the heart of what it means to be human; as soon as humans were not involved every waking moment in the struggle for bare survival, they began to create art. Paintings were found on the walls of caves inhabited by Cro-Magnon people, and artifacts from that period include musical instruments, but what would “gedolim” closeted in their batei midrash know of such things? Oh right, it’s all a fake, concocted by a trickster God to test our faith. A recently bereaved person or nation might not want to listen to music (or enjoy any of life’s pleasures, including learning Torah!) when the bereavement is still fresh, but with the passage of time desire returns, or else we would not be able to function. Again, that is what nature and nature’s God intended. Ashkenazi Jews have been enjoying secular music at least since the 18th century Enlightenment allowed us to function in the larger society.

I heard Rabbi Elman speak in New York last year; his son is a gabbai in my shul. He is an expert on Jews in Persia. I know that a lot of Jewish synagogue music is derived from Gentile sources, specifically German marching songs (!) from World War I and before. That haredim should ignore history is no surprise to any Orthodox biologist, or indeed to any Orthodox Jew familiar with Slifkingate. We never cease to be amazed at their capacity to ignore physical evidence; some join the Christian fundies in asserting that the evidence was fabricated by scientists to justify atheism, never mind that so many scientists are not atheist. As for God creating man, we all agree that God created man and everything else; the argument centers on how He did it. Was it natural processes or a series of magic tricks? For us scientists Houdini-in-the-sky is not a very satisfying conception of God. Neuroscience is a rapidly expanding field (in which my daughter, please God, is set to make her mark) and there is no doubt in my mind that we will soon be able to explain speech and cognition, where we differ so much from our closest primate relatives, down to the level of the gene. Where then does God retreat? Like Rabbi Slifkin, I prefer to find God in what we can explain rather than in what we cannot; the latter is constantly shrinking as our knowledge advances.

When science and Torah appear to contradict each other, one of two things is happening, or perhaps both. The science could be mistaken, as when most scientists believed that the universe always existed in its present form, i.e. before the scientific community came to accept the Big Bang. But we cannot simply assert that the science is mistaken, as haredim do all the time (“our gedolim are smarter than scientists”) without citing some hard evidence. The other and likelier possibility is that our understanding of Torah (and that of our gedolim, and that of gedolim of previous generations) is incomplete. To say so is not to denigrate their wisdom; we have access to information that they did not have. Cipher – you are right that one cannot have a rational discussion with people who accept physical evidence but reject the inevitable conclusion that it leads to. They are simply emotionally incapable of accepting that humans are descended from nonhuman animals, and perhaps not allowing emotion to override one's logic is not a manly virtue in their culture.

Wed Mar 12, 10:17:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

Our gedolim are smarter than scientists

My Chabadnik nephew uses this one all the time. Apparently, the Rambam defended the old Ptolemaic, geocentric model of the universe, and no other rabbi bothered to contradict him, so now, he tells me, we're obligated to believe it. The Rebbe was cryptic - supposedly, he claimed that since Einstein, we know there's no such thing as absolute position, so it makes as much sense to say that the sun revolves around the earth as vice versa. And, my nephew tells me, some Chabad guy got himself a degree in astronomy and has supplied them with the requisite physics.

When I've suggested that the Rambam was limited by the scientific knowledge of his day (I was even willing to concede, for the sake of argument, that his knowledge of Torah was unbounded), he replied, "The Rambam was a greater genius than any scientist living then or since!" That settled the matter.

Who elected these "gedolim?”

I think it can be argued that, as the Haredim came flooding in after the war, and began to outnumber them, the Modern Orthodox didn't want to take them seriously. And now it's too late; they own the franchise.

Are both of your children in the sciences?

Wed Mar 12, 11:23:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Friday, February 29, 2008
Sources for the Prohibition of Listening to Music
There are a number of sources for the prohibition of listening to music nowadays:*

Mishna Sotah 9:11

From the time that the Sanhedrin ceased to function, there ceased to be music [alt : song] at beit haMishtaot.

Gittin 7a

Mar Ukva was asked whence we know that singing is prohibited.
He answered: because of the verse in Hosea [9 :1]: "Do not rejoice,
o Israel, as the other nations rejoice."

Rambam Hilchot Taanis 5 :14

So too [that is, besides various other decrees] they [the
Rabbis at the time of the destruction of the Second
Temple] decreed that no one play upon musical
instruments; moreover, it is forbidden to rejoice with,
or listen to, all kinds of music and all that produce the
sound of music - and even singing of voice alone,
over wine, is forbidden as it is written: "with song
they shall not drink wine" [Isaiah 24:9]. It has
already become customary for all of Israel to say
words of praise or songs of thanksgiving to G-d, and
similar songs, over wine.

Orach Chayim 560:3

So too they decreed against the playing of musical
instruments and all forms of music and all that
produce sound of music to rejoice with. Moreover, it
is forbidden to listen to them. All this is on account of
the destruction of the Temple.

Rema: There are some opinions that the prohibition against
musical instruments is only for those who listen with
regularity such as the kings who arise and go to bed
with musical instruments, or for musical instruments
at parties and feasts [that is, where there is drinking].

And even songs [vocal music] with wine is forbidden
as it is written "With song they shall not drink wine"
[Isaiah 24 :9]. It has already become the custom of all
Israel to utter, over wine, words of praise or songs of
thanksgiving and commemorations of G-d's

Rema: And so too for the purpose of a mitzvah, such as in
the house of a groom and bride, it is all permissible.

There is much recent discussion in the poskim about how the prohibition works nowadays. Here is a list of some sources:

Iggros Moshe O.C. 1:166
Yechaveh Daas 1:45
Az Nidberu 8:58
Tzitz Eliezer 15:33
Seridei Aish 2:12

*For further discussion on this topic see Rabbi Aharon Kahn's Music in Halachic Perspective in Volume 14 of The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society. And, of course, for final rulings consult your local competent halachic authority.

Thu Mar 13, 09:48:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thu Mar 13, 09:49:00 PM EDT  

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