Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rock and Roll Davening

Over the past decade or so, it has become more popular for non-Orthodox synagogues to use musical accompaniment as a way of enhancing their Shabbos prayer services. This has received ongoing press coverage but some recent articles highlight this innovative attempt to further vitalize synagogues (I, II). The question we raise here is the halakhic propriety of this practice.

I. Playing a Musical Instrument

Playing musical instruments is rabbinically prohibited out of concern that one may come to fix the instrument (Beitzah 36b). This is the same rabbinic prohibition that applies to clapping and dancing (link). This would seem to rule out playing a musical instrument on Shabbos. However, things are not that simple.

Click here to read moreThe Rema (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 339:3) notes that people are in the practice of clapping and dancing on Shabbos, and suggests that this may be justified because today people are not sufficiently expert in fixing musical instruments. From a comment of his earlier (338:2), it seems that he believes in theory but not in practice that even playing a musical instrument is permitted (cf. Magen Avraham ad loc., 5). However, he would not go so far as to permit it but allowed asking a Gentile to play a musical if it is for the sake of a mitzvah (e.g. for a bride and groom), which is otherwise forbidden. This would turn the act into a double rabbinic prohibition (asking a Gentile and playing an instrument, both only rabbinically forbidden) in the case of a mitzvah (a shevus di-shevus be-makom mitzvah). A shevus di-shevus be-makom mitzvah is permissible. Later authorities (e.g. Minchas Elazar 1:29) differentiate between clapping/dancing and playing a musical instrument, but the Rema seems to reject that differentiation and is lenient in theory (and in practice when it is a shevus di-shevus be-makom mitzvah).

If not even the Rema allows a Jew to play a musical instrument on Shabbos, even for a mitzvah, then it seems clear that the recent practice of playing music to accompany Shabbos services is forbidden. However, that is only if a Jew plays the instrument. If a Gentile plays the instrument, then perhaps this would be allowed.

This was the line of thinking used by reformers in the early 19th century in defending the practice of using an organ in a synagogue on Shabbos. The arguments are contained in two books from 1818 titled Nogah Ha-Tzedek and Or Nogah, by Eliezer Lieberman and Aaron Choriner. These books were then rebutted in 1819 by a book titled Eileh Divrei Ha-Beris which contains responsa from many prominent rabbis of the time, including R. Moshe Sofer, R. Akiva Eiger and R. Ya'akov of Lissa. In 1820, R. Avraham Lowenstamm of Emden published a book titled Tzeror Ha-Chaim, the first section of which was devoted solely to the topic of using an organ in a synagogue. While I do not have access to these books, many of their arguments are summarized in articles by Dr. Judith Bleich ("Rabbinic Responses to Nonobservance in the Modern Era" in R. Jacob J. Schacter ed., Jewish Tradition and the Non-Traditional Jew) and Dr. David Ellenson ("A Disputed Precedent: The Prague Organ in Nineteenth-Century Central European Legal Literature and Polemics " in After Emancipation) or quoted by later authorities. I also have access to some of the responsa that have been reprinted in other volumes. So unfortunately this cannot be considered a comprehensive treatment of the subject.

The reformers argued that since the Rema permitted having a Gentile play music for a mitzvah, a synagogue can hire a Gentile to play an organ during prayer services. The argument is actually fairly straightforward, given the background described above. The following are the main counterarguments offered.

II. Music and Prayer

While it may surprise many of us in today's world, most of those writing against the organ pointed out that there is no mitzvah to be happy during prayer. Granted there was music in the Temple in Jerusalem, but the Chasam Sofer (Responsa 6:84) points out that this was not continued in synagogues and there was certainly a good reason for that: after the destruction of the Temple there can be no happiness in a house of worship. It certainly, he argues, is not a mitzvah to be happy during prayer.

R. Ya'akov of Lissa (Responsa, no. 4) writes that prayer is essentially for atonement of sin, and therefore song and joy is inappropriate for the occasion. During the time of the Temple we would receive atonement from our sins through the sacrificial service and could therefore be happy. But now that the Temple is destroyed we have no means of atonement other than prayer and must be very serious in our mood. Even on holidays, when there is a mitzvah to be happy, our prayer must still be solemn like sinners ("u-mip'nei chata'einu galinu me-artzeinu - and because of our sins we were exiled from our lands" is part of the prayer!) and not joyous in our prayers.

However, this is a very "Litvish" or "Misnagdish" approach. While I make no claim to being an expert on Chassidic thought, I believe that they see joy during prayer as a mitzvah. For example, the Minchas Elazar permits "holy rabbis" to clap and dance on Shabbos out of love for God (while being clear that he rejects the Rema's theoretical leniency regarding instruments). The Botchatcher Rebbe (Eshel Avraham 339:3) permits clapping and dancing during prayer because it is as much a mitzvah as doing so for a bride and groom. I am certain that someone more familiar with Chassidic literature could find many more such rulings. If one follows these authorities regarding prayer, then perhaps there is room to have a Gentile play music in a synagogue on Shabbos.

The Chasam Sofer (ibid.) and R. Tzvi Hirsch Chajes (Minchas Kena'os in Kol Sifrei Maharatz Chajes, vol. 2 p. 590) note, however, that this suggestion requires a Gentile, generally a Christian, to play religious music in a synagogue. Not only is this probably offensive to the Christians of their day, it is simply inappropriate to have a Gentile take part in Jewish worship.

III. Christianization of the Synagogue

There is a biblical prohibition against imitating Gentile practices (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 178:1). There are different ways of defining this prohibition but the reformers quoted the most lenient view, that of the Maharik (Responsa, no. 88). According to the Maharik, as long as a practice is adopted by Jews for a reason other than imitation of gentiles, it is permissible (cf. R. Jeffrey Woolf, "Between Law and Society: Mahariq's Responsum on the 'Ways of the Gentiles'" in AJS Review, 25 [2000/2001]). Therefore, they claimed, using an organ should be permissible because it is a way to enhance the prayer service and bring glory to God, and not merely an imitation of Gentiles for the sake of being more like them.

This argument was countered in three ways. First, many authorities argued on the Maharik. Let us set that aside because there are many common practices today that rely on the Maharik (cf. R. Marcus Horovitz, Mateh Levi, 2:6).

Second, the Tzeror Ha-Chaim claimed that an organ was used solely to imitate Christians and not for any other reason. The proof for this, he claimed, was that an organ was not used for anything other than church music. R. David Tzvi Hoffmann (Melamed Le-Ho'il 1:16) and R. Tzvi Hirsch Chajes (ibid.) quote this argument as well. However, I fail to understand it. Clearly, an organ was considered solemn and the music added to the service. The fact, which I find surprising, that an organ was not used in the theater or elsewhere only seems to mean that they considered so powerful that they wished to use it only for prayer.

Third, R. Hoffmann argued that the Maharik's lenient definition of this prohibition was not referring to imitating actions related to idolatry/polytheism. Such actions are forbidden regardless of one's intentions. He also deals with Christianity not being idolatry for Gentiles. Despite his agreeing with this, he states that it is still considered idolatry for Jews. R. Yechiel Ya'akov Weinberg (Seridei Esh 2:80) writes that this stricture regarding imitating idolatrous practices is explicit in the words of the Maharik. I cannot find it there but I certainly defer to him. However, when R. Hoffmann showed his responsum to R. Horovitz, the latter disagreed with him on this issue and, after receiving permission from R. Azriel Hildesheimer, wrote a responsum to the contrary (albeit agreeing on the conclusion). R. Horovitz believes that there is no problem of imitating Gentiles in regard to using an organ in a synagogue, based on the Maharik's position and contrary to R. Hoffmann's and R. Weinberg's understanding of it.

If I personally had to decide on this last issue, while my reading of the Maharik conforms with R. Horovitz's I would have to defer to the authorities I consider greater -- R. Hoffmann and R. Weinberg. However, we then have to ask how we can wear graduation gowns (I've seen great rabbis wear them) and how rabbis like R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and R. Ya'akov Ettlinger could wear canonicals (cf. R. Shnayer Z. Leiman, "Rabbinnic Openness to General Culture in the Early Modern Period in Western and Central Europe" in R. Jacob J. Schachter ed., Judaism's Encounter With Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?, pp. 170-171 n. 56).

IV. Today's Application

How does this apply to recent developments? First, it seems that Jews are playing the musical instruments and not Gentiles. While that solves the problem of having members of other religions leading our prayers, it leaves us with the problem of Shabbos because there is no authority that permits playing a musical instrument on Shabbos.

Furthermore, it seems clear that the music is sometimes being added as an imitation of church (specifically mega-church) practice (I, II). But other times it seems to be simply a matter of marketing and trying to attract people in any possible way (link). The mega-church style would seem to be prohibited by most authorities and only allowed according to the Maharik as explained by R. Marcus Horovitz. However, imitating secular music in order to attract a larger crowd or to make the service more spiritual seems to avoid that problem according to the Maharik. But, of course, this requires the review of great authorities before being put into practice.

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