Sunday, June 28, 2009

Torah as Music

The Forward has an article about a recent trend of mainstream Israeli singers using passages from the Bible and other religious texts in songs (link). While it is not clear to me how much of this is a sincere attempt to reach out to God and the Jewish tradition, and how much is making a mockery of Judaism. For a particularly egregious example, try searching YouTube for the group אשת חיל (note that you should pause these videos immediately because listening to them is kol ishah according to almost all views, but you can read the post and the comments to the videos).* What does Jewish tradition say about this?

Click here to read moreThe Gemara (Sanhedrin 101a) writes: "Someone who reads a verse from Song of Songs and turns it into a song or reads verses in a bar at the wrong time brings evil to the world." Rashi explains the case of reading verses in a bar as using the verses to joke around, as a source of entertainment and fun.

Rashi explains the case of turning a verse from Song of Songs into a song as meaning that any verse -- even from Song of Songs -- cannot be made into a song. R. Moshe Feinsten (Iggeros Moshe, vol. 2 YD no. 142) rules that this also applies to any sacred text, even prayers. None of them may be made into songs. However, he suggests that there might be reason to say that it only applies to verses from Song of Songs, not like Rashi, and therefore there is room to be lenient. (I have heard people sing actual verses from Song of Songs!)

However, the Sedei Chemed (Assifas Dinim, zayin no. 12) suggests that we can see from Rashi's comments on the second case that the prohibition is to sing verses for a non-religious purpose. But if you are doing it to praise God or to encourage religiosity, then it is considered at the "right time" and is permitted. This is generally accepted and is the religious justification for the contemporary Orthodox music business (cf. Piskei Teshuvos 560:14; Responsa Le-Horos Nassan 4:45; DafYomi website).

What does this mean for the contemporary Israeli music scene? If musicians are singing Jewish texts as a way of praising God, then it is permitted. But if they are just using words that are familiar and turning them into songs, then it is a bad thing. If they are intentionally mocking religion, then it is even worse. Yet, without negating any of that, there seems to be me to be something positive about Israeli youths being sufficiently fluent in Jewish texts to respond to these songs.

* You can also see the description posted by Esther (link), but note that unless you have YouTube blockes, a video begins playing immediately.

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