Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Cheshvan 5767 - November 15, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Music in Our Day: Shiru Lo, Zamru Lo

by Binyomin Y. Rabinowitz

Weddings—bands—music. Harsh, discordant notes have infiltrated the world of the Jewish yeshiva. The Torah ear has lost the feel of the pure sound and has let dissonant notes change the notes of the heart and cut it to the quick. Music, instead of serving as a ladder upwards, has become a downhill slope. Under the cover of wild musical notes, a link forms with the streets, and important barriers are broken down. The consequences are likely to be severe from a spiritual standpoint.

How do we prevent the danger? What is genuine Jewish music? To find out, we arranged a meeting with three people who are involved in genuine Jewish, music, chassidic—the real thing— to assess the danger, and put up warning signs.

Part II

The first part introduced the three discussants: Rabbi Yirmiyohu Deman who is better known as the musician at the Belzer Rebbe's court, who is also deeply involved in chinuch; Rabbi Shlomo Kalish, a veteran chinuch personality in a number of yeshivos, and today the principal of the Novardok Yeshiva Gedoloh in Bnei Brak, and Rabbi Chaim Banet, a mechanech in a Chinuch Atzmai Talmud Torah in Haifa and singer and composer of many famous songs.

They discussed the origin and function of music, to arouse the listener, to add a dimension to familiar words, to provide context for them. Distinguishing kosher from unacceptable music is hard to describe as a rule, but most agreed with the comment of Rabbi Kalish: When you hear a song, you can right away recognize where it came from, the roots, the source, the mood, the way of life. You can instantly know if it is meant to make a person sway his head in humility and bend his heart, or to just get his feet moving . . .


Here we brought up the issue of musical arrangements, the musical accompaniment, and we got the impression that the same tune could be done in a Jewish way, so that it would have the proper structure. The exact opposite can be also done. Here too the deterioration is immense . . .

Rabbi Banet: It is like taking a chassidic Jew and dressing him up in street clothes. A Jewish melody has to be fashioned from beginning to end in a Jewish way. Whether it is the musical overture to a song, or the transitions, or whatever, we have to make sure that the whole thing is a warm Jewish niggun and that the accompaniment and the musical arrangement do not steal away the song. There are those who go too far in this matter, and whenever foreign and dissonant tunes are brought in from the outside, it causes a lot of damage and degeneration.

Rabbi Deman: When you invited me to this discussion, I had a very hard time deciding whether to come. But in the end I was won over, because I saw that the whole purpose of this interview is to battle with all our might against any trend towards modernization in today's world. I thought to myself, perhaps we are not doing enough to mend matters, to fight and stop the deterioration. I feel that we have been given a mission to stop the erosion.

Where does it originate from? Where did it start?

Rabbi Deman: Unfortunately, we see in today's younger generation a desire to copy the streets, to bring the whole thing inside and put a kosher label on it. This has invaded the world of songs and music, so that part of it comes from outside and is alien to us.

However, there are those who argue that these are true Jewish songs because they have words from the Hebrew sources pinned on them. What we have today is bad enough — all these different types of singers whose songs and music do not belong at all in anything that can be classified as Jewish music.

Rabbi Banet: In the chareidi community today, they have developed a new kind of lense to see out of. A whole different outlook. Even the hearing devices have changed, and whatever is not forbidden is mutar! This is instead of treating the matter in the opposite way.

There is another and very obvious example of this, and that is the practice of going out to restaurants. A whole culture has been made out of it, and again a kosher label has been put on it.

You see that there are people who actually go to restaurants just to have a good time, not because they are hungry and they have come from out of town and need to eat — just as a source of entertainment. And the same thing is happening in the music field.

You take a song of a person who is not such a constructive role model, whose music has a flavor of the streets, and you `kasher it' by dressing it with words from the Hebrew sources — and, lo and behold, it becomes chassidic music.

But it is just because music possesses such power, such tremendous internal power, that when we bring in these songs, we not only open our doors to the streets, but we also expose our inner selves to the streets and to all the evil winds that blow there.

Rabbi Deman: I am convinced that the start of the degeneration and destruction of youth today began with street songs. They are the "halepesach chattos roveitz" (the opening where the sin lies in wait), and from there the deterioration spreads to other areas. They are the root of it all. And it happens in all circles, without exception.

When people start singing a song which does not belong in our circles, you see right away how the bochurim respond, and who responds. You can see the reactions— even when they are unfamiliar and involuntary—in the movements of the hands and the feet, movements that are taken from the streets. You see the wild unruliness.

I was told how once, on a tiyul of young yeshiva bochurim, someone put a tape into the tape player of the bus that contained songs that are not Jewish in the full sense of the word — though they are mistakenly called, "chassidic music." You could see how the spontaneous movements of the bochurim — the wildness, the unruliness — made the atmosphere of the streets suddenly come into the bus because of that song. You could see with complete clarity what a negative effect these licentious songs have on youth that are exposed to them, and how they can bring them down. You see the difference in every single step. It is crystal clear to anyone who understands a little bit about the subject.

Within my extended family, there are all kinds of circles of the religious and chareidi community, and when I go to their simchas and am asked to sing, I can instantly see the difference in the way the audience responds to the songs that are sung to them.

When they hear pure authentic Jewish songs, they behave accordingly. You see the serious singing, the dancing that sweeps away the whole person and not just his legs.

And then when I finish singing and the band starts playing the songs of the street, right away the movements change, and everyone wants to show how well he can dance, and so on and so forth.

Actually, it is not just the tune, or the melody, that can trigger off all that you have described. What about the musical accompaniment, the band, that is very often dissonant to the Jewish ear?

Rabbi Banet: True, it is not only the tune that brings in the street. What about the musical accompaniment, the band? I am very particular about this issue, and even though I am no longer involved in this area today, I make sure to hear every overture, every transition, because I know full well that I will soon hear from the Rebbe without fail . . . but it is not only that fear that impels me.

As a mechanech, I see very clearly that songs are a major dimension in education. I could tell you many stories that I heard, both on an individual basis and from others, of how people came back to Judaism as a result of hearing these songs. It is the power of the melody when it comes from a pure source.

The most significant expression of what is happening today in the field of music is the weddings. You can really sense the complete letting go.

There is an old and famous saying in Vishnitz about the posuk in Shir Hashirim: Har'ini es mar'ayich, hashmi'iny es koleich.' First you have to see what the person who sings, plays and composes looks like, and only then should you hear his voice and his songs.

When you see Reb Yirmiya standing and singing, you see immediately that it is another world, and that a singer has a tremendous and decisive impact on those who are standing in front of him, listening.

Not long ago I attended a wedding in America and I saw a singer who was called `chassidic' at a wedding that was called `chassidic' — and what I saw just shook me up completely. The way they danced. It was absolutely dreadful! And it was not a Litvak community. It was actually a chassidic community. You can see it everywhere, whenever they start singing `Boruch Hagever,' how the bochurim express it.

I recently attended the bar mitzvah of a relative who learns at a well-known cheder. It was devastating to see young 13-year-old boys beg for the song, `Boruch Hagever,' and right away start lifting their feet with all those movements. I could not believe my eyes! It is not surprising when you later see how it leads downhill. Every foot that is lifted upwards like that could be the first step that later goes out into the streets.

I do not know if I should ask such a question, but where are all the older people of the generation who are supposed to transmit the torch of the generations to the next generation? Where are they?

They must see the whole process, and the type of dancing that is going on among the young people. How can they not scream `Gevalt! No more!' There is no doubt that there is a direct and powerful link between what is happening today in the field of music, and the problem of the youth that is leaving the fold.

Rabbi Deman: For sure there is a connection. It is particularly obvious. Once you get caught in it, the passageway to the street is liable to be short and fast. For sure there are differences between one yeshiva and another, and there are places that watch this matter very carefully, but there are others that do not, and it is obvious where that leads. I would stress too, that in general it starts before yeshiva, in the home, when people are not careful about what kinds of tapes and discs they allow into their houses.

The tough question here is—how do you fight it? How do you set up a wall against it?

Rabbi Deman: In our circles, in the chassidic yeshivas, only pure chassidic music is allowed and absolutely no other songs whatsoever, what they call `songs of singers.' A recording of a private individual is forbidden categorically, to provide a barrier that is more restrictive than it may need to be in some cases. We can follow up on it, because by us the fence is much further away.

Today, because of the sophistication of all the various devices it is a lot harder to make these fences, because whoever wants to drink from the forbidden waters has an easier time. Because with the latest musical technology [MP3 - - B.R.] you can record hundreds of songs. You have to realize what that instrument contains, and that is why we constantly have to fight against these things, though victory in this area is, unfortunately, very distant. That is why it is so important for us to have extensive information and so much emphasis on this subject, and to absorb it internally! That is why the chinuch is crucial, with all the information and the understanding of its importance.

The big question we need to ask ourselves here is very simple: Why is it that when we bring food into the house, we check the hechsher on the packet very carefully, but when we buy a tape we do not check anything? It is time for music to be given a hechsher as well! There should be a committee of people who have yiras Shomayim, people who understand this field, who should check and establish what is kosher and what is not! A hechsher committee of that type could solve a great deal of the problem.

Usually, even the best singers and composers try to introduce one song that has more of a beat and is a little different than all the other songs, and therefore that kashrus block would be helpful for everyone.

What about the big fear of idolization? The young generation like to copy singers. So that besides the fact of the treif music that is infiltrating, there is also that problem which with to contend.

Rabbi Deman: This is an additional problem which is far from simple. Singers, chazzans are a real attraction. People are drawn to them, and as long as we are speaking about singers and chazzans who are yirei Shomayim, even though that too is not enough of a positive factor since these are not the kind of people we should be looking up to. But the moment we are drawn to those who are far from that, it for sure constitutes a big problem. It poisons a person from inside!

Rabbi Kalish: I would put it like this: Music in our times is a very strong pointer to the character of a bochur. Especially in the teenage years when young people are looking for someone to identify with, to imitate, to look up to (and I do not need to add that any identification with and desire to be like people who are not gedolei Torah is wrong — and definitely when it involves people who are not so positive, to put it mildly).

When you see a bochur who is drawn to music which is not genuinely Jewish and whose notes are foreign to the spirit of Jewish tradition — and it has, under the heading of `chassidic music,' notes which are very foreign indeed and so far from Judaism that they lack even the faintest scent of it, but rather the contrary — then this is the first warning signal. It means that you need to examine the tapes that he has in his closet, because it shows what company he wants to affiliate himself with or has already affiliated himself with, choliloh.

It is the society he is in that has led him to this—and the minute that he wants to be part of it, he will adopt their music, since that alien sound is a clear indicator of that society. Being or wanting to affiliate with that society is manifested in all kinds of external factors, including the dress code, and the song is another unmistakably clear signal.

It is absolutely clear that pagan, street music, pushes a person when he goes outside. It is a fast mover and a social force that traps one to evil, to the streets.

I feel that I am not saying anything new, it is something simple that everyone knows — even though I cannot point to any specific bochur who went down because he listened to a song that was alien to us, because I cannot possibly know what led to what. But I can point to those for whom it was the first signal of their getting into bad company, and it was the factor that expedited their continued deterioration. Now, that is a clear answer to your question about the danger of idol worship, and the idolization of singers and composers.

Rabbi Banet: I find it hard to understand how a singer is different from a neighborhood plumber, or carpenter, or whatever. Just because he was born a singer, and usually did not have to even work to get to that, it is just a trait that a person gets from the A-mighty. You have a person who is talented at singing—but because he knows how to sing does that make him into a thinker? Into an object of idol worship? And if we see that any singer is looked up to as a knowledgeable person because of his singing and his fame, we have to do a thorough inside check. It is a spiritual danger.

But nevertheless, is there a certain change today, a light at the end of the tunnel?

Rabbi Kalish: Today we are starting to see a change, since some of the musical arrangements have changed their form and type. This is a result of the community not wanting the dissonant musical arrangements that they had before. Our ears have just simply had enough of all that alien stuff and the demand is growing for the old, pure, gentle Jewish style . . .

Rabbi Deman: I see that the Jewish community has by now become sickened by all that street music. They want to hear those simple songs again, the "Veyeid'u Veyeid'u", for that is what makes them happy and enthusiastic.

I have been asked to speak at yeshiva camps about this subject.

Not long ago I went to the wedding of a relative which was not held in the chareidi community, and I was asked to sing. I started to sing the Belzer songs and I cannot begin to describe the outburst of real joy and enthusiasm with which they responded. They begged me not to stop. When I finished singing, they asked me to come to them for Shabbos. "We want to hear real Jewish music," they said.

I saw the great desire to go back to the old songs, in another episode. When I recently married off a few of my children, I thought of recording songs that my late father used to sing at home and giving the recording as a present to members of the family. We called the tape of the songs that he sang on Friday night `Chakal Tapuchin Kadishin,' and the tape of the songs that were sung at the Shabbos day meal `Atiko Kadisho.' I went with my son to the recording studio, and we recorded the songs in just a simple, unsophisticated way, almost without any accompaniment.

The responses I got to those tapes was absolutely amazing. People literally wept on the telephone from emotion. Not just that, but suddenly people from the outside began a mad rush to get the tapes, and we had to put out thousands of them — without exaggeration.

I saw how badly the community today wants the old songs, and is moving away from the music of today. But we need to work on that a lot and without ceasing, and for sure, if this article has its effect, even in the smallest way, that will be our reward.

LaMenatzei'ach Bineginos—"And it happened when the minstrel played that the spirit of Hashem came on him"

Lamenatzei'ach bineginos mizmor leDovid—David wrote this song so that the sons of Levi, who conducted the singing and music playing on the podium in the Beis Hamikdosh, could sing it. The expression `nitzuach' is used for those who make great efforts at their work, as it is written: Ya'amdu haLeviim miben esrim shonoh voma'aloh lenatzei'ach al meleches Beis Hashem" (the Leviim will stand from twenty years old and upwards to conduct the service of the House of Hashem" (Ezra 3:8 and Rashi there).

"It is easy for a person to play, but singing is very hard indeed!" HaRav Pincus used to say. "There is a song of words, saying thank-you in words, but sometimes it comes in a tremendous outburst through the niggun—`Lamenatzei'ach bineginos.' The niggun has enormous power that is much greater than words."

We still have etched in our hearts the way in which the Rosh Yeshiva of Beer Yaakov, HaRav Moshe Shmuel Shapira zt"l would literally explode into song. That was during the days of moed and simchah, when the singing would literally sweep everyone along. Those were the holy songs which came from a heavenly base, which were composed by the gedolei Yisroel.

Those songs were never recorded, but they are the very foundation stones of the yeshiva world. They came from singing that was entirely holy and pure, singing that erupted from the depths of the heart and raised it to the Heavens. The song literally exploded from the mouths and throats of the rosh yeshivas and principals, the conductors of the Holy Service.

In the book about HaRav Zeev Eidelman, we are told about HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz and his fierce desire that bnei yeshivos know what singing is about. He himself composed a few famous songs in the Torah world.

And the list is long in our generation as well: HaRav Moshe Shmuel Shapira, ylct'a HaRav Don Segal (`Ein Od Milvado'), HaRav Levi Yitzchok Shushan (`Nodeh leCho uNesaper TehiloseCho`), and other composers as well who learn in the beis hamidrosh and disseminate Torah (HaRav Hillel Palei and others). Their singing comes from a pure source, and we see the great impact it has on our youth, when they play and sing their songs.

Heartstrings of the soul of the yeshiva world . . . .


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