I am pretty new to Judaism, taking a few classes here and there, and often find that it’s all about thinking and intellectual arguing. I’m not such a left-brain person and I struggle with the Torah’s emphasis on intellectual pursuits. My truly great passion is music. What does Judaism have to say about music? If all of this religion is books I’m not sure it is going to work for me.
I encourage you continue your exploration of Judaism and know that you will find that music has a full-bodied place in our tradition. It is at once the medium of prophetic vision, a utilitarian vehicle for ensconcing historic events into lively perpetuity, and the sublime and celebratory means through which we express our devotion toward the Almighty. Music might even be the metaphor through which many of us experience a good deal of our Judaism. I know this to be true for myself.
I treasure winsome poignant memories of sitting on the porch, hearing my father singing old Zionist songs on soft warm evenings in the summer with fireflies flashing about and crickets offering an accompaniment. I can almost smell the onions frying as I recall the background of record after record of Shlomo Carlebach playing as we cooked for holidays in the kitchen.
And of course there is camp. What would life be without the huge bubbly repertoire of Jewish songs learned at summer camp?
Whether in the synagogue, around the Shabbat table, or even as the El Al airplane touches down, we Jews live in a vivacious musical with a background score all our own, piping in with just the right refrains. Cue Hava Nagila! This needs to be part of your Jewish know-how. Music is an essential element of Judaism, marking critical moments and moods of our story reaching back to the very beginning of our nationhood.
One of the earliest appearances of music is the collective triumphant singing at the shores of the Red Sea, as the Israelites celebrate their victorious crossing — slaves finally enjoying their first taste of freedom. There is nothing to do but sing! It expresses the overwhelming feelings of thankfulness, and at the same time reflects the rapture felt by those who stood by those shores.
Moshe leads the song and the nation follows, then Miriam leads the women with timbrels in hand, “Sing ye to the Lord, for He is highly exalted.” We relive this great moment each morning in our daily prayers, a song of such great magnitude still savored with delight thousands of years later.
But music has an interesting intellectual and psychological aspect as well. It is the nature of music to lift and to inspire — so much so that it is through music prophets have been known to achieve prophecy. Furthermore, music can even serve to lift the spirits of those who are critically despondent. Consider two of our most enigmatic and magnetic Biblical personalities, Saul and David. They both offer fascinating case studies in musical enchantment and engagement.
On one hand we have Saul, the first King of the Israel, who in an early initiation scene is told: “And it shall come to pass, when you have come there to the city, that you shall meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a lute, and a tambourine, and a pipe, and a lyre before them; and they shall prophesy; and the spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you shall prophesy with them, and shall be turned into another man.”
Music has a seemingly transformative power. Though imbued with potent potential, Saul has yet to assume leadership. His kingship is finally realized through the inspirational arousal of music, followed by his experiencing of prophecy — the receiving of mystical otherworldly emanations from the Holy One. The uplift toward the Divine and the enhanced level of spirituality is propelled by music.
Ironically, as the end of Saul’s kingship unfolds, his melancholy spirit leaves him devoid of Heavenly radiations. He has no choice but to calm his internal torment, and he does so with music.
His advisors counsel him, “Behold now, an evil spirit from God troubles you. Let our lord now command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man, who knows how to play on a lyre; and it shall come to pass, when the evil spirit from God is upon you, that he shall play with his hand, and you shall be well.”
David, later to known as the sweet singer of Israel, comes on the scene and with his lyre banishes the awful evil spirit of Saul. David becomes the prime composer of Psalms and sleeps with a harp hanging over his bed, which awakens him as midnight gusts of wind pluck at the strings, “Awake My Glory, Awake.”
Music lifts the spirit. Years later, fittingly so, those of miserable spirit cannot bring themselves to sing or to play, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, we also wept, when we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres on the willows in its midst. For there those who carried us away captive required of us a song; and those who tormented us required of us mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’” Bereft of joy, the heart cannot sing. Those who mourn retire their instruments. Thankfully, there is a healing counterpart to this painful heartbreaking scene.
The lofty picture is found in the book Nehemia. The joyous buoyant spirited singing of those who lay the foundation of the soon-to-be-built Second Temple — for 70 years their song was muted as they layered the bricks for the sanctuary and sang a song of joyous disbelief.
There is so much to Jewish music: it is our past, our present, and will surely be our future.
Jewish music is all around. Don’t let your Judaism reside only in the class taken here or there. Join a synagogue, search the Web, find a family to host you and treat yourself to the music that will truly make your heart sing and your right-sided brain rejoice!
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.