By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
For the past couple of months, my colleague at work has been listening to Christian pop music. She has her own iPod so everyone can hear; it doesn’t interfere with work productivity at all. Over time, I have grown to enjoy it and even sing along! My conscious is telling me this is not okay. Any advice would be appreciated.
-Feelin’ that Jewish Guilt
Dear Feelin’ Guilt,
In Judaism, music and song are considered one of the most powerful forces that exist to affect the hearts of human beings. The entirety of Torah is referred to as a song. When Moses was commanded to write the first Torah scroll, he was told “So now, write this song…” (Deut. 31:19). This literally is referring to the following portion (Ch. 32) which is an actual song, but is further referring to the entirety of Torah. This is part of the reason why the Torah scroll is not read in the synagogue like a book, rather the reader chants the Torah like a song. Every word of the Torah is accompanied by a note to be sung.
This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, the entirety of the Torah comprises a giant symphony. Every detail represents a type of musical instrument, each one necessary for the wholeness of the great concerto.
Another reason is that music goes straight to the heart. In Judaism, the heart is the place where the physical and spiritual aspects of a human being fused into one existence. The expression of that dual existence is in the power of speech, which was launched at the moment of the combination of soul to body. The zenith of speech is song, which draws upon the deepest connection of body and soul within the heart. This we learn from the classical commentary of Rashi, explaining the profound, prophetic song sung by Moses and the Jews upon witnessing the splitting of the sea. “Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song…” (Ex. 15:1). “Then,” says Rashi, means they harnessed a wellspring of emotions and thoughts from their hearts to sing this song. The theme of that song is the fusion of G-d’s presence and providence to the mundane world, which is the cosmic mirror of the same fusion within the heart of man, the microcosm of the universe. The source for such a song is within the depths of the heart, and hence goes directly into the hearts of the listeners; heart to heart.
The Kabbalistic teachings are the most profound explanation of the deepest connection between the Shechina, Divine Presence, and the physical world, the “heart” of the universe. This is why R’ Eliyahu of Vilna (18th century), one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time, proclaimed that only one who has the deepest understanding of music can truly understand the Kabbalah.
Maimonides explains that the prophets, to reach the level of connection necessary to reach prophecy, would play or listen to music. David played for King Saul to bring him to those levels, and later King David wrote an entire book of Psalms, prayers through music. The sages teach that Messiah will teach us the “eighth tone,” which will radically change music to become a Divine connection.
This explains why nations have national anthems, and armies march into battle amid musical accompaniments. Music has a profoundly influential, as well as defining affect. Rock music, with its heavy emphasis on base notes, actually brings out the more physical side of a person.
You should not underestimate the affect Christian music can have upon your Jewish soul. I would not attribute this to “guilt,” rather to a recognition your soul has that it is being watered by a source that doesn’t jive with its essence, and will probably, if continued, have an effect you don’t desire.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.