Friday, February 27, 2009

You Can’t Fight City Hall

What does one do when their successful career is threatened via condemnation by 33 rabbinic leaders? The answer is you capitulate. That is what you have to do if your want to salvage any of that career. After all, you can’t fight city hall. That’s what mega-popular Chasidic singer Lipa Schmeltzer told the Wall Street Journal.

After last year’s concert was canceled there was a major backlash by the very people who normally listen to every word these rabbis say. This was not lost on R’ Shmuel Kaminetsky who was one of the 33 signers of a ban on Lipa’s concert last year. To his credit which demonstrates his great character, Rav Kaminetsky admitted making a mistake. He said that he was misled by some of the instigators of the ban. And though he felt some of the issues relating to the ban were of legitimate concern, he would not have signed it as written.

This year he has given his blessing:

Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, told the Jewish Star newspaper that he now had no problem with Mr. Schmeltzer: "As far as I know he is an ehrliche Yid [a truly devout Jew]."

He is an Ehrliche Yid. Always was. I don’t think his religious observance was ever in question. At issue was his material. He would use secular tunes as part of his repertoire. After the ban in order to get back into the good graces of those rabbinic leaders he agreed to sing only legitimate Jewish songs and not use secular music at all. Many people saw this as some sort of Teshuva. But there was no Teshuva. It wasn’t needed. It was a capitulation to blackmail on the part of instigators of the ban who had demonstrated their power by gathering those 33 rabbinic signatures. Which is why Lipa put it the way he did about not fighting city hall.

Of course that did not satisfy at least one of those instigators. He managed to actually embarrass Lipa publicly at a recent wedding implying Lipa deserved it because he was leading people astray with his music. He ‘whitened Lipa’s face in public’ which the Gemarah tells us is tantamount to murder. Lipa - to his credit - forgave him immediately.

What has Lipa done since his promise to not incorporate secular music? Has he avoided those influences? Not exactly:

In the months after the ban, he released an album, "A Poshiter Yid" (A Simple Jew), with a title song that could serve as a Yiddish version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."

I highly doubt that Gloria Gaynor’s seventies style disco music qualifies as ‘Jewish music’.

Not that such an entity actually exists - with the possible exception of Torah Trop (cantilation). But we all know what ‘Jewish music’ is when we hear it – kind of like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography. And it is nothing like what Gloria Gaynor sings. Or is it?

Using secular music as a source for Jewish music is perfectly fine - that is exactly what has been happening as far back as one can go in Jewish history. What Ashkenazim call Jewish Music is nothing more than European folk style music with lyrics from traditional Jewish sources like psalms, prayer, or biblical and talmudic passages. Much like Sephardi ‘Jewish music’ which is taken from Middle Eastern culture.

As long as the melody does not conjure up sexual imagery and licentiousness, there is nothing wrong with it – no matter what the source. I believe that this is in part why Rabbi Kaminetsky has approved of it this year. He has to know what Lipa and his music are about this time and he has given him his blessing - as noted above.

Perhaps last year’s ban was a blessing in disguise because a lot of good things have followed. I highly doubt that much has changed with Lipa Schmeltzer’s music. And I don’t see another ban taking place without due deliberation - and with the realization that more harm can come from a precipitous ban then from overlooking minor objections about it - even if those objections may have some merit. One has to look at the total picture. Perhaps those 33 rabbis will now think twice about which hill they choose to ‘die’ on.

One final note. The instigators of last year’s ban have been sidelined – perhaps even discredited. My sources in Agudah tell me that Lipa’s attacker is no longer invited to speak at their official functions. And that’s a good thing.