Monday, February 25, 2008

Music and Niskatnu HaDoros

A gypsy woman working in a cigar factory in Seville, enchants and bewitches a soldier. He longingly obeys her commands and helps her escape arrest, but this action places him in prison instead. Eventually upon his release he discovers she and a handsome toreador have begun a rapturous affair, and thus she is no longer his. Bitterly and angrily, he kills her, and throws himself upon her dead body.

A young man leaves home and disguises himself as a musician to escape a distasteful marriage - and meets a beautiful girl with whom he falls in love. He desperately wants to marry her, but obstacles are cast in his way by her guardian, the Lord High Executioner, who is also in love with her and has every intention of marrying her, himself. Also causing problems is a jilted bride.

A young bohemian worker hears a knock at the door. A young female neighbor enters, wishing to relight her candle. Obviously ill, she nearly faints, and drops her room key. He is instantly attracted to her and manages to detain her by concealing her key after he secretly finds it. He snuffs out his own candle, and as the two of them search in the darkness for her key, their hands touch. Spontaneously, they pour out their love for one another.

What do these three stories have in common? They are synopses of three great operas: Carmen, The Mikado, and La Boheme. If one looks at this musical genre one will see that they all contain a common theme. They are about passionate love affairs.

I can’t imagine how today’s Gedolim would react if Bnei Torah were listening to such music. I assume that there would be a ban against it rating right up their with the recent one against Lipa Schmeltzer, whose music pales in comparison. And if any Gadol dared to say he listened to this kind of music, he would lose his Gadol credentials. I can see the words of the ban now: This music is Assur. It is written by Goyim. Its themes are anathema to our holy Torah. And should not be listened to and certainly not found in anyone’s home.

But they would be wrong in doing so. Because every single Rav who signed the ban against Lipa Shmeltzer’s music would be condemning a Gadol that they all agree is greater than any one of them, Rav Yitzchak Hutner. I am sure they would all unanimously agree that they are K’tanim compared to the Gedolim of the previous generation. This is in essence the what the concept of Niskatnu HaDoros- the dimishing of the generations – means: If the previous generations were like angels, we are like men. If they were like men, we are like donkeys. This - the Gemarah tells us - is how the sages thought about themselves compared to the previous generations.

Rav Yitzchak Hutner was an opera buff and had an extensive opera collection. That is well known. The original lyrics to the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight whose melody is used in a parody by Lipa Schmeltzer pale in comparison to the storyline of most operas.

It seems fairly clear to me that what they banned here is not based on our limited but required state of mourning of the second temple’s destruction. We are forbidden to listen to music except in special circumstances. Based on articles published in the Jewish Observer, the music of singer Abish Brodt certainly has their seal of approval. His music is just fine. Their objection is therefore not based on that Halacha but on the inspiration for Lipa Schmeltzer’s music. That is, the genre of secular popular music. They have a kind of amorphous objection to it: They say it is sourced in a culture that is anathematic to Torah. This they say will lead to behavior unbecoming of a Ben Torah.

What passes for even kosher Jewish music today though isn’t really Jewishly sourced at all. It is all sourced in some very base European folk tunes. Nonetheless they permit it and define it as Jewish. How so? I presume that they have kind of a Justice Potter Stewart definition: They know it when they hear it. Do they know the sources and permit it anyway? If so why? What’s the difference between that and the cute melody from The Lion Sleeps Tonight? And how do they justify Rav Hutner’s love of opera music?

It is truly sad that Lipa Schmeltzer was pressured to withdraw from his concert. I can’t really blame him though. One would have to have super-human courage and stamina to withstand the kind of pressure he got - described in a Yeshiva World post.

As I have said in an earlier post, the Israeli trend in bans has arrived in America and it’s going ahead full steam. What will be banned next? Going to ball games? A Fourth of July parade? Going to the zoo or a museum? Have they learned nothing from last summer’s debacle in the Catskill Mountains? Take away the good clean fun of a Frum Jewish concert or any other harmless secular entertainment and young people will find their own fun privately.

I know their intent is pure. These Rabbanim want to keep our people holy. They want our children to be involved only in Torah learning or other Torah based activities. Of course that is the ideal. But it is not the real. The reality is that virtually every human being needs a break from his routine. One needs activities that do not require a heavy investment of their intellectual capacities.

While learning Torah is the ultimate joy, it is a joy that requires a lot of work. Investing one’s time in it will certainly produce tremendous satisfaction and joy. Much more than the fleeting enjoyment of a concert. But most human beings are simply incapable of constantly investing every moment of their day in intensive Torah study. In order for people to truly be able to immerse themselves in Torah learning they need a release…. a break from the routine in ways that are both satisfying and rehabilitative. Something light and entertaining. Something that will give their minds and bodies a rest. Something they can enjoy with their families.

What will accomplish that is unique to every individual. Some people like sports. Others like the zoo. And still others like music. And among those some people like one kind of music while others like another kind. Telling people that an entire genre is not kosher will almost certainly lead to violations of Halacha in many cases. Some will simply find other more secretive ways of getting that release. You can’t tell people to love only one kind of music. You cannot dictate taste. In the end if people cannot find kosher ways to achieve their release they may find alternatives in alcohol, drugs, and sex. Just ask those Yeshiva students who found their way into a drug party in the Catskills last summer. They were just looking for some fun. They didn’t have any kosher fun so they made their own. Ezeh Hu Chacam, HaRoeah Es HaNolad.

And this brings me back to Lipa Schmeltzer’s music. There are distinctions to be made in popular music. Not every song is disgusting. Certainly not the melodies Lipa has chosen. Some music is disgusting and some isn’t. Some popular songs are in fact very inspiring. Others are just plain fun with no intrinsic anti Torah content. I am very disappointed at this ban and urge them to reconsider because if they don’t they may very well have far worse consequences to deal with than attending a Lipa Schmeltzer concert.