Thursday, January 21, 2010
The tune: I once commented in passing on Chana's blog that, unlike the opinion of one of the commentors there, it is not just words, but music as well, that can have a soul-corrupting influence over a person. Aristotle and Plato say so themselves. Even then there was proper, noble music, and "youth-corrupting" music. The Talmud reports that one of the reasons Yehushua' Cohen Gadol strayed from the just path in the end of his life was because he listened to Greek music. The corrupting type of Geek music. So it cannot be said that there is no such thing as harmful music.
Now, while there is what to be said about the development of music from that time until our time, the most important phenomenon that's pertinent to this context is the Advent of Rock music. Half a century ago, for the first time in a long time, religious and social leaders were complaining that the new style of music that was being produced was "corrupting the youth". Although today their opinions are looked upon as anachronisms, I agree with a lot of their essential arguments about Rock music. Their main argument was that it developed from the "drum music" of the descendants of the Africans in the South, and that it had an unwholesome beat and African flavor to it. Until then the West had known no such sensual music. Rock music (and the music that is has influenced) is unrelentingly popularistic and intrinsically different from the traditional music of every country.
Then we come to the sad subject of Chassidic Music, of "Jewish Music". Of what, friends, constitutes the "Jewishness" of Jewish music? The singing of Torah words or "Nigunnim" to Rock music tunes, or music inspired by that style. That is all anyone will ever mean by "Jewish" music. Could it be friends, that after a musical tradition spanning 3,300 years we have been reduced to a couple of low-life yeshiva dropouts singing well known verses to the tunes of Rock songs being the only thing that constitutes "Jewish" music?! What a loss.
I myself prefer to indulge in the glorious musical tradition of my ancestors in Morocco. The music of the Moroccan Jews consists mainly of sacred poems sung to what's known as Andalusian music. A pure and beautiful form of the orderly Arab Maqamat that derives it's name from the part of Spain where Jewish, Christian and Muslim thought developed in an atmosphere of mutual good will, Andalusia. The birthplace of the Rambam and countless other sages.
Yet, as today's leading expert in Moroccan Piyutim points out, there is more to Andalusian music than it's sobriety and it's ascetic beauty. You see, the music was brought to Morocco from the original Muslims who emigrated directly from Iraq to the Maghreb. What kind of people resided in Babylonia, friends, when this music was being developed in the seventh century if not a great multitude of Jews? Jews who had been exiled from their Land and their Temple, and no doubt brought their music with them, and which certainly had a great part in influencing this sacred music before it was taken to the Maghreb. What emerges then, is that Andalusian music is directly influenced by the very music our ancestors sang in the Beit Hamikdash!
The words: Again, the words in today's "Jewish music" is only simplistic and popular verses from our Torah, yet soiled by the impure garments that these crowd pleasing singers tie onto them. The lyrics of our liturgical poems, or "piyutim", and Moroccan piyutim especially, are much more complex, and much more beautiful.
As a general introduction to piyutim, I should say that they are poems in biblical Hebrew, based directly on the poems of the Tanach itself. Piyutim like these have been written since at least the Talmudic era, by Rabbi Eliezer Hakalir, and from then till today, in the never ending Rabbi-student Judaic tradition. There are Ashkenazi piyutim as well that are chanted weekly at that Shabbat tables. Yet there were a few particular places and times where the piyut thrived. The first is 11th-12th century Spain, where lived such greats as Rabbi Yehudah Halevi and Shlomo Ibn Gevirol. The second great era is that of the Kabalistic piyut, written mostly in and around Tzfat in the 16th century, under the influence of the Arizal. From there there are two main traditions, the Syrian piyut and the Moroccan piyut, the Rabbis of both countries having produced masterful works from the 18th century to the 20th. In both countries the pious would rise after midnight on the Sabbath 'eve and sing the sacred songs of their rabbis and sages until morning, and were then joined by the community in an inspiring Sabbath morning prayer. This international weekly piyut-singing vigil is called "Bakashot" (requests), since many of the songs are forms of prayer.
There is much to be said about the literary, metrical and contextual style and development of Moroccan piyuim, but one aspect I wish to concentrate on is that the Moroccan piyut, more than others, has a particular affinity towards the husband/wife relationship being a metaphor to the Israel/G-d relationship, as is portayed in Shir Hashirim. The style of Shir Hashirim, which was called the holiest of holies by our rabbis for that reason, is the style which beatifies and sanctifies these piyutim above the others. The song which embodies this the most being "דודי ירד לגנו", written by the holy Rabbi Chaim Hacohen (who lived in the time and place of the Ari, died at the age of 20, and wrote a Kabalistic commentary to the Shulchan Aruch). This song begins the Moroccan Bakashot, the rest of the songs change weekly, and are sung to a different Maqam (but that's for another time).
To me, that is the main joy in singing the piyutim and bakashot, the thought that these are the songs and transferred religious wisdom that endless generations of rabbis have imparted to us. They are vessels for us to grasp their religious feelings and fervor. Lippa Shmeltzer is a fine man, but he is surely no Yehudah Halevi, no Yisrael Nagara, no Chaim Hacohen and no Yisrael Abuchatzera (Baba Sali), nor is he even slightly up to par with any other of the piyut authors.
Another spiritual advantage of the piyut is that is itself is the highest form of prayer, prayer through song. Which is a fulfillment of Jewish reformers from John the Baptist to the Baal Shem Tov (להבדיל), who all said that the established prayer is not enough, and that one must pray to G-d at all times, especially through song.
The only problem is that the lower elements and the masses will always prefer Mordechai ben David-type stuff, since he sings only one or two Hebrew words, and these piyutim are masterworks of biblical Hebrew poetry, something which is far too lofty for the average man to grasp, and so it will remain, the prize of the initiated.