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The Jewish Ethicist: Songs and Sanctity

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Music can be uplifting or debasing.

Q.In an earlier column you write that it is wrong to copy copyrighted music from unauthorized sites. It seems to me that much popular music is wrong to listen to in the first place. Where do we draw the line?

A. In order to answer this question, we need to first clarify that it is indeed damaging to hear music with negative, anti-social messages. A subsequent column will discuss which songs we need to avoid.

Jewish tradition, with its strong emphasis on concrete practice rather than abstract faith, is particularly insistent on the need to choose habits and an environment that are conducive to human growth. One of the most famous statements of this is the explanation in the classic Sefer Hachinukh (Book of Mitzvah Education) that practical commandments are necessary because "the heart is drawn after the actions." Rather than commanding a particularly sentiment or character trait, the Torah influences us by accustoming us to acts and experiences which will in turn cultivate an enlightened outlook.

There is no question that our outlook and habits are heavily influenced by the messages we are exposed to in the communications media and in the arts. That's why advertising companies spend hundreds of billions of dollars trying to influence our buying decisions. The same is true of music.

Rabbi Yehudah Amital once illustrated this with a story. The kaddish recitation is the most frequent motif in our daily prayers; it is said about ten times each day. The prayer leader or mourner declares, "May His great name be magnified and sanctified" in the world, and the congregation responds, "May His great name be blessed forever!" The Talmud greatly emphasizes the importance of this response, stating that anyone who makes this declaration with all his might and concentration will be saved from evil decrees. Yet we must admit that many of us don't attain this height of enthusiasm, and occasionally (or more than occasionally) we respond in an automatic way.

Rabbi Amital tells that a student once approached his rabbi and explained that he felt hypocritical stating over and over "May his great name be magnified" in a completely mechanical way; perhaps it would really be better to just omit it. The rabbi replied, "What would happen if ten times a day we all shouted 'Drink Coca-Cola!' Don't you think it would have an impact on us, even if said it in a mechanical, habitual way? So responding to kaddish also influences us, even if we can't really feel the impact."

According to some studies, youngsters who listen to certain kinds of popular music are exposed hundreds of times each day to messages glorifying sexual relations that are casual, exploitative, or even violent; glorifying violent and anti-social acts; and urging the rejection of authority. It's just not realistic to think that these messages don't affect a person's character -- particularly the relatively malleable character of a young person who is still developing. And research studies confirm this impact.

Music is a particularly influential kind of message. Our tradition consistently acknowledges the power of music to affect our emotions and our character, for good and for bad. Scripture tells us that David used to play the harp for Saul to calm his troubled spirit (I Samuel chapter 16), and that the prophet Elisha used to attain prophecy as music was played before him (II Kings 3:15). Music is a powerful way of expressing our praises to God (Psalms chapter 150), or of rejoicing at a wedding (See Jeremiah 33:11). The Talmud also recognizes that a song can help motivate and pace our work (1); and Maimonides explains that it can help cheer us up when we are melancholy. (2)

At the same time, we recognize that music can also be a negative influence. It can accustom us to levity, and inure us to immodesty. (1) Our sages also warned us that absorption in music can lead us to forget the destruction of the ancient Sanctuary. (3) Nowadays people have a hard time understanding the significance of remembering the ancient Temple, but basically the rabbis were afraid that music could serve as a kind of anodyne to make us forget the fact that our world is essentially incomplete as long as the Divine presence is not continuously among us.

So the best use of music is to directly inspire us to higher levels: levels of joy in God's service (such as playing before a bride and groom), levels of awareness of and praise for His beneficence (especially devotional music), even levels of performance in our work.

Nowadays, when recorded music is routine, there is nothing wrong with casual listening to the radio or tapes as long as the material itself doesn't send any negative messages.

Yet the music listener needs to be exercise constant caution. In today's wide-open market, indiscriminate listening to radio or recordings is definitely an ethical hazard. We should all be on our guard to limit our exposure to antisocial messages and to consciously reject those that we are unavoidably exposed to.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Sota 48a. (2) Maimonides, Eight Chapters (Introduction to tractate Avot), chapter 5. (3) Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 560:3.

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