Thursday, March 29, 2007

Religious Jewish Music is Boring

Pardon me?! That's right, you heard right; Jewish religious music is boring.

Why, you might wonder, am I saying this. That's easy, because it's true.

I actually don't believe that, but the truth is that, at least for un-observant Jews, religious Jewish music can seen stale or dorky.

The reason is very simple, and they're actually on to something. You see, secular music is unbound, that's one of the sources of emotional, almost spiritual, power that secular music has. In fact, it can be so moving that I hesitate using the word "secular" to describe it. There is a certain type of power inherent in many of the genres of secular music because it is unconcerned with notions of avoiding particular sentiments. In other words, secular music plays on all the ranges of human emotion. The secret to its power is that it regularly accesses some of the more confounding human emotions, such as confusion, cynicism, passion, anger, lust, unhindered idealism, and depravity - the result is that music has an overwhelming effect on the listener.

Religious music, on the other hand, approaches musical expression in different manner. Jewish music, such as Shabbat niggunim (worldless tunes) and z'mirot (with words) shape their components in a much different way. The goal is to not to create energy by tapping into the raw and wild emotions of the human experience, which once they are tapped almost take on a life of their own. Rather, Jewish music reaches into the heights of what makes a person unique, the soul, and creates expressions that attempt to fuse a person to more pure parts of their being. In that, the concept of holiness is an element in Jewish religious music that is not necessarily present, at least not purposely, in secular music.

We can use a metaphor of apple juice and water, with the apple juice being emotionally charged secular music and water being holiness-oriented religious music. At first taste, apple juice is much more appealing than water (I, for one, tend to only drink water when I'm thirsty); it's sweet, it has viscosity, etc... Water, on the other hand, is tasteless and plain, there is almost no reason to drink it. But when one is thirsty, water suddenly becomes the liquid life, the only thing a sweating, over-heated person wants. And the feeling a person in such a state gets is that the water is soothing and curing his entire body of what ails him as he drinks it, and unlike apple juice, the absence of sugar does not make him more thirsty, and therefore leaves an element of completed satisfaction.

Speaking in abstract terms, niggunim and zemirot have that effect; the soul yearns for an expression that doesn't speak to his "more lowly" elements, powerful emotions that can overwhelm him and remind him of all types of things, not excluding memories that he does not seek to remember. Rather, he desires a piece of music that speaks to a part of him which might be only sporadically accessed, a piece of him that raises him above his sophisticated animal emotions, making use of them as jump pads, but ultimately connecting him to something Higher than he. In truth, access to this "holiness" of which I am writing can be very similar to an emotion, and honestly, fragments of several emotions are probably ignited during the exposure to this holiness, but they all move together in a bundle towards a higher source, as if being lifted by helium. Without this holiness, which can be spoken of abstractly as an emotion of sorts, emotions on their own tend to have a sinking effect, like oil in water. If a piece of music moves a person to unbridled passion, but that passion dislodges hidden bits of negative emotion, such as bitterness or lacking, that music can have an aftertaste of melancholy or distress. Many pieces of music work on me in such a fashion, pieces that I have to say I like very much. And without treading on those pieces of music and the sentiment and significance they carry, the reason I like them is because they take to me places in which I have no control, and the experience of loss of control can be entirely breathtaking. This type of music is like an untrained animal; the moment it is released, it will do as it pleases. The sheer power of being a spectator to such an animal is magnificent, but the second the animal turns its attention to you, or does something against your wishes, you might be in trouble.

Music that attempts to ignite the sparks of holiness, or to awaken them from their dormant state, also implies an element of loss of control, but the movement is upwards, and goes along with the human being's natural desire to move in an ascending direction. The effect of secular music is not necessarily a downer, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that it moves one in sweeping gestures from side to side, bringing him into variantly different realms of emotion in close temporal proximity. The result is somewhat like jumping from a jacuzzi into a pool and then back again several times. It is definitely an invigorating experience, but it is exhausting. Holy music loosens the weights that hold a person in this world, his mundane emotions, and allows the natural lift to express itself, and the result is ultimately energizing, or calming, depending on the niggun or zmirah. This is not to say that this happens independent of the person, for he eventually can learn how to determine what parts of him are being accessed, and what parts he wishes to access, like a muscle, and can flex those parts. When he does that, he can be a partner, even initiate, the spiritual effect of that music. It is actually void to say that it can happen without his volition; he has to direct his mind and agree to move in an upward direction before it can occur, otherwise he is like a rock tied to a balloon. This is a bit different than raw and energetic secular music, which begins to move him in all kinds of directions the moment he begins to hear it; it speaks to his animal parts, his nefesh, his spirit. Niggunim and zemirot speak to his neshama, his soul, which wants to go up. The nefesh tends to be happy enough where it is, down here. However, as the Ramacha"l states in Cheshbon Ha-nefesh (Account of the Spirit), a person can use the sheer animalistic power to traject himself upwards, but like an animal, if he does not train it, it will overpower him and do whatever it wants with him.

The content of this powerful music also plays a grand role in determining what kind of effect it has on the listener; usually the content covers a broad range of things, which can be very entertaining to very moving. The listener, however, through his comprehension of words, taps into what the singer is trying to convey, and he will move only as high as the subject matter allows. Secular music has the ability to lift the person, but this type of secular music is few and far in between; we all have merited to hear particularly special secular songs that just play our chords like an expert violinist, and we cherish them, but they are rare diamonds that we collect. The very tune can be overwhelming, lifting us into a realm which we do not normally visit, and the order of the words and the message the singer is trying to convey, and his tone, all come together to create for an incredible song.

This is the effect of a holy song, but with a minor difference that ends up creating a larger gap. The holy song utilizes many of the same elements; tune, tone, and instrument, but the difference is in the content of the song, the ideas and messages conveyed in the song. Ultimately, since the only variable between the two types is content, the content is responsible for making the mind twirl when the words are repeated. We all know what it's like to reach a part in a song where those one or two sentences just send a dash up our spine and make our head tingle, but if the content of a song is about the wonder of G-d, let's say, very often the whole song can raise our awareness through our consciousness to higher things, and the tingles can be persistent. It seems that emotion-accessing songs and holiness-based songs are neck to neck with each other until they reach a certain point, and then the song of holiness advances ahead and leaves the other song behind. That the song is sung in a different language, even and especially a language one knows, can have this effect.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Four Juicy Questions -

(1) How does biology and evolution account for the human sense of possessing a soul? Can we say that the sense that we have a soul benefit us in some biological way, i.e., that it helps us to function or even survive?

(2) Even if the soul was a biological trait, not literally existing, how would something like an unconscious evolution have the capacity to create the internal impression that we have a soul that connects us to something larger, even though that thing does not exist? In other words, evolution would be responsible for creating a whole spiritual paradigm that exists in our head, and not only that, it would have created the illusion that we have a love for and an interaction with an "object" external to us, with which we can relate by means of our illusory soul. We can ask, since we have this "soul," how is evolution able to orchestrate such a thing? If it is, then we must conclude that evolution itself possesses outlandish intelligence and even desire to create. If so, evolution itself becomes something not very different from the theistic notion of G-d.

(3) On top of this, this paradigm in our head creates a network of our mind, emotions, and body, with our soul an element of ourselves composed of, but higher than, these three elements. Even if we don't believe we have a soul, we still sense ourselves in a very unique and intimate way; this is virtually impossible to explain biologically. The very value of life is ideologically and emotionally diminished if we try to explain humanity as a series of highly complex and sophisticated biological organisms.

(4) This is also reflected in our laws, which recognize a concept known as "morality." Approaching it from the biological angle, morality can have the effect of moderating society and therefore contributing to the perpetuation of the organism. However, morality reaches a point where it ceases to be convenient and actually places strain on the organism, to the point where it would actually be easier for a society, or societies, to "break down" and detach itself from concepts of morality. Nevertheless, humanity continues to, almost obsessively, cleave to the notion of morality, which transcends the physical and biological realities of being a human being (we want to feed every human on the planet even though it could be numerically valuable for a portion of the human race to die out each year). It is a nagging call to truth that keeps a person from stealing something when nobody is around; the affect on society is minimal, and even children, whom do not understand what society is, feel that resistance, perhaps more strongly. It is things like this, which spark the conscious, which is located in the "soul" and alerts a resistance within us against engaging in such behaviors. This mechanism causes us to perceive that we are not alone at the moment of the event

The fascinating question is how biology and evolution attest to these things.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Muslim Intellectual From Bahrain -

What are your opinions on what Dhiyya al-Musawi is saying?

28% of Israeli Arabs Deny the Holocaust -

According to a March 18, 2007 article by the Associated Press, 28% of Israeli Arabs deny the Holocaust. That’s somewhere in between one quarter and one third. Can you imagine if 28% of America’s white population denied that American blacks were oppressed and mistreated in the United States’ own history?

Based on the findings of Sami Smoocha, “a prominent sociologist at the University of Haifa,” “radicals in the Arab world believe the Holocaust to be a political event, and many feel that by denying it they are expressing opposition to Israel.”

I am a strong advocate that today’s generation of Jews should have already, and if not, then it needs to, shed some of the persistent anxieties about the Holocaust (which is different than forgetting it). But the issue remains; denying a confirmed event, which was a product of World War II and Hitler’s attempt to take over the world, has no place in the lexicon of Palestinian resistance to the State of Israel’s existence. How deep is the abyss between historical truths and reality among radical hatred in the Palestinian towns that the veracity of the entire Holocaust will be downplayed just to stick it to the Jewish State? Can the “radicals” involved really have free reign to smudge history as they please in order to recreate a new picture that they find more suitable? What about the countless other tens of millions of people, non-Jews, whom were murdered in the Holocaust; do the radicals also deny that? That Hitler also targeted Poles, Russians, Czechs, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others was as well part of the Zionist plot to take land from the Palestinians? We must grasp the mythical importance to the Palestinian story of underplaying the veracity of the Holocaust, but we also must understand how it factors into reality.

But the statistics of the poll are not pure theory; according to the study, “Among Israeli Jews, 63 percent said they avoid entering Arab towns and cities, and 68 percent fear the possibility of civil unrest among Israeli Arabs.” These are Arab towns and cities in Israel, not the dreary images of West Bank municipalities, but areas into which an unseasoned visitor to Jerusalem, Haifa, Akko, or Tel-Aviv, cities in “Israel Proper,” might accidentally stroll. These aren’t Arabs who thrust their rifles into the air, they are the people who drive Israeli buses, maintain Israeli roads, guard Israeli post-office entrances, and shop in Israeli malls and stores.

Regarding “the Lebanon incursion,” Smoocha found that “While 89 percent said they viewed the IDF's bombing of Lebanon as a war crime, only 44 percent said they saw Hizbullah's attacks on Israel as such.” It is important to understand that large populations of Israeli Arabs live in northern Israel, which is where the some 4,000 Lebanese rockets landed. Smoocha “expressed surprise” with his findings, explaining that, “One would have expected more pro-Israeli results among Israeli Arabs due to the uniqueness of the most recent war: a war with no involvement of the Palestinians, a war in which the lives and belongings of Israelis were endangered, a war against an Islamic fundamentalist group that most of them don't support.”

Israeli-Arab Member of Knesset Ahmed Tibi said that he could not explain the numbers indicating support of Hizbullah, but said that, “usually there is no empathy for the aggressor,” referring to Israel, not Lebanon. That would explain the 89%.

He also said that the Holocaust was “the worst crime ever against humanity,” against humanity, not against the Jews. Humanity didn’t need a Zionist state.

Also according to Tibi, “some of the sentiments [of Holocaust denial] might stem from ‘reservations about the way the Holocaust is used as a political tool.’”

At the end of the day, I can’t blame the Israeli Arabs; Israel is the foolish one. It is a misnomer to suggest that Israel should allow Arab Members of Knesset the freedom to say such inflammatory things against the State in which they live. It is really Israel’s fault, which should have long become aware that the Arab population tends to feel that Israel doesn’t have many rights, yet they are still afforded the practical freedom to say and do much of what they please.

Ah, but one could say, “Yaniv, Israel is a democracy.” True, but the Israeli democracy has not done or said anything to show that it is unacceptable to support policies that reject the veracity of Israel’s existence, while pressure is put on Jewish Members of Knesset to conform to particular viewpoints. If such thing curbing applies to Jews in the Knesset as part of its competitive nature, which can said to be sometimes unfair, why does it maneuver around the Arab Knesset party “United Arab List?”

In a March 20, 2007 article by the Jerusalem Post, Member of Knesset Taleb a-Sanaa, also in the United Arab List party, is quoted as saying, “The international community should positively consider boycotting Israel, which is endangering the stability of the region.” His statement refers to a group of yeshiva students who “moved into a Hebron home formerly owned by a Palestinian who claimed not to have sold them the house.” Would it be acceptable if a Jewish Member of Knesset said the same thing with regards to the same incident?

“According to Hebron Jewish community spokesman David Wilder, representatives of the community purchased the building through an office in Jordan for the sum of $700,000.”

Monday, March 05, 2007

Purim Post!

I'm very, very slightly not able to tell the difference between Haman and Morchai right now, and I broke my glasses while dancing yesternight, so this post must be a bit off the wall, but it's abut my Purim and don't care to be logical, because it's hafuch hafchei (flipped arouind).

I woke up today after a nap a bit late to the Rabbi's house, where all my bachur freinds were, and I['m talking about an hour and a half. I got, fought my yexter harah for the punk that it is, got dressed, and went out the door. The Rabbi told me on the phone how to get to his house, which was only a twenty or so minute drive on a bus from where I lived. I only took oral directions, which usually ensures that I{m going to get lsot, but it was Hashgacha Pratit (Divine Supervision) the whole way and I found exactly how to get there. I went ins ide and it was a gerat night.

After a few hours there, I thini, I went out to go back to the yeshiva, and realized that since I didn't make it to my friends' house, Dan and Arielle, friends form Tucson who married each other, I decided to find theri house (which I've been to) based on teh street names they told me. I asked a coupel of people ehere the streets where and kinda of walked my around the Jerusalem "Nachlaot" neighborhood until I found something familiar. At that point, for the third time, I asked G-d if He could just show me teh way if He wanted to, and I thought about the street name I was looking for, Givon, and immediately after that, and I"m taling about like 2 seconds, literally, someone shouted, "This is Givon street?" At thast point my friend Arielle shouted "Yaniv!" and I knew I foudn the house.

We broke into dance and song for a few mintues and then walked down to some place near the neighborhood where we heard (I cidn't see becaue my glasses were off) Dag Nachash, a famous Israeli band, play. The first song they sang was "Baruch Ata Hashem" by ALpha Blondie, which I happen to know, and then we walked a little asnd I took a cab back to teh yeshiva, where I am writing this.

ANyway, Happy Purim, Yaniv...