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.