Noam Ben Ze'ev
August 23, 2010 - 12:00am

Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba and Hebron, head of the rabbinical committee in the territories and a power broker in the halls of government, is this country's real prime minister, writer Sefi Rachlevsky said in an op-ed in Haaretz's Hebrew edition last week.

Some of Lior's doctrines, which made headlines in the wake of his refusal to be interrogated by police in an incitement case, were revealed in Rachlevsky's piece: permission to spill Arab blood, praise for the murderer Baruch Goldstein and spiritual support for extreme right-wing Jewish terrorists. In addition, Lior is suspected of involvement in the rabbinical condemnation of Yitzhak Rabin before the prime minister was assassinated in 1995. A check of the Hebrew website Arutz Meir ( ), which offers some 11,000 recorded lectures on Jewish topics, reveals that, somewhat surprisingly, the fundamentalist rabbi also has firm opinions on something else: music.

A year ago, Lior was the guest of an educational institution whose name is not stated on the recording, but which appears to have been a music school, to judge by the excited questions of the musicians who teach at the school: How should one view music composed by non-Jews? Is it permissible to set biblical verses to the melodies of non-Jewish songs?

If the questioners had turned to up-to-date studies in musicology, they would have been introduced to exactly these questions, at the core of which lies a dialogue from ancient times that relates to the very nature of music. Is music abstract, and can therefore express nothing but itself, as 19th-century thinkers would have it? Or, as the movement of new musicology sees it, does it demonstrate extra-musical content, even in works as seemingly neutral as a symphony by Brahms or Beethoven?

As Dov Lior asked: Do we go by the approach that music should be taken at face value, or do we look into who created it, who composed it? Does that matter?

Pop as paganism

In Jewish law, as in Islamic law, music can pose problems. The Hasidim, for example, place a high value on their melodies, when sung in the proper circumstances, but not on all music. Jewish men are prohibited from hearing women sing, according to halakha. On the other hand, the Levites in the Temple, and King David himself, used music for higher purposes. In one of the recordings, Lior encourages those present to learn how to play all the instruments, saying the Levites will need to know how when the Temple is rebuilt. "We need to nurture, train, raise God-fearing people who specialize in this field," he says.

The rabbi sometimes seems open to non-Jewish music and willing to have Jews engage with it, but at other times talks about banning it. "Until 400 years ago there were composers among non-Jews, but they all focused on church music and pagan music," is his simplistic approach. "But since a rebellion occurred, they started creating humane music that expresses positive sentiments. There are some honorable people among the goyim. A few, but they exist. I think that even in Hebron there are a few who are human beings - which doesn't mean I'm saying they shouldn't all be sent to Saudi Arabia. They should all be sent to Saudi Arabia!"

According to the rabbi, this good period among non-Jews has ended: "There has been a downfall since World War II. ... I call this boogie-woogie and they call it pop. It expresses people's animalistic and lower urges. This noisy, fast rhythm is unlike that of the Hasidim, who sang with devotion and could do so for hours. Its very basis is improper: urges without any elevating principle. It must absolutely be avoided. ... That kind of thing is in the jungle."

Lior says that music reflects the nature of a people, and gives the Arabs as an example. "Whoever is more barbaric is noisier," he says. "Have you noticed, for example, when [Arabs] have weddings, the [Israeli] left has taught them to shoot these fireworks in the air, and they blend in real gunshots, and sometimes shoot each other. It is part of the amusement at their weddings. They cannot live without noise. And pop as a whole... there are those who worship this kind of god. Clearly this does not belong at all to Judaism, and not to composers who know how to express good and tender feelings and aspire to values for all humanity."

May one take non-Jewish music and sing prayers to those tunes? Lior: "Music can get contaminated. Experts will investigate and see if the tune is 'kosher,' if it expresses an aspiration to goodness, or if it is taken from the jungle and stimulates negative emotions. With pop, you can see clearly that it's negative. Something that belongs to the rhythms of kushim [a derogatory term for black people] isn't part of our world. In America, Rabbi [Shlomo] Carlebach matched melodies to prayers, and what he made into something Jewish is all right. But not everyone can just take from this sewer of pop, from the world of lies."

Humanity and individualism

The hundreds of lessons that may be found on Arutz Meir include one by Orthodox composer Andre Hajdu, who was born in Hungary in 1932. "The concepts of 'ours' and 'not ours' are foreign to me, and limiting," Hajdu says at the beginning of his lecture, in which he attempts to explain his views on Jewish music and Judaism itself. "I was raised in the European tradition and I brought it with me; I live in two worlds, in the world of music and in Judaism. I have never seen this as a contradiction, and never thought that if I am in one place, I must leave the other. I'm not saying that this is a good thing or the way one has to be, but I am describing reality. Jewish music does not belong to only one population: there are Hasidic melodies, the bakashot ["entreaties"] prayers, piyutim [liturgical poems] and Ladino, and I teach openness, the understanding that all of this is Jewish. It is difficult, because everyone thinks that the musical experience he was raised on is the authentic one. Most people love the music from their childhood and don't try to turn in a different direction. My job is to go against this and it is Sisyphean, the desire to change society."

"Many times I have heard profound discussions of music and high-flown ideas about music, but we don't hear the music itself," Hajdu continues. "For example, when talking about the Vilna Gaon and his deliberations on music. But which music? Did he mean Lithuanian Jewish music, or Mozart, because he played the violin? Music is discriminated against; the idea and symbol may be voiced but not the music itself, and so I sought to hear it too.

"I know the religious population in particular is not used to listening to music, because it is taught only to sing, alone or in public. It is true that singing with others strengthens the individual, but there is always the aspect of power. The meaning of listening is to create a space and time to concentrate, not offhandedly while reading the newspaper, but like meditation - emptying the self of everything else and allowing the music to fill one. Not everyone is used to this. When I lecture, people listen, but the moment I put on a recording and play music, they begin to talk to one another. It is hard to change habits."

In this lesson, Hajdu played "King's Fanfare," which he composed in 1974, using elements of traditional Jewish music and dissonant modernism. He asks the audience to listen, hoping they will understand. "It is true that music expresses human spontaneity, but it also provokes thought, and it is well-known that the public does not think; only an individual can think," he tells those present. "For this reason I suggest a kind of alienation, and not unity. Not in order to distance the listener, but to arouse self-awareness, and a listening to the other, to that which is not me, and which I do not understand yet. It is not enough to be present, but to open the mind. Although there is something in music that does not stem from logic, people cannot stop thinking, so why not use one's mind when listening to music? And the opposite too: the Gemara says that when studying religious texts, doing so without a melody is meaningless."

Hajdu's musical equivalent of a Jewish text is played in a live performance by a member of the young music ensemble he established among his students, who are familiar with all musical styles, including contemporary ones. He tells about their performances at Hama'abada theater in Jerusalem, also known as The Lab: "Some with kippot and some without, average age 25-30, and the concept of 'ours' does not exist. A group sits on stage, divided - not uniform, but all at the height of enthusiasm. It is my attempt to go against habit and custom, to see the depth in Judaism, but not with the regular tools."

Hajdu also notes that "Judaism owes its music to the non-Jewish environment around it; there is a whole literature about this."

"And this is the meaning of life on several levels," he says. "Simplistic answers will not suffice. Music from a foreign source may be even more Jewish. The bakashot musical tradition comes from Arab and Andalusian music, and it is no less Jewish because of this. You must move from place to place and look into the distance, and not think that the truth always resides with us when it comes to music. Today the religious population is much more open from many angles, but when it comes to music, there is still a long way to go."


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