Can Orthodox Jews Listen To Secular Music?
Dear Jew in the City,
Thank you for this wonderful site. As a “frum BT,” (returnee to observance) for over 30 years, I have continued listening to and relaxing to my favorite type of music (from before I became “frum“) namely soft rock i.e. love songs with feelings. I am 50, married for 27 years with a number of children. For me, this music – I view it as a gift from Above, as I get into the feelings and (although it might sound strange), in my mind, I am singing to G-d. Although I have given up many things (we don’t have TV; I learn on a regular basis and am well integrated within a Torah/yeshivish community), these types of songs help me “feel good,” and at least consciously, have no bad effects. I typically play this music when alone or just with my wife; not in front of the kids who didn’t grow up with it (although sometimes I play certain songs with my older children). I have seen and heard a lot about this, mostly with negative connotations. However, these songs “bring out the best in me,” move me deeply, and help me be more relaxed. My favorite part of going shopping is that I chill out and sing as this music is played in the supermarket, etc. I think you get the picture. It’s the feelings, and a big part of my past, which is in my blood. I feel that to give this up, or if I view it as being wrong, I am ill at ease.
Soft Rock but not Relaxed
Dear Soft Rock,
Thanks for your question. I may be biased because, this summer, I saw both The Who and Billy Joel in concert, a tidbit that may reveal my thoughts on the matter. Defining “secular” music is tricky to begin with. Let’s start with classical music. Many people think that listening to Beethoven is fine but listening to Wagner is reprehensible – because he was an anti-Semite. I think that PR plays a larger role in that sentiment than most people credit it – in that Hitler used Wagner as his “theme music,” while the allies used Beethoven. (The famous notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony spell “V” for victory in Morse code: …_) Lohengrin and “Ode to Joy” are both the products of German composers; is one permitted and the other prohibited because we don’t like one of the composers? Or because the music was favored by the wrong world leader? I don’t believe this is a matter of halacha (Jewish law) but one of personal preference. (A more current example would be the question of listening to Pink Floyd in light of Roger Waters’ anti-Israel campaigns. It’s not prohibited but it may make some people uncomfortable and boycotting Waters is certainly their prerogative.)
Let us assume that instrumentals are okay. Does it then matter when they were composed? Is something from 1850 okay but not something from 1985? I see no reason why that should be the case. Is a tune any less worthy because it was written by Lennon and McCartney? I wouldn’t think so. So, here we have a nice guitar tune. If you start singing “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…” is it suddenly prohibited? And here we have an elaborate piece with a string ensemble of violins, violas and cellos. Is it made non-kosher when I start singing “Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been…?” Personally, I don’t see it.
Jewish music has long been known to incorporate secular music, from Mordechai Ben David setting the song “Yidden” to the tune of 1979 Eurovision winner “Dschingis Khan,” and Yossi Piamenta adapting Men at Work’s “Down Under” as “Asher Bara,” to Shlock Rock’s entire catalog. The shul I attend traditionally sings Adon Olam to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” on the High Holidays.
One might wish to argue that, origins notwithstanding, certain genres might be unacceptable. Perhaps, but the aforementioned Yossi Piamenta (who passed away recently at age 63) used to tell the following story. He has a song whose words are “mitzvah goreret mitzvah va’aveirah goreret aveirah” (one commandment leads to another, and one sin leads to another). These words come from the mishna in Pirkei Avos (4:2). While writing the song, he consulted a rabbi and asked whether it was permissible to set the words of a mishna to a rock tune. The rabbi replied, “Permitted? It would be a mitzvah!” (This is because it helps to disseminate the teaching of the mishna and will perhaps interest listeners in learning more.) In this rabbi’s opinion, at least, rock music could be useful and harnessed for holy purposes.
Now, all this is just me talking. There are definitely other positions. Some people would never read a secular book let alone listen to secular music. That’s fine. If someone feels that helps to elevate them spiritually, more power to them. But I think it’s largely a personal decision rather than a mandate of Jewish law. A lot of us who were raised with our pop music are rather attached to it. As with you, it helps our moods. And baalei teshuva (people who became religious later in life) are generally pretty dedicated. We gave up eating hundreds of non-kosher products and performing umpteen actions on Shabbos. We’d just rather not give up Bohemian Rhapsody if we don’t really have to!
What we need to do is set our own boundaries of propriety. Are all books appropriate? No. Are all movies? No. The same is true for TV shows, magazines, web sites, and every other form of media and entertainment. I’m okay with theHarry Potter books but other people might not be. Similarly, the KISS song “Rock and Roll All Nite” might be within my comfort zone but “F— the Police” by NWA might not be. Songs that make the grade on my approved list might be a step too far for others and that’s okay. Just like we choose whether to see G, PG, PG-13, or R films, we get to choose the parameters of our music. Some things will certainly fall within the realm of halacha (for example, I think we can all agree that pornography falls outside the bounds of Jewish law) but other things will be up to the reader/viewer/listener’s discretion. How much profanity and violence can you tolerate in a movie before you decide it’s not for you, or for your kids? Everyone’s tolerance level is going to be different.
You might be groovin’ to Metallica. Something far more innocuous, like The Mamas and the Papas, might be offensive to another person’s sensibilities*. But in my opinion, we get to decide. If, as you say, it brings out the best in you, then I think it’s a good thing. If it has the opposite effect, it would be a bad thing.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
*This was a real-life example used by one of my children’s teachers in the 2000’s. I have no idea why he singled out The Mamas and the Papas but I suspect that may be the most recent pop group with which he was familiar. Another of my children once got suspended for bringing an Eminem CD to school. I heard the CD and I think that was too lenient a punishment – not because of the content, just because I didn’t think it was very good.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of six books including The Taryag Companion and The God Book.