Can Orthodox Jews Listen To Secular Music?

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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.

Sincerely,

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 aremitzvah 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.

Sincerely yours,

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.

 

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz About Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

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 five books including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion.

Comments

  1. We know that everything we do, say, see, smell and hear has an effect on our neshamot. We say every morning, Elokai neshama shenatata bi tehora… Hashem- the neshama you gave me is pure, you created it, you fashioned it and you breathed it into me.

    As Jews, one of our biggest jobs is to keep our neshama pure by not allowing ourselves to engage in every pleasure available to us, we say every day …v’lo taturu acharei levovchem vacharei einechem, and we have a mitzva not to allow our eyes and our hearts to stray after that which may ultimately be detrimental for our neshama.

    Halachically speaking, is it so simple to listen to actual secular music? (I am not referring to Jewish music set to secular tunes, that is a different topic regarding which there are different opinions) Can you name any sources where gedolei yisrael in america, israel or otherwise have said that it is permitted to listen to secular music?

    Your article says that each individual should set their own personal boundaries of propriety, but in all due respect, if this is our mindset, we very well may be setting boundaries that aren’t the boundaries set by our sages? based on what we feel fitting should we also determine our own standards of tzniut, kashrus, shabbat observance, taharas hamishpacha?

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      Thanks for writing. You ask me to name sources that permit it yet you have not named any who prohibit it. There are different opinions; you must be aware of this. (I can name numerous sources who prohibit going on the Internet and yet here you are! The fact that one authority prohibits something does not preclude one from following another authority.) I suggest you start in Shulchan Aruch 560, Mishnah Brurah there, and Shaar HaTziyon, in particular sif katan 25. There, it prohibits singing songs with inappropriate lyrics (“shirei agavim” – “songs of lust”) to babies because it will give them a bad nature. That’s a very narrow prohibition. Other songs are apparently okay. (It’s interesting to note that the Shulchan Aruch prohibits ALL music! Perhaps that’s the standard we should pursue?)

      There’s din (the law) and there’s “lifnim m’shuras hadin” (beyond the letter of the law). One may choose to go the extra mile because he feels that it helps to elevate him spiritually, but one is not entitled to impose that standard on the community. That’s a decision each person has to make for themselves. As Rav Moshe ztz”l said about those who don’t drink chalav Yisroel exclusively, you can’t disparage someone else’s religiosity just because they don’t keep the same chumras.

      And yes, people do make their own decision about tzniyus, kashrus, etc. Have you not noticed that we don’t all dress alike and we don’t all follow the same rules when it comes to, say, yoshon? Halacha is definitely a guide but there are many roads within the bounds of halacha. People have the right to pick their own way.

  2. just as an added point, It is taught that there are deep feelings that are “stuck” so to speak, deep in the lev (our hearts) that can only be brought about through singing, which can so to speak, bring great pleasure to Hashem, and are also of great benefit to us as ovdei Hashem. Additionally, each korban brought in the beit hamikdash was accompanied by music. evidently, music has quite an effect on our neshamot, as we can see from this, music/singing is not just for our enjoyment, but is an integral component of our avoda. perhaps we can glean even deeper from this that we should be careful with what words and songs goes into our ears knowing that they effect us in ways we can’t immediately comprehend. I understand it may not be easy especially for those who grew up with secular music and find it very pleasurable, but there is so much good jewish music available these days that will give you an even better uplifting feeling even than you get from the most catchy, jazzy secular tune.

    P.s. I am a baal teshuva of 10 years, after i took the time to learn what messages there were in many of the lyrics of my secular music collection i hauled my collection to the curb… (yes, including every beatles and pink floyd album) it was initially a somewhat difficult decision as I had invested a lot over the years accumulating many albums, but i have no regrets, in fact i felt and still feel every day extremely liberated and i truly believe it has been to my ultimate benefit.

  3. Shalom Rabbi, Thank you for your response.

    Just to clarify, I certainly didn’t mean any disrespect to you or anyone who listens to secular music, nor do I look down on anyone, Gd forbid! Whether its secular music, chalav stam or regarding yoshon standards, there are definitely poskim to rely on, and of course- shivim panim l’torah… so please dont take my comment as an attack. (though I feel your response was a bit defensive, evidently pointing out my hypocrisy since I am using the internet while some rabbi’s have forbid it…) i really just wanted to voice my opinion, i dont claim that I am right or that everyone else is wrong. My comments were more food for thought- I didn’t think my tone was disparaging to you or anyone but i apologize if i somehow came off that way. Some of my best friends who I admire in many ways listen to secular music and they are great people and great ovdei Hashem, that is just one area they choose to be lenient in.

    I think after the words “What we need to do is set our own boundaries of propriety” was followed by the key words “within the bounds of halacha” as you replied to me, your stance would have been much more clear. If I was the author I would probably have posted a clarification.

    Lastly, just because something isnt explicitly mentioned in the Torah or in the poskin as something that we cannot do doesnt not mean that we should go ahead and do it, further more if the Shulchan Aruch paskened that music is asur legamre, perhaps we should have a chashash for the shulchan aruch. and saying that the prohibition is very narrow just because it only mentions playing certain songs for babies because it wasnt spelled out completely… perhaps we should learn it as a kol Shekain- for the baby we need to be told, for us its clear. if one is looking for areas to be lenient its possible to be matir almost anything with the right set of circumstances… but it also says Kedoshim Tihiyu…

    Again, I dont intend any offense, disrespect chas v’shalom or confrontation whatsoever, as someone who regularly enjoys JITC postings, i just wanted to chime in. I apologize if anything I said offended you in any way.

    Thank you and best regards,

    Good shabbos

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      One of the problems with communicating via an online forum is that inflection and nuance are lost. I did not take your comments as an attack, nor did I intend to come off as defensive. My pointing out that you are online was not meant to suggest that you are a hypocrite, it was only to point out that not everyone chooses to follow every stringent opinion. Just as you may choose to use the Internet (as do I!) despite contrary opinions, others may choose to listen to secular music. Similarly, I didn’t mean that you, personally, were disparaging anyone. I just meant that someone who chooses a lenient position cannot be said to be “less frum” than one who chooses a stringent one. (Remember that in a forum such as this, half of what we say is designed with other readers in mind, so I try to anticipate what others will ask. For example, I didn’t translate “lifnim m’shuras hadin” for your sake – that was for other readers.) In short, I took no offense and I certainly didn’t intend any. Sorry for any confusion.

      • Dovid Kornreich says:

        Rabbi, just for the record:
        1) Can you confirm for me your opinion that the only real red line in halacha is to forbid pornography– but all “R” rated material is potentially acceptable if it “it’s within one’s tolerance level” and within his “comfort zone”?
        2) Do you truly maintain that each person can set their own boundaries as to what they feel is appropriate in the realm of modesty and sexually explicit material without conferring with an expert in Jewish law?
        3) Let’s say someone consistently surveys the range of halachic opinions in the literature to find the most lenient views in order to minimize restrictions upon himself in every way possible. Do you maintain he cannnot be said to be “less frum” than someone who submits to a rabbinic advisor to follow his recommended leniencies as well as his stringencies (tailored to his specific life situation and capabilities)?

        If you think I’m trying to bait you to get a controversial response, you would be correct 🙂
        Please answer honestly regardless.

        • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

          1) No, but things can be rated R for a variety of reasons – language and violence in addition to sexual content. Some R-rated material will surely be outside halachic limits but other may be “viewer discretion.”

          2) Certainly not, nor do I intend to suggest that. I say that some things are clearly out of bounds and others are a matter of one’s sensitivities. With the exception of one obvious example (pornography), I don’t attempt to define the parameters. There would be so many different opinions, it would be impossible to say anything definitive here.

          3) The Gemara tells us that one who follows every leniency is a rasha (wicked) and one who follows every stringency is a fool. One should certainly not look for every leniency – but nor should one insist upon every stringency! Having one authority and following them consistently is obviously the best course of action but not everyone does that, for lack of a regular Rav, from lack of familiarity with the concept, or for other reasons. (Knowing that one should, being able to, but choosing not to, is not appropriate but there are obviously people who do that, too.)

          Sorry if this wasn’t controversial!

  4. Vivian Molnar says:

    My comment on this topic is that I believe music is a gift fro G-D, and should be enjoyed as such. If you close to listen to the sounds of nature or the lyrics/melody that someone felt compelled to write and share, these are gifts. They are meant to lift our souls and spirits. To say that secular music is wrong or bad is to belittle a gift. If you do not care for it, fine – your choice. But do not make others feel bad for not sharing your viewpoint.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      I agree to a point that it’s a gift from God and I don’t think people should belittle others. But I would say not all lyrics are created equal. Like with “Blurred Lines” “you’re a good girl but you know you want it” is really quite rapey-sounding and it is in a different category IMO than “You raise me up so I can stand on mountains.”

  5. Charnie Feldman says:

    While I certainly am not viewing this article as a posuk halacha, I do appreciate it. I’ve been frum for 25+ years, and really did try to give up secular music. But the alternative, Jewish music, has IMHO become worse and worse till it’s now like listening to hip hop with Hebrew lyrics. So I’ve gone back to my original “love”, rock ‘n’ roll over many genres, golden oldies, doo whoop, girl groups from the ’60s, Beatles – well, just about everything through the 80’s. And I’ve found that I rarely listen to the lyrics (beyond the chorus) – with me it’s all about the sound of a record. It either grabs me or it doesn’t. But during a long illness, I found that music was the one thing cheering me up. So every time I hear a shiur where the speaker bemoans those of us who can’t give up secular music, I slink down in my seat (figuratively speaking). My children were all raised on my music and have come out just wonderfully, two sons learning in Yeshiva Gedola, and a daughter who adored the Beatles and grunge rock who is now living in EY and is married to a kollel guy who also “used to listen to classic rock”. When they were younger I explained to them the problems they might encounter in some lyrics, and it was points well taken. Actually, with some exceptions, a lot of the lyrics that some people find objectionable really aren’t unless you’re using your imagination. For example, would a kid who (thankfully) doesn’t know about drugs in the 60s really see “Lucy in the Sky” as a drug related song? Only if someone tells them it might be, otherwise they hear the same lyrics completely differently then we might have.

  6. Akiva Steinberg says:

    Dear Rabbi Abramowitz / Allison,
    I was the person who wrote original question to you about listening to secular (love songs, soft rock) music. I greatly appreciate your reply, (and the string of replies and forthcoming responses from you). May I ask you a follow-up question. As stated above, this music is so much a part of me. It runs in my family, inherited from my father a’h who was a composer before I was born. I think I flocked to this music for its sheer emotional feelings. .
    I am part of a shiur learning Gemara Chagigah; we are on bottom of 15b where Gemara speaks about how zemer yevonis (Greek music) was always on Acher’s mouth, which was part of what led Acher to becoming a heretic.The maggid shiur then mentioned about it being comparable to listening to pop music from today. I am having trouble digesting this. Can you please offer your insight to this? Is The Who, Billy Joel, Adelle or the theme from “Rocky” the same as “zemer yevonis”? As mentioned above, these melodies / lyrics help me feel good and I have always viewed this as a gift as they have been sung in my heart for decades, (as opposed to Jewish music). Since hearing this, I’ve begun to feel guilty and listening to “Delilah” once again puts me ill at ease instead of at ease. I eagerly await your reply. Thank you very much.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      I am reminded of the famous statement by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on the subject of obscenity. He said that he couldn’t define it but “I know it when I see it.” Of course, what the Supreme Court considered obscene was different from what the plaintiffs thought was obscene, so personal opinions really do enter into it.

      On the subject of secular music, I clearly have some liberal views. The maggid shiur apparently holds a harder line. You get to pick a course of action that suits both your aesthetic and religious sensibilities. You get to play Potter Stewart and decide if something is problematic for you based on your own personal standard of “I know it when I see it.”

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