Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

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4. Music in Jewish thought.

In addition to the Jewish musical repertories discussed in this entry, a considerable body of writings about music emerged within traditional Judaism. The contents and natures of these writings vary considerably, for example talmudic arguments, biblical hermeneutics, rabbinical responsa and mystical treatises. The dates of their composition range from the talmudic (2nd to 5th centuries ce) and geonic periods (6th to 11th centuries) to the Middle Ages and the modern era, and they were written in by authors living in the Christian and Islamic worlds. Some writings include legislative rulings on musical matters, and the ethics and aesthetics of music. Others reflect the impact of philosophy and secular education on medieval Jews, such as the hokhmat ha-musiqah (‘theory of music’), which was part of the quadrivium in the Christian universities.

Legislative rulings concern the desirable manner of performance, the necessary qualities of the performers and the content of music in traditional Jewish society. Two key legislatures have been mentioned above: the rejection of the female voice, based on Rav's dictum that ‘the voice of a woman is indecent’ (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 24a); and the ban on instrumental music (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 48a etc.). Rabbinical opinions on music content and performance, however, do not present a unified position. For example, the talmudic statement that the duty to ‘gladden the groom and bride’ with music (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6b) softens the predominant opposition to all forms of instrumental music. This ambivalence towards music is also found in the influential writings by the Spanish rabbi Maimonides (1135–1204). In his famous responsum on the performance of Arabic songs with instrumental accompaniment (probably addressed to the Jewish community of Aleppo; Cohen, 1935) Maimonides synthesized previous rabbinical opinions and presented a harsh position against all music not totally at the service of religious worship. On the other hand, writing as a physician, he recommended listening to instrumental music for its healing powers. The lineage of the commentaries and rulings on these and other musical subjects, particularly the perennial issue of the use of melodies from the surrounding cultures in the synagogue, has continued until the present day. One of the latest statements on this issue is a responsum published in 1954 by Rabbi Obadiah Yossef, former chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, favouring the use of melodies of Arabic songs in the synagogue.

Jewish mystical treatises, particularly since the 13th century, deal with the ethical, magical and theurgic powers of music (Idel, 1997). These powers enhance the religious experience of the mystic. For example, the unravelling, through singing and concentration, of the concealed ‘intentions’ (kavvanot) of the regular prayers (e.g. by expanding key words with melody) may accelerate the union between man and his creator or between the world and its creator.

The variety of Jewish writings about music and of the positions expressed in them proves that there is no unified ideology of music in Judaism. Two main ideas, however, appear to dominate many traditional writings about music. First, the original purpose of music in religious life is the authentic expression of human feelings by each individual. This approach disregards the idea of a transcendental musical beauty, whether an echo or imitation of a heavenly model or the inspiration of an individual genius. Second, the power of the human voice overrules that of instrumental music. It is not a coincidence that the beautification of the synagogue services with music ‘for its own sake’ and the use of instrumental music are the hallmarks of the process of Jewish Emancipation in the modern era.

Jewish music

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