One of the ways that the Jewish people responds to life’s challenges and tragedies is through learning Torah, which gives us life. As the shivah period comes to a close for Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gil-ad Shaar, I dedicate my small contribution of Torah below to them and their families. May their memories be a blessing.
The essay below is a slightly modified version of a rabbinic response that I published last week at the website, Jewish Values On Line. I and many other rabbis from across the denominational spectrum and across the world serve as guest panelists, answering a wide variety of questions addressed to rabbis about Jewish life. You can find the site at jewishvaluesonline.com and the link to this essay at http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/rabbi.php?id=172. Like the Times Of Israel, JVOL is a true voice for pluralistic Jewish dialogue.
I was asked to answer the following question submitted on line:
Is it OK to sing along with traditional black gospel music? I was raised in the South and in many ways raised by black women (think the movie The Help). While I am an observant Jew, I find the music happy, hopeful, and it gives me peace when I am depressed.
Here was my response:
I agree with you that a great deal of gospel music is happy and hopeful. This is not surprising, given its historic roots in the African American experience. Gospel has always been an expression of deep faith and of deep spiritual resistance to slavery, racism and hardship. I do not listen to a lot of gospel, but when I do, I too am inspired by its powerful religious themes, its joyousness, and its energetic celebration of the spiritual life. It is one of God’s musical gifts to the world, and, as you wrote, it clearly gives you peace when you feel depressed.
However, is it permissible according to Jewish law to sing along with gospel music, since it is Christian religious music used in church services?
First, a very few words about Christianity, from a Conservative Jewish legal perspective. Traditionally, Jewish law has forbidden us from having anything to do with the Christian religion, even from entering a church when religious services are not being held. This is because a major position within Jewish law defined Christian beliefs in the trinity and Jesus’ divinity, as well as Christian iconography depicting Jesus as God or one aspect of God, as avodah zarah, idolatry. However, another very important Jewish legal position holds that Christians are not idolaters, but gedurim b’darkhei ha-datot, nations bound by “the ways of religion.” Religions such as Christianity demonstrate some belief in one supreme God and they possess a moral code, even if their practices are different from ours and do not completely conform to Jewish ideas about monotheism. Thus, Christians may practice their religion as their form of monotheism, even though we Jews are expressly forbidden from practicing any form of their religion.
My colleague, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, explains that, based upon this latter approach, in our day, especially when we live in an open society amicably with our Christian neighbors, we may and should be able to visit their churches and church services. To be clear, we are absolutely forbidden from attending Christian worship in order to join in prayer, but we may certainly attend it for social purposes, as good neighbors and respectful visitors who seek to maintain good relations with the non-Jewish community. (See his article, “Interfaith Relations,” in Martin Cohen and Michael Katz, eds. The Observant Life, pp. 727-750.)
May we sing Christian religious music? In church, during a Christian worship service, we may not, for that is worship in substance and appearance. I am going to assume that you are singing gospel music at home or in your car, which is certainly not a form of organized or even private worship. Further, as a religious Jew, you would have no intention of singing gospel for religious purposes. Therefore, I would support your singing along with your favorite Gospel tunes, especially if they lift you up in times of sorrow and doubt.
One important caveat, though: using the name of Jesus descriptively, for instance in an academic setting, should not be problematic for Jews, even though it is a Greek translation of the Hebrew, Yeshua, “salvation.” In that context, you would be using it for purely non-religious purposes. However, it is far more problematic for Jews to say Jesus’ name in any context where it is expressly being used to praise him as the Christians’ savior. This is especially the case when his name is used in combination with theological terms such as Christ or Redeemer. A technical distinction might be made between invoking Jesus’ name during a church service and shouting it in your den as you’re listening to a great gospel choir. Nonetheless, something about reciting his name in a song of praise, even privately and with no actual religious intent on your part, does not sit well with me. The letter of Jewish law might permit it, and I say “might” with great qualification, not having researched this matter sufficiently. The spirit of Jewish law would not permit it.
Thus, while you could sing gospel to lift up your spirit, avoid those songs that invoke the name of Jesus and of Jesus as savior. Choose those gospel songs that praise and thank God in general, without any reference to Jesus. Further, while I fully appreciate your emotional attachment to gospel, you may want to also give Hasidic niggunim and klezmer music a try, if you haven’t already.
Praise God, all nations,
Laud Him all peoples,
For His love overwhelms us,
God’s loyalty is eternal. Halleluyah. (Psalm 118)