Music is perhaps the best medium for the dissemination of universal values. According to author Georgia Cates, “Music is what feelings sound like.” At its core, music wields a cross-cultural element of truth. That’s why a hit in Sweden can also rise up the charts in countries around the globe.
Movie scores enhance emotional engagement and allow audiences to suspend disbelief. Studios may dub in foreign languages but the scores serve their purpose worldwide. Imagine hearing a major arpeggio played by the organist at a major league baseball game. The crowd can’t help but yell, “Charge!” Contrast that with the suspenseful two notes of the “Jaws” theme; they slowly crescendo and accelerate and our teeth clench as we dread an impending shark attack, even on dry land! Regardless of our age, education or birthplace, we can describe a tune as happy or sad, suspenseful or romantic.
For the Jewish People, religious life without music is unthinkable. Some say beer is proof that God loves humanity. I prefer Kurt Vonnegut’s take: “Music is, to me, proof of the existence of God.” Jews see music as the catalyst of Creation. The Big Bang is summed up in the first line of Genesis, beginning with the word B’reishit. According to the Dzikover Rebbe (Rabbi Yidele Horowitz, 1905-1989), B’reishit can be rearranged to spell Shirat Aleph Beit, the song of the alphabet. In other words, every aspect of the universe is continuously sung into being. Our Tanach (Bible) is replete with epic songs punctuating the narrative. Jubal, the inventor of the first instruments, is one of the few key characters mentioned in the first ten generations of humankind. The patriarchs composed while in the fields with their livestock— Jewish tradition maintains King David was “hearing” their songs as he composed his Psalms. Our prophets of yore required music to enter a transcendent realm and hear God’s voice. Vast orchestras accompanied the service in the Temple. Perek Shira is an inspiring text indexing the songs of all creatures mentioned in Tanach. From the stars, sun and moon to the rivers and seas, from fruit and trees to the birds and bees, all sing to God.
I have often wondered about the origin of the music that comes to me almost nightly while I sleep. How is my subconscious creating a soundtrack for my dreams? Is it an amalgam of all the melodies I processed that day? Am I hearing remnants of biblical melodies in the ether? Maybe it is a combination of all of those things. For me, new music offers clarity of God’s loving presence.
When we sing our prayers, we transform our worship from lethargy to ecstasy, from stasis to action and commitment. Find a shul where they sing! The nusach (traditional melody) of prayer is so beautifully detailed that one could conceivably travel by time machine to any service in history and know if it’s a weekday, Shabbat or a holiday, if it’s morning, afternoon or evening and whether the congregation is Sephardic or Ashkenaz.
Specific tropes accompany the public reading of our Torah and prophetic writings. These musical symbols add color and even commentary to the black and white text. We even have a melody for Torah study. The revelation of Torah to the millions assembled at Sinai was marked by an unprecedented concert spectacular, featuring mass synesthesia where we “heard” the sights and “saw” the sounds. According to the Midrash, the Jews were so blown away by Revelation that they died and required resuscitation. One thought is the holy music of the angels was so extraordinary, the Israelites chose to leave their mortal bodies.
In the past several hundred years we have inherited the rich tradition of Chassidic nigunim, or wordless melodies. These gifts of tzadikim (righteous people) allow for the deepest spiritual connections without lyrics getting in the way of the sentiment. Lacking Hebrew fluency? Just sing, “Aye dee di di dee.”
According to the Maharal of Prague (Judah Loew ben Bezalel, 1512-1609), music serves the threefold purpose of the creation of humankind: to develop a connection with the divine in the form of prayer, to connect us with one another and to connect us with our own souls. The gift of music is one of the best examples of the majesty of our neshamot (souls). Human ability to compose masterworks is a miracle that baffles evolutionists. The apex of human achievement resides in the expression of our limitless soul. According to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, we don’t go to the symphony to hear horsehair scraping on catgut; music helps us appreciate that the physical realm exists primarily to give structure to the spiritual. Another function of music is to give us a unique sense of the dimension of time. Music requires time to unfold and develop; one note requires the next to complete a musical phrase. Just like life, we can only enjoy it in the present but it requires the past for context and draws us into a glorious future. Music makes time fly! We also gain an appreciation of eternity through music. Think of great symphonies and operas, John Coltrane’s bebop or The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper—gifted composers capture indescribable profundity from beyond; their accomplishments never die.
Some folks can’t abide by my new settings of liturgy, preferring the “traditional” melodies. I, too, enjoy the old favorites but I can point to King David as the source for engaging in “shir chadash l’Adonai,” (singing a new song for God). New music communicates vitality and excitement and keeps ritual from becoming stagnant. As one of my favorite composers, Gustav Mahler, puts it, “Tradition is tending the flame, not worshipping the ashes.” When I’m asked if I perform “originals” or “covers,” I reply that no one really writes originals. Composition is a more accurate term since all composers stand on the shoulders of those who have come before. However, each unique way of combining notes, rhythm and harmony brings freshness to life. Remarkably, even with millions of songs on Spotify, we can still be surprised by a new creation. New music is crucial to the Jewish concept of redemption. The Talmud teaches that King Chizkiyahu was destined to be Mashiach (the Messiah) but was deemed unworthy because he couldn’t sing. According to Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo: “Judaism can’t be passed on without a song and a smile.”
The Midrash describes ten primary songs featured in Tanach. Nine have already been sung, such as Az Yashir, the spontaneous outpouring of prophetic music sung by the masses at the splitting of the sea. We also have Moshe Rabbeinu’s final song, Ha’azinu, as well as songs by Devorah, Hannah and Kings David and Shlomo. One song has yet to be written, awaiting a future date “when the redeemed ones leave exile.” This is the Tenth Song for which we are yearning. I have a feeling it’s ready for download—can you hear it yet?
It is a tremendous privilege to channel God’s music and share it. I have God to thank for the inception of my compositions and the tenacity to make them public. May God bless all of us with a holy life filled with sweetness and harmony. And may we soon merit singing the Tenth Song of creation together in Jerusalem.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his music, he produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com. Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night (7:30 pm PST, Zoom Meeting ID: 71646005392) for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge.