Q. Last week you wrote that we should avoid hearing music with an “anti-social” message. Exactly what music fits into this category?
A. The effort to draw the line between constructive and anti-social artistic expression is an old one. The most familiar example is the ubiquitous rating system for American movies. There are also initiatives to promote similar ratings for web sites.
A famous recent example is the American “Parents Music Resource Center” which had some success in getting record companies to rate rock music for violent or explicit sexual content.
The most obvious problem is with songs which glorify behavior which we clearly condemn: violence, self-destructive practices such as drug abuse, or exploitative sexual relations. Do we believe that listening to music actually influences a person to engage in anti-social acts?
Listening to a song glorifying violence may not in itself make a person violent, but a person is influenced by the sum total of his experiences, and these ethical “debits” tend to accumulate.
In particular, Jewish tradition sensitizes us to the way in which our usual sense of shame or disgust can be eroded. Virtually all of us have anti-social urges which are held in check partially by social sanctions (for example, prison sentences for violence) but above all by our inherent sense of propriety and shame. But this sense can be worn down by inuring people to a certain experience until it no longer strikes them as something strange or repulsive.
The Torah forbids eating bugs, stating: “Don’t cause revulsion to your spirits with creepy things, and don’t defile yourselves with them and become defiled”.(Leviticus 11:43.) Due to the way this prohibition is stated, our tradition extended this prohibition to anything a person finds naturally repulsive and disgusting. (1)
The Talmud teaches: “Transgression stupefies the heart, as it is written: don’t defile yourselves with them and become defiled. Don’t readvenitmeitem (become defiled) but rather venitamtem” (become stupefied – evidently from the same root). (2)When we do something against our natural sense of propriety there is a tendency for our overall human sensitivity to be dulled.
What about love songs? Here we find an ambivalent attitude similar to what we saw regarding sports. On the one hand, the value of these songs is surely acknowledged. The Scriptures themselves contain an elaborate love poem: the Song of Songs. Even though the love story in the Song of Songs is an allegory of the love between God and the people of Israel, the very fact that a love song is considered an appropriate vehicle for such an allegory testifies to its inherent value. And a number of prominent authors of liturgical poetry (paitanim) also tried their hands at love poetry.
Yet we also find that Maimonides warns us to distance ourselves from “songs of desire” which can accustom a person to immodesty. And Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura says dismissively that this kind of literature is a waste of time. (4)
Just as we said regarding sports, the distinction here is based on the approach and the extent. When a person writes or sings a love song to his or her beloved spouse, this is truly sublime. But often the kind of “love” celebrated in these songs is a love of romance itself, for its own sake. In order to realize this bizarre sort of love, a person naturally needs a partner, but the partner is really just a cynical means to the end of experiencing romance. There is no genuine personal connection or commitment.
Judaism certainly acknowledges the importance of love, including romantic love between spouses. But Jewish love is a participant sport, not a spectator sport. Our tradition warns us that even between spouses relationships can acquire a kind of detachment where a person loves love, rather than loving his or her partner. When it comes to songs or movies, when the love is someone else’s and the experience of romance is exalted, the danger of this metamorphosis is even greater.
We live today in a highly voyeuristic society. “Reality shows” are merely the tip of an iceberg of an obsession with seeing what others are doing rather than becoming involved with our own social and spiritual reality. Even within our own lives, we often become spectators of our own private reality shows.
But Judaism, with its emphasis on the immediate, practical experience of performing the commandments, is completely oriented towards connecting us with the world and filling experience with meaning.
Love songs are wonderful when they come to express and deepen our sentiments for a partner. But they become an obstacle to true love and personal growth when they make romance the object and the partner merely a means to an end.
SOURCES: (1) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 116:6 (2) Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 39a. (3) Maimonides’ Code, Isurei Biah 22:21 (4) Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1.