Friday is Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av in the Jewish calendar, which is called by the Talmud one of the most joyous days in all of Israel. Most Jews today don’t even know it exists since there are no rituals or prayers associated with it, but in ancient times it was a day when young people would find a match. As a result, it has become a Jewish day of love, our equivalent to Valentine’s Day.
Love has often been expressed, from time immemorial, by music. Singers and poets for centuries have composed melodies dedicated to their beloveds. In more modern times, young people created mix tapes with songs appropriate for those they were interested in, the choices often containing important meaning. Today, teenagers create digital playlists rather than physical tapes.
The Bible contains some of the most evocative love poetry ever created in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, but Jewish tradition has deemphasized the original romantic mean of the text. Instead, the book is seen as a metaphor for God’s love of Israel. While religious love songs were reinterpreted, the Jewish community could not keep out external romantic music.
For over 800 years, rabbis have argued about the place of foreign music in the synagogue, as detailed in a responsa by Rabbi David Golinkin. Some sages argue that taking a secular tune, or one used by another religion, will lead the singer (and the listener) to impure thoughts. Rather than contemplate the meaning of the prayer they are singing, they will think about the inappropriate lyrics of the original song.
Other rabbis see melodies as neutral entities to be adopted at will. Some even suggest that all tunes (or at least the good ones) originated with Israel and it was the other nations that borrowed them from us. After all, Ecclesiastes teaches that “there is nothing new under the sun”. Rabbi Golinkin relates that the Chabad movement sings “Napoleon’s March” at the end of Yom Kippur because the founding rebbe liked the melody and reminded him of the Jewish people’s victory over their sins.
A contemporary example of this same kind of borrowing recently made its way around social media in a video of thousands of Chasidim dancing to a melody that sounds like an update of some klezmer classic. In fact, the song is “Narco” by Blasterjaxx and Timmy Trumpet and is also used by New York Mets closing pitcher Edwin Diaz as his walkout music. What better praise for a melody than the fact that it works so well in both contexts.
The reality is that the Jewish people have been borrowing from our neighbors all throughout our history. Challah originally was a non-Jewish German bread. What we think of as a chuppah probably derived from a Catholic ritual in the Middle Ages. Music is no different. The great Israeli composer Naomi Shemer took a beloved Beatles song, “Let it Be”, and turned it into the anthem of the Yom Kippur War, “Lu Yehi”. Her classic melody for “Jerusalem of Gold” was lifted from a Basque lullaby.
Music is a universal language; it speaks to our hearts. Does it really matter where the melody originated? When I sing the Shabbat zemer (religious song) “D’ror Yikra” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B”, I am not diminishing the holiness of Dunash ben Labrat’s beautiful words. Instead, I am acknowledging the divine genius of the Bahamian folk song that became a pop hit. The Chabad Chasidim have an expression for this in Yiddish: “tzu makdish a niggun”, to sanctify a melody. Isn’t that what a truly religious life is all about, to encounter a secular world and make it holy?