Sunday, August 21, 2011

Jewish Musician

One thing I will most surely not do in this essay is to speak about Jewish music.
That would be a separate subject, in and of its own right, and, with Hashem’s help, I will post on this subject another time.
However, I will ask: Is there any difference between a Jewish and not-Jewish musician?
Of course when I say Jewish, I’m not speaking of Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Paul Stanley, David Lee Roth, Geddy Lee, or Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.
All of them were born Jewish, but their contribution to what is considered real Jewish music is sort of like second cousins twice removed. They contributed to the history of the world’s music, and as much as world music influences Jewish music, that’s about the level of their contribution to it. Most of them didn’t or don’t live the path of life of their ancestors, which make them Jews but not necessarily Jewish.
I would like to speak about musicians who sing at Orthodox Jewish weddings or who sell their CDs in Jewish bookstores.
There is no question in my mind that since Jewish music was always influenced by outside music, and vice versa. As I said this is not the topic here. The matter of what genre do we listen to, is taste and nothing else.
However there is another question: How are our musicians influenced by the secular world’s performers?
We all know that today’s entertainment figures have become the new aristocracy of the world. They and other performers are role models to the new generation. This has been the case for the past few generations.
The root of this phenomenon, however, goes back to the general history of Euro-American civilization. Somewhere within last couple of hundred years, this civilization burned out on accepting their authority figures. There is no priest, statesman, or sage whom the public will rely on his knowledge and wisdom. Even those words — knowledge and wisdom — have somehow become disliked, not “cool.”
The media are constantly bombarding us with completely worthless and irrelevant information about stars and idols. We can learn all the gory and personal details about their lives, from almost every source of information. The media feeds us with information about the performers, with or without these “stars” permission.
We just said “idols”? Hasn’t this word long ago acquired a new meaning? Many times, those new “idols” feel themselves like they are some new kind of god. They become cult-like or even kind of quasi-religious. They behave in a way that some tyrants of old would be ashamed of. The rules of common folk don’t apply to them, yet common folk ape at them thoughtlessly and with great enthusiasm.
Some of them are even talented musicians, but many wouldn’t be on the top of the list without constant scandals, wired outlooks, and wired performances. Everything for the show. Everything.
So … when I see a Jewish singer or musician performing in the manner of Michael Jackson or Mick Jagger, it makes me nauseous. If he thinks that so long as he doesn’t touch himself below the belt line, it’s alright — it isn’t.
Or maybe he will sing in the manner of some young boys’ band — nice and glamorous. It is still an ugly imitation of and manner of performance strange to the Jewish spirit.
A Jew aware of his Creator and Giver of all talents and capabilities understands the fact that he has nice voice and capacity to use it, but only for the pleasure of his fellow brothers. It is a gift from Heaven and nothing else. It is a gift, and as a gift it should be treated as such, with gratitude and humility.
I am expressing my private opinion and nothing more than that. I am not saying that a performance by a Jew should be cheerless or sad. Music has the amazing power to make almost everybody happy. And yes, it makes us move our bodies and that’s beautiful. It especially makes the music player’s or singer’s whole body and soul move. That’s how HaKadosh Baruch Hu created us and that’s how His holy servants enjoyed the gift of music — they were worshiping their Creator with it! It simply doesn’t have to be accompanied by strange Star-shtick.
Even among the greatest non-Jewish performers there are those who use their talent in the humble ways of whatever they value.
David Gilmour, Joe Satriani, Neal Morse, even Bono and countless of others realized that their ability to create doesn’t make them more than talented people. They are people who don’t have to suck glory from their fans and even then exist with severe depression. This, unfortunately, is the case for some performers. At least some of the very talented musicians among the nations don’t act this way. They can enjoy and make others enjoy their music without buffoonery and glamour and shtick so characteristic for the majority of the performers.
I purposely didn’t use any of the Jewish musicians as examples. It would be unnecessary and plain wrong. Whoever reads this essay can make his own cheshbon hanefesh (account of conscience), whether he is a singer, musician, or just plain listener.

Matys Weiser

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Evil - Part 2

More than twenty years ago, I read the essays of Emmanuel Levinas, collected in a volume titled in my native language as “Difficult Freedom.” I do not remember most of what I read then, but I love this expression – “difficult freedom” whether it is freedom of choice, which, to distinguish it from freedom coming from submitting our lives to G-d’s Torah, I call “liberty,” or whether it is this submission that comes with great effort of taking control of our physicality. To make it easer to understand: liberty = freedom of choice. Freedom = state which we live free of slavery to the transgression of the Torah’s commandments.
Whoever decides to live a life of Torah knows what struggles we go through during our lives. It is even more difficult that every time we climb to another level of righteousness, around the corner new challenges await us — challenges more complex than previous ones. It is difficult.
But even more difficult is this awareness that it is in our human hands to create Evil, to do something against will of our Creator. Most of us don’t think on a daily basis that Evil is something that is against the very character of the Giver of life. Still, all of humanity has some definitions of good and evil.
Most of us are not aware that the only evil is that created by us, humans.
What about such thing like “acts of G-d,” some may ask me at this moment?
Do not tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes kill masses of people? Doesn’t fire or floods take the lives of innocent people? Who should be “blamed,” man or G-d?
First of all, we don’t know the reality behind what we see. Our ability to comprehend and understand what happens is limited by the physical character of our world. We cannot ascend higher and see our inner dimensions while being out of them. We cannot see all of the consequences of our actions, as most of us are not even aware that these actions are only in the lowest part of our three-dimensional reality. Even here on the earth, above our actions (Maaseh) are worlds of word (Dibur) and thought (Machshuva). Then there are higher realms that we can just touch with our intellect; these realms we call “spirituality.” Above spirituality is infinity.
When we pull the thread hanging somewhere from our shirt, we sometimes don’t know that we just ripped off the collar of the shirt. We just see the single thread, which we think doesn’t belong hanging from the shirt. One thread pulled out of our shirt can ruin the piece of fabric. So it is the case with the fabric of Creation. We don’t know what our actions or lack of actions are causing in other end of the world. We have no idea what damage it cause in higher spiritual spheres. G-d, in His infinite love, does not cause anything that is Evil, as Evil is something that doesn’t exist in Him, in His realm. It is we who create Evil; it is we who bring the harm and pain to ourselves and others like us. It costs us our liberty/bechirah and our freedom to have this possibility to cause — directly and indirectly — pain, suffering, violence, war, cruelty, and death. This is difficult.
It is even more difficult when we are somehow having a higher awareness of the temporality of this world. It is difficult, because if what people call reality is not real, pain and suffering is real. But so is happiness and love.

Last week we concluded the period of what we call the Three Weeks. If you still remember, my dear reader, I started this two-part essay with a question about the nature of this period. Why there is more Evil happening to the chosen people of G-d than during the rest of the year?
The answer is described in last week’s essay. It is not more Evil coming from our Creator, chas v’shulem, but as a result of our collective sin of meraglim (spies) and cheit ha’eigel (the Golden Calf). ‘Space’ for more Evil became part of the fabric of the Creation; we are more exposed to the Evil. This was a cosmic adjustment in the very nature of the time, in which we became more vulnerable.
One sin happened on the 17th of Tammuz and other sin we did on the 9th of Av, according to our tradition. There are three weeks in between these days. Until the Geula — the final Redemption — this is a time, a part of our reality, when our Father in Heaven turn His Face away yet a little bit more. It is we who fill up this “additional void” with Evil, simply by not following His Will. We are vulnerable to ourselves and others like us. This is also cost of our freedom.
Last week we also passed the shloishim — thirty days — since our child was taken away from us, since Leiby z”l was taken from his parents and grandparents.
Can we understand what happened on that night month ago? No. We can not comprehend the fact that human being could be able to do such horrible thing. We cannot accept that someone raised with the values that make most of us better human beings, rejected these values and chose to do almost ultimate Evil. Evil where the pain will linger in the hearts of the family and community, perhaps till Moshiach will come. Like the stories we read in Megillas Eichah last Tuesday about mothers cooking their children to eat them, in the besieged Holy City. This pain is too great. It is the pain of our liberty.
But last Shabbos we read the Haftorah, a chapter of Yeshayahu Hanuvi – prophet Isaiah called Nachmu.
There is hope, there is the shearis Yisruel — the remaining holy people — who stay strong, like these seven thousand men whom Hashem is informing Eliyahu Hanuvi about.
There are people like Leiby’s father who, like his ancestor Avraham, gave his son back to the Giver of existence, knowing that there is more than we see. There are people like his grandfather, Reb Yitzchok, who walked out of Leiby’s house with his head up, like the greatest of his ancestors, taking what Hakadosh Baruch Hu gives without questioning, with perfect faith.
I have the great privilege to be a friend of this man, Reb Yitzchok. We use to sit next to each other for seven years in the same beis medrash. I never told Reb Yitzchok how important a role he played in my life.
I was a stranger from different country and from a hostile nation and I came and sat down next to him. While others often hesitated to have even eye contact with me, it was Reb Yitzchok, with his love of his fellow Jew, who opened the door of friendship for me — this neophyte. This is how Reb Yitzchok is. Thanks to this man — and others like him — there is hope that the Geula (Redemtion) is closer. He is someone who, with his family, gives example of emunah to all of us because he chose to fill the void given to him with Good.

Matys Weiser

Monday, August 8, 2011

Evil - Part 1

I came back home from my golus in Utah the day before Shabbos parshas Maasey. I had spent the last two weeks (out of five) there, in the west, with my younger son and a couple of his friends.
Usually I give my kids the opportunity to release their energy on all kinds of things that would be rather “unorthodox” for the community in which we belong; activities from moderate mountain climbing through water sports, ending with horseback riding, for example.
This time however, for the first time, we were there during the time we call the Three Weeks. I therefore restricted the boys to walking on the ground, even if sometimes it was thousands of feet up on a cliff, but still feet on the ground.
When the boys asked the reason for this limitation, when other times there were no such restrictions, my answer was a bit complicated, but even 17-year-old boys who were raised in a Torah environment could understand the basic ideas.
What is nature of Evil and why there is more Evil during the Three Weeks than during the rest of the year?
We cannot understand the essence of our Creator, neither can we grasp — with our limited intellect — his reasons and ways. However this great gift from Him of intellect can carry us to heights where the intellectual borders with the spiritual. We can ascend to awareness that is above our three-dimensional realm and beyond the time.
Chazal tries to take us there with all the possible tools that human language has. Our Sages, of blessed memory, put into words ideas — seeds — that can grow like huge sequoias, reaching, crowning, heaven.
Chazal gave us words of enlightenment, that our physical existence serves only one purpose — to create, amplify, and maintain our mental attachment to the Giver of Life. We do this by submitting our physicality to His Law and our psyche to what He revealed to us.
All of the writings of the Jewish Sages serve this purpose — to help us to achieve this goal and reach the heights of humanity. In its legal aspect, Torah is a primary vehicle for us to serve the Creator, but Torah is much more than simply law. It gives us limitations — due to the nature of our physicality, knowledge, and understanding of spiritual matters — though in rather esoteric and secretive way. Chazal, in their exceptional ways, are trying to bring forth this knowledge and understanding by extracting it and making more accessible to such plain believers like us (or me rather).
We are created from nothing. Yesh mi’ayin – Creatio ex nihilo.
This is what Jews contributed to the language of Theology and Philosophy. Jews revealed this to the world but only a person learning Torah and performing the mitzvos of the Torah can grasp this knowledge deeper.
It is not G-d who “fills up” the Universe; only His “Presence” does that. Before He created the Universe, He had to make “a space” for it. This is expressed by the kabbalistic term of “tzimtzum,” which is usually translated as “withdraw.” HaKadosh Baruch Hu “withdrew” in order to give a “space” for nothingness; nothingness in turn is the building material for not only the physical universe, but also our spiritual existence. However higher echelons of spiritual matter originated in the Divine.
The Ramchal explains this process as the series of hesturos. The term “hester punim” is known to the broad public. Especially after the Holocaust, the term was used not only by Jewish people, but by all of monotheistic theologians and philosophers, to explain the ultimate Evil — the descent of humanity to allow for systematic killing of Jewish people. The only thought that came to the mind of these believing thinkers was that G-d had turned His Face away.
This is how hester punim is usually translated: turning —covering His Face.
For Jews this is not a new idea; we received the idea of G-d turning His Face away already at Har Sinai.
The Ramchal tells us that without this withdrawal of His Presence, without tzimtzum, creation of independent beings with the gift of bechirah (freedom) would not be possible for the Almighty G-d. However, paradoxically as the last sentence sounds, this is how we understand it.
The whole of Creation is the system of different hesturos, where every such withdrawal creates the vacuum to be filled up with and by the Creation. Different kinds or “amounts” of hester punim were used to create various kinds of spiritual beings. Different kinds of hestar punim were used to give the space for the physical universe. In Kabbalah this “building material” is also called clippah (shell), which divides/separates different levels of spirituality and physicality.
One of the most important levels of the hesturos is the vacuum created for our moral choice, to give us the opportunity to decide by ourselves with what will we fill up these voids.
The Creator gave humanity seven categories of such voids — seven commandments for Bnei Noach. These categories can be deduced solely by the power of human intellect, as Rav Hirsch assures us in his commentary on the Torah.
Man can choose to fill up the given void with submission to the will of the Creator, i.e., good, or has the freedom to do evil. Jews, because of their special mission as a moral and spiritual leadership of humanity, received 613 categories of good and evil.
Every time we choose to fulfill the will of our Creator — we do a mitzvah — it is good for Unity. Since HaKadosh Baruch Hu is indivisible, our doing mitzvos is confirmation to us of this Unity, more than submission would be.
In a similar, but opposite, vein, when we chose disobedience and rebellion against our Creator by doing aveiros (sinning), we creating something that is not Divine. This cannot be in unity with the One. By the decision of our Creator, we  humans  are able to create an alternative “being,” the secondary, the other side — the Sitra Achra. One more time, it is we who fill the void that was given to us as an opportunity to chose — we can fill it with evil. Without this possibility of making the wrong choice, the sense of our creation would be lost. By possessing the opportunity to choose evil, our autonomy — our bechirah — becomes reality. However it is most important to say that by choosing Evil we succumb to Evil’s nature and we become slaves of it. We lose our freedom. A slave is not free by definition.

Matys Weiser

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Coming Back


After experiencing some difficulties with finding good editor for decent price, beezras Hashem i found the right person and i hope to post on coming Sunday.
As for the ‘nine days’ and coming Tishabeav, i choose the topic of 'presence and nature of evil'.
Regards to all my readers and sorry if i disappointed you last few weeks.
Matys Weiser