Torah as Insight, Not Song

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by R. Gil Student

How we treat the Torah impacts what we learn from it. The Torah in its broadest sense is a source of knowledge, a combination of divine revelation and human interpretation. The debates of the Talmud and the various commentaries throughout the ages expand the original biblical text into a glorious mountain of information.

Information can be memorized and analyzed. However, the Torah is also a religious text with messages and values, not just a database. Torah study itself, the process of learning and analyzing, invites students into a religious world. In other words, there is a right way and a wrong way to treat Torah. If we treat it like a sterile text, mere information to be memorized rather than guidance to be gained, then we are fundamentally misusing the Torah. This goes further than many people realize.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 101a) says that someone who sings a verse from Song of Songs brings badness to the world. We are told that the Torah dresses mournfully and complains to God that His children have turned the Torah into a violin played for the scornful. Rashi explains that you might have thought that this is permissible, since after all this biblical book is a song. However, Rashi implies, no biblical verse from any book should be treated in that way. Singing a verse demotes it from inspirational lesson to inspirational lyrics, from a text to be studied to words that are sung. The Torah deserves more than mere singing.

Contemporary halakhic authorities tend to rule leniently on this issue. [1]Rav Moshe Feinstein, Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:142; Rav Asher Weiss, Responsa Minchas Asher 2:44. If we do not allow Jews to sing Jewish songs, they will sing gentile songs which are often crass. While, in theory, according to most, Jews can sing prayers and passages from the Talmud, this limitation has proved too burdensome for many. [2]Rav Moshe Feinstein forbids singing prayers and Talmud passages also; see Mishnah Berurah 560:14. Therefore, we begrudgingly allow singing biblical verses, which is not technically forbidden to begin with. [3]Although see Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Yabi’a Omer 3:OC:15, 4:YD:20, who takes a different approach to leniency. On all this, see Rav Chaim Jachter, “Torah Passages In Song,” republished … Continue reading

However, this leniency should not be misunderstood. Our singing is enhanced by Torah verses; our learning should not be demoted to singing. When learned analytically, Torah transforms its students with its inspirational content. When learned for inspiration, Torah conveys generic messages that remain skin deep.

Inspirational Torah singing is a misuse of our historic texts. Maybe it is a necessary evil, something else we must begrudgingly allow in this spiritually impoverished and thirsty generation. Those decisions are above my pay grade. But even if so, we must recognize that this is not how Torah should be treated ideally. The Torah is not a fortune cookie or a self-help book. Primarily, the Torah is a source of insight, not inspiration.

 

Endnotes

Endnotes
1Rav Moshe Feinstein, Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:142; Rav Asher Weiss, Responsa Minchas Asher 2:44.
2Rav Moshe Feinstein forbids singing prayers and Talmud passages also; see Mishnah Berurah 560:14.
3Although see Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Yabi’a Omer 3:OC:15, 4:YD:20, who takes a different approach to leniency. On all this, see Rav Chaim Jachter, “Torah Passages In Song,” republished in his Grey Matter vol. 3.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

3 comments

  1. What is the history of singing and/or music at all after the churban? is this a case where the hamon am paskined?

  2. I can’t help but ask: even Hallel?

  3. Why does it have to be either/or?

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