Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Matisyahu and Other Music of Spiritual Yearning

I am very fond of Russian Jewish music. Despite having no Yemenite ancestry, I feel an even stronger connection to Yemenite Jewish music. Each strain of Jewish music seems to bear the imprint of its surroundings. When I listen to the music of Russians who are not Jewish, I can hear the influence it has had on Jewish song.

After almost 400 years of Jews living in what is now the United States, I find myself wondering. How will this express itself in our music? When I was finding my way to Judaism, I used music as a vehicle of spiritual exploration. The Moody Blues some Beatles and especially reggae became a sort of spiritual freight trains that I hopped in my travels of the soul.

But what is Jewish music after so many years in the new world? Some answers are coming up. And they sound pretty decent. I do not play any musical instrument. But I see the value in a song like "Rivers of Babylon", which is based on the 137th psalm. Thank G-d, Matisyahu saw ways of using reggae and other forms of music developed in African American communities to express and promote Jewish values. There is something reassuring about spiritual yearnings being expressed through the medium of different musical forms.

The Lubavitch world was delighted when Matisyahu publicly embraced Lubavitch. Some were puzzled when he looked into other forms of chassidic philosophy such as Breslov. I had no problem with that. In orthodox Judaism, there are a lot of philisophical approaches. Mixing elements of Breslov with Lubavitch doesn't faze me at all. I have worked with Satmar chassidim unloading trucks. I didn't get much yeshiva education in my life. I get what I can from everyone who is passing through. If Matisyahu models the eclectic approach, it makes me feel that much more at home. His latest song, "One Day" is the type of softer reggae music that I have an easier time connecting to . Its lyrics shine a light of hope into a violent and sometimes chaotic world. Some of the lyrics are as follows. I see the lyrics as being expressive of yearning for the messianic redemption, that help from Above that will crown our efforts below with success.

"when they feed on the souls of the innocent blood drenched pavement keep on moving though the waters stay raging in this maze you can lose your way (your way) it might drive you crazy but don't let it faze you no way (no way) sometimes in my tears I drown but I never let it get me down so when negativity surrounds I know some day it'll all turn around because all my life I've been waiting for I've been praying for for the people to say that we don't wanna fight no more they'll be no more wars and our children will play one day "

Another person whose music is guided by and permeated with Jewish values is Peter Himmelman, the son in law of Bob Dylan, whose music really touches day to day situations with deep insights. His song, "This Too Will Pass" has guided me through some sad and trying times in my life. In trying times, a song like this is like an elevated train soaring over the walls that separate us from hope.

For me, music is a spiritual vehicle. I take it very seriously, measuring it against where I want to go in life. One of my all time favourite songs is "The Balance" by the Moody Blues. Part of the lyrics read as follows.

"After he had journeyed, And his feet were sore, And he was tired, He came upon an orange grove And he rested And he lay in the cool, And while he rested, he took to himself an orange and tasted it, And it was good. And he felt the earth to his spine, And he asked, and he saw the tree above him, and the stars, And the veins in the leaf, And the light, and the balance. And he saw magnificent perfection, Whereon he thought of himself in balance, And he knew he was. Just open your eyes, And realize, the way it's always been. Just open your mind And you will find The way it's always been. Just open your heart And that's a start"

There is a Korean fruit store near where I live that plays a lot of Christian pop music. It's not my spiritual path, but it reminds me of the need to reinforce my environment with music that takes me where I want to go. I have only scratched the surface. There is a lot of good modern Jewish music out there, as well as other music of spiritual searchers. I am grateful to Matisyahu, the Moody Blues, and all the others out there who are lighting up the world with their music. Keep it up. We need you

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