Music, at its core, oﬀers an intangible, amaterial, transient, and endlessly mutable form of expression. As complex patterns of pulses cast into motion, propelled through air or another medium, and ultimately given meaning through human intervention, music operates within the constraints of time and space. Music also appeals to a democratic ideal, particularly in this age of digital reproduction and portability: the ability to sense those pulses presents the only prerequisite for experiencing music. Interpreting music, however, is another matter. Anyone can do it, but everyone does it diﬀerently and for diﬀerent reasons. A vast sea of writing and discussion has allowed people to promote ideas about the sounds around them: classifying music into numerous categories; linking speciﬁc sounds to one group of people or another; judging sounds as good or bad, harmonious or discordant, authentic or fake; and connecting sounds to places, events, ideas, emotions, or speciﬁc narratives. Even such measurable qualities as volume, pitch, rhythm, and timbre regularly receive subjective assessments. These attributes have made musical idioms deeply ﬂexible forums for communicating ideas, values, and perspectives. The potential music holds for inscribing value therefore makes it an ideal platform for
understanding how people create meaning: how they deﬁne themselves, how they identify with others, and how they situate themselves within the world around them. Exploring sound’s relationships with Judaism consequently oﬀers endless possibilities: from investigating how people use synagogue chant to assert religious authority; to addressing how Jews use sound to draw borders between Jewish and “non-Jewish” expressions; to analyzing arguments over the kinds of music that most accurately reﬂect Judaism’s core values; to understanding how Jews go about creating “new” Jewish music. Each of these approaches ties the production of sound to communal ideas about Jews and Judaism, while acknowledging the vast and complex diversity associated with Jewish expression, identity, and practice. Studying sound in Jewish life, however, means negotiating several complex cultural landscapes.
A variety of groups support scholarship on music and Judaism, including universities, seminaries, synagogues, Jewish music institutions, Jewish identity-based philanthropic organizations, and even national governments. While these groups all tend to promote academic methods as forms of authority, however, they often do so with diﬀerent motivations. Seminaries and synagogues, for example, frequently value music scholarship for its ability to reinforce the work of religious movements and functionaries. Universities more often judge music scholarship by its ability to bring new ideas to a broader, nonsectarian audience. Jewish identity organizations such as
Reboot and the (now defunct) Foundation for Jewish Culture, meanwhile, tend to use scholarship to generate plans of action, allocate resources, promote particular Jewish service projects, and publicize their activities. People who engage with the subject, from knowledgeable enthusiasts to public intellectuals, seasoned musicians, clergy, musicologists, and ethnomusicologists, must consequently choose from a range of options and environments in order to communicate their intentions most eﬀectively. Understanding how music relates to Judaism, then, also requires understanding the cultural dynamics involved in studying the music itself. By the start of the twenty-ﬁrst century, such dynamics had created what might be seen as
two non-exclusive streams of thought in music scholarship. The ﬁrst of these streams sought a prescriptive knowledge of the relationship between Judaism and sound, often addressed through the question “What is Jewish Music?” This classic and deceptively simple query, part of a larger scholarly project aimed at deﬁning Jews on their own terms, helped generate the ﬁeld of “Jewish music” in the nineteenth century, and shaped much of the conversation on the topic ever since. Abraham Z. Idelsohn (1882-1938), credited with consolidating the modern ﬁeld of Jewish music scholarship, addressed this question by giving Jewish music a Middle Eastern origin, and devoted much of his career to distilling “authentic” Temple-period melody from centuries of diasporic accretion. Musicologist Curt Sachs reportedly opened a 1957 conference on Jewish music in Paris by oﬀering a deﬁnition of Jewish music as music made “by Jews, for Jews, as Jews” (Bayer 2007). In 2006, John Baron and Emanuel Rubin broadened the deﬁnition to “music that serves Jewish purposes” (Baron and Rubin 2006: xxvi). These and other attempts hold at their core a perception of Judaism as historically uniﬁed, culturally conservative, and socially distinct. Within this framework, moreover, scholars have attempted to deﬁne speciﬁc combinations of tones (Cohon 1950), particular melodies (Gottlieb 2004), sounds (such as the cantorial “cry”), rhythmic sensibilities (Frygesi 1993), and personal musical output (Ringer 1990) as uniquely “Jewish.” Side by side with the question of what Jewish music “is” lay the more ﬂexible idea of sound
as a reﬂection of individual and group Jewish identities. This second approach, which Edwin Seroussi has called a “musicology of the Jewish” (Seroussi 2009), relied on the practices of individuals and communities rather than on deﬁning a deﬁnitive “Jewish” history, religious practice, or musical system (Seroussi et al. 2001). Favored by many ethnomusicologists, historical musicologists, social scientists, and some cultural theorists, this population-based approach allowed researchers to ask how people used sound to situate themselves within their own perceptions of Jewish history and identity. Judaism consequently became the variable for addressing complex ideas of self-understanding that could cross over into broader scholarly discussions. Researchers, moreover, could approach the topic with greater creativity and insight, looking beyond ritual and synagogue into more diverse sites: including places of learning (Wolberger 1993), avant-garde music scenes (Barzel 2010), and communities with non-normative Jewish identities (such as Messianic Jews; see Weisbard 2001). These two streams of scholarship, while in some ways contradictory, nonetheless maintained
a symbiotic relationship. Music’s status as a medium for performance and public exhibition made it an attractive option for the philanthropic promotion of Jewish identity and activity: synagogues, Jewish federations, and university-based Jewish studies programs among others have attempted to promote their activities and attract crowds through concerts and music lectures. Jewish communal leaders, additionally, looked to scholars of Jewish music (including scholars of Jewish music history, whose voluminous work largely falls outside of the topics addressed in this chapter) as consultants and presenters for Jewish “culture” initiatives. Scholars, meanwhile, recognizing the signiﬁcant resources and interest put into these events, valued them as platforms for presenting their work; and they often looked to philanthropic music initiatives as important
sources for further research, publication, and readership. Music scholarship consequently developed into a complex and multi-faceted theoretical marketplace that negotiated the dynamic interaction of sound, community, and academic rigor. The following sections introduce music scholarship and its relationship with contemporary
Jewish communal life from four interrelated perspectives. Academic perspectives on researching Jews and sound present an appropriate entry point given the nature of this volume. A second perspective, the institutions that house or promote Jewish music research, has fostered a great deal of research on “Jewish music” in the service of speciﬁc Jewish religious or cultural agendas. Jewish philanthropic initiatives, the third perspective, have taken a signiﬁcant role in commissioning studies of Jewish culture, and then incubating grass-roots artists to address the Jewish communal needs identiﬁed therein. Finally, I will address how scholarship and pragmatic ideas of “Jewish music” have combined to create a commercial genre, the fourth perspective, that speaks to the broader music industry while at the same time theoretically giving ideas about Jewish music greater exposure and prestige. Viewed together, these four perspectives provide a broader picture of both the nature of research in this ﬁeld, and the way such research shapes and in turn is shaped by its interaction with Jewish communal and cultural activities.