06 January 2015

Maimonides and Music

Maimonides, the great twelfth century Arab philosopher, is one of the most revered voices in the history of rabbinic thought. Born in Cordoba, Spain and raised in Fez, Morocco, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon spent most of his life living and working in Fustat, Egypt. Maimonides was a successful physician, attending to the great Salaḥ ad-Dīn (Saladin), founder and sultan of the Ayyubid Dynasty. In addition to his medical prowess, from his position as a central rabbinic figure, Maimonides wrote and published several works on Jewish law and humanist philosophy, and answered countless questions from far flung Jewish communities throughout the Arab world in the form of responsa (rabbinic answers).

In “Maimonides on Listening to Music,”[1] H.G. Farmer examines two responsa by Maimonides specifically focused on musical expression in Jewish life: the addition of piyyutim (sacred Hebrew poems) to the standard liturgical material, and the permissibility of consuming secular-themed music. These responsa (sing. responsum) are important for our purposes because Maimonides, who is considered one of the most important thinkers in Jewish history, carries opinions that reflect particular Sephardi sensibilities.

The first responsum deals with music in the synagogue. Farmer contextualizes Maimonides’ responsum by reminding us that the view of music in the religious sphere at that time in Egypt was one that in many ways was shared by Muslims and Jews alike. He notes that religious leaders stigmatized music more often than not because they felt that the power of music could lead certain believers astray (see the works of the seminal Sufi thinker al-Ghazali for more on this subject as well). Maimonides, however, goes beyond operating from a stance of fear for degeneration, recognizing instead the power of music as an important tool for spirituality. He not only supports the use of music in religious life, but supports the incorporation of certain secular, non-Jewish influences into the synagogue liturgy. For in this first responsum, the questions center on the use of secular melodies in the synagogue for accompanying piyyutim, and whether or not adding singing of para-liturgical texts to the statutory elements prescribed by the Talmud for liturgical practice is even permissible. Maimonides responds that so long as the piyyutim are sung before or after these components (the Shema, the Benediction formula, etc.), they are permitted per individualized communal custom. Farmer adds that Maimonides’ silence about non-Jewish, secular melodies is proof of his implicit support for incorporating musical influence from outside the Jewish community, even for use in sacred contexts.

The second responsum deals more directly with listening to secular music. After presenting what seems to be a support for the restraining and repressing of listening by the Jew, Maimonides cleverly concludes that it is not the music but the person listening to the music that must be confronted. Maimonides trusts that the sound of music is a manifestation of God — as is everything in the world — and that it is man who corrupts this sound with his impurities of context. The inference is subtle but crucial. Refine one’s self — the listener — in order that he may receive the blessing of music.

In these reponsa Maimonides reminds the questioners that each Jew has a personal responsibility to be aware of and connected to the power of the senses — in this case, the sense of hearing. One need not operate out of fear, lest he cut off the very tools by which he is to perceive the greatness, glory, and grandeur of God through His creations. Maimonides, however, acknowledges that a danger exists in man to become complacent in cultivating these senses or worse, to become haughty in expressing these senses. In relation to music, one must value music by learning how to engage with it on a higher plane of conscientiousness about hearing and the effects that it has on one’s soul. And when carrying out the liturgical practices of the synagogue, the power that musical expression has in the context of communal devotion.

[1] Farmer, H.G. 1933. “Maimonides on Listening to Music.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 4:867-884.