A Strict Ruling
An interesting article appears in the 5754 edition of Beit Yitzchak, Yeshiva University's Torah journal. In this essay, a young Yeshiva University student seeks to demonstrate that it is forbidden to sing or listen to songs whose lyrics are derived from Torah sources, unless it is conducted in the context of a Mitzvah such as Shabbat, Yom Tov, or a wedding. In fact, he concludes with the following citation from Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 1:173, written in 1957): "In my humble opinion it is forbidden Lechatchila (ab initio) to make records of [songs whose lyrics are from] Pesukim, which are made purely for listening enjoyment."
This ruling is based on the Gemara (Sanhedrin 101a) that states, "One who reads a Pasuk from Shir HaShirim and transforms it into a sort of song or sings a Pasuk in an inappropriate time such as at a party (Beit HaMishtaot) brings evil to the world, since the Torah wears sackcloth and complains before Hashem, 'Your children have made me into a musical instrument that is played by scorners (Leitzim).'" Although this passage is not quoted by either the Rambam or the Shulchan Aruch, the Magen Avraham (560:10) cites from the Maharil that it is improper to use Pesukim as lyrics for songs that are sung at "Simchat Mereiut" (discretionary gatherings). The Taz (Orach Chaim 560:5) adopts a similar approach to that of the Magen Avraham. The Mishnah Berurah (560:14) and the Aruch HaShulchan (O.C. 560:7) cite the words of the Magen Avraham as normative.
Nonetheless, the very widespread practice today among even the most pious of Jews is to sing and listen to music whose lyrics are from Torah sources. Indeed, even Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 2:142, written in 1963) acknowledges:
Many are lenient and listen to tapes [of music whose lyrics are from Torah passages], and even in the previous generation people would play records of music whose lyrics were derived from Torah passages, and the rabbis of that generation did not register protest. And we see [today] that the majority of Torah observant Jews listen to such music including even the most pious of individuals.
Rav Moshe thus relaxes his strict stance on this matter and advises only those who are Baalei Nefesh (individuals who are exceptionally scrupulous in their observance of Halacha) to avoid listening to "Torah songs" if it is merely for enjoyment. In this essay, we shall endeavor to marshal four defenses of the common practice of the overwhelming majority of the observant community to listen to Torah passages set to music. This essay is an expansion of my Hebrew essay published in Beit Yitzchak 5755 that I wrote as a response to the aforementioned 5754 article that articulates a strict approach to this issue.
Justification Number One- Only Shir HaShirim
Rav Moshe (in the later and more lenient responsum) suggests that those who are lenient might argue that the Gemara refers only to Shir HaShirim, as there is more concern that the verses from this Sefer might be misinterpreted as a simple love song between a man and a woman (not an allegory of the love between Hashem and Am Yisrael, as Chazal interpret it). Rav Moshe notes that the difficulty with this approach is that Rashi (Sanhedrin 101a s.v. KeMin Zemer) clearly believes that this prohibition applies to all of the Torah.
Moreover, the Kitzur Piskei HaRosh (Sanhedrin 11:3), Raavya (at the beginning of his commentary to the fifth chapter of Berachot), and Maharsha (s.v. HaKorei) agree with Rashi that this issue applies to all Torah passages. Nonetheless, support for this approach may be derived from the Kallah Rabati (middle of chapter one) and Avot DeRabi Natan (at the conclusion of chapter 37), which seem to restrict this problem to the book of Shir HaShirim. Moreover, Rav Reuven Margaliot (Margaliot HaYam Sanhedrin 101a) cites the Zohar as supporting this view. However, the aforementioned Magen Avraham, Taz, and Mishnah Berurah appear to apply this prohibition to all parts of Torah.
Justification Number Two- A Mockery
A much stronger justification for the common practice might be derived from Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. Hakorei). He explains that the Gemara censures one who "while drinking wine, derives his amusement from words of Torah and reads Pesukim aloud to amuse those at the party." Rashi seems to imply that the prohibition applies only when Torah verses are used in a degrading manner, as the language of the Gemara (ad. loc.) seems to suggest. This would seem to imply (unlike Rav Moshe) that as long as the music does not degrade the Torah, there is no prohibition even if one is not listening to the music in the context of performing a Mitzvah such as rejoicing with a Chatan and Kallah.
Indeed, the Yad Ramah writes that this prohibition exists only if the Pesukim are sung "Derech Sechok" (in a joking or degrading manner), although he cautions that he is unsure about this matter. However, Rav Yaakov Emden (in his comments to Sanhedrin 101a that have recently been republished in the Vagshal printing of Masechet Sanhedrin, Yerushalayim 5754) unequivocally states that this prohibition applies only if one degrades the Torah verses into a base love song. Indeed, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein endorsed this position in a personal conversation at Yeshiva University in 1984. This might explain why the Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, and Rama omit any mention of this passage in Sanhedrin. They seem to believe that there is no specific prohibition to enjoy listening to Torah music for entertainment purposes. Rather, the Gemara simply articulates a specific example of a general prohibition to degrade our holy Torah.
Finally, we should note that the Aruch HaShulchan (ad. loc.) also seems to adopt this view. He first cites the Shulchan Aruch's (O.C. 560:3) endorsement of the common practice to sing songs of praise to Hashem. He adds that this is permissible even in a non-Mitzvah setting, which seems to imply that he permits singing Torah songs even if it is done merely for pleasure. He subsequently cites the aforementioned comments of the Magen Avraham and the Taz restricting such songs. The Aruch HaShulchan appears to distinguish between "regular" Torah songs, which may be listened to even for pleasure, and Torah songs that are sung in a degrading manner, which are prohibited. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 3 O.C. 15 and 4 Yoreh Deah 20) also rules that the prohibition applies only if the Pesukim are used for love songs or Leitzanut (frivolity). He argues that the Yad Ramah's uncertainty is resolved by the many eminent Rabbanim and communities
who have adopted the lenient approach to this issue.
Justification Number Three- Connection to Hashem
A third defense is that in today's world, one has a choice of literally thousands of music stations, both on the radio and the internet, as well as innumerable music CD's of a virtually endless array of styles and artists. Accordingly, one who chooses to listen to "Jewish music" is doing so because he wishes to be inspired and deepen his connection to Hashem and His Torah. Accordingly, one who listens to Torah songs could be considered as doing so for Mitzvah purposes, not simply for pleasure.
Indeed, Rav Yehuda Henkin's concern (Teshuvot Bnei Banim 3:125) that this prohibition is violated when setting rock and country songs to Torah lyrics if the primary intention is for the music and not the Torah lyrics seems to be irrelevant in most cases. If the primary intention was for the music, then one would simply procure the original rock and country music. (There might be some rock and country music that does not contain offensive lyrics and is therefore permissible to listen to.)
Justification Number Four- Survival
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (see the sources cited in Nefesh HaRav p. 88) believes that history sometimes can resolve certain Halachic and Hashkafic disputes, as it indicates the Will of Hashem. In this context, it appears that Jewish music has proven itself to be a potent component of the critical struggle for Orthodox Jewish cultural survival. In an environment that is saturated with music, much of which is antithetical to Torah values, the existence of a vibrant Jewish music scene is essential as an alternative to the other deleterious options.
Moreover, establishing a sort of Orthodox subculture is absolutely essential for cultural survival, especially for Modern Orthodox Jews. We espouse the belief of Rav Soloveitchik that we must follow the example of Avraham Avinu, who presented himself to his Hittite neighbors as a "stranger and a resident" (Breishit 23:4). We believe that while on the one hand we must be "residents" and integrate into the economic, scientific, and certain aspects of the cultural life in this country, we must also be "strangers" and form our own "subculture" in order to survive as a culture in a country that is hospitable and inviting. Along with the creation of Orthodox shuls, schools, camps, and youth groups, the world of Jewish music has made an enormous contribution to the creation of this Orthodox subculture.
Indeed, the powerful impact of music is evident from the Gemara's assertion (Chagigah 15b, see the comments of the Maharsha ad. loc.) that the famous Tanna, Elisha ben Avuyah, lost his faith because "Greek music never stopped emanating from his mouth." Additionally, the Gemara (Megillah 32a) stresses the importance of singing the Torah that one studies. Accordingly, the experience of the past four decades (since Rav Moshe's second Teshuva was written) teaches that the approach of Rav Moshe's later Teshuva must be adopted, since Torah songs are an absolutely essential part of Torah life for the overwhelming majority of the members of our community. Interestingly, Rav Moshe permits (even in his first, stricter responsum) making records composed of Torah songs if it will help a child learn Torah. We may argue that history teaches that Jewish music helps Orthodox Jews to remain Orthodox Jews and is therefore unquestionably permissible.
Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer (15:33) cites a very compelling comment made by a classic Halachic authority, Teshuvot Halachot Ketanot (1:9). In the course of the commonly accepted practice to recite the Beracha of Shehakol on coffee instead of HaEitz, he asserts:
The following is a fundamental principle has been passed to us as a tradition from earlier generations: if a certain Halacha is unclear to you, go and see what the common practice is. This is true because Hashem, in His love for His nation, would not have allowed the broader community to go follow a minority opinion had that authority not articulated a viable approach (see Ramban to Devarim 17:11 for a possible basis for this assertion).
The same can be said for the issue of creating and listening to Torah songs. Those who wish to adopt a strict approach to the issue may do so, but they should not impose this stringency on others, for it is too difficult and even culturally dangerous to bear.
When I presented the basic ideas of this essay (the content that appears in Beit Yitzchak 5755) to Rav Hershel Schachter, the approach "found favor in his eyes" (though it seemed to me that he felt that there was room to be Machmir for those who chose to do so).