Thursday, January 12, 2006

Lipa Schmeltzer and Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

I linked to the text of an anti-Lipa letter last week, and posted a comment from “J” on the topic this week.

Over the past year, there has been much controversy in the J-blogosphere over the banning of Rabbi Nosson Slifkin's books by Chareidi rabbonim. I'm not going to address this issue here, except to note one point that relates to an issue I’d like to discuss. That is, it seems quite clear that many rabbonim who signed and/or supported the Slifkin ban did so for reasons other than those stated in the actual ban. Many of them have acknowledged as much. I note a similar approach in the way some rabbonim have addressed Chassidic singer Lipa Schmeltzer’s CD’s.

I first heard about the Shmeltzer controversy from some Satmar chassidim at a gig I was playing shortly after the release of his “Lipa Baderech” album. Having backed him up once before, I was surprised to hear that there was any controversy over his music. Intrigued, I bought a copy of the CD.

[A brief digression: it seems pretty clear that these kinds of proclamations and bans have a reverse effect, ensuring that more people listen to the music. When I was in high school, they banned the band Kabbalah. Had they not done so, I’m pretty sure no one in the yeshiva would have ever heard their music. Since it was verboten though, one of the guys had to track down the album and we all listened to it. (Incidentally, you can hear some of those tracks on Moshe Skier’s website here. The band was ahead of its time.)]

At any rate, I listened to the CD and couldn’t figure out what the issue was. The musical arrangements were pretty much the standard Chassidisco flavor and his Yiddish lyrics (for the songs that weren’t just quoting pesukim, midrashim, and the like) had a lot of depth. The messages were positive. Shmeltzer is a badchan, and it comes across in his lyrics, which are full of traditional references and allusions. One quick example would be how in “Gelt”, the line “kesef minalan” references Maseches Kiddushin. If anything, the musical arrangements on some of the tunes were a cut above the usual (i.e. Tefilas Haderech).

In other words, his music was certainly not any more offensive than other similar fare, and many of his original lyrics are well done. Going back to his earlier CD, “Gam Zu Letovah”, my impressions were the same. In my opinion, there is no reason, based on those two albums -- I haven’t yet heard his latest -- for anyone to ban his music exclusive of all others in that style. I think that most people who listen to these albums would reach the same conclusion.

I think that the censoring of Shmeltzer’s music is most likely due to his live shows. I’ve played a few of them, and in concert, there is a certain vibe that one does not get from the albums. I'm finding it hard to put into words, but basically it’s a looser show, where Lipa breaks into free-style Yiddish (and English) rapping and is liable to sing secular pop tunes with his own lyrics. The vibe is definitely less spiritual than the albums. I imagine that one really needs to hear Lipa in context at a “real” mitzvah tanz, by true Chassidim, to appreciate his depth.

I suspect that it is opposition to these performances, and the reputation as “wild” that Shmeltzer has gained from them, that drives the anti-Shmeltzer forces. The humorous HASC videos he appeared in probably don’t help him in this regard either, cementing his image as “hefker.”

At a recent Melave Malka I played in Boro Park for some Bobover Chassidim, I discussed this issue with some of them and they thought my hypothesis was correct. Note: I’m not endorsing the ban, or justifying this reasoning, just speculating as to the motivation behind the opposition.

If I’m correct, this would be yet another example of community leaders (i.e. rabbonim) demonstrating a lack of respect for their communities by treating them as though they can’t handle the truth. We are taught “Chosamo shel HKB”H Emes” (God’s seal is truth). Our leaders ought to bear that in mind.

The Slifkin ban resulted in a huge diminishment of kavod haTorah because even many of those who agree with the ban ideologically are troubled by the unethical way it was implemented without any halachic due process. It is troubling to see something similar happening again.