Why Jewish music should take a lesson from heavy metal
Why is it that we never hear Jewish songs about the story of Cain and Abel? A number of years ago I listened to a song called “Chapter Four” by one of the greatest modern metal bands, Avenged Sevenfold. The song describes the rivalry between two brothers, one “born of light” and the other “black night.” The evil brother describes how he murdered the innocent one, and as a result, incurs divine punishment.
I was wracking my brain, trying to figure out why this story seemed so familiar to me. And then it hit me: The song was not referring to just any book – it was referring to the Book. To be sure, I grabbed a Tanakh off my shelf and flipped to chapter four. Sure enough, it contained the tragic story of Cain murdering his brother Abel.
I was astounded that this ostensibly secular metal band was willing to explore the story of Cain and Abel, but I could not think of any religious Jewish music that came anywhere close to incorporating such source material. While there are niche Israeli Metal bands, such as Gevolt and Orphaned Land, as far as the American Orthodox community is concerned, there is no established form of Jewish metal music. (David Draiman, the vocalist from Disturbed, does not count since he deliberately left the religious Jewish world.)
I will preempt the claim that metal represents a “non-Jewish style” of music, by pointing out that artists such as the Maccabeats made their success off adapting secular pop tunes into kosher lyrics. And it is not only pop that gets a pass – note the rise of Nissim Black and how even rap music has made inroads into constituting acceptable culture for Orthodox listeners. Recently, a rabbinical colleague of mine shared Nissim Black’s music with his middle-school students to make them aware of racial diversity within the Jewish community.
As we progress further into the 21st century, it is evident that there is a demand for diversifying Jewish music’s portfolio beyond the classic “simcha music” that is played at bar mitzvahs and weddings. So, why hasn’t metal music been accepted within the American Jewish Orthodox music scene? After all, if we compare genres such as rap, pop and metal, the latter is overwhelmingly cleaner in terms of avoiding sexually explicit content. (And virtually all popular songs have an expletive-less version that can be found online.) What is it about metal that keeps the observant community from incorporating it into our musical culture?
Despite the acceptance of other Western genres, my sense is that there remains a stigma with metal in particular. The negative association and aversion that many of my co-religionists have toward metal transcends the style and is actually rooted in an uneasiness with the themes themselves. A myopic generalization of the genre tends to describe Metal music as promoting death and violence. And while there are certainly bands that do go in that direction, it is important to highlight the artists who have addressed these topics from a place of trepidation and use their music as vehicle for conveying messages and emotions that many religiously devout individuals do not feel comfortable acknowledging.
While the American Jewish music scene is dominated by pop, dance and “Simcha” music, if we go back to the earlier generation of American Orthodox music, we will find stirring songs such as “Someday” by Mordechai Ben David, which describes the days of the Messiah, and emotionally captivating songs such as “Shema”, in which Yaakov Shwekey tells the story of a rabbi rescuing Jewish children after the Holocaust. Jewish music contains songs that evoke feelings of happiness, sadness, celebration, longing, and inspiration. While this is true, Jewish music’s emotional vocabulary remains limited: Where are the songs that discuss the darker facets of the human condition such as frustration, crushing grief and despair?
In the metal song “Cemetery Gates,” the vocalist of Pantera sings about the loss of a loved one and touches on questions of theodicy: “Reverend, reverend / Is this some conspiracy? / Crucified for no sins / An image beneath me / Lost within our plans for life / It all seems so unreal / I’m a man cut in half in this world / Left in my misery.” The song concludes with the vocalist repeating the word “gates” in a blood-curdling scream that makes the listener feel the anguish and despondence as the cemetery gates close on the possibilities of the life lost. Along the same theme of premature death, Ozzy Osbourne, featured in Black Label Society, sings about a Stillborn birth, in which the mother grieves for the loss of her child: “The feelings I once felt are now dead and gone / I’ve waited here for you for so very long.” In “Remember Everything” by Five Finger Death Punch, the lead vocalist laments the parental and familial difficulties that he endured growing up in a dysfunctional household.
In the numerous Jewish songs written about the Holocaust and World War II, there are of course references to the loss of six million Jews, but more often than not, they fail to penetrate into the truly harrowing experience of what it feels like to be one of those six million on a visceral, individual level. A paradigm for what a Holocaust song could be modeled after is “One” by Metallica, which relates the heart-rending experience of a soldier who was reduced to a near vegetative state. As a last resort, he uses Morse Code to plead with the nurse to put a merciful end to his suffering. A Jewish song would not need to take a stance on the halakhic implications of euthanasia, but instead could give its listeners insight into a tragic part of the human experience.
In similar fashion, “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath and “The Stage” by Avenged Sevenfold decry the gratuitous deaths caused by politicians who were too hasty to enter violent military conflicts for their own gains. There are also bands who use their music to convey historical events and honor the sacrifice of military servicemen. “Blood Brothers” by Iron Maiden, extolls the virtue of camaraderie among brothers-in-arms, and “The Last Stand” by Sabaton tells the story of the 189 soldiers in the Swiss guard during the sacking of Rome in 1527 who were outnumbered yet sacrificed their lives to protect Pope Clement VII. Certainly, if this kind of dedication (mesirat nefesh) were redirected toward a Jewish cause, it would make for motivating religious music. And while the “songs” of the Bible were not necessarily meant to be accompanied by tunes, there is certainly a precedent for such themes that can be found in the “Song of Debora” (Judges 5) and the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15), which declares “God is a Man of War, God is His Name.” Moreover, the concept of crying out for retribution is canonized in Ashkenazic liturgy, and can be found in prayers such as Av HaRachamim, which is recited on a weekly basis.
Metal songwriters have also dealt with the painful topic of suicide; “Inside the Fire” by Disturbed is one notable example. Additionally, some bands delve deep into the existential challenge of mortality and the ephemeral nature of man in this world. Listen to “Seize the Day” by Avenged Sevenfold, then follow it up with “The Spirit Carries On” by Dream Theater, in which the singer struggles but ultimately affirms his belief in the afterlife. The recognition that we are mortal souls and that we work to achieve a life beyond death is well-rooted in Rabbinic literature. An iconic example of this can be found in Pirkei Avot (4:16): “Rabbi Jacob said: this world is like an antechamber before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you may enter the palace.”
Jews are, unfortunately, not impervious to the tragedy of losing a loved one before their time nor can we avoid being victims of war. While many of us are rightfully hesitant to address the darker experiences of life, I am concerned that there has been a move to transform emotionally uplifting chants, such as “Ivdu et Hashem B’Simcha” (Serve the Lord with Joy) and Geshmak to be a Yid (“It is Great To Be a Jew”), into a Jewish iteration of “Hakuna Matata.” Positivity can be a desirable goal, but it must not be conflated with frivolity (leitzanut). Positivity comes from recognizing the good that we have in life, while frivolity seeks to hide and bury the gravity of the challenges that we experience. Metal music speaks to me because it has no pretense of frivolity; it acknowledges the travails of the individual and seeks to forge a form of catharsis.
Now, am I advocating that we all start listening to Metal music? Perhaps a little. After all, contemporary authorities such as R. Eliezer Melamed (Peninei Halachah, Times of Year 8:4) assert that not only is listening to sad music permitted during this juncture of the Jewish calendar known as the Three Weeks, but it is in fact a fulfillment of mourning for the loss of our Temple:
“I heard from my father and teacher that not only may one play sad instrumental songs related to the destruction of the Temple on the radio during the Nine Days, but it is actually good to do so, because it inspires people to mourn the destruction even more for the destruction [of the Temple]. According to this, it appears that the prohibition relates mainly to listening to joyous music, which is associated with dancing, while regular songs, and certainly sad ones, are permissible.”
On Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in “The Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot,” recognized that it is natural for a faithful, observant Jew to feel uncomfortable with asking questions and expressing their frustrations to God. However, Rabbi Soloveitchik remarked that just as the prophet Jeremiah was able to write the word Eichah and pose the vexing question of “Why?”, there is also a place for us to acknowledge the darker elements of our lives and ultimately seek shelter under the wings of the Divine.
Moshe Kurtz is an assistant rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Conn.