Is Messianic Music Dead?
My dad has always been into music. I remember the smell of vinyl and the hundreds of interesting (and bizarre) album covers scattered throughout our living room. We used to sit and listen to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Cream; The Who; The Rolling Stones; Dylan; The Beatles—and Lamb. Yes, Lamb, the Messianic Jewish rock band that produced several albums in the 70s and 80s. My father, who is Jewish, had become a believer in Jesus. Lamb’s Messianic themes and their fusion of Jewish and rock sounds were things he related to in a unique way.
Certain kinds of music will always resonate deeper with us than others. I enjoy the sound of Bob Marley, but I suspect that Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights” carries more meaning for Jamaicans from Marley’s generation. I love Indian food, but it’s not as familiar as my grandma’s rugelach. Remember the scene in the film Ratatouille where the food critic is instantly transported back to the sounds and smells of his mother’s home by eating one bite of ratatouille? Music is similar.
Some Background on Messianic Music
It was this resonance that made Messianic music in the 70s and 80s fresh, unique and instantly recognizable. Joel Chernoff, Paul Wilbur and Stuart Dauermann were among those who produced an array of Messianic music that listeners both Jewish and non-Jewish could enjoy. Often, they fused Eastern European Jewish minor chord progressions, danceable freilachs and Israel-focused lyrics. It was a familiar, lively sound that is still pulsing through many Messianic congregations today.
When Jews for Jesus began in the early 70s, there were many young, talented Jewish believers who were seeking ways to express their Jewishness and their “Jesus-ness.” Fortunately for the budding Messianic Jewish movement, they were encouraged to use their gifts. Some of this encouragement came from the churches who were interested in hearing fresh Jewish cultural expressions of faith. Some came from individuals like Moishe Rosen who actively nurtured the talent of people like Stuart Dauermann, then a graduate student at Manhattan School of Music. “Moishe Rosen encouraged me to believe that I could write a whole new kind of music that was needed,” Stuart has said. “We did not feel any need to reject the music we heard in churches. We just had to have something that was more us.”1 Stuart’s efforts paid off and a group called the Liberated Wailing Wall would perform and produce twelve albums of music over nearly three decades.
At that time the landscape of the Jewish community was different than today. Many Jewish believers had been raised within a first or second-generation Jewish immigrant community and were familiar with Eastern European Jewish culture. Some had grown up with Yiddish-speaking parents or grandparents and many had firsthand experience of anti-Semitism. Most were also first-generation in their faith and paid a price for following Yeshua, sometimes being cut off from family and friends.
Consequently, the Liberated Wailing Wall reflected American Jewish culture and the personal faith journeys of its members. Much of the music reflected an Eastern European Jewish sound; the performances had a Fiddler on the Roof look and feel.
Though the team accomplished a lot, times have changed. Today, fewer and fewer Jewish people relate to that kind of music. For better or worse, Jewish identity has evolved. In some ways, Israel now has a renewed focus, because of its increasing population as well as through college programs like Birthright. The Jewish community has become increasingly diverse. Sephardic Jewish culture, for example, has gotten belated recognition from Ashkenazic Jews. Jewish people tend to be less connected than in previous generations to Eastern European shtetl culture.
Tuvya Zaretsky did his doctoral work on ministry to Jewish intermarried couples. He noted that at the time he wrote, about 2004, the intermarriage rate among American Jews stood at around 50%, while in the case of cohabiting Jewish people, 81% lived with Gentiles. The children of Jewish-Gentile couples also intermarried 75% of the time.2 Many of these Gentile partners had some kind of Christian background.
This means that for many Jewish people today, Jesus and the church are not as far removed from Jewish upbringing as they once were. And intermarriage has broadened the ethnic diversity of the Jewish people.3
That is why over a year ago, a group of us gathered around a large meeting table to discuss the future of music ministry in Jews for Jesus. We determined that the time had come to retire our Liberated Wailing Wall music team. An extreme decision, perhaps, but a necessary one. We were interested in revitalizing Jews for Jesus’ music ministry for the new emerging Jewish culture. After all, music is important; it plays a vital role in several ways.
Music, Worship and Truth
Throughout history, music has played an important role in worship, the expression of truth and the affirmation of peoplehood. Jewish people have an especially rich history of musical expression. The Scriptures were memorized and meditated upon through chanting and singing. Theological truths were often conveyed through the poetry. The Psalms carried theological significance that was set to a meter and melody familiar to the people of Israel. The work of the psalmists helped foster corporate Jewish identity and provided a context for approaching God’s truth. The Psalms served as the songbook of the worshiping people of God throughout the ages.
Songs memorialized God’s faithfulness and the history of Israel. Psalm 98:1-9 called Israel to “sing a new song.” Moses did just that upon crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1–18). Deborah sang a victory song after the king of Canaan was killed (Judges 5:1–31). David sang a song of lament over the death of Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1:17–21.
We also find songs in the New Testament. Mary bursts into praise in Luke 1:46-55 after being chosen to be the mother of the Messiah; Philippians 2:1-30 is considered one of the earliest New Testament hymns.4
And many throughout history have continued to contribute to this tradition, from Syriac sacral music5 to Martin Luther, a music lover whose hymns such as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” are still sung in churches around the world today. The American Moravian movement, for instance, used music to express their faith, writing a huge corpus of sonnets and arias, many of which are highly esteemed by classical music listeners today.6
Music and Social Change
Music has united people for social change. We see this in both the secular and Jewish arenas. Sometimes the change is for the better, sometimes for the worse, but it is undeniable.
“The Internationale” was originally written in French by Eugene Pottier in the 1800s. It eventually became the rallying cry for socialism worldwide and was adopted as the Soviet national anthem after the Russian Revolution in 1917.7
Martin Brown’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” became one of the most important African American statements of the 20th century. Nearly 200,000 protestors led by Martin Luther King, Jr. sang it in Washington in 1963. It not only encapsulated the civil rights struggle but it united people in change.8
In the UK, young people came together through the raw honesty of the punk movement. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of The Clash put feelings of angst into perspective through incisive lyrics and driving guitar sounds. “London Calling” was heralded as an anthem for the punk movement, embodying the anti-establishment attitudes of British youth. Consequently, the culture itself changed.
In the Jewish world, the Jewish national movement was spurred on by composers both in Israel and abroad. The St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folkmusic, founded in 1908, was comprised of graduates of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories who rediscovered their Jewish national roots and created a new genre of Jewish art music.9 Numerous Israeli composers have been important in affirming Israeli identity, such as Paul Ben Haim, who was known for nationalistic themes.10 Today, Matisyahu has raised the Jewish profile through his Hasidic image.
Music, a Catalyst for Personal Change
Music not only can bring about social change, but personal change as well. Sometimes it does this by bypassing the usual channels of information and truth.
When I was serving with Jews for Jesus in New York, I went to Yale University one summer for a time of outreach. There I met a Jewish student who was an English major. He had been studying Milton’s Paradise Lost and had become rather spiritually interested. But ultimately it was the evocative Christian lyrics of an artist named David Bazan of the band Pedro the Lion that had raised the issue of Jesus in a way that caused him to pursue more answers. We were able to discuss the New Testament in more depth as a result.
Similarly, Moishe Rosen’s wife Ceil became receptive to the gospel after listening to Christmas carols. There was something about the music that made the truths of the gospel approachable for her.11
Revitalizing Messianic Music
Music can bring us together. It can affirm truth. It can be a catalyst for change, not just reflecting culture but being a powerful means for shaping culture. For this reason music is never static, but constantly changes and adapts.
And so at Jews for Jesus, we have attempted to revitalize our music ministry and have begun implementing two ideas.
First, we have launched a mobile evangelism team called Blue Mosaic. By the time you read this, Blue Mosaic will have been on the road for about nine months, performing on campuses, in city centers and cafes and in other creative venues. As the opportunity has arisen, they have also played in churches and Messianic congregations. (See the accompanying article.)
Second, we have formed a discipleship/creative arts program tentatively called CADET (Creative Arts Discipleship Evangelism Team). CADET is for Jewish believers who wish to develop creatively and spiritually. The first CADET team is set to begin this year. For the first semester, team members will focus on creative development and spiritual discipleship. In the second semester, they will work together on a multimedia presentation that they can present in a range of venues.
If either of these programs strikes a note for you, do not hesitate to let me know (click here to send Aaron Abramson a message). I would be glad to talk to you more about the ways you can be involved. These are just two ideas. There are certainly other Messianic groups and individuals out there writing new, relevant and unique music. If you or someone you know has written something, please send us a sample, a MySpace link or a demo CD. We would love to be able to listen to your music and encourage you in your artistic pursuits.
No, Messianic music is not dead. Together let’s imagine what it looks like to have a new group of artists reshaping the way we think about Messianic music and speaking to a new generation of Jewish people.
- Stuart Dauermann, Introduction to Avodat Yeshua (San Francisco: Purple Pomegranate Productions, 1991).
- Enoch Wan and Tuvya Zaretsky, Jewish-Gentile Couples: Trends, Challenges and Hopes (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2004), pp. 12–13, citing the 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey and the 2000–01 National Jewish Population Survey.
- See the previous issue of Havurah on Jewish-Asian couples
- You can read Ceil’s story here.