With thanks to Eli Berger, who wanted me to write something about Jewish aesthetics.
If live music can stir our emotions and slichos is meant to be an emotional prayer connecting us with our creator, it might seem like being against a band at slichos is pure stodgy contrarianism.
But the truth is, unsurprisingly, more complicated. The reactionary distaste for live music at what is meant to be a mere prayer service like any other has nothing to do with the way non-Orthodox Judaism uses instruments or even with the music being a distraction from prayer. We all know that musical instruments were used in the Beit Hamikdash, and very few of us have powerful emotional attachments to the grief of exile that we will only listen to instruments in a Jewish context when the Third Temple is rebuilt.
No, the objection to a band at slichos has to do with authenticity and reflects a deep existential dissatisfaction. The question is: Were we robbed, or weren’t we?
The Jews who want a band to play their slichos feel like even if they were robbed, there was still something left over. Even if the thieves came in the night and took, with the Temple, with prophecy, with our innocence, our true love and fear and G-d, and we sat mostly bereft, they did not take everything. We still have something left. If we go to slichos and hear the music and are moved, that motion of the heart and soul is good and true and G-dly, it’s what He wanted, and our slichos is only enhanced.
The Jews whose noses curl up at live music at slichos feel, deep in their hearts, because of a certain painful honesty, that they were robbed to the last slipper and have nothing left. Band or no, they have nothing to place before their creator at slichos, not really. They will certainly try, but their efforts will always be insufficient. We have been living purely off of G-d’s mercy for some time now. No, all that’s left for us, even in these powerful prayer services, are the widow’s empty vessels. We work our lathes in the long dark, we go through the same motions. We hammer out the slichos, one word at a time. One day, we will have oil to pour into them. The oil is nothing but ourselves, if we can find it. But a live band won’t help us find it. We still have the tunes, the words to arouse passion, which are part of the nusach. But to think that a bit more music will push it over the top and invoke the miracle of Elisha? No.
The Jews who would have a band think this is defeatist thinking, the intellectual shtetl, the exile inside. They’d say that these traditionalists aren’t even trying.
The traditionalists will reply that, on the contrary, we’re the only ones who are still trying. It is these vessels that will hold the oil, whole and complete, needing no decoration. They are what will survive, passed on hand to hand in the cold. Only these plain vessels will ever make it back into the light.