Finding God Through Non-Jewish Music

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Last week in my review of Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s book, Empowered Judaism, I wrote about how I’ve never had the kind of spiritually invigorating prayer experience that drives Elie. My exact words were, “I never feel that kind of passion, mystery, and awe when I’m in shul. Even at Hadar.”

I have been thinking about that all week, and about how sad that is. And I was wondering if maybe I’m just not meant to be a spiritual davener. As I walk (or ride my bike) around New York, thinking and listening to music, it occurred to me that I frequently have what I would consider to be spiritual, or near-spiritual experiences while listening to music–but that music is almost never in Hebrew, or about Jewish themes.

Around Rosh Hashanah we at MJL wrote about the secular songs that function as our own personal shofars, music that wakes something up inside of us. That’s among my favorite things I’ve written this year, and it’s indicative of how much I love to discover and listen to new music, and how I use music to help guide me through life. I easily listen to music for six hours a day, and it tends to be in those moments, when I’m walking down the street, with a new or important beat in my ears, that I feel most at one with the universe, and with God.

I wonder if I pray by listening to music–but not Jewish music.

Now, to a certain extent, this question is irrelevant. When I want to pray, I go to shul, even knowing that it won’t give me any kind of intensely spiritual experience. But this week I realized, maybe for the first time, that when I’m trying to feel gratitude, when I’m trying to express pain or sorrow, or when I want to rejoice in the beauty of the world, I turn to music.

So, just for fun, and maybe even for spirituality, here are some songs I’ve been praying with.

Ai Du, by Ali Farka Toure is one of my top five favorite songs in the world. It’s sexy and sad and intricate and makes me think of the man who introduced me to Farka Toure’s music in my senior year of high school. Because this song is in a language I don’t understand it (and I don’t even know what language it’s in–Farka Toure sang in several languages) it’s not the lyrics that speak to me, it’s the unbelievably fine blues guitar playing. The version in the video below is played by Toure’s son, Vieux, who does a brilliant job, but I highly recommend buying Talking Timbuktu, the original album. It’s by far the most treasured album I own.