The Power of Song to Link Jewish World's East and West

Philosopher Meir Buzaglo says Jewish liturgical music embodies a universality and openness that should be reflected in contemporary Israeli society.

It was midday on Yom Kippur, 1973. As in previous years, excitement was building around the small synagogue serving one of Israel’s Moroccan communities. To be among the lucky ones who would attend services on the Day of Judgment, people had come from all parts of the country. In fact, many had already arrived the day before the holiday, and slept on the ground outside in the hope of enjoying what would be for some the opportunity of a lifetime: the privilege on this solemn day of hearing the cantor, the renowned paytan Rabbi David Buzaglo. (A paytan is a person who sings or composes piyyutim, lyrical works that are usually of a liturgical and poetic nature, which accompany prayers and other religious rituals).

Rabbi Buzaglo, who was then 70 years old, had been invited that year, as in the past, to imbue the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy with an added element of spiritual uplift. In his birthplace, Morocco, huge crowds of Jews and Arabs would come to hear him execute the nuances of Andalusian music. His expertise was known throughout the Arab world and brought throngs to hear him both on Yom Kippur, and throughout the year even in Morocco’s remote Jewish communities, which he made a point of visiting, in contrast to other paytanim.

Meir Buzaglo - Emil Salman - April 25, 2012
Emil Salman

On that particular Yom Kippur in 1973, at 2 P.M., his voice cracked; asking that someone take over from him, he said he could not continue in his role of cantor.
“My father’s appearance during that Yom Kippur service effected a transformation in every individual,” recalls his son, Dr. Meir Buzaglo, today. “There are some people who experience what the Jewish people experience in their very bones and with unbounded intensity. When my father heard that war had broken out on that day, he simply could not continue singing. In Morocco, Jews were never killed in wars. Over there, Jews never fought on the battlefield; they only sang bakashot (songs of supplication, which are part of special early-morning winter prayers) and recited the weekly Torah portion. Suddenly, here Jews were being killed in warfare.

“My father saw himself within the context of centuries of Diaspora Jewish existence. He saw the Jewish people in cosmic terms and was deeply affected by whatever his people experienced. There are some people like that. After 1973, my father didn’t resume cantorial duties in the synagogue on Yom Kippur; he grew steadily weaker and finally succumbed to a variety of ailments. Two years later, he died.”

Buzaglo - April 25, 2012

Meir Buzaglo, who was born in Morocco in 1959, grew up in a home suffused with music: piyyutim; hundreds of traditional Hebrew texts set to music by his father; a mixture of sacred and non-sacred music; a blend of Jewish, Muslim and Jewish-Muslim melodies.

“Father would take popular songs and ‘convert’ them to Judaism. Students would come to prepare for singing the songs of supplication in winter, and all self-respecting singers would come to sing and listen to the others sing.
“My brother Shalom, who was my mentor, made sure that I also heard rock ‘n roll, top-quality English rock, as well as the sound-tracks of Indian movies. Different types of music express different aspects of the soul. Whoever sings well is on top of the world. People like Aviv Geffen, Naomi Shemer, Kobi Peretz. Those who can sing well are in a special category. Plato says: ‘When modes of music change, the laws of the state always change with them.’ The reason is that music is the soul of a nation. Clothes and food might be the outward signs of a culture, but a nation’s soul is in its music.

“Profound change will never occur if music does not change. Look at the Zionist movement, for instance, which arose on the wave of a major musical phenomenon. The ethos changes when the music changes. Without jazz, Barack Obama would never have become president of the United States ... Music is the soul of a place; it is both a messenger and an agent of change.”

Buzaglo is a senior lecturer in the Hebrew University’s philosophy department; he has degrees in mathematics, physics and the philosophy of science, and his doctoral thesis was on the 18th-century Jewish philosopher Salomon Maimon. Over the years, he has received among other things a Fulbright scholarship, a Hebrew University citation for excellence in teaching, and a three-year scholarship from the Israel Science Foundation.

The articles and books he has either written himself or edited deal with various aspects of philosophy, logic, the connection between language and mathematics, and medieval thought. The music he absorbed at home, and which has become an integral part of his life, has played an important role in his philosophical thought as well as his approach to sociopolitical issues.

“Conflict between parties can be along the lines of what was depicted in the movie ‘Avatar,’” says Buzaglo, “but it can also take place between parties that share a common essence, in which case there is the possibility of peaceful resolution. Music is one of the central components in the kind of Jewish-Arab friendship we would like to see. The prayer book of Moroccan Jews contains the phrase, ‘We begin when we hear the prayers in the mosque.’ This embodies the ability to see the ‘other.’ It boils down to being aware that the muezzin is calling his fellow Muslims to prayer services. This surpasses the idea of ‘building bridges’ or looking only at the economic dimension [of conflict]: It is the ability to open your eyes.

“Army generals represent an approach where you simply have no respect for your rival, where you see how alien your rival is. However, when you respect your enemy, you perform more effectively on the battlefield. The musical connection helps to clean your eyeglasses and removes the cataracts. Your vision improves when you can see someone like [Moroccan-born Andalusian singer] Rabbi Haim Louk, for example, a Jew who proudly displays the fringes of his tallit katan [prayer fringes worn under the shirt], who sings together with Muslims at the music festivals in Morocco, in the city of Fez.”

“Obviously,” Buzaglo continues with a smile, “I do not believe that music can cure all our ills. I am not that naive. However, when people talk about sowing the seeds of peace, music can have a powerful effect. Just try to think about Syria through the image of singer Sabah Fakhri [a renowned singer of traditional Arabic music]: Now there is a way of opening a different channel to Syria and the Syrian nation. [Similarly] when you are familiar with Persian music, it is much harder to look at Iran in demonic terms.”

‘Social transformer’

As Prof. Haviva Pedaya of the department of Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University has noted, Meir Buzaglo, because he is not only a philosopher but also the son of Rabbi David Buzaglo, feels he has a mission to be a “social transformer,” to repair societal rifts, and undo the destruction of the cultural continuum that occurs when people move to a new country. He wants to open the “time capsule” that his father represented, to reveal the treasure hidden inside, so it can be passed on and can benefit Israeli society as a whole.

Rabbi Buzaglo, who wrote hundreds of piyyutim in Hebrew and (Moroccan) Arabic, and sometimes in both combined, contributed significantly to the rehabilitation of Moroccan Jewish culture in Israel among immigrants, most of whom experienced a major crisis upon their arrival here in the early decades of the state.
In 1965, after he himself had immigrated, Buzaglo began to visit these communities; already a legend in his own lifetime, he helped to breathe new life into them. His mastery of the tradition of the piyyut especially of the “Shir Yedidot” corpus, which he learned by heart because of the blindness he was struck with beginning at age 45, was a major factor in the revival of the tradition of songs of supplication among these communities.

His son Meir has continued and even augmented this activity by playing a key role in launching two large-scale musical and social projects of a traditional Jewish nature, both of which have had a major impact. These are Kehilot Sharot (“Singing Communities,” or choral groups) whose members perform piyyutim around the country, and the Hazmana Lepiyyut (Invitation to Piyyut) website (, which has become an invaluable encyclopedic archive.

The term “piyyut” is used in various contexts. What exactly is it?

Meir Buzaglo: “’Lecha dodi’ [sung on Friday evening to welcome the Sabbath] is a piyyut, as is ‘Dror yikra leven im bat,’ which is sung at the Sabbath table. A piyyut is a text that is sung. In it a special bond is formed between the words and the melody, and thus a new mode of expression is created. The piyyut constitutes a unique category in itself. It is unlike a Hebrew song, because the text of a piyyut cannot exist without its melody. Aristotle explains that an arm that has been severed from the body is no longer an arm, that it is an arm only by virtue of its connection with the body. The words of a piyyut without its melody is like a soul without a body, or like a body without a soul.

“The piyyut is not a sacred song, because it is not liturgy. Although it is sung in the synagogue, it also permeates other texts. It is located in the twilight area between the sacred and the profane: You can speak of a great paytan, but you cannot always call that person a great cantor. A piyyut has other dimensions. For instance, it is a familiar part of all Jewish traditions. ‘Lecha Dodi’ is sung in India, in Morocco, in Oriental Jewish communities and in Ashkenazi ones.

“Another dimension is the context. Piyyutim are integrally linked to special moments or times, such as the Sabbath, the brit mila [circumcision] ceremony, and Tisha B’Av [the fast of the Ninth of Av], when dirges are chanted in the synagogue. Yet another dimension is the congregation or audience: A piyyut is invariably sung in public and only achieves its proper standing if sung before and accepted by an audience if it is a part of their way of life. The piyyut is characterized by a generous amount of naivete.

“There is a crucial difference between a paytan and a cantor, as well as between a paytan and a singer. The tension between the paytan and the rabbi or between the paytan and the cantor is similar to the tension between a person who acts spontaneously and someone who must fulfill an official function. Whereas the singer is connected to the general culture of the masses, the paytan belongs to a single, united community and leads that community. Furthermore, the paytan’s world is the world of Torah and fear of God.”

If that is the case, what is the importance of the piyyut outside its community?

“It is also a key to understanding the Hebrew language, its nuances and its layers. It is a key to understanding Jewish history and to understanding people’s connection with Israel. Moreover, it has the ability to protect people from shallowness and bestial behavior, and to create common denominators that unite us without undermining our identity. It opens a space between religious commitment and culture, and shows that, within the religious experience, there are other figures besides the rabbi or posek [legal decisor].

“Tradition has mechanisms of self-healing, and the piyyut is one of them. For instance, the issue of the exclusion of women from the public sphere: You do not have to be anti-religious to protest against the exclusion of women. Piyyutim, in whose singing women always participate, embody the power to generate tremendous change regarding this issue. Israeli society’s rejection and neglect of the piyyut amounts to a great artistic loss and reflects an attitude that is part of an old Israeli ethos.

“I don’t want to diminish [the late songwriter] Naomi Shemer’s stature, and it should be pointed out that she is not to blame for the erasure of the Mizrahi culture ... There are always ‘zealots’ who see music as a problem and will always wage war on it but we do not want to make life easy for them.”

‘Let oblivion erase them’

David Buzaglo was already 60 when his son Meir was born; the rabbi died 15 years later. His father did not make life easy for Meir when it came to preserving the culture the elder Buzaglo helped to create and that he represented.

“It did not matter to him that he might be forgotten and he was not afraid of being poor,” his son explains. “That is why he wrote nothing down. He would say that he did not believe that his words deserved to be printed and published. Moreover, he would declare: ‘One must let oblivion erase them.’”

Adds Meir Buzaglo: “People would try all sorts of tricks to get him to sing. He was always reluctant.”

One of the great documenters of Rabbi David Buzaglo’s piyyutim is Rabbi Meir Attia, who preserved his piyyutim against Rabbi Buzaglo’s wishes. “Everything he composed,” recalls Rabbi Attia, “was intended for a particular moment. It was as if these compositions were something he did offhandedly. We ‘stole’ his piyyutim without his noticing, and we collected them, even though he himself never thought of publishing them.”

David Buzaglo was also vigorously opposed to having his piyyutim recorded. Fortunately, a few recordings of him singing have survived recordings made without his knowledge. They have been collected in a CD published by Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People. Even those who are unfamiliar with the style of Moroccan Jewry’s piyyutim will be amazed when they hear this CD.

‘My parents’ world’

A significant part of Meir Buzaglo’s writing and thought, as expressed in his 2008 book “A Language for the Faithful: Reflections on Tradition,” published in Hebrew by Keter and the Mandel Foundation, is devoted to the question of how the dichotomy between “religious Jew” and “secular Jew” can be eliminated and how room can be made for another kind of Judaism in the context of contemporary Israeli existence. His solution: to transcend these two definitions with the help of the term “traditional Jew.”

In Buzaglo’s view, the traditional Jew is one who embodies the religious culture his own parents transmitted to him. He has willingly accepted and adheres to it with loyalty, neither rebels against it or suspects its authenticity. At the same time, he is not prepared to dismiss rationalism, nor is he afraid of taking a critical approach, because he understands there is a gap between generations.

In an interview in the magazine Eretz Acheret, in 2000, Buzaglo said: “I am loyal to other values as well: respect for scientific truth, respect for other human beings, recognition of women’s rights. I am aware that my parents’ world never knew the dangers of racism or the struggle against oppression. My parents never had to deal with the option of fighting back nor did they grow up in the tradition of Western democracy, which has its advantages and drawbacks.

“Traditional Jews are threatened on both flanks: Both religious and secular Jews do not see them as partners. Whereas secular Jews see traditional Jews as individuals who are on their way to ultra-Orthodoxy, religious Jews see them as individuals mired in guilt, who live in their parents’ shadow and have still not severed the umbilical cord. The idea that a traditional form of Judaism could resolve this dispute is an alternative to the idea of choosing one of the two poles, religious versus secular Judaism. This is not a third grouping in Judaism but instead a concept that transcends these two.

“The tensions are painful. On the one hand, there is the shrinking of Judaism into nationalism, Torah study or the idea of the Land of Israel; on the other hand, there is the rejection of Judaism by those Israelis who regard it as an unnecessary burden.
“That is why I am busy right now with an initiative for the establishment of a new movement, Tikkun [literally, repair or reform], which speaks about a relevant Judaism that includes a renewed understanding of Jewish commitment, and its connection with the issues and concerns facing contemporary Israeli society, such as education, social gaps and the character of the Sabbath.

“The Tikkun movement, with the encouragement of the Matanel Foundation, seeks to grapple with the fact that the old ethos that was ‘written’ when the State of Israel was being established must be revised in accordance with today’s needs. A truly fascinating challenge is whether it is possible to combine sovereignty with Judaism’s universal values: Is it possible, in the spirit of Maimonides, for instance, to consider the founding of the Jewish state as merely the initial stage, as a station along the road to making the universal voice in Judaism heard?”

What do you mean by Judaism’s “universal” dimension?

“Man, who was created in God’s image, justice, interpersonal relations, the relationship toward time vis-a-vis the image of the Sabbath, the supreme importance of the value of education, the shattering of the false gods of consumption, careerism simply for the sake of careerism and empty competition. The state must also be given the place it deserves; in itself, it is not a supreme value. In short, [the universality can be seen in] everything we forgot when we identified Judaism with nationalism or with a strict adherence to the religious laws as set down in the Shulhan Arukh [code of Jewish law].

“In the past, there were two schools of thought that became intertwined: the one advocated by Theodor Herzl and the other by Ahad Ha’am. To put it simply, it could be said that Herzl sought to save the Jews, but placed Judaism in parentheses, while Ahad Ha’am wanted to save Judaism and was less concerned about the Jewish people. Saving the Jews today demands a rethinking of ideological issues, and must include a clear link with Jewish tradition.”

Is a Jewish universalism possible in a state that, by its very nature, is intended only for Jews?

“Here is a fascinating challenge: How does one reconcile Jewish sovereignty or at least a situation of not being subject to the rule of others with Jewish universalism? A rejection of the dehumanization of the Palestinians and, at the same time, a relentless war against anyone who seeks to harm us? There must be no pandering: In my father’s music, for example, there is no pandering. There is security and there is nobility of spirit, while there is no waiving of professionalism because making concessions is what leads one to flattery, attempts to find favor in the eyes of others. In the Jewish-Arab world and it is important to know that there is such a thing, it is no oxymoron my father had two dimensions: He called the Arabs ‘our brothers,’ but on the other hand argued that we must fight our enemies.”

Mathematical education

Dr. Meir Buzaglo is currently active in teaching, researching and developing curricula for the fields of mathematics and logics. Earlier in his career, he served as an educator and teacher in the founding nucleus of Kedma, a organization dedicated to humanistic, egalitarian education in underprivileged neighborhoods and outlying towns, which founded a network of schools. As a university student, he was involved in the founding of such educational projects as Perach, a nationwide tutoring program dedicated to the advancement of students from underprivileged families.

Subsequently, Buzaglo and members of that group of students began to focus on teaching mathematics to children in socioeconomically deprived neighborhoods, as part of an enterprise called Maayanot. The students believed that if children failed in math in school it would be destructive in every respect negatively affecting both self-image and any hope for advancement in the future.

He explains that “when we can show grade 6 pupils who are considered total failures that, within only a few short days, they can solve questions appearing on a high-school matriculation exam, that generates a real change in their belief in themselves. They understand that, from then on, the sky is the limit.”

A subject of great interest to Buzaglo today is what he calls “language, hierarchy and accent.” He recalls that as a child, “We would participate in [Hebrew] language competitions organized by my mother and father, and I remember the compliments I received from them about my correct [gutteral] pronunciation of the letter kuf, not to mention het and ayin.”

He is angry that people have lost the ability to correctly pronounce these letters, over the years, and feels this has dealt a mortal blow to Hebrew. The language has become less rich, more prone to spelling errors, a loss of connection between and disappearance of certain words, learning difficulties, and the disappearance of its depth and refinement.

Buzaglo is principally concerned, however, with the political ramifications of this process: “Today, the [Mizrahi] guttural pronunciation of the letters het and ayin is used to mock people [in the media]; at best, it becomes a comic gesture and, at worst, this is a criminal act. The revival of Hebrew coincided with the melting-pot policy whose implementation totally led by non-Sephardic Jews entrenched one group’s hegemony while the other was defined as being dominated. Thus, two new identities were created: the Sephardic identity, involving a new structuring of the social reality in Israel, and the non-Sephardic that is, Ashkenazi.

“We live in the Middle East, and the State of Israel has both Jewish and Arab citizens,” continues Buzaglo. “Hebrew and Arabic should be brought closer together. A profound connection between them constitutes a resource for the possibility of Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel. The preservation of the guttural pronunciation of Hebrew letters can allow us to send forth deep roots into the earth of this enchanting country.”

And what is to be done in the meantime?

“The beauty of the piyyut has appointed me to be its emissary. The piyyut embraces everything: the Hebrew language and its treasures, Jewish existence and the Jewish experience, our connection with the Arab world and its culture, the shattering of the dichotomy between Judaism and Hebraism. It is possible to fight for the piyyut from the Sephardic standpoint or from a multicultural one; it is also possible to deviate from such standpoints.

“In the piyyut, deviation is possible because both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews display an interest in it, and both groups acknowledge it is part of their heritage. Interest in the piyyut should be, and is in fact, a clearly Israeli-Jewish issue. This development led me to gradually abandon the language of multiculturalism.”