Bagpipes and Jews


The situation has almost reached a crisis.  Pipers in Scotland are worried that their craft will be compromised on two counts.  First, the making of bagpipes is becoming a lost art.  Most instruments are now being manufactured in China.   Increasingly, the ten thousand or so Scottish pipers must import them, leaving the future of a Scottish tradition in the hands of others.  And second, rather than using the traditional sheepskin as the bag through which air is forced over the reeds to make the uniquely nasal tones associated with the instrument, Chinese bagpipes are mass-produced out of synthetic material.  The synthetic bags are neither airtight nor capable of absorbing moisture from the piper’s breath, thus affecting the sound quality.  Roddy MacLeod, principal of the National Piping Centre in Glasgow, worries about the decline in standards of piping and the absence of excellence that will most surely characterize piping competitions.

Of course, to most of the world the future of piping does not rank high as matter of concern.  In fact, for those who find the drone of bagpipes annoying, the ultimate demise of piping might even be welcome.  But Jews ought to take note.  The future of Judaism in Canada is, in some ways, very much like the future of piping.  There are fewer and fewer Jews who care about preserving tradition.  Most will find that the modern and synthetic brands of Judaism available today are just fine.  They may not be the authentic articles but they are close enough.  So long as they sound about right and offer the familiar tunes Jews come to expect on holidays and at life-cycle events, that’s really all that matters. 

Today there are more and more Jewish schools – thanks to the proliferation of entrepreneurial institutions – teaching less and less about Judaism in less and less time.  The ideals of excellence in achievement and measurable competence in skills have largely been abandoned in favor of some ethereal notion of generating positive feelings about Judaism.   This goal is fostered through making learning fun for the students and not too inconvenient for their parents.  The net result is that the future of Judaism will rest in the hands of a generation that just might feel good about texts they cannot understand, a language they cannot read, a history they do not know, and a tradition they cannot appreciate.   

Further, the fact that Canada has – until now, with the founding of the Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School – no indigenous school for the training of rabbis, leaving that sacred task to others, parallels the outsourcing of the manufacture of bagpipes to China.  I would venture to say that the laborer in China tasked with making the instrument – without questioning his or her skill or diligence – does so without having the least knowledge or regard for Scottish tradition.  The Chinese laborer is interested only in the product.  The Scottish bagpipe-maker, however, is interested in the purpose.  Hence, greater care will be given to how and when the pipes will be used and the specific tones the pipes will be required to sound.  

Perhaps this anticipated crisis might serve to awaken Scots who care about tradition to reinvigorate the Scottish bagpipe industry.   At the same time, Jews in Canada now have the chance to support their own rabbinical school that will train rabbis with Canadian values in mind.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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