Saturday, March 3, 2012

Torah thoughts: Synagogue music defines our times and our souls

I know a day will come when I will be sitting with a bunch of people my own age, probably in an assisted living home, when I am past the time of working and listening to the music of my generation. That music hovered between the generation of Woodstock rock and pop music that followed in those tumultuous years. I can envision the humorous moment when my imaginary grandchildren sit beside me and tease me about the music I listen to calling it old fashioned. Yet how can I explain to them what that music meant to me? How can I help them imagine how that music defined the generation that pushed the boundaries of so many social conventions in American culture and fought back against a clearly unjust war we were fighting in South-East Asia? They probably will not grasp it as I might not grasp the music of their times.

The music does define us in terms of memory and in relation to our sense of community.  So it is with the ancient Israelites. What music did the children of Israel sing when they dedicated the Tabernacle? The Torah portion Tzaveh describes the accoutrements that God commands the Israelites to construct in the first house of worship. As a matter of fact the Talmud speaks to the issue of musical instruments. ‘In the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and from the days of Moses, the rabbis teach that there was a flute and a cymbal made of bronze’ (B. Ar. 10b).  We have a sense of the priestly ritual and the musical instruments they used for communal worship inside the Tabernacle. But we do not know the actual music that put the words to song. What were their favorite melodies? What were the melodies they learned over 400 years in Egypt? Surely they must have borrowed many aspects of their way of life from Egyptian culture.  And, spiritual speaking, it should not surprise us if they adapted melodies they heard in the market or the sacred places of the Egyptian religion into their own new religion.

Maybe they did not borrow from Egypt. The point is that the music of a time and place gives us a sense of belongingness to something that is eternal. Is that what it is all about? Is there not a balance between the need to identify with our past and the knowledge that each generation sculpts its own vision of its culture?  Synagogue music is one example of the kind of topic that is challenging because we all represent different ages and geographical backgrounds as well as diverse religious orientations. Judaism has such a broad spectrum of religious practices originating from countries and civilizations from all over the world. As a matter of fact one of our greatest strengths has been our ability to adapt to changing circumstances inside the larger culture. Synagogue music traditions have adapted to the mainstream cultures where Jewish communities developed.
We have seen over the last century how Reform Judaism has adapted its music heritage to American culture and embraced a broad selection of choices of Jewish music. Just as the demography of the Reform movement changed, especially after World War Two, so too did the music. We grew in size and built hundred of temples. Our music started out sounding not altogether too different from our Christian counterparts in the liberal branches of Christianity. As secular culture in America grew in influence, it too inspired synagogue music. 
The last three decades of the 20th century has certainly transformed Reform Jewish music. The advent of women cantors and song leaders contributed to a much more diverse selection of music for our liturgy. As Reform Judaism embraced so many different constituencies based upon gender, sexual orientation, and  other branches of Judaism, can we expect anything but innovation in the music of the Temple or synagogue?
As a general rule for even liturgy and music the only constant rule here is that change is constant. There is a legitimate case to be made that we should cherish the melodies of the past. The issue is whose past? The songs I grew up with would not meet my spiritual needs today. Yet the music that defined me as a young adult is nowhere to be found today either. 

People say, “Rabbi I want the music I heard in the temple.” The problem is that such music is probably not the same music that many others in the same temple identify with as their music. So how much energy will we put into debating which authentic melodies that everyone supposedly loved when we face the reality that our assumptions are not accurate? Would it surprise anyone that this question of what are the authentic melodies will continue to be debated for the next generation and those after them?

Some of us identify with guitar music genre and others with a sound that is more complex in its musicality. Then we talk about chanting over singing and then comes the issue of participation of the congregation in the singing versus listening to the voice of a cantor or soloist to inspire us. We will be embarking upon a more proactive role towards reinvigorating our choir in the course of the upcoming months. Will that enrich our participation and will it establish new traditions for our congregation?
We understand that our congregants have different tastes about music and liturgy. Finding the right music is about selecting music that fits the tone of the prayer as well as fits the musical culture of the congregation. It is a religious chemistry test of mixing the right components that makes for an inclusive and inspiring service. It is not an easy matter.

So this is the reason why we decided tonight to confine our music to the Gates of Song. It was the book we used here at Congregation Bet Yam since the early nineties. We selected some of the beautiful music in that book even though not all might agree that these specific tunes are the exact ones we used to sing here. But it is from this collection of liturgical music that the clergy and volunteers used. We hope it is has given us comfort and warmth for the soul.

In some of the psalms on the Sabbath we sing “Shir Ladonai Shir Chadash” Sing unto the Eternal a New Song.” What does the phrase “sing a new song” mean for us today? Does it mean new instrumentality or music that reflects the times and culture in which Jewish communities live? Or does the effort that we produce from inside ourselves matter most of all?  The soul must sing if we are to have uplifting prayer. We have a responsibility to put out our best effort to summon from inside ourselves the fresh new approach to communal worship. Working for a meaningful worship experience is a challenge for us as individuals as well as for us as a community. It takes stretching of our heart and souls regardless what we are singing to share and compromise our expectations with others who have the same hopes and desires to hear the melodies of their past.

In 1978, I drove out to the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College to participate in a colloquium for potential Rabbinical students. Seated inside the majestic Plum Street Temple, the fifty or so participants met with the famous composer in residence at the College whose name is Bonia Shur. With his burly eye lashes and Latvian accent, he enchanted us with the spirituality of his music. He taught us the music he wrote, Yom Zeh L’Yisrael, which we sang as the processional tonight. I will never forget that music because when we sang it I gazed over to one of the participants who was a lovely young lady with blonde hair…Well I think we all know the rest of that story.
I always say that in the synagogue everything is personal. How much the more so when it comes to music.  
Shabbat Shalom

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