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Pray the Music or Pray the Words

Pray the Music or Pray the Words

by Cantor Kim Harris
Temple Beth-El, Northbrook, Illinois

In our "old" prayerbook, Sha'arei T'fillah - Gates of Prayer, that siddur which we fondly call "Gates of Blue," there is a particular English reading that has always intrigued me:

If our prayer were music only, we could surely sing our way into the world we want, into the heaven we desire. Each would put his own words to the melody; from every song would pour a hundred different prayers. But our past has taught us words, and though we pray the music, we cannot always pray the words. The words do not always speak for us, nor can we always understand them...
Sha'arei T'fillah - Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook
p. 247

Though only an excerpt of the entire reading, these few lines have always given me pause. What is the liturgist trying to say? Is fixed prayer more important than the spontaneous prayer of the heart? Is it incumbent upon us to connect to our traditions of the past, even though we sometimes question their relevance? Perhaps the reading speaks to our difficulty in bonding with prayers whose words we do not know, or to our feeling that words we pray are archaic - written for another time, another place, and another people.

Of late I have been pondering the worship services at my congregation - considering our various offerings and how our congregants respond to them. What is it that attracts the "regulars" whose faces I see every week, regardless of what kind of service is happening? Why do others attend only when there is a specially-baited hook? As the cantor, I receive comments about services that span the gamut of opinion, most of which make me feel valued and loved, and that my endeavor to create sincere, meaningful, and spiritual worship is appreciated and successful. There is the occasional comment, however, which can cause me to feel completely dispensable and inadequately-equipped to give my congregation the prayer experience for which they are yearning.

As a cantor, a chazan, charged with communicating the meanings of our prayers through music and entrusted with the holy task of leading my congregation to God, I take the words of the prayers and their musical settings very seriously. As I am singing or chanting, I am constantly considering the Hebrew and focusing intently on the best way to demonstrate its meaning. Some musical settings make this task very easy, for the composer or songwriter has truly embraced the words and has crafted a musical setting aptly befitting those words. Other musical settings make my job more challenging, for the music does not elucidate the meaning of the text at all. I strive for authenticity in my work, longing to remain true to our ancient words and musical heritage, while also bringing in new kinds of music and contemporary modes of worship. The challenge comes in trying to craft a cohesive service that represents not only a unified clergy vision, but that also includes music and readings that will touch each worshipper at some point during the service. Most everyone agrees that music is an integral part of worship, but there is no consensus as to what kinds of music are best.

I sometimes hear, "If we brought in a rock band like they do at Temple XYZ, we'd get lots of people." I can't help but translate that as, "YOUR music is not meaningful for us. It's boring." I love clapping, swaying, dancing, and singing, too - very much. After I've led and participated in such services, however, and when I hear of the desire to have "Rock n' Roll Shabbat," I struggle with the following questions: What is it that we like about such services? What it is that we are really craving? Are we striving to connect to the Divine or are we reminiscing about the music of our youth? Are we at prayer or are we seeking entertainment? Are we praying the words? Are we praying the music? Are we even praying at all? The Psalms tell us to praise God with lute, harp, drum and cymbals and to come into God's presence with singing. Isn't that what "Rock n' Roll Shabbat" accomplishes? To me, it does not. We have the instruments and we have the singing, but it is the praising of God that is missing.

A story is told of the Ba'al Shem Tov and a poor, ignorant little shepherd boy. The boy happened to wander into the synagogue after hearing all of the praying and singing. Desperate to offer his praise and thanks to God and to pray like everyone else, the boy who knew no Hebrew could think of nothing to do but to sound notes on his flute. The worshippers began to complain that the boy was interrupting their prayers, but the Chassidic master said to them, "This boy's song is worth more than all of our prayers combined because it comes from his heart. We are engaged in a routine, while he is truly speaking to God." In response to rabbinical criticism about the singing of niggunim (songs without words), the Ba'al Shem Tov said: "The temple of a melody is higher than all other temples, and if a melody without words can lift the soul to greater heights, does it matter who plays it? The important thing is the intention of the heart."

Naomi Levi in her book To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times also acknowledges that prayer can be music when we don't know the words, but there is still the necessary component of intention. She writes: "Our prayers needn't be elaborate or formal, but they do have to be a deliberate reaching outward toward God and a deliberate reaching in toward our deepest honesty."

The word for "to pray" in Hebrew is l'hitpaleil, a reflexive verb literally meaning "to judge oneself" with the connotation also of "intervention." When we pray, therefore, whether we are saying the words or singing the Hebrew, singing only "la la la," or playing an instrument, clapping, or dancing, there must be some element of "stop, look, and listen" - stop what you are doing, look within yourself and listen to your heart. The most important aspect of any prayer service, no matter by whom it is led or with what instrumentation it is accompanied, is the introspection it provides, the moments we get to spend looking inside ourselves, and the moments in which we look outward for God.

To me, successful and meaningful worship is not about how many people we bring in, although it's amazing how the energy and the willingness to let ourselves relax and participate changes when the room is filled. It's not about gimmicks, hooks, and entertainment. It is not about feeling like we are back at camp or back in high school, nor should it be an experience like going to the theatre or the opera. Good worship and good worship music is that which enables us to connect to God, to ourselves and to our community. It should not be used to get us into the door nor to entertain us, although those things may certainly happen. It ought to be thought-provoking and emotive. It should enable us to celebrate God and express our thanks for our many blessings. It must be humbling and exalting. It should be uplifting, meditative, mournful, joyful. It should be holy and create holy moments within us. It should make us feel that we are in a sacred space and that our feet are standing on holy ground.

At my congregation we have a wonderfully-talented corps of lay-instrumentalists (guitars, bass, viola and clarinet) which adds contemporary beat and flavor while maintaining an authentically-Jewish sound. Our band is comprised of our own caring and dedicated congregants. To me, that they ARE congregants carries great meaning. We also have an adult choir whose members lead us in prayer with heart, soul, and spirit. Without worshippers, however, neither they, nor I, can fulfill our holy task.

Come, let us sing a new song, but let it be a new song unto God. Sing with us. Clap with us. Sway with us. Worship with us. Pray the music, pray the words, but pray with us.

Published: 6/03/2011

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