Reflecting Back and Projecting Forward: A Look at the Music of Our Shabbat Services
Just as God's relationships with key characters in the Torah (e.g., Moses, our forefathers and foremothers) are unique, so are our relationships to Jewish music vastly different in the way we each respond, as sounds vibrate within us and echo through our souls.
There are many ways to approach the music of Shabbat. Some simply enjoy the melodies and musical motifs for their beauty, while others appreciate the messages that each melody conveys.
Some congregants like to sing in unison, with the melody likened to a single ray of light, expressing a song that taps into the memories of the Jewish people. Others prefer to sing in harmony, either from the choir or their seats. Like the single ray of light reflected through a prism and expanding all the hidden colors within, the harmony expands the melody like a tapestry of sound, allowing each voice its chance to have a unique relationship with the melody, with all voices working together to create a synergistic experience.
To sing in a choir is to plug your 'Self' into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. How many times have I heard "I can't sing" – followed by the empowerment that someone feels when their voice connects with the person next to them, and they allow themselves to get "lost" in the sound.
Our relationship to music is physical, intellectual, and emotional. In the V'ahavta, we are told to "love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your being." Even as listeners, if we are to let the music and the messages contained within it echo inside of us, we have to bring an open-hearted approach so it has the ability to speak to our spirit within.
The music of the Sabbath expresses a history through time and a reflection of our wanderings as a people all over the world. We see it in the most ancient chants with a "call and response" style suggested by the Psalms, to the chanting of our most sacred texts, using systems of cantillation during the Torah service. Chanting allows us to clarify interpretation, express grammar, and create the drama of the texts. More than a thousand years later, the MiSinai (literally "from Sinai") tunes were used as an integral part of a larger system of liturgical modes (musical scales) and melodies that not only emphasized key points within our texts, but also created, through Jewish music, the cycles of time that govern the hours, days, weeks, months, and seasons known as nusach.
Another practice, known as contrafaction, allowed for the "borrowing" of music from other traditions or cultures and interpreting them through a Jewish "lens" – taking something familiar and adapting it for sacred purposes. The Chassidim did this hundreds of years ago. More recently, contrafaction could be regularly heard at the URJ's Camp Harlam each time Bob Marley's "The Redemption Song" was thematically used in place of the Mi Chamocha prayer.
Over the past century, the use of music in the Reform movement has seen the evolution and permutation of music based on the cultural and aesthetics needs of the individual congregations. Peering through the doors, we can see many different musical practices used to heighten the joyful experience of Shabbat, ranging from the hymn-like singing of earlier "Classical" Reform congregations accompanied by an organ, to the use of liturgical modes such as nusach side-by-side with contemporary repertoire with guitar and drums.
Today, some of these musical systems exist only as remnants, with the threads of these complex systems still found throughout our music, waiting to be rewoven by new generations. All speak to the heart of the Jew and answer the need to feel connected to something greater – to those in the pews, to the history of the Jewish people, and to God.
Whether you are singing Craig Taubman's setting of L'chah Dodi, which expresses the joy of welcoming the Sabbath, or Lisa Levine's Mi Shebeirach, which reaches into our hearts with its almost mantra-like "Hear our Prayer," or chanting Torah and connecting yourself to a document that has linked the Jewish people together for millennia, live the music with every part of your being.
Mark Stanton is the Cantor of Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington Delaware and ordained from The Academy for Jewish Religion.