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How Music Can Help Us Make Connections in Difficult Times

How Music Can Help Us Make Connections in Difficult Times

The Hamilton craze is sweeping the nation, and even the Jewish community isn’t exempt. Case in point: Recently, at the annual convention of the American Conference of Cantors and the Guild of Temple Musicians, several cantors led a Shacharit (morning) service that included several prayers set to tunes from the smash hit by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

And it wasn’t the only secular music to take center stage. Just two days earlier, a few colleagues and I had led a Maariv (evening) service that included “Be Here Now” by Ray LaMontagne and “Grateful” by John Bucchino.

What is it that makes secular music useful and appropriate in a service setting? Or is it?

For me, the familiar strains of Hamilton made every cell in my body perk up, preparing me to participate in the service and connect with those on the bimah (pulpit) and with God. One of the show’s songs says we have no control over “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Hearing that text quoted in the context of the service as we moved into the Mourner’s Kaddish, I felt acutely aware of God’s hand and of the generations to come who will remember us when we’re gone.

For others, though, I suspect the tunes had a discomfiting effect. Contemporary songs can be viewed as an intrusion upon a prayerful moment, especially if we expect to hear ancient words and sacred melodies. Does that mean that their use is a mistake? 

I think not.  

To experience truly sacred moments in our lives, it is important that we occasionally be challenged, whether this challenge takes the form of a d’var Torah (interpretation of Torah), exploring a provocative passage in the parashah or weaving non-traditional music into the fabric of a worship service. When we move out of our comfort zones, we are energized to continue growing.

Meaningful t’filot (services) should be a beautiful and cohesive whole, allowing each person to achieve a moment in which he or she can feel closer to God. Just as we each learn differently, meaningful, sacred moments happen differently for each of us.

Therefore, in the same way one prepares lessons for all types of learners – kinesthetic, visual, and auditory – worship should include all types of music, since each person will connect most deeply to different pieces, whether from the classical Reform tradition, summer camps, chazzanut (traditional cantorial chant), modern liturgical works, or something unexpected, perhaps from outside our tradition. For some, their most engaged moments will occur when singing something familiar – loudly, strongly, and with the entire congregation. For others, God’s presence will be most palpable amidst beautiful reflective music, when they can hear the still small voice within.

According to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner:

“Prayer may ultimately be an exercise for helping us let go of our egos, hopelessly anchored to this world where one person is discrete from another and from God, and soar to the heavens where we realize there is a holy One to all being and that we have been an expression of it all along.”

Experiencing secular music in the synagogue may be an avenue toward this oneness, as we continue to reach for new ways to connect to God and to each other.

Never has this connection been more imperative than it is in today’s world, wrought as it is with hate, partisan in-fighting, isolationism, racial violence, and terrorism. Hallel means praise, but how do we praise God when Hallel is also a 13-year-old girl in Kiryat Arbah, murdered in her sleep by a terrorist? “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” I hold my daughter close every morning, praying that I can keep her safe for another day, in this world that feels ever scarier, ever more broken.

In these tumultuous times, our congregations must be places of solace and spirituality, where we support each other with the strength of community, challenge ourselves and each other to create sacred moments as we pray together with innovation, presence, and kavanah (intention), and remain active in tikkun olam (repairing the world). Only when we connect musically, spiritually, and physically to the world beyond our walls, can we fully connect with each other and with God.

Cantor Rachel Gottlieb Kalmowitz serves Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, MI. In a career filled with music of many genres, she seeks to create sacred moments and holy relationships with and for her congregants and community. Her most significant relationships are with her husband, Carey, and daughter, ilana.

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