The Future of Jewish Sacred Music
Where are we going with the music of prayer of our Reform synagogues? Does some larger cultural process exist within the contemporary Jewish community that somehow will predetermine our sacred music as it develops into the next century?
Although the numbers of affiliated Jews are diminishing, due largely to our successful assimilation, an inner core of synagogue regulars—those who religiously attend our services and "keep the fires burning" within our communities—is thriving. Enthusiasm is flowering among those seriously committed to synagogue life. They exhibit impressive vigor and passion for prayer, study and social activism. They take our adult education courses, attend kallot (study retreats), learn to read from the Torah and sing in our volunteer choirs. Some are so hungry for involvement, learning and spirituality that they even join synagogue committees!
These regulars have wholeheartedly expressed their desire to sing within the service. We cantors have responded to their call for inclusion by finding ways to sing with them, rather than for them at every possible opportunity. Let us first try to understand the underlying sociological, psychological or spiritual reasons for their desire to participate actively in the service. They tell us that they feel welcomed and accepted within our community when we invite them to sing with us. Moreover, singing prayers has become their entrance into Jewish ritual life as well as their gateway into learning Jewish sacred texts. Through singing Hebrew or English words, made possible either by soaring melody or simple nusach (prayer modes), they feel empowered to pray as Jews, in a way that undeniably links them with the larger Jewish community and affirms their Jewish identity. Singing gives them the sacred key which allows their access to Jewish sacred tradition. If the regulars are giving us this message, we can only imagine how first timers feel!
Our future will include ever more communal singing within our synagogues. Today we join singing the melodic refrains within large, complex compositions for cantor, choir, instruments and congregation. In such settings of rich, sophisticated harmony and several layers of melodic counterpoint, modern composers often include sections with lyric melodies. From the first hearing, congregants can easily relate to these accessible moments and eventually enjoy the more challenging sections as well.
What are the musical elements of congregational song and how will this song develop? Which styles are timeless and which will disappear with the next stylistic wave? I believe that we will see a gradual increase in traditional chant within our services. Cantors will teach us to chant some of the liturgy in nusach, whether in Hebrew or English. In addition, we will continue to implement various ethnic traditions within Jewish sacred music. We have discovered the Chasidic niggun, Sephardic melody, and we are rediscovering Yiddish music and culture. We are experimenting with Middle Eastern and Yemenite traditional music. Secular American styles too have permeated our contemporary musical idiom. In short, we are broadening our definition of contemporary liturgical music by incorporating various musical traditions, ancient to modern, from across the Jewish spectrum. Our artistry will be proven as we attempt to integrate this rich, diverse mix into an artistically cohesive whole!
How do we create a fluid, musically-sound, and spiritually-meaningful service? What will be the balance of styles? Is our music to become fully participatory? Will the pendulum swing so far toward inclusivity that we exclude music requiring the performance by a cantor and a professional choir and instrumentalists? We must first consider a larger perspective. What dynamics affect our choices of particular musical styles? Jews today want to feel both welcomed and empowered to participate within the service. They have sought out the synagogue for communal gatherings. They come perhaps to find solace, or to meet friends. They come, in some way, to meet God. Many are burdened by the mundaneness of their lives and yearn for meaning and purpose to nourish their minds and calm their souls. What kind of prayer will speak to them? How will the music help them on their spiritual path?
We need to understand clearly what occurs within music itself that creates a sense of prayerfulness. If we could scientifically break down sacred music to isolate various moods of prayer, perhaps we could perceive how certain prayer experiences directly relate to particular musical expressions. We have spent too much energy defending particular musical styles as if the music were the end in itself. Let us instead develop a new vocabulary of sacred music that will focus on the unique phenomena at the intersection of prayer and music.
Here are descriptions of three distinct kinds of prayer. Even though the following terms appear simplistic, perhaps they will help us discuss synagogue music beyond purely musical categories.
Our first mood is Majestic: That which evokes within us a sense of awe and grandeur. A classic example is the music of the First and Second Temple periods. The Levites, with full choir and orchestra, assembled a magnificent offering suited only for God. What is our equivalent of majesty in musical prayer? Our liturgical texts certainly intend to inspire such passion on a regular basis. Look at the texts of the Torah service, Kedushah, Adon olam , Shema, or Hashkiveinu, not to mention our High Holy Day and festival liturgy. When are we ever so moved within our service as to sense the majesty implicit in so many of our prayers? How can we create awe and grandeur when inclusivity has become the hallmark of our age?
Our second mood is Meditative: That which leads us inward, toward reflective, contemplative prayer. It is to know the "still small voice" within ourselves, the one that often eludes us. Consider the Silent Prayer, "May the Words," Mi shebeirach, even Kol nidrei. Is our liturgical music conducive to moments of genuine meditation?
Our third mood is Meeting: Moments in which we become aware of the larger community and literally meet other souls through prayer. When all voices join to create a resounding chorus of prayer, when every voice contributes its sound to the entire whole, a new expression of prayer is born. Even among strangers, we sense both a personal and a spiritual connection with those with whom we pray. Imagine a seder table when everyone joins to sing a blessing or song. We have so many opportunities to create "meeting moments" within our liturgy: When the Torah is taken from the ark, or at the beginning or end of a section of the service, or on Yom Kippur. Whether majestic or meditative—whatever the musical style—the meeting of voices defines this type of prayer.
These "three M's" of prayer just begin to address the many subtleties of the dramatic and musical nuances inherent in sacred music. Invariably there are overlaps, for the boundaries between majestic, meeting and meditative easily blur, but that does not lessen the distinct function of each mood within a service. This separating of prayer experiences reminds us to focus upon the larger process of what prayer does, rather than solely upon the repertoire we choose. We will never get beyond our disagreements about musical style! Sacred music nurtures meaningful, honest prayer, whether or not the music we ultimately choose satisfies our artistic selves. The real test is whether our sacred music satisfies our spiritual selves, as individuals and as a community. To me, a successful service offers a healthy combination of all three moods of prayer to express an array of three paths toward knowing God.
Today our people call out to be included. They ask us to enrich their sense of meeting. Whether they know it or not, they do not wish to abandon either the majestic or the meditative moods of prayer. Ultimately these three moods succeed when they complement and balance one another. When a part of the whole is not fulfilling our communal needs, however, we must examine the effectiveness of that part and its relationship to the whole. Do we offer an array of paths to God in which all can appreciate? Does our music express the affective moods of our sacred texts? If we assess our meeting moments, both at specific times and within the entire service, perhaps we can determine how our music can encourage a sense of welcome and empowerment, even amidst a fully balanced range of moods and styles. Let us make a correlation, then, between our prayers and their most vivid musical expressions. Let us do this as individuals, and then with our community. I hope that our prayers will continue to uncover the majesty within the Godly world around us and the intimacy of our sacred relationship with the Divine. I pray that we meet one another, both in honest debate and in the prayers we sing.
Cantor Schiller is Professor of Cantorial Arts at the Brookdale Center of HUC-JIR in New York City.