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Music in Worship Today

We are living in a time of transition—a time of a renewed burst of creative energy around Jewish music. People finally "get" the importance of music in worship. They may not agree as to how that music should sound or how that music should be “performed,” but most people agree that music is crucial to the prayer life of a congregation.

There was a time when people yearned to be spoken to and sung to. People who lived in New York flocked to Carnegie Hall to hear great orators like Rabbi Stephen Wise and great cantors like David Kousevitsky. They were uplifted and inspired by these experiences, which allowed them to transcend their mundane, day-to-day existence.

Times are different now. Today people want to be involved in a very different way. They quite literally want a voice in prayer. They want to be able to sing the sacred texts. As my friend and colleague Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller states, “Singing gives them the sacred key that allows their access to Jewish sacred tradition.” (Benjie Ellen Schiller, “The Many Faces of Jewish Sacred Music ” quoted in Synagogue 2000 Itinerary for Change: Prayer, Los Angeles, CA 2002, page 6-18.)

Rabbis and cantors alike are responding to this hunger for empowerment by offering their laity opportunities to study Hebrew, lead t’filah (worship), chant from the Torah and sing along in prayer. Cantors are needing to think about the keys that they are singing in and the accessibility of the melodies they select. Our seminaries are thinking about the training that our rabbinic and cantorial students are receiving to help them prepare for this new breed of congregant. In the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College, guitar is now required for all cantorial students. Another required course has been added to the cantors’ curriculum entitled “Understanding and Empowering the Congregational Voice.”

How better to encourage congregational participation than through the music? We see the creation of special worship service models where congregational singing is the norm. Some congregations learn to expect this particular type of service as the first Shabbat of every month. Others exist weekly as an alternative minyan. Some are created with very little spoken text—one melody is followed by another, sometimes woven together by a story offered by the rabbi. People are empowered, involved and engaged. Many speak of these Shabbat experiences as the highlight of their week.

Of course, not everyone wants to participate in this way. Some, in fact, find this kind of worship to be somewhat imposing and would far prefer to listen. Some are uncomfortable with the expectation of participation. They miss the more traditional melodies usually sung solo by the cantor. This presents a challenge for the clergy and lay leadership. How do we respect the needs of all of our congregants? How do we create an inclusive community, where everyone’s prayer needs can be honored? It is not so easy to accomplish. Some congregations feel that by offering a monthly menu of services that include a different style each week, all congregational needs will be met. Others feel that they need to offer multiple minyanim that meet simultaneously every week to address all needs on every Shabbat. Needless to say, the staffing requirements for this kind of worship can be quite labor intensive, and for many congregations simply prohibitive.

Where Are We Headed?

We are living during a wonderfully opportune time. People finally understand the important role that music plays in our Jewish lives. We must listen, we must respond, we must educate and we must lead. The purpose of music in prayer is to deepen the prayer experience. We must take the emphasis off the particular music that is being sung and shift the focus to how well it serves each prayer experience. In order to meet the diverse needs of our communities, we must find an artful synthesis of the many Jewish musical styles available to us. We need to move prayerfully fromnusach (wordless liturgical melodies) to folk music to chazzanut, from participatory moments to listening moments, from the majestic sounds of the choir to the communal voice of the congregation. For in this combination of musical styles we will find a way to speak to everyone. The answer need not lie in everyone’s being able to sing everything, but rather in everyone’s being engaged and honored in the prayer experience.

Our Jewish musical heritage is rich. In order to keep it alive we need to partner this genre of music with more easily accessible folk melodies, allowing our congregants opportunities for engagement through both listening and singing along. We need to recognize that each person relates to prayer differently, and different melodies will serve people in different ways. As long as we know that the intention of each piece of music is about heightening prayer, we can learn to appreciate different styles, and we can weave an even richer tapestry of Jewish worship music.

Merri Lovinger Arian teaches at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Sacred Music in New York while serving as the Synagogue 3000 consultant on liturgical arts at HUC-JIR. Merri is also the director of music for Synagogue 3000.