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The Lord's Song in a Strange Land

Last year a dear friend gave me a copy of The Lord's Song in a Strange Land: Music & Identity in Contemporary Jewish Worship by Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit. Rabbi Summit teaches ethnomusicology and Judaic studies at Tufts University, where he is also director of the Hillel Foundation, and this book inhabits the intersection-point between his fields.

Like me, Rabbi Summit grew up first Conservative and then Reform; unlike me, he went on to pursue ordination at HUC and, later, to spend several months studying at an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem. (He describes his relationship to the Jewish community as "polymorphic.") His goal in this book was to explore Jewish liturgical music: what we do, why we do it, and how what we do (or don't do) shapes and is shaped by our sense of Jewish identity.

Rabbi Summit uses music as a prism for looking at the worship practices of five Boston-area congregations: Renewal havurah B'nai Or, Reform congregation Temple Israel, Tufts University Hillel, Modern Orthodox congregation Shaarei Tefilah, and Hasidic Congregation Beth Pinchas run by the Bostoner Rebbe. In each of these congregations, he explains, he was a kind of participant-observer. On the one hand, each was an important part of his own religious journey at some point in his life, and he davvened with them as he worked on the book; on the proverbial other hand, he was also an ethnographer there conducting research. His simultaneous insider/outsider status shapes the book in fascinating ways.

Over the course of the The Lord's Song in a Strange Land he explores the nature and role of Jewish liturgical music, how Shabbat is celebrated in communities ranging from Reform to Hasidic, and the difference between individual melodies and the nusach melodic system. For someone interested in Jewish music, in liturgical leadership, and in denominational differences -- like, say, me -- this book is a fantastic read.

Liturgical music, he asserts, is important -- and not only to rabbis and cantors. When ordinary people (e.g. non-musicians and nonspecialists) spoke to him about music in Jewish worship "they were in fact talking about the deepest spiritual questions in their lives. What tunes and chant represented who they were and what they believed as Jews? What music constituted authentic practice?" Music both reflects, and represents, a range of perspectives about how to be, and "do," Jewish.

"I am convinced," he writes, "that style of worship, even more than the content of the liturgy, plays a major factor in whether or not many Jews find prayer meaningful and fulfilling." On the one hand I want to argue with him -- I've given a lot of thought to the liturgy I use, and the words are important to me! Then again, if I were offered the choice between a service that used all the right words but was devoid of song or congregational participation, or a service that welcomed enthusiastic singing but used words I found problematic, my heart would be drawn toward door number two even though my head preferred door number one. So he may be on to something, there.

After an appropriately lengthy digression on what factors go into constructing a sense of Jewish identity (among them history, literature, language, social and spiritual ideals) and on the relatively recent historical phenomenon of Judaism being an identity that Jews themselves choose (rather than one which they own by default), he writes, "With so many different congregations and organizations, so many ways to 'be Jewish,' it often feels as if Jews have little common ground. Music is one of the common reference points[.]"

He did his research in Boston, where, he points out, the Jewish community is remarkably interrelated. Many Orthodox Jews cut their teeth on collegiate Hillel services which were not Orthodox; Conservative Jews accompany Reform friends to hear Debbie Friedman perform; Renewal Jews visit Hasidic congregations, and so on. "All of these Jews talk to God through prayer. Though they express themselves in different ways, their vocabularies overlap as that conversation is carried out in song."

He dedicates a chapter to explaining the structure of Jewish prayer, which is good stuff though I won't summarize it here. I did particularly like his points that "the siddur is a multilayered text" and that "Jewish prayer is sacred text performed." And I'm pleased by his explanation of the term daven -- though in one sense it's just Yiddish for "pray," he argues that there's more to davenen than prayer.

At least in Eastern European tradition, to daven is to sing, chant, move, and sway. One must bring an emotional intensity and involvement to the recitation of the prayers. To daven, one must have proper kavvanah, the piety, devotion, concentration, and intention to consider the meaning of the prayers and say them as though one means them.

I keep meaning to revisit my old Definitions of Davvenen post, but in the meanwhile, his quote does a good job of summing up how I understand the word these days.

Where things get really interesting -- and resonant -- for me is when he starts talking about the intersection of music and worship. "Many worshippers, especially during the High Holidays, do not feel they have been to services unless they hear their favorite tunes for certain prayers," he writes, and later, "The tune is a vehicle for transcendence." I think he has a point, there, too -- I spent one of my first blog posts grousing about the cantorial soloist we hire for the Days of Awe using a nusach (melody system) with which I was unfamiliar, which left me feeling cheated of the experience I'd been hoping for, e.g. hearing and joining in my favorite melodies.

One of the lenses he uses to explore different approaches to liturgy and music, throughout the book, is Lekha dodi, the hymn welcoming the Sabbath bride. Throughout the book he offers snatches of sheet music for the different variants, and most of them are on the enclosed CD as well. Speaking of the CD, he tells some interesting stories about how it was made. Since recording is traditionally prohibited on Shabbat, he couldn't record congregations in worship; instead he gathered congregants on weekdays to recreate the melodies for his field recordings.

Anyway, I was struck by his story about how the Hasidim handle "Lekhah dodi." Though the Rebbe doesn't lead worship, he has the prerogative of choosing which melody they'll use for that one hymn. "If you leave it to the congregants, they are going to come up with some tune, some melody that no one knows, and it's going to kill the service," the Rebbe explains. "So in order to avoid that I've put down a rule, that I'm going to do Lekhah dodi."

(Incidentally, here's a great piece about a liberal Jew meeting the Bostoner Rebbe, from Killing The Buddha.)

Also intriguing to me was Rabbi Summit's observation of the similarities between the Renewal havurah and the Hasidic shul:

On one hand, these two communities represent opposing extremes in regard to participation of women in religious life, a commitment to the unchanging nature of Jewish law, and the willingness of their members to integrate with the American superculture. On the other hand, both communities stress the importance of music and dance in achieving a spiritual union with God. Indeed, it is only on these "edges" of the Jewish community that one hears God discussed much at all.

Renewal differs from Hasidism in deep and important ways, but we also owe Hasidism a debt of gratitude for how their emphasis on joy has shaped the way we pray.

He does a good job, too, of describing the paradigm shift between old-style "Classical" Reform worship and the newer mode of Reform worship that I happen to favor. (That's much on my mind, so soon after attending the URJ Biennial.) There's a great anecdote about Temple Israel seeking to hire a new rabbi, and being told by the UAHC (now the URJ) that they were a "cathedral congregation" who needed a "cathedral rabbi." They replied that that was precisely what they didn't want; they wanted a rabbi who would lead them in a new direction.

Regular readers of this blog are probably aware that I prefer participatory worship, where everyone sings together along with the prayer leader(s), to the kind of worship where congregants sit quietly listening to operatics. So I was fascinated to learn that the  worship-as-performance paradigm was an intentional thing, at one point in time. In the late eighteenth century German cantor Ahron Beer composed many melodies for Shabbat prayers and rotated them often specifically to keep congregants from learning them and being tempted to sing along.

Beer wrote, "For if a person hears a tune but once a year, it will be impossible for him to sing with the cantor during the service, and therefore he will not be able to confuse the chazzan." Cantors in that age, Summit explains, "assumed that congregants participted in worship by listening to prayer beautifully rendered and by quietly offering their heartfelt devotion. This study shows how these contemporary communities have reconfigured many aspects of worship in an effort to redefine and ensure meaningful participation in prayer." I'll say!

For my part, I agree with the Conservative college student Rabbi Summit quotes (who was, in turn, quoting one of his counselors from Camp Ramah): "Prayer shouldn't be a spectator sport." Rabbi Summit seems to agree with me on that front, writing, "In good prayer, the rabbi, cantor, and congregation are all 'performing' and the 'audience' is God, however one defines holiness or the focus of one's prayer. Too often in contemporary worship, the rabbi and the cantor are the performers and the congregation becomes the audience." Word.

He distinguishes between nusach (the melodic system attached to each type of service, e.g. weekday, Shabbat, Festival) and "metric tunes," the melodies which go with independent songs or prayers. It's a useful distinction, though I wonder how many contemporary liberal Jews are even familiar with the notion that nusach exists, much less changes based on day of the week and season of the liturgical year? If one only attends shul on Shabbat, then it's easy to assume that the Shabbat melodies are "the" melodies -- and to be thrown for a loop the first time a weekday minyan experience arises.

Nusach, he observes, is like the set standard chord progressions on which jazz riffs are hung. "[O]nce the leader knows the melody used for the opening phrase of a particular prayer, for the cadential ending, and for the reciting tones in between, it was assumed that there was a certain freedom to improvise." One of the improvisations he mentions, in association with B'nai Or (the Renewal congregation), is the custom of chanting English translations in the same nusach as the Hebrew, a custom he attributes to Reb Zalman.

He tells a fascinating story about the Reform temple. They make more use of traditional nusach now than ever before; some members love it (they've grown accustomed to the chants, they know the different melodies for Friday night and for Saturday morning, they feel it connects them with tradition) and others hate it (they say the trend toward more Hebrew and more traditional observance is too much, by which their rabbi explains they mean "they feel left out.") Anyway, the story is about how the cantor started, and stopped, using the traditional nusach for the Days of Awe. The cantor said:

"The first year I sang High Holiday nusach and it was 'Death Valley Days!' I looked out: it was quiet...I decided I'm going to compromise my belief here because I think it's more important for them to be singing rather than hearing me sing the proper melody and just watching me."

The learning curve can be steep, and liturgical leaders must balance the desire to do things "right" with the desire to keep congregants engaged. These congregants, like me a few years ago, recognized the Shabbat melodies but found that the unfamiliar High Holiday ones left them cold.

Use of nusach is still controversial in some Reform circles; some find it deeply meaningful, others a mindless return to tradition. Within the Orthodox community, in contrast, nusach is simply normative practice. (One member observed that it's the primary thing many of their members associate with their Orthodoxy: they may not study Talmud or read Shulkhan Arukh, but by God, they davven in a shul where the prayers are "done right"!) But despite the communal attachment to "right nusach," many members are unfamiliar with the tradition's finer points -- and since weekday worship is traditionally lay-led, there's a reluctance to ostracize regular worship leaders on account of their chanting knowledge.

Rabbi Summit makes the point that the Jewish community has long been what he calls internally bilingual, navigating not only the tensions between Hebrew and local vernacular but also the struggle to balance internal Jewish life with the external life of the world. He talks about linguistic "code-switching," citing Monica Heller to define that as "the use of more than one language in the course of a single communicative episode," and then makes the argument that we do this musically as well as linguistically. For instance, he describes how the trop (cantillation system) for the Book of Esther (read on the joyous festival of Purim) is in a major key -- but certain passages are traditionally chanted in a minor key (usually associated with Lamentations, read on 9 Av), instead.

Another example of this kind of melodic "code-switching" is the Renewal incorporation of kirtan, westernized Hindu chant, into their worship -- or, for that matter, the time I heard Reb Zalman sing the blessings for removing the Torah from the ark to the tune of "Happy Birthday!" The melody carries one set of associations; the words, another; and the melodic cross-pollination enriches the liturgy and the experience of prayer.

Of course, appropriating melodies from other contexts can also cross boundaries in ways that make worshippers uncomfortable. Rabbi Summit tells the story of a minyan in Newton, Mass., where the rabbi borrowed the melody of "Adeste, Fideles" ("O Come, All Ye Faithful") for a prayer on a December 25th Shabbat. Many congregants were upset, and felt either that he was mocking Christianity by borrowing a well-known carol tune or that he was deconsecrating their worship by allowing the omnipresent Christmas season to intrude into it. "It made little difference that Jews, especially the Hasidim, have a history of appropriating melodies from host cultures to use in worship," Rabbi Summit writes. "The melodic code of this Christmas carol was too loaded to be judged acceptable by this congregation."

Then again, that same congregation apparently allows their children to lead closing hymn "Adon Olam" to the tune of "Rock Around the Clock" -- so there are no hard-and-fast rules for what will and won't stretch people's melodic comfort zones too far. What's obvious, I guess, is that we do have melodic comfort zones, and we care deeply about what tunes we use. And apparently that's been true for a long time: "The Makhzor Vitry, a ninth-century religious manual, quotes a tradition that the melodies of the synagogue were taught to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Jews have strong feelings about music."

Here's how the book closes:

The search for spiritual, cultural, and historic authenticity pervades the religious lives of the members of these five worship commmunities....When Jews in these worship communities speak of the 'real' or 'correct' version of Lekhah Dodi, they construct a version of Jewish history in which uncontested answers and immutable truth can be found.

...When the Jews were first exiled from Israel to Babylonia, they looked longingly toward home and sang, 'How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?' (Psalms 137:4). These American Jews have puzzled out the answer to that question. They have done so by affirming the value of Jewish practice and tradition while at the same time yielding to the profound influence of the strange American environment on their identities and religious expression.

We want to believe there's a "right" melody for our worship because we'd like to live in a world where there's a "right" way to be Jewish. But a close reading of our history shows that Judaism has always been multivalent, multivoiced, multifaceted -- and I'd argue strongly that though the multiplicity of answers can sometimes be unsettling, it's also one of our greatest strengths. In Rabbi Summit I see a heartwarming example of someone who's moved back and forth between Jewish communities, learning from all. Depending on who you ask, the aphorism "Who is wise? He who learns from all" either comes from Benjamin Franklin or from the Talmud, but either way, it seems clear to me that Rabbi Summit is a wise man, and I feel wiser for having read his work.

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