Praying with Music and Song



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Emotions and Devotion in Synagogue Song

By Jonathan L. Friedmann

Beethoven wrote, "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." Leonard Bernstein believed that music "communicates the unknowable." Musical expression, according to Frederick Delius, "only begins to be significant where words and actions reach their uttermost limit of expression." These composers recognized music's ability to convey what lies beyond the boundaries of linguistic communication. Music is immediate, affecting directly the ineffable realm of human emotion. Through a combination of pitches, rhythms, timbres, durations, and dynamics, music unlocks the hidden contents of the soul.

In the worship setting, music brings intimate understanding to often distant or abstract religious concerns. Song can heighten one's attentiveness during prayer, and imbue worship with a sense of "otherness" required of the sacred moment. Indeed, music is the primary tool religion provides for infusing sacred text with its necessary emotional qualities, and separating the religious experience from the activities of everyday life.

Commenting on the importance of song in the Jewish religion, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "To sing means to sense and to affirm that the spirit is real and that its glory is present. In singing we perceive what is otherwise beyond perceiving."

The first example of sacred song presented in the Torah is Shirat HaYam—"The Song of the Sea." A spontaneous proclamation sung by the Israelites after crossing the Red Sea (Ex. 15:1-18), it announces boldly the defeat of Pharaoh, the uniqueness and power of God, God's guidance of Israel to the promised land, and His eternal rule.

It is important to note that this song erupted from the lips of the Israelites precisely at the moment when they realized the immensity of their deliverance. As we read in Exodus 14:31-15:1: "when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses. Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said: I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously . . ." Instead of remaining silent in this moment of awe and wonder, the Israelites turned to song—heightened speech—to express their gratitude. Only through the marriage of words and music could their deepest sentiments aspire toward heaven.

This transcendent power of music had special significance for the father of Hassidism, the Ba'al Shem Tov, who proclaimed, "The soul cannot soar without melody." There are several Hassidic stories that illustrate this idea. One such story tells of a shepherd boy who, after a day of hard work on the hillside, walked home for supper. On the way, he passed a synagogue. It was Friday night, and he heard davening (Yiddish for Prayer) coming from inside. Curious, the young boy walked into the building, and sat in the back row. He opened a prayer book, but found that he could not read the Hebrew. So he sat and listened to the prayers, and in a moment of inspiration, reached into his pocket, took out his flute, and began to play a beautiful melody. As you can imagine, this upset the daveners, and grumblings and murmurs filled the synagogue. "Who is this child?" one man asked. "What noise is this?" demanded another. The congregants voiced their complaints to the rabbi. All the while, the boy sat frightened and nervous. But to everyone's surprise, the rabbi did not condemn him. Rather, he expressed disappointment at his congregation. "This boy's song is worth more than all of our prayers combined," the rabbi said, "because it comes from his heart. We are engaged in a routine, while he is truly speaking to God."

The cantorial tradition is likewise filled with passionate voices that speak to God through song. Among the many famous cantors of the twentieth century noted for their ability to bring life to the sacred text was Leib Glantz (1898-1964). His uniquely moving vocal artistry led Dr. Baruch Ben-Yehuda to proclaim: "This was the voice that knew when to rejoice, when to cry out in pain, when to plead, when to demand, when to threaten, and when to bow to the inevitable." Another man wrote that Glantz "penetrated into the soul of every word, letter and sound."

Glantz himself believed that unlocking the mysteries of the liturgy was the ultimate task of the cantor. As he explained: "Words alone cannot express all of our feelings. God and divinity are concepts superior to the human mind. There is a limit to human knowledge and understanding. However, the wisdom of the heart is superior to the wisdom of the mind. Melodies can enable us to discover paths that cannot be defined by words."

In synagogue music we find the essential union of emotions and devotion, and encounter the truest expression of the Jewish spirit. We do not merely say our prayers; we sing them.

* * * * *

Jonathan L. Friedmann is Cantor of Bet Knesset Bamidbar in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the editor of two books, Jewish Sacred Music and Jewish Identity (Paragon House, 2008) and The Value of Sacred Music (McFarland, 2009).


from the March 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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