Nothing in the Jewish Songbook is Alien to Us

Franz Rosenzweig, the Jewish philosopher of the early 20th century, once adopted a famous line from the ancient Roman playwright Terence: “as I am human, nothing human is alien to me.” Rosenzweig gave the challenged his Jewish reader to assert that, as a Jew, “nothing Jewish is alien to me.”

“What Rosenzweig understood is that no one leads a life that is simply “human.” Just as we speak a particular language, not language as such, we live and flourish within particular communities, cultures, and traditions. Rosenzweig’s claim was not that everything Jewish was worthy of celebration, only that it was worthy of understanding, and he suggested that a “Jewish Renaissance” could begin with just these words.” Abraham Socher <https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/102/editorial/>

Last Friday at our Shabbat at Carkeek Park, I was mindful of Rosenzweig’s saying as I introduced our wandering musical service through the woods of the park. I shared that, “Nothing in the Jewish songbook is alien to us.”

I was preparing the participants for different melodies that the Heart of Shabbat Ensemble planned to share during the Kabbalat Shabbat service. “We are not afraid to introduce new melodies or to tap the outer regions of the Jewish music.” We introduce melodies from different Jewish communities and from new composers as a way of letting the prayers speak in new ways. We seek to access different moods that new melodies open up and to provide new/old paths to communicate with or to reflect about God.

Having been a congregational rabbi for many years I learned how easily it is for groups of people to become accustomed and conditioned to hearing the same melodies over and over again. Songs also can anchor us to the regular to the expected. Songs can also help secure a sense of order in this chaotic world. I respect this. But at Panim Hadashot-New Faces, we also want to explore the “new faces” of Jewish music. Some of the songs we introduce will not catch on, but we believe that many will and that they will surprise us with a sense of the incredible richness and renewing character of our singing culture.

One of the issues around music in Judaism is the prohibition on the playing of musical instruments on the Sabbath and Festival. A good summary of the issues is found HERE.   I am a Conservative Rabbi which means that I come from a movement where there are differing opinions on the issue of playing music on Shabbat/Festival. The two Conservative congregations in Seattle have for years held to the prohibition, while experimenting with introducing music adjacent to the beginning and end of Shabbat. I decided many years ago after attending services at Bnei Jeshurun and Romemu in New York and Ikar in Los Angeles that instrumental music, if prepared skillfully and artfully can deepen the experience of Sabbath prayer. But I also felt more strongly that there was so much music at the table which was being lost by the decline in home hospitality. I wanted to introduce music to home Shabbat gatherings and to get us singing again.   I now follow the lenient position in the Conservative movement which permits instrumental music on the Sabbath.

But beyond the halachic ruling lies the issue of how music and song is presented on the Sabbath. This is something that Ari Joshua and I have thought about deeply. Some of these approaches below are drawn from our teacher, Joey Weisenberg. Others are ones we are developing.

  • Bring the Music Back Home: We believe there is too much emphasis on synagogue based music. By encouraging hosts to hold Shabbat gatherings where we can bring our music, we seek to foster intimate settings for community/group Jewish singing and musical creativity.
  • Shabbat Hospitality is Fulfilled by Music and Song:  Providing a place to sing together is one of the greatest acts of hospitality in Jewish tradition.  We seek to encourage this practice in everything we do.
  • It’s the Music, Stupid: What makes Shabbat special is the singing and music that encourages singing. This is one of the greatest Oneg Shabbats-Joys of Shabbat besides my other favorite, Torah Study.
  • Disappearing Musicians: Musicians make music to enable everyone to sing on Shabbat, but their goal is to seem like they are not there.
  • Tradition and Innovation:  We always absorb the sounds, styles, attitudes, and melodies of older generations while offering Jewish music for Shabbat in the created for the present moment.
  • Lingering on a Melody as Shabbat Rest:  On Shabbat we have no need to rush, so we apply the art of “Slow Singing”, learning one melody, really well. This works best at a meal or gathering when people are relaxed.
  • Shabbat and Rhythm:  Explore the possibility that we can unify in time especially on Shabbat.
  • Communal Intention:  Showing what can happen when we come together on purpose, on Shabbat, to create something bigger than the sum of its parts.
  • No Jewish Song is Alien to Us: We want to show to all who we share Shabbat with, that the treasure house of Jewish music is huge, with so much that is undiscovered.

Nothing from the Jewish Songbook is Alien To Us.

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