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.

Introducing the New Mission Statement for Panim Hadashot-New Faces

Over the past few weeks I have been meeting with friends and with our newly formed Panim Hadashot-New Faces Advisory Board to review our mission statement. I am happy to unveil Panim Hadashot-New Faces revised mission statement.

New Tagline:  Revitalizing Shabbat Hospitality

Meaning

Panim Hadashot-פנים חדשות  (Pah-neem Chah-dah-shote) means “new faces” in Hebrew.  It is an ancient Jewish term associated with hospitality and the Sabbath.  

Mission

Panim Hadashot-New Faces fosters Sabbath joy (Oneg Shabbat) by encouraging home hospitality, reviving the tradition of table singing through our music, exploring timely Jewish teachings, and bringing ‘new faces’, people from diverse backgrounds, together in celebration.    

What We Do

Panim Hadashot-New Faces is a unique Jewish organization that teams up with hosts all around Seattle and surrounding communities through our Shabbat Hosting Partnerships to bring Sabbath joy to home gatherings with our Heart of Shabbat Ensemble. We also provide opportunities for all those we touch to enjoy the song, music, learning and prayer offered by our Heart of Shabbat Ensemble at Shabbat, Festival, and High Holiday gatherings open to the entire community.

Commentary on the mission statement by Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

“Panim Hadashot”; One of the early debates within Panim Hadashot concerned whether we should use an English or a Hebrew name.   Panim Hadashot was conceived in 2004 as a Jewish outreach organization. The general assumption of those doing Jewish outreach at the time, was that an English name was essential to connect to unaffiliated Jews. We chose not to go in this direction and keep the name Panim Hadashot. Our English tagline in the early days was different and was changed to “New Faces” in 2015 to reflect our more recent focus on Jewish hospitality practice. We serve the entire Jewish community both affiliated and unaffiliated.

“hospitality and the Sabbath”; The term Panim Hadashot appears in the Talmud and refers specifically to the practice in antiquity of inviting new faces to wedding parties for a bride and groom in the week following the ceremony. It was customary to fete the couple, but new faces had to be invited to recite the celebratory seven blessings. I saw this practice in Jerusalem after my nephew’s wedding. The couple was sitting in their apartment with family and a couple of us were sent downstairs to the street and instructed to yell, “panim hadashot”. Sure enough several folks volunteered to join us and we brought the new faces upstairs to the party and the singing began. I was quite taken with this ancient practice which combined hospitality and the spreading of joy in both directions, to the bride and the groom and to the new guests.

This memory inspired me to adopt the name ‘Panim Hadashot’ when we founded the organization.   I envision Panim Hadashot as a Jewish organization that would revitalize Jewish hospitality practice and the cultivate home spirituality of associated with Shabbat.

In Kabbalistic literature the Sabbath is also referred to as “panim hadashot” to suggest that every Sabbath is in a sense a new face to be welcomed.

Our view of Shabbat is that it is a time of hospitality, rest, renewal, singing, and feasting. It is a time of transcendence that is shared with others. These insights animate our approach.

“Sabbath joy (Oneg Shabbat)”; Thanks to the insight of Anna Boiko-Weyrauch we altered our mission statement to reflect our ultimate purpose of our home centered programs. We hope to bring people to experience the joy of Shabbat. ‘Oneg Shabbat’ is a much more far reaching concept than most realize. Most American Jews think that ‘Oneg Shabbat’ as the cookies and cake served at the synagogue after Friday night services.

Eating comfort food on the Sabbath is an ‘Oneg Shabbat’, but so is physical intimacy of a married couple. Oneg Shabbat conveys the unique joy of Sabbath that differentiates it from the weekday. The joy is both physical and spiritual and is essentially relational-shared together with others. This is the joy we seek to evince in our home visits, our music, and our teaching. Our hope is that an authentic experience of ‘Oneg Shabbat’ binds people together and creates community and fellowship.

“home hospitality”; Our previous tagline was “revitalizing Jewish hospitality”. The Jewish hospitality traditions are rich and varied and are not confined to the Sabbath. But Shabbat home hospitality is the core focus of a hospitality practice and all else flows from it. Prior to modern times, the huge majority of Jews lived within walking distance to their synagogue and were thus living close to each other. Shabbat hospitality was a direct outgrowth of a local Sabbath observant community. This is still true of traditional communities to this day and is one of the appeals of living in such a community.

But most Jews in the US no longer live in proximity to a synagogue or are strict in their Sabbath observance. For lot’s of different reasons home hospitality has declined among liberal American Jews along with setting apart the Sabbath day.

One of our main aims is to help restore the home as a central arena for Jewish life and spirituality and to reimagine hospitality and Shabbat celebration in the new reality we live in.

“reviving the tradition of table singing through our music”; I have always loved to sing and as a young adult I discovered the Jewish traditions of Sabbath table songs when I served as a counselor at Camp Ramah in 1976. One of the big drivers of Panim Hadashot is to revitalize the practice of singing at home. It’s actually not so unusual. We do our Passover Seders at home and I can’t think of many homes that don’t do Mah Nishtanah or Dayeinu and many more melodies.

The innovation of collaborating with hosts to come to their homes is central to our approach. From the beginning of Panim Hadashot in 2004, I would team up with hosts to do a Shabbat meal together at their homes. I would lead the rituals, give interpretation, and lead a few songs. The novelty of these home gatherings was having a rabbi come to the host’s home to share in your Shabbat celebration.

There was something flawed about this early approach since it put the focus on me, the visiting rabbi. When I returned to Seattle in 2015 and revived Panim Hadashot I wanted to try enhancing the home Shabbat in a different way.   Why not center the experience around music and singing.   We gathered together an ensemble of musicians and singers (including me) and began bringing the group to home Shabbat gatherings in the fall of 2016. The ensemble took on the name, The Heart of Shabbat Ensemble, to emphasize that our music was Shabbat centered and was designed to cultivate participation, group singing, and joy.

“new faces, people from diverse backgrounds”; In this polarized time, we aspire to encourage pluralism by encouraging our hosts to invite people who are different from them in background and point of view. One of the problems I found as a congregational rabbi was the cliquishness that overtakes communal Jewish life and makes integration into congregations very difficult.   I saw that people were often closed off from meeting others outside of their close knit circles. Even people who practiced home hospitality carefully filtered who they would invite to their tables or became accustomed to spending time with a handful of friends over and over.

One of the key elements of a hospitality practice is curiosity, of wanting to hear the stories and experiences of people who come from different backgrounds. This is what we mean by new faces. This approach is embodied in the Hebrew saying, Mikol Mlamdai Hiskalti-I have learned from my teachers, which is interpreted to mean I have learned from every human being.

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Please feel free to send comments, observations, and reflections to me at dov At panimhadahot.org.  Please also share any great home Shabbat stories.  I will post some of them in the blog.  DG