Our Rabbi Emeritus was funny, short and to the point. Our President, who actually did the honors at the end was warm and to the point. Our rabbis made short remarks in the course of the service, and they too, were short and heart-felt. But there was an invited speaker, from the professional body of the cantors for my particular denomination, and boy did he take his time! With what seemed much more like a lecture than a speech, and led me to believe that this might be a canned speech he gives at cantor installation ceremonies, updated as required with short sections on each particular individual being celebrated.
But he did say, or rather quote, one thing that appealed to me. See, I am not by any means fluent in Hebrew. I in fact can barely read it, and my vocabulary is rather limited. Many prayers of the traditional service, even the ones that are very-very important (TM) don't do much for me. I read their English translations and think about what I see there, agreeing or disagreeing, or rather resonating or not, with each. There are also in the Jewish services prayers that are sung. I know the meaning of some of them well, and of others less well. Without a doubt and almost without exception I enjoy the sung prayers much more than the said ones. There is further division yet. Some sung prayers are pretty and I enjoy listening to them or singing them. But others, a few others, are a whole different ball game for me.
With those I get a feeling I don't think I ever discussed with anyone before, so yeah, feel free to think me a nut job. This is the feeling of being wholly in the prayer, of almost being sung by the prayer. I can follow the melody as it washes through and over me, comes out of my mouth, and heads for the semi-domed, fake-open ceiling of the sanctuary, where I perceive it joining with the streams from the other congregants to make a massive stream of beauty and power. A guy I went to (public) high school with, who grew up in a Reform household, but has since become an Orthodox rabbi, told me once that the minyan (ten adult Jews or ten adult male Jews, depending on your denomination) is required for some prayers because the power of community amplifies them and brings them to G-d ears. I am generally not so much a believer in G-d's ears per se, or in need of amplification for reaching said, most likely figurative, ears, if they do exist. But something about that shared experience makes me think there is a point to the requirement for the minyan.
The invited speaker last night was at one point talking about what cantors do, or, rather, what they do when they are good, what they should strive to do. And he quoted from a piece of writing I have never heard of before, Abraham Joshua Heschel's essay The Vocation of the Cantor. I didn't memorize the quote that struck me so much last night, so I googled for key words this morning. Here, then, is the revelation with which I walked out of the synagogue last night, delivered by the person least likely of all assembled there to enlighten me:
Verbal expression is in danger of being taken literally and of serving as a substitute for insight. Words become slogans, slogans become idols. But music is a refutation of human finality. Music is an antidote to higher idolatry. While other forces in society combine to dull our mind, music endows us with moments in which the sense of the ineffable becomes alive.
It's a strange thing for someone who spends so much time on the blogs to latch on to the put down of verbal expression. But it's not all verbal expression being put down here. It's the formulaic expression of pointless repetition. You can do that with words, you know-- say them without putting yourself into them, without really meaning them. It's much harder to do, in my experience, when you are singing.
I have wondered, for a long time, what it was about these prayers, these songs, that connected with me in this most unusual way. I think I have my answer now-- they bring the sense of the ineffable alive for me. And now I am going to hit publish and go get a drink. Before I chicken out, that is.