Saturday, November 3, 2007

That explains it

My synagogue installed our new cantor last night. There was singing (duh!), there were services (it was, after all, Friday night), and afterwards there was food (chocolate-covered strawberries, yum!). In JD's opinion, the services were too long. In Monkey's opinion they were just right as she got to spend most of them running around the building with her classmate whose family also goes to this synagogue. Seems just about everyone else I spoke to later agreed with JD's assessment. I actually thought they lasted about the regular time for Friday night services. With the addition of the speeches, of course.

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.


Magpie said...

That is a beautiful quote, and true. I'm in the camp of people who listen to the music and never the words. Because the music is enough.

(Um, strawberries?)

Snickollet said...

Beautiful post. I'm so glad you didn't chicken out. Thank you for sharing the quote with us.

Beruriah said...

I understand. For me though, in general, the words are very very important as I don't enjoy spectatorship in the shul at all.

For me it extends to Hebrew v. English. I know Hebrew, very, very well. I don't need to translate in my head, and yet somehow I am still mystified at the beauty and meaning of word combinations in Hebrew that simply fall flat in English.

One of my favorite song/prayers would be the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:
Kol Ha'olam kulo / Gesher Tsar me'od /Gesher Tsar me'od /Gesher Tsar me'od - (repeat 1x)

Veha'ikar - veha'ikar / Lo lefached - / lo lefached klal. (repeat 1x)

With a translation: The whole world
is a very narrow bridge / a very narrow bridge / a very narrow bridge (repeated 1x) / And the main thing to recall -/ is not to be afraid -/ not to be afraid at all. (repeat 1x)

When I sing or hear it in Hebrew, I feel moved by the words, encouraged. And yet, in English, I am cynical. I think, what? what is this oversimplified advice and how could I possibly achieve it? Same for the mi sheberach.

Bon said...

as someone who's never darkened a synagogue door, i found this an interesting window of insight. and some part of it, i think i relate to.

when i was much younger, i spent a season or two in a youth group at a church that was waaay fundamental for my very leftish theology...and eventually left when they decided to have a prayer vigil for me over some (to me) ridiculous thing...but man, did their music bring me to a place - to a sense of holiness - that i have never felt before or since. i don't have language for it, and i wouldn't go back to one of their services for love nor money. but i miss that feeling, with some part of me that feels older than words.

niobe said...

It's funny. Whenever I read something like this, that is so directly contrary to my own experience, I feel a kind of fascinated disbelief. Is it really possible, I ask myself, that, for someone else, music could be more important, more meaningful, more powerful, than words?

I can't imagine it. I can't even begin to imagine it.

Lori said...

Not being of the Jewish faith I don't want to pretend to understand your exact experience, but I think I can relate a little. When I was growing up I had quite a lot of Jewish friends, so there was a period of time where it seemed as though I was attending a Bar or Bat Mitzvah nearly every couple of months. I absolutely loved attending these services (even the longer Saturday service), and not just for the party at the end. I would often attend both Friday and Saturday's services quite happily all on my own- even when some of my friends would moan about having to go. My mother once asked me what I enjoyed so much about the services, and all I could tell her was how much I loved the music and the singing. I couldn't understand a word but something in the music struck a chord in my young, adolescent heart.

Lisa b said...

the priest at the last school I worked at made us sing all the prayers.
he said when you sing it is like praying twice.

Karen said...

I think you are so exactly right - as children in chapel at school - when given the choice for what we would do in chapel that day, the only thing that seemed worth the time we spent there - was to sing old hymns. To us, as kids, all that talking just wasn't really enough to justify 20 minutes away from our usual routines, but singing was completely different.