One of the classes I’m taking this semester—and which, so far, I’ve supremely enjoyed—is taught in Drew’s Methodist Theological Seminary. It’s called Music of the World’s Religions. We’ve covered, so far, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish music. We finished our unit on Jewish music today, with the assistance of Cantor Howard M. Stahl of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ.
Over the course of this class so far, I have been forced to examine, in light of other traditions, how I feel about Jewish litrugical music. This week and last week, the challenge was made more direct. We listened to a variety of Jewish music from different periods and places. I found myself unable, in class, to verbalize my feelings about music and liturgy. So now I am attempting to set my thoughts down in writing, hoping to clarify my own feelings to myself.
DISCLAIMER: Before everyone jumps up with cries of how unrealistic and high my expectations are, let me be clear about my intent: I don’t expect this to ever happen. What I write here in this blog about music today is intended to be my perfect world. It doesn’t exist and it’s not going to. But, in examining what we envision our perfect world to be, we learn what our goals are.
Those of you who have read this blog for some time or have ever skimmed The Lone Star Sidur Project (or those of you who have ever met me), will know that I am obsessed with always saying the right thing during t’filah. I am obsessed with using a text with as much internal consistency, respect for tradition, and enthusiasm for sensible and correct liturgical change as possible, as ridiculous as all of that is.
That all having been said, it will come as no surprise to you that if I had to choose between a hyper-orthodox service with mind-blowingly good music and a Reform service with pretty lousy music, I would choose the Reform service on the assumption that the ideology and text read and espoused in the Reform service is more closely in line with my own. And so, when push comes to shove, as nice as music is, I believe that a text I can interact with and get behind is far more important than good music.
So, what do I think constitutes good liturgical music?
I think that there are certain moral imperatives involved. I think we should assume that Jews want to pray, not be prayed to. And if they don’t, they do themselves a disservice. Some would say that they like to get lost in a beautiful piece of music during services rather than sing along with a simpler piece. That’s what concerts are for. Complicated choral music, then, is out. What if you had an entire congregation composed entirely of one great big choir? I still say complicated choral music is out. If you have to concentrate so hard on performing the music properly, you’re not paying attention to the words, and the point, subsequently is lost on you. Rounds are also out because they alienate musical defectives like me who have such trouble singing along that we can’t quite focus on the text we’re singing.
Let me also address nigunim. I take real issue with the idea that any melody can become spiritually elevated simply by removing the words and replacing them with nonsense syllables. A piece whose only vocal part is a nigun is out, in my opinion. I have no problem with a piece of music that includes a nigun part amongst parts with words of meaning because then, like any back up instrumentation involved, the nigun serves to beautify the words. Judaism is a tradition of meaning and thought, while nigunim are meaningless and thoughtless.
From here we descend into my simple stylistic preferences. I don’t find any moral imperatives here. What follows is nothing more than my favored aesthetics.
I like some of the folksy 1960’s-70’s American Jewish summer camp music. I like Middle East-flavored music and Mizrachi music. I like older Sephardic music. I like Argentinean Jewish music. Lately, I’ve been exposed to Carlebach tunes that I enjoy a lot. And I like traditional nusach.
So that’s what I think about music. Let the lambasting begin.