Two summers ago, here at Kutz, a girls’ cabin led services one day. As we all entered the tron, they were standing at the front singing and clapping their hands. The song goes like this:
Lord, prepare me
To be a sanctuary
Pure and holy
Tried and true
I’ll be a living
Sanctuary for you
It’s a nice song. The message is fairly basic and unobjectionable. The tune is catchy and sounds slightly gospel. I like it. Since then, I’ve also heard a variation that incoporates a quote from Torah, “V’asu li Mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham” (“Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst you”). I like that version even better. When people found out that this verse of song is actually part of a larger song from the wonderful world on contemporary Christian music, they went nuts. The rest of the song is not explicitly Jesus-centric or anything like that, though it does sound very Christian, talking about being led away from temptation. (Of course one could argeu that that’s our topic also, but that we’ve left by the wayside because Christians speak so much about it.)
All week, we were hearing about how upset people were about the use of this songs in a Jewish service. This week also happened to be the week of Parashat Balak. Balak, aside from being one of my absolute favorite Torah portions, details the story of Bilam, a foreign prophet of God hired by a Moabite king, Balak, to ride out to the Israelity encampment and curse them. When he goes to curse them, God changes the words in his mouth into a blessing and out comes a poem of blessing. The first line is familiar to us because it now appears in every morning service: “Mah tovu ohalecha, Ya’akov mishk’notecha, Yisra’el!” (“How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!”)
This coincidence gets even better. Not only did we have an uproar on camp about the use of a non-Jewish song in services coincide with a Torah portion including a foreign prophet’s song that we know use in services, not only did I notice this wonderful coincidence, but I was scheduled to deliver the d’var Torah that week. You can imagine what I spoke about that Shabat morning.
My point was that if we can take a poem uttered with the intent to curse us and make it into a regular part of a service, we can handle one verse of totally unobjectionable Christian song.
In retrospect, I’m not sure that I was right. I was given the chance to revisit this story this week. Friday evening services were led this week, beautifully, by the songleading major taught by Caryn Roman and Jesse Paikin. They began with “Lord prepare me.” If you’re paying attention, you know that this last Shabat was Shabat Balak once again. You can imagine what was on my mind during services that evening.
I got to thinking not just about this particular issue, but about one of the the popular tunes for Psalm 150, which is actually a Sufi melody (Alah hu, Alah hu, Alah hu, etc.) I thought about the Phish song “Wading in the Velvet Sea” and the Bob Marley song “Redemption Song.” In my four summers at Kutz, I’ve heard both used as tunes for Mi Chamocha. I thought about a half-dozen other secular and non-Jewish melodies used in services. And I wonder if it’s okay.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the melody itself is not the issue. It’s the text. We have the entire Tanach, two Talmuds, and about eight million other Jewish texts out there to choose from. I wonder if we need to go to other traditions to find what we want to say. I wonder if we can’t find it somewhere in one of our own texts.