I try to write something new each year for my Jewish Renewal community the London Ruach Chavurah to use at Yom Kippur. This year (2016) it struck me that it would be good to have a meditative chant for crying out to God to hear our prayers.
The language is in the first person singular – ‘I’. And yet as Jews we are encouraged to pray in community, and at High Holy Days especially, we are meant to find support and honesty with each other as we direct our thanks, our apologies and our requests to God. That might suggest that we should have used a text with the plural ‘we’, as we have in, for example, the prayer Sh’ma koleinu (‘Hear our voices’). But when this setting of Ps 27:7 is sung as a round, the resulting harmonies create a strong sense of the community sending out its collective voice – a balance of individual voices and a collective sound. The individual voices make and support the community, and the community supports the individuals.
Possible ways to use this prayer-song
The prayer can be sung as a single congregational line or solo (with or without instrumental accompaniment)
This is my own personal take on the sequence of the Shabbat morning service. I have drawn from several siddurim (prayerbooks), from Orthodox, through Jewish Renewal to UK Reform and Liberal. I have included most of the big ‘set pieces’ of what happens in a service, as well as some of the more minor details and sequences. The idea was to try and give both an overview of the journey (physical, emotional, mental and spiritual) that we take in the service, as well as emphasising what we could choose as the inner intention or purpose of each moment / movement within the grand design. These ideas are a patchwork created from different commentators (ancient and very recent), as well as my own musings. The elements in green are prayers or texts that we often sing in my Jewish Renewal community, the London Ruach Chavurah.
At the end of this page, there is a short bibliography of some resources that I find enormously useful for a) exploring the purposes, methods and experience of prayer, and b) learning about the structure of the siddur and forms of Jewish worship. Read more ›
This was a beautiful, moving and powerful event that brought together many faiths, humanists, politicians, community workers, victims of extremist violence and young people – a true showing of solidarity for peace, mutual understanding and cooperation.
I was fortunate to be asked as a member of the Jewish community to lead the singing of words from Micah 4:3 – “And everyone neath vine and fig tree shall live in peace and harmony; and into ploughshares beat their swords, nations shall make war no more.”
The event was later reported internationally on ARY News, a Pakistani news station based in Dubai:
These are my own gleanings from a beautiful book by Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, The Geologist of the Soul: Talks on Rebbe-craft and Spiritual Leadership (2012, Albion / Andalus, Boulder). I hope they encourage you to buy the book. I have paraphrased in order to clarify my own understanding, but there are also direct quotations from the book. The notes in square brackets are my own thoughts and responses, rather than ideas gleaned from the book itself. Read more ›
In 1872, Francis Galton wrote a now famous essay entitled ‘Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer’1 and concluded that prayer has no effect on either God, or the health or life expectancy of the person prayed for. The essay is full of value propositions and assumptions presented as fact, so I find it hard to take it seriously. Also, Galton’s starting point is Christian conceptions of both prayer, and God’s relationship to creation and humanity. The etymology of ‘prayer’ (preces) leans heavily on the idea of petition and, by implication, the potential for magical thinking and questions of whether those who pray can turn the mind of God.
I realise that there are Jews throughout history who have pursued the same line. However, there is a counter-thread in Judaism also, that regards this as largely irrelevant. T’fillah might be considered more as a process of self-reflection and personal development, as well as a means for both awakening our higher ethical sensibilities, and nurturing and developing our relationship with God.
On a more personal note, it is one of the areas of Jewish (spiritual) life in which I am especially interested. Even if there is no paradigm shift (sadly) away from naive magical thinking about prayer as humans attempting (or managing) to influence God, perhaps we can hope for at least a ‘software upgrade’ on the language and practices of our prayer so that it can speak better to the contemporary mind and heart. I am not suggesting a clinical, scientifically rigorous language, nor double-blind tested prayer practices. Prayer is (or at least, should be) multi-sensory, includes emotional and emotive elements, admits paradox and poetry, questions, doubts and hopes, despair, anger, and thanks and wonder. I make no definitive claims about the purposes or results of prayer, but my life would be poorer without it, and I suspect communal life would be too.
Much could be (and has been) written about the Kaddish (to which I have put links below). Although one version is referred to as mourner’s kaddish, it is part of our daily prayers, and comes, in some form, in almost every service. It is, above all, a prayer in praise of life. At the very end of Yom Kippur, we sing a lively melody for it, but at most other times in the liturgical week and year, the music is much more intense and inward. My musical setting is intended to emphasise the vitality and excitement that I feel is inherent in the words. Read more ›
The Modeh ani prayer is often used as an alternative to the Elohai n’shamah prayer as the first words that are spoken on waking in the morning. ‘Thanks’ is the first thought, followed by awareness of our intimate relationship with God, and the life that we are given. We usually think of Modeh Ani as being just a morning prayer, but we can cultivate gratitude throughout our day, making our lives and other people’s lives richer. The Jerusalem Talmud seems to suggest this:
“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said three introductions as they occurred during the day changing with each creation. In the morning a man is obligated to say: I give thanks before You Hashem my G-d and G-d of my fathers who brought my soul from darkness to light. At Mincha (noon) a man is obligated to say: I give thanks before You Hashem my G-d and G-d of my fathers, just as you privileged me to see the sun in the east likewise privilege me to see it in the west. In the evening [one is] required to say: May it be your will, Hashem our G-d, and G-d of my fathers, just as I was in darkness and you brought me to light, so will you bring me out from darkness to light.” [Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachot 4:1, 29b]
I introduced this composition to my Jewish Renewal community, the London Ruach Chavurah, at High Holy Days 2015. As this text occurs in the Amidah throughout the services, it became a gentle, insistent reminder for us to keep returning to the intention of this season, to make atonement, to purify our hearts and minds, and renew our commitment to serve. One of our members, Stuart Linke, helped me devise the dance (thank you, Stuart!). The movements are slow and simple, and a beautiful reflection of the ideas in the text. Read more ›