CCJ Oxford Soirée (June 2023)

Here is the programme that Matthew Faulk and I performed on 26 June 2023 to the Oxford group of the Council of Christians and Jews.

Good evening, and welcome. Many of tonight’s song lyrics are from texts shared by Jews and Christians: there are seven psalms, two passages from Exodus, and one from Jeremiah. From other Jewish sources, there’s a verse from the second century Talmud, an incantation from the ninth century, and a mystical poem from 18th century Eastern Europe. A song is its own world, and each invites us into a particular way of seeing, hearing and feeling. The texts are described by many as sacred. My musical response to them as a composer, is human. So, the invitation, this evening, is to listen to these songs as sacred, or human, or both – whatever works for you.

Or Zarua No.1 (Ps 97:11) – The words of our first song are used at the start of Kol Nidrei, one of the most solemn, penitential moments of the Jewish year. There is an 18th century teaching that the best even a righteous person can do is wrestle with the darkness in themselves, and hope to sow perhaps just a few seeds of light. That is where we are at the start of Kol Nidrei. By contrast, the yishrei leiv, the ‘straight and upright in heart’ have won that battle; in the song, you’ll hear the music surge upwards at that point. You’ll also hear that the initial words are repeated at the end; this song is not so much about reaching the light, but reaching for it. Listen now.

Or Zarua No.2 (Ps 97:11) – Now here’s a very different setting of the same text. These words also bring in the joy and relaxation of shabbat on a Friday evening, or Saturday morning. 16th century Spanish mystics created the Friday evening rituals we know today. I modelled this celebratory dance on Sephardi music as a homage to those mystics. Listen now.

Adonai, Adonai No.1 (Ex. 34:6-7) – Adonai, Adonai contains the 13 attributes of God’s mercy that we are taught to say when we are asking for healing or forgiveness. We recite these words together as a congregation many times during the penitential High Holy Days. Jewish tradition teaches that when we utter these words and meditate on these attributes, we will never come away empty-handed. Listen now.

Adonai, Adonai No.2 (Ex. 34:6-7) – That song started from a place of reaching, and yearning. But another powerful meditative practice is to connect directly with the quality that we want to experience, and embody it. So, here are the same words, with different music, emphasising the warmth of God’s love, and taking us on a much more hopeful journey. Listen now.

Adonai Ori / Achat Sha’alti (Ps. 27) – The 13 attributes evoke the alchemy of t’shuvah—returning to God, or our good place. We work both to grant and find forgiveness. We often think of ‘light’ as a metaphor for clarity, healing, resolution—whatever we feel we need spiritually. During the month leading up to the High Holy Days, we recite Psalm 27, praying for that light, and to find our way to our spiritual home, whatever we imagine that to be. Listen now.

Sh’lach Or’cha (Ps 43:3) – Light also appears in our next song. Talking about this psalm, 18th century Jewish mystics taught that working towards enlightenment was like slowly climbing a ladder. The mystics also taught that awareness could come suddenly, like a flash of bright light at the top of a mountain. You’ll hear both these ideas in the shape of the tune. Listen now.

Barchi Nafshi (Ps 103:1-12) – Staying with the theme of High Holy Days, these next verses from Psalm 103 reflect on a God who judges, but who ultimately shows mercy. You’ll hear the mood shift back and forth between struggle, hope, victory, and surrender. Listen now.

Ein Keiloheinu – The next two songs are outpourings of devotion. The first is a 9th century text that uses four names of God in each verse, in the same order they first appear in the Bible. The song has five verses. I feel these as five different emotional movements, which I hope you’ll sense. The journey moves from a statement of belief, through questioning, thanks, and blessing. The fifth verse is a personal declaration of loyalty, touching the highest note of the piece on the word malkeinu, meaning ‘king’. Listen now.

Dudeleh / Ribono Shel Olam – This next song—‘Master of the World’—is an 18th century Yiddish poem by Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. It is based on the central Chasidic text “There is no place empty of God”, that draws from the verse in Psalm 139: “Where can I flee from Your Presence?” The answer, of course, is nowhere, as God is everywhere. I adore this text, and its sentiment. It’s really just a love song. Listen now.

Adonai Roi (Ps 23) – Psalm 23 is well-known and much loved, and for good reason. I’m sure many will know English translations of it. The original Hebrew is poetic, elegant, direct, rhythmically and emotionally subtle, and beautiful. So, here is a setting of the Hebrew. I’ve created a refrain from some of its words, that I think express the essence of the psalm. Please feel free to join in with the refrain. Listen now.

Shiru Ladonai Shir Chadash (Ps 96) – The next song is also a response to the subtle meanings and rhythms of the Hebrew. Like Or Zarua, which we heard at the beginning, Psalm 96 is sung on Shabbat. Over the centuries, Jewish teaching has established three key characteristics for Shabbat: it is a day of k’dushah-holiness, of m’nuchah-rest, and of oneg-joy. This setting celebrates all three qualities. Listen now.

Eilu V’eilu (Eruvin 13b) – The words of Eilu V’eilu are said to have come from a bat kol, a voice from heaven. They were uttered to settle a dispute between two rabbis and their followers. Much can be learned from the story: no one opinion can provide a complete picture or the whole truth; conflicts are best resolved with kindness and modesty; all arguments have a place at the table if they are offered l’shem shamayim—for the ‘sake of heaven’. So differences—including in an interfaith encounter—can be vigourous, without being destructive! Listen now.

V’dirshu et shalom ha’ir (Jer. 29:7) – The next song was composed for an Oxford interfaith celebration of the coronation. In the coronation service the King pledged to pursue ‘paths of peace’. In Hebrew, the word ‘peace’ is shalom­. Weekly Jewish services include prayers for the community, for the nation, for the world, for our leaders, and for our King. We’re guided to do this from a verse in the book of Jeremiah: “Seek the peace—the shalom—of the city, and pray to God for it: for in its peace, you shall all have peace.” The 1st half of this song is in the minor key, representing the search for peace, and 2nd half is in the major key, representing finding peace. Listen now.

Mi Chamocha (Ex.15) – Our penultimate song is another coronation text, which we use in daily prayer. Just as the Israelites arrived on the far side of the Sea of Reeds, finally safe from the Egyptians, Moses began the Song of the Sea. And the Israelites responded Adonai yimloch “God shall be king forever!” [Ex. 15:8] There’s a midrash—an imaginative Jewish commentary—that says that the people did not just copy Moses’ song, but creatively added to it. So, I’ve done that here, in playfully extending the chorus further each time. Please feel free to have a go at joining in with the chorus! Listen now.

Yih’yu L’ratzon (Ps 19:14) – Our final song is a prayer that we find in both Christian and Jewish liturgy. The word hegyon, usually translated as ‘meditation’, can also mean a ‘resounding music’, so I have translated it as ‘song’. Listen now.