Composing Jewish sacred music – part 2/7

‘God is in the detail’: a composer’s perspective on crafting modern Jewish sacred music – part 2/7

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‘Reaching out without dumbing down’

The UK Reform Rabbi Jonathan Magonet has suggested: “We are in a supermarket, so we have to offer good services that are interesting and accessible.”  (Borts 2014, p.100) Pope Francis, in his Vatican sermon on Christmas eve 2017 lamented: we don’t know if we are in the House of God or in a supermarket” Pope Francis sermon, the Vatican, December 24, 2017. Clearly, there is some confusion, even at the highest levels of Christian and Jewish life. It is not difficult to find instances where choice of music for services is based more on personal musical tastes and preferences, than appropriateness to the text, the moment in the emotional, intellectual and ritual arc of the service, the point in the liturgical week or year; or the current spiritual needs of the community.

The ethnomusicologist Malcolm Chapman (1994, p.35) warns: “music offers a pleasant and easy participation for the dilettante.” Harold Best, in ‘Music through the eyes of faith’ (1993), asks: “… what shades of beauty and nuances of spirit have we taken from our children, our young people, our fellow outpourers in the name of the idiocies of mass culture and easy Christianity?” And Charles Davidson (1995, p.16) points out in his article ‘Amerpop tunes in the Conservative synagogue’: “music which is appropriate to Disney-movies and TV is not necessarily music which is appropriate to prayer no matter how comfortable the familiar patterns and harmonies may make some worshippers feel.”

It is perhaps worth picking up on Best’s mention of the word ‘participation’. Participation by lyricists, composers and instrumentalists is to be welcomed, as long as it enhances rather than distracts people from prayer and learning. Joining in singing is a critical part of ritual and religious experience.  But while communal singing that ‘feels good’ has merit, it is not always the same as having conscious spiritual directedness. Not all excitation of the nervous system is religious experience, and not all singing is praying.

One rabbi interviewed by Borts suggested: “Music gives wing to prayer; nothing happens liturgically until it is sung.” (Rabbi Mark Winer, in Borts 2014, p.126) And Rabbi David Mitchell insisted: “If we can’t sing, we can’t be spiritually engaged.” (in Borts 2014, p.135) Although I am a composer of sacred music, and I have led sung musical prayer for over 30 years, I cannot agree with either Winer or Mitchell. There are many prayerful paths to God; music is only one of those paths, and joining in singing is only one of many possible ways to experience meaningful musical prayer. Arian (2004, p.160) teaches that “…music can help level the ‘praying field’” That’s true. It can also dumb it down. And to pursue her analogy, I would suggest that it may be time to ‘raise the pray-er’s game’ and help them enhance their prayer literacy, and develop a more nuanced musical palette.

In her book, ‘Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down’, Marva Dawn (1995) advises us to resist treating religion as a ‘lifestyle choice’, and something that needs revitalizing through marketing techniques. Hoffman (ReThinking Synagogues: a new vocabulary for congregational life, 2006) and Ron Wolfson (Spirituality Of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community, 2007) took a similar view.

We must find ways to get beyond a retail model of religious life, a model of providers and consumers. Of course, religious and ritual life must comfort the afflicted, but it must also afflict the comfortable[1]. And it must take us closer to an alive, curious, and intimate relationship with ourselves, with others, with our faith tradition, and with God. In his address to the 2017 International Conference on Sacred Music, Pope Francis said: “it is necessary to ensure that sacred music and liturgical chant  … are able to … embody and translate the Word of God in songs, sounds, and harmonies that make the hearts of our contemporaries throb, also creating an appropriate emotional atmosphere that disposes one to faith and arouses a welcoming and full participation in the mystery that is celebrated.” The Jewish composer Michael Isaacson (2007, p.187-88) writes: “Worship music need not be devoid of intellect or critical assessment. We need not turn off our brains to turn on our hearts. Like every other example of elevated music that we cherish, worship music needs to be crafted with skill, knowingness, and sensitivity for language.”

[1] Finley Peter Dunne 1902, satirical article, describing the role of journalism

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