‘God is in the detail’: a composer’s perspective on crafting modern Jewish sacred music – part 3/7
‘Music as Theology’ and ‘Music as Midrash’
The first part of this subheading is a 2012 book title by Christian theologian and musician, Maeve Louise Heaney. The second part is a 2007 book title by the eminent Jewish composer Michael Isaacson.
Heaney argues that “… music offers a form of approach to or comprehension of faith that is different to our linguistic and conceptual understanding of the same, and for that very reason is complementary to it, in theological discourse.” (Heaney 2012, p.1) She also points out that music is important in revelation, faith transmission, “and indeed in other ways for our faith journey.” (Heaney 2012, p.10)
Ariel (1998, p.171) gives an eloquent description of midrash (pl. midrashim), which is worth quoting at length:
“Midrash literally means to search out implicit meanings by means of a biblical passage. Midrash is also an original Jewish literary technique of explaining textual nuances such as puzzling words and phrases, gaps in the text, curious repetitions, contradictions with other verse, and obscure meanings. It is also an imaginative process of uncovering new meanings and interpretations in familiar verses. Midrash is also a spiritual process of attempting to hear the voice of God in the received text. Midrash tries to uncover the original experience behind the recorded text so that we might feel as though we are present at Sinai alongside the 600,000 and more who stood there. It is an attempt to overcome the barriers of time and place that separate us from the immediacy of the experience of standing at Sinai. Finally, Midrash is also how each generation keeps the Torah alive by reading it through its own lens. ….. As the tradition itself says, ‘the gates of interpretation are never closed’.”
As a composer of Jewish sacred music, I find both Heaney’s and Ariel’s comments inspiring. I am also encouraged, and daunted by what the Reformed Church in America (RCIA, 1996) has to say: “Through congregational song God’s people learn their language about God; God’s people learn how to speak with God. Songs of worship shape faith.” This is an opportunity, challenge, and responsibility for a composer of sacred music.
‘Prayer: the lost art’
I have suggested that we need to rise above a consumer mentality and arguments over musical tastes and preferences. We would do better to address the question of what sacred music is for, what Borts calls shifting the focus “from melodies to meaning-in-melody” (Borts 2014, p.236). Julian Resnick, the Director of the Living Judaism Initiative in the UK asks: “Is [music] an addition to prayer, is it prayer?” (RSGB Music Handbook). Around 250 years earlier, John Wesley, in his practical rules for congregational singing, advised: “Have an eye to God in every word you sing. … attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually” (cited in Lovelace and Rice, 1976, p. 157).
So, the primary purpose of sacred music is to serve prayer. In his 1967 article in the Journal of Synagogue Music, Samuel Rosenbaum, the then Executive Vice-President of the Cantors Assembly of America, feared that prayer was a lost art. 30 years later, Leafblad (1998) wrote: “In church history, no major renewal has ever come from forms and formats, and so it is today. … Our greatest need today is to recover the priority of God in our music and in the whole of life. The crisis in worship today is not a crisis of form but of spirituality.” 20 years later, I still wonder whether they were right in their own time, and how well we might be doing now.
If there is work to be done, Rosenbaum was clear that the revitalisation of prayer in his time was failing “since they focused on changing the tools of the worshipper instead of changing the worshipper himself.” (Rosenbaum 1967, p.5) He wrote:
“A Jew cannot come to the service spiritually naked, intellectually bankrupt and liturgically unskilled and expect ‘to get something out of it.’ Prayer cannot be achieved by merely being in a synagogue. It takes wanting, it takes preparation, it takes knowing. We cannot hope to revitalize prayer by pandering to the lowest level, or by changing the rules or the liturgy to accommodate the inept. We serve them better only by conducting the most authentic, the most sincere, the most genuine service which can be mustered.” (Rosenbaum 1967, p.6)
In Jewish tradition, prayer is referred to is avodah shebalev. Avodah means both service and work, while lev means both heart and mind. Together, avodah and lev imply deep commitment from the whole self, an idea echoed by George Herbert: Prayer is “… God’s breath in man returning to his birth, The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, … Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, … the soul’s blood, The land of spices; something understood.”
Heschel (1954, p.13) wrote eloquently and at length about prayer. Perhaps one of his most beautiful and concise definitions was: “… prayer is an act which makes the heart audible to God.” God is always tuned into us. Prayer tunes us to God, both so that we can properly transmit to God, and so that we can listen. A question that exercises me is how music can help, or hinder, us tuning to God.
What do we want to say to God? Will our new musical prayer settings be limited to just adolescent love songs to God and sentiments of ‘wow, you’re great!’? Musical settings can give an emotional ‘hit’, like a drug, but leave us quickly waiting for the next high (just like in a pop concert), without leading us to greater insight, or a shift of consciousness? As we mature spiritually, or perhaps, in order that we don’t arrest the development of our relationship with God, we may need music that will express our deepening selves.
Our music will need sophistication, nuance, subtlety, layers. We need to be stretched, and not get used to being spoon-fed and instantly gratified, led down unhelpful paths, or anesthetised. It would be a terrible shame if we never discovered that we could do more. We must care about what we are saying, the content and implications of our words. And we must care about our tone of voice, how we say things. In worship, our tone of voice is evident in what music we put to those words. As Isaacson put it: “To do less is to be less.” (Isaacson, 2007, p.242)