Composing Jewish sacred music – part 4/7

‘God is in the detail’: a composer’s perspective on crafting modern Jewish sacred music – part 4/7

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Making music ‘holy’ – kodesh

When Moses encountered the burning bush, he first had to ‘turn aside’, and contemplate what was before him. Only then did God speak to him, and tell him, “The place where you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). From this, we learn, in Judaism that, in order to have true encounter with God, we must first raise our awareness. Jacob, after his awareness-raising dream of the ladder, realised: “God is in this place, and I did not know it.” (Gen. 28:16) The Rabbis of the Talmud taught: “One who says the T’fillah [daily prayer] should wait [sit] an hour before his prayer and an hour after his prayer.” (Berachot 32b) To pray, to encounter God, we must make time and space, and shift our consciousness.

Catherine Bell explains: “ritualization is a matter of various culturally specific strategies for setting some activities off from others, for creating and privileging a … distinction between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane.’” (Bell, 1992, 74.) The Hebrew word kadosh is usually translated ‘holy’. While this English word often hints at something numinous, its Hebrew meaning is more grounded. It simply means ‘separate’. Jews are commanded to keep themselves ‘apart’, in the sense of delineating religious and ritual spaces and moments.

If prayer time is time apart between ourselves and God – whether it is individuals with God, or the community collectively engaging directly with God – then ideally, sacred music must help achieve this separation from everyday time and space. That would mean that sacred music should feel different from secular music. Leithart (2011) writes: “I can hardly imagine a more worrisome sign of worldliness, or clearer evidence of the church’s identity crisis, than our eager renunciation of our own soundscape and our determination instead to reproduce the world’s.” Without careful management of the sacred soundscape, ““Music, touted as the medium which enhances prayer can also preclude it.” (Borts 2014, p.22) The music for prayer must not be a counter-movement to the prayer itself. Sacred composers have to use the common musical tools at hand, so this ‘separation’ in order to make the music ‘holy’ is not so easy. Our job is not to mimic current culture, but to offer a sacred alternative to it. Somehow, we must find ways to relate the elements of music to the language and purposes of prayer, and, as Borts says, “sonically carve out the space as ‘sacred’ (Borts 2014, p.117)”.

In 2008, Anthonay Esolen wrote a two-part essay for Catholic World News about the plight of liturgical music. In the first part (‘Pop Goes the Mass’, 2008a), he wrote:

“Whenever I complain about the vanity of our contemporary church music, someone replies that it’s only a matter of taste, or that whatever uplifts the hearts of the congregation must be good. But is that so? … though hearts may be “uplifted,” shouldn’t we be asking: uplifted where? Uplifted in whom? Uplifted for what purpose? Prayer is sometimes exciting, but it doesn’t follow that all excitations of the nerves, even when set to lyrics with “God” in them, are fit for liturgical prayer.” (Esolen, 2008b)

A year earlier, Isaacson (2007, p.242) wrote: “It is simply not adequate for Jews to employ music to swoon. The wayward Israelites were swooners at the Golden Calf. We must do better …” In some respects, it seems that Christians and Jews are singing from the same hymn sheet!

We should also be concerned about the lyrics that are written for liturgical music. Esolen wrote: “even when the lyricists limit themselves to Scripture, they fail to read the verses with the theological and doctrinal depth that Scripture displays and demands.” (Esolen, 2008a) And in his advice to ‘The Budding Hymnwriter (Wren 1995), Brian Wren warned:

  “whereas the good hymn reminds you of what you knew to be true, what you are sorry to have forgotten for the moment, and what you are glad to have the new chance of asserting as your belief or your aspiration, the bad one is that which either leaves you in doubt or subtly misleads you. If the good one makes you say, ‘Ah yes, I now see that that is what I wanted to say’, the bad one makes you say either ‘That doesn’t apply to me’ or, ‘I still don’t believe that’, or, ‘Oh yes, that is true’ when it isn’t true at all.” Wren 1995

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