‘God is in the detail’: a composer’s perspective on crafting modern Jewish sacred music

Summary of sections:
  • Prayer, words and music – the role of sacred music
  • ‘Reaching out without dumbing down’
  • Music as theology; music as midrash
  • ‘Prayer: the lost art’
  • Making music holy – kodesh
  • ‘God is in the detail’ – 25 questions for creating new musical prayer
  • Using PaRDeS (peshat, remez, drash, sod) as a framework for setting words to music
  • Isaac’s wells and Jewish renewal
  • Bibliography (extensive), including: printed articles; books; theses; online resources; teaching materials, poetry and miscellaneous

(Note: Although focusing primarily on the creation of new Jewish sacred music, this article also makes reference to modern Christian musical composition.)

Prayer, words and music

For 40 years, I have been exploring the relationship between prayer, words and music.

Music makes an impression on us. What do we want to impress on our senses, our psyches, our souls?  What sensory, emotional, intellectual and spiritual impression of our prayers and texts do we want to be left with? How might music enhance or undermine our religious life?

As for words, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1954, p.78) wrote: “We must learn how to study the inner life of the words that fill the world of our prayer book. … It is not enough to know how to translate Hebrew into English … A word has a soul, and we must learn how to attain insight into its life.”

Heschel (1954, p.70) also wrote: “Prayer is of no importance unless it is of supreme importance.” “[In] prayer, words are commitments, not the subject matter for aesthetic reflection, … prayer is meaningless unless we stand for what we utter, unless we feel what we accept. A word of prayer is a word of honour given to God.” (Heschel 1954, p.79)

As I hope will become apparent in today’s talk, despite being a professional musician for around 35 years, for me, music actually comes last, and prayer comes first. And words help provide the link between the two. So: prayer – words – and music. In that order.

This framework has proved helpful for me when navigating the literature on music and worship, and sacred music. Sacred music appears to be given the job of being all things to all people. Variously, it has been required to:

  • Foster community spirit, cohesion and a sense of belonging
  • Resolve and prevent community fragmentation
  • Create and sustain spiritual community
  • Help overcome disaffection with synagogue/church or Judaism/Christianity, and crises of faith, and offer a ‘way in’
  • Help attract and enlarge congregations across the whole age range
  • Aid a sense of rootedness, and be an engine for cultural transformation and spiritual renewal
  • Aid emotional expression and release, and communication
  • Entertain
  • Help interpret text, engage intellect and instruct
  • Entertain
  • Uplift and encourage
  • Provide familiarity, predictability, sameness, and connection to tradition, as well as provide variety
  • Make the worship space and experience ‘accessible’
  • Enable freedom and discipline
  • Enable people to tune in, and tune out and unwind
  • Supply distraction, even enabling a way to avoid prayer or significant engagement with religion, theology, belief, faith, God, oneself of others
  • Enable frequent emotional highs (frequently), and immediate gratification
  • Create ‘spiritual’ experiences
  • Engage body and breath
  • Validate religious rituals
  • Promoting kavanah (directing attention towards God) and devekut (cleaving’ to God)
  • Be a means to build intra-faith and interfaith links;
  • Enable participation, whether that means giving people a chance to belong, to do something, or being given a voice in prayer and God-relationship
  • Make or reinforce memories (and providing spiritual nurture in remembrance)
  • Broaden vision and horizons

This is a bewildering list of requirements. And despite my many years of experience as a composer and liturgical musician, I find myself still ill-equipped to meet all those demands. I am still trying to work out what music is doing, or could do, in the context of prayer, and the religious and spiritual life of a person and community.

‘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.”

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. Thirty 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.” Twenty 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 in the 17th century: 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 anaesthetised. 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)

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, Anthony 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)

‘God is in the detail’

So, as a composer and occasional lyricist for sacred music, I have tried to articulate some of my key questions. These questions are not just about what might make the music and lyrics ‘holy’, but also what might ensure they are of sufficient high quality, and fit for purpose. My questions are guided in particular by two pieces of advice from the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The first is: “Content dictates form. Less is more. God is in the details.” (Sondheim, 2010) And the second piece of advice is: “the ear hears things that the mind does not know” (Horowitz 2010, p.117) What he means by this is that, even if our mind is untutored in the fine detail of language or music, our subconscious mind registers and responds to every detail in the words and music, and their combination. And therefore, as writers, we have to care about everything. So, on to the questions:

  1. Should I write for now, or for the future as well? Should I be expressing and echoing the Zeitgeist, or contributing to shaping a new one?
  2. Does this vocal piece have “something to say, and say it economically, modestly and directly”? (Wren 1995)
  3. What theology is being expressed through a) the words, b) the music, c) this combination of words and music?
  4. Could this music-words combination address a spiritual need in the community?
  5. Could this piece “help us connect with those words and digest their import more clearly”? (Isaacson, 2007, p.131) Does the music make a midrashic point, and heighten our awareness of layers of meaning?
  6. Do the words or music call attention to the writer? Does the music call attention to itself, or the words and prayer? Do the words call attention to the prayer?
  7. Does this piece “give … ‘size’ to smaller ideas, and add … accessibility to greater ones”? (Isaacson, 2007, p.226) Alexander Knapp says that it is essential that “… music reflect text, otherwise there will be a rapid loss of credibility in its practical function as a true and viable vehicle for religious feeling…” (Knapp, in RSGB Music Handbook, p.96)
  8. Does this piece, or even the writing of this piece, help me grow? Could it help anyone else grow?
  9. Does the music fit the liturgical moment?
  10. Could this setting help anyone meet themselves or others?
  11. Could this piece help anyone turn towards, and meet God more deeply, and ‘let God in’?
  12. Does this piece (words and music) feel kodesh – holy and separate from everyday life? “A useful rule of thumb might be to ask, ‘Am I hearing ‘cross-over’ music imposed upon a sacred occasion, or is it music that is not usually or frequently heard outside the synagogue, and was created specifically for this worship and spirituality?” An ancillary question might be, “Does the timeliness of the music cloud the classic timelessness of the spiritual connection?” (Isaacson, 2007, p.132)
  13. Could this piece encourage a person to listen and consider? (Isaacson, 2007, p.130) Could it “elevate one’s thinking, spirit and emotive life”? (Isaacson, 2007, p.14)
  14. Could this piece revitalise individual or communal prayer, and enable greater ownership of prayer?
  15. Could this piece help a person face reality, rather than avoid it?
  16. Is it a truly religious statement, that is, “a musical expression of man’s search for God”? (Jospe, Forum, 1972, p.83)
  17. Is this piece “lucid rather than childish”, and “engaging, rather than glib”? (Leckebusch 2012b)
  18. Is the level of difficulty appropriate for those who will sing and play this piece? Is the piece vocally and musically satisfying to learn and sing?
  19. Is the language in the lyrics inclusive?
  20. Does every verse, not just the first one, fit the tune? (Robertson 2003)
  21. Does each section build logically on what has come before it?
  22. Does the language flow well, and is the vocabulary appropriate, in a way that people would be able to connect with the words?
  23. Do the word words and syllables fall appropriately on the stresses in the music?
  24. Is it “plain and hard-wearing enough to stand repetition”? (Wren 1995) Will it “stand up to being looked at, and read and sung through many times over, during a period of years”? (Robertson 2003)
  25. Does it show mastery of lyric writing and music composition? Is there high quality in five elements: lyrics, melody, harmony, structure and musical arrangement? And is there an internal consistency within and between all the elements?
PARDES (‘paradise’)

In order to be able to answer those questions, lyricists and composers might benefit from immersing themselves deeply in religious life and learning. I imagine they might have an active prayer life, have contemplative time alone, and spend significant time with those of their faith community, study Scripture, midrash and commentary on it. In Jewish tradition, the study of text can fall within the concept of pardes, a word meaning ‘paradise’, but also being a mnemonic for four principles. I continue to experiment with how the practices of PaRDeS might be applied to creating liturgical vocal music.


This is the ‘plain’ meaning of the text. Musically, I think of this as corresponding to the general mood of the music, what might be called the ‘emotional’ reading of the text. Of course, texts can be read emotionally in more than one way. The shape and energetic trajectory of the music may be unconventional or unexpected for a given text, but it can still ‘work’ if it sheds light on an authentic possible reading of that text. The music must also match the mood appropriate to the moment in the service, or the Jewish calendar or life cycle. Drawing upon nusach, the musical shapes and modes of a particular strand of Jewish musical liturgy can play a role here, as nusach has an elaborate system of correspondences and associations for some Jewish lineages.


These are the ‘hints’ to other meanings. Musically, I look for possibilities for paralleling textual structure with musical structure, in grammar, and in rhetoric – for example, chiasmus, climax, anadiplosis, isocolon.


Meaning ‘searching’, this is where we get the word midrash. We can discover connections between one text, and other texts, either from Torah or Tanach, or from Talmud, commentaries and stories and traditions up to the present day including the evolving liturgy and prayerbook. This might give rise to creative connections with music from within or outside the Jewish world across time and space – in the musical language or in specific musical quotations. It is these external reference points and common cultural pool that composers partly rely upon, in order to make an emotional and psychological impact on the listener. Translations, while aiming to stay faithful to the Hebrew, might reveal a particular or unusual understanding, albeit rooted in rigorous scholarship and respect for significant sources. Melody, harmony, musical structure and even the arrangement or choice of instruments may add to what is called musical ‘word painting’.


These are the ‘secret’, esoteric and mystical elements (such as from Kabbalah and the number symbolism of gematria) that may be deliberately embedded in the original text, or that can be creatively, experimentally and respectfully read into it anachronistically. These hidden elements can be echoed in more subtle aspects of lyric or musical composition, such as in plays on words in English translations, key relationships, time signatures, numbers of bars, and so on.

Isaac’s wells and Jewish renewal

It is a tenet of both Judaism and Christianity that we should ‘shatter the idols’ whenever and wherever we find them. We should no more idolize pop culture and what is new than idolize old traditions or elite musical forms. Sacred music should not anaesthetise us emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, but sensitise us to God, ourselves and who and what is around us. Sacred music’s proper role is to transform us, not chloroform us.

As I hope has become clear in this essay, I am not interested in any of the following:

  • using only the music of the past, in preference to creating anything new at all
  • creating a pastiche music by mimicking music from past Jewish liturgical forms
  • creating Jewish sacred music that simply copies what is fashionable or popular in the contemporary secular world – its sounds, rhythms and textures, or even glib, intellectually suspect lyrics
  • creating something so new and different that it fails to speak inclusively to a wide and diverse group of worshippers

In the story of Isaac, we learn that he re-opened his father Abraham’s wells; we too, can dig into our past, and find valuable forms and teachings. But Isaac did not ask people to drink old water; the water in those wells was fresh, and we must be willing to refresh Judaism. In Buber’s 1911 essay ‘The Renewal of Judaism’ [2], he wrote that we should not simply revive and replicate old forms. Rather, he was encouraging us to respect and draw from the past, while playing a role in the evolution of Judaism into whatever it needs to be now, and what it needs to become. All ‘traditional’ music was new once. The music we create now may well become the ‘traditional’ music of the future. One of our important tasks right now is to create new Jewish sacred music, alongside the best from the past, that has relevance now. My hope is for that music to have depth and substance, whoever uses it.

Bibliography – https://alexandermassey.com/composing-jewish-sacred-music-part-7-7/

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

[2] Buber, Martin (1929) Drei Reden über das Judentum, Rütten und Leonig, p.97

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