THE CASE FOR MORE APPROPRIATE SHUL MUSIC

Hallelujah - Psalm 150 by Winikoff

Dignified Joy in Music

Contrary to what many rabbis, cantors and synagogue boards might choose to believe, not every congregant really cares to come to services and sit through endless repetitions of simplistic “chassidic” melodies, clapping, drumming (using actual or makeshift drums) or a faux party-like atmosphere.

Contrary to what they might believe, most congregants don’t come to services to “have fun.”

Contrary to what they might believe, not every congregant believes that pop-style music is appropriate as mainstream worship music.

Contrary to what those who (understandably) fret about declining shul attendance might be dying to believe, pandering with pop music is not a wise approach in attempting to lure more attendees to services.

Contrary to this misguided mindset, is the well-known Jewish principle of dignity, modesty and respectfulness in worship.  Hence the customary and powerful motto found over many synagogue pulpits, serving to remind us of this tradition:  “Da lifnei mi atah omeid – Know before Whom you stand.”

We all love fun, even if we might each harbor varying ideas of what constitutes fun.  Be let’s ask ourselves:  Is shul really supposed to be fun?  Are we confusing the sort of regenerative (and under ideal circumstances, transformative) joy we are to experience on Shabbat or Yom Tov with fun?  And aren’t there ample opportunities in our secular lives for fun?  Hence another Jewish principle –separation of the sacred from the secular.

Shouldn’t worship should be a unique and elevated experience in our lives, rather than just another manifestation of our broader culture?  Shouldn’t it harbor a higher spirituality rather than a spirit of simple hedonism.  Should it not reflect our tradition of dignity and respectfulness “before Whom we stand?”

The Schtik Factor.  Sometimes, I think we Jews have never quite separated our illustrious secular American pop cultural legacy of “showbiz” from what should be the loftier realm of our spiritual practice.  In doing my own rather thorough survey of American Conservative Jewish congregational websites, I’ve noticed something reflected from time to time in the contents of most of these sites:  a sensibility of schtik – of comedic silliness embodied, for example, in clever plays on words to describe events – for example, the commonly coined “Friday Nite Live,” which seems to evoke the spirit of that long-running late-night Saturday evening comedy series which is the very embodiment of adolescent “fun.”  Or the many too-clever-by-half plays on words used to describe a congregation’s musical or choral ensembles.  All of which contributes to an air of Jewish cultural self-parody.  There should be more to Jewish culture than Henny Youngman.

The “Cool” Factor.  One suspects the new obsession with the pop idiom in worship music might be partially rooted in our deep-seated and often subconscious need to feel “cool” or “hip,” or at the very least not to appear passé or out of step.  Trouble is, what’s considered cool or “happening” now will almost certainly be passé before very long.

The pop-music-in-shul phenomenon may also be simply a manifestation of an out-and-out ignorance of other better types of music, or perhaps a misguided fear or loathing of anything too closely resembling “church” music.  Through this ignorance and this fear we have limited our choices.

We Jews must stop feeling apologetic for our good and honorable religious life in all its rich complexity, stop feeling the need to hide behind the schtik, and learn to embrace and celebrate the great moral dignity and beauty of Yiddishkeit by treating it with dignity and beauty.  Too often I sense even from rabbis a kind of reluctance to recognize these qualities in some of our rituals, a kind of shame or embarrassment about them.  Our rituals, if they are to be effective and inspiring, must be taken seriously as the wonderful high theater that they are, and the music – whether congregational, cantorial or choral, should reflect this.  It’s time to raise our standards of what we consider appropriate music in shul.

To begin to accomplish any of this requires, first of all, knowing and appreciating the meaning and tenor of our liturgy and the rituals it supports – the sublime beauty and grace of L’cha Dodi, the grandeur of K’dushah, the mystical drama and power of Hashkiveinu, the pathos of Havein Yakir Li, to name a few examples.  And by extension, it points to the need for better understanding and appreciation of our nusach, our musical chant, which is perhaps the most authentic embodiment of our worship music tradition – the better to sense what is appropriate music for these prayers.

Fulfillment of these needs ought to be preached and validated by our cantors and rabbis, taught and touted as a vital resource for composers of serious, authentic, appropriate and substantive Jewish sacred music.

The desperate pandering to popular taste that is currently happening may be great fun for some of us, but it’s not likely to work for long, and it carries a high price tag:  the mortgaging of our musical heritage.  Let’s leave the “fun” for its appropriate occasions, and strive to bring a higher sense of beauty and joy to shul.    Join Email List