Ideal music for t’filah

One of the classes I’m taking this semester—and which, so far, I’ve supremely enjoyed—is taught in Drew’s Methodist Theological Seminary. It’s called Music of the World’s Religions. We’ve covered, so far, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish music. We finished our unit on Jewish music today, with the assistance of Cantor Howard M. Stahl of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ.

Over the course of this class so far, I have been forced to examine, in light of other traditions, how I feel about Jewish litrugical music. This week and last week, the challenge was made more direct. We listened to a variety of Jewish music from different periods and places. I found myself unable, in class, to verbalize my feelings about music and liturgy. So now I am attempting to set my thoughts down in writing, hoping to clarify my own feelings to myself.

DISCLAIMER: Before everyone jumps up with cries of how unrealistic and high my expectations are, let me be clear about my intent: I don’t expect this to ever happen. What I write here in this blog about music today is intended to be my perfect world. It doesn’t exist and it’s not going to. But, in examining what we envision our perfect world to be, we learn what our goals are.

Those of you who have read this blog for some time or have ever skimmed The Lone Star Sidur Project (or those of you who have ever met me), will know that I am obsessed with always saying the right thing during t’filah. I am obsessed with using a text with as much internal consistency, respect for tradition, and enthusiasm for sensible and correct liturgical change as possible, as ridiculous as all of that is.

That all having been said, it will come as no surprise to you that if I had to choose between a hyper-orthodox service with mind-blowingly good music and a Reform service with pretty lousy music, I would choose the Reform service on the assumption that the ideology and text read and espoused in the Reform service is more closely in line with my own. And so, when push comes to shove, as nice as music is, I believe that a text I can interact with and get behind is far more important than good music.

So, what do I think constitutes good liturgical music?

I think that there are certain moral imperatives involved. I think we should assume that Jews want to pray, not be prayed to. And if they don’t, they do themselves a disservice. Some would say that they like to get lost in a beautiful piece of music during services rather than sing along with a simpler piece. That’s what concerts are for. Complicated choral music, then, is out. What if you had an entire congregation composed entirely of one great big choir? I still say complicated choral music is out. If you have to concentrate so hard on performing the music properly, you’re not paying attention to the words, and the point, subsequently is lost on you. Rounds are also out because they alienate musical defectives like me who have such trouble singing along that we can’t quite focus on the text we’re singing.

Let me also address nigunim. I take real issue with the idea that any melody can become spiritually elevated simply by removing the words and replacing them with nonsense syllables. A piece whose only vocal part is a nigun is out, in my opinion. I have no problem with a piece of music that includes a nigun part amongst parts with words of meaning because then, like any back up instrumentation involved, the nigun serves to beautify the words. Judaism is a tradition of meaning and thought, while nigunim are meaningless and thoughtless.

From here we descend into my simple stylistic preferences. I don’t find any moral imperatives here. What follows is nothing more than my favored aesthetics.

I like some of the folksy 1960’s-70’s American Jewish summer camp music. I like Middle East-flavored music and Mizrachi music. I like older Sephardic music. I like Argentinean Jewish music. Lately, I’ve been exposed to Carlebach tunes that I enjoy a lot. And I like traditional nusach.

So that’s what I think about music. Let the lambasting begin.

14 Responses to Ideal music for t’filah

  1. Rich April 8, 2008 at 8:36 pm #

    No lambasting here, though I do have one thought on Niggunim I would beg you to consider:

    If the theme of a wordless niggun introduced at the beginning of a service also forms melody of sung prayer during the service, the wordless niggun serves your goals because it gets the melody into the congregation’s mind, and when that melody is later used with prayer, it will already be familiar.

    Now for a place where we absolutely differ. Here’s the scenario: I leave work late and battle traffic to get to the shul. I’m cut off a few times, and then I’m parked on the highway because the same guy who cut me off successfully was unsuccessful further down the road, and the accident is being cleared. I hasten into the sanctuary, my wife looks at me with relief, and I, still stressed plop my butt down into the pew. The rav is chanting a niggun over a gentle 6/8 arpeggio on his guitar the familiar tune washes over me and chanting it with him slows my racing mind. Now, when it’s time to pray, my mind is on prayer, and not back on the highway.

    That’s the role the Niggun plays for me: a meditation signifying a state change.

  2. davidamwilensky April 9, 2008 at 12:08 am #

    Rich – I don’t disagree with you on any particular point.

  3. Getzel April 9, 2008 at 5:23 am #

    Gevalt! Niggunim are the highest prayer in the world. Chos v’shalom we should think about removing them from our tefillos

    no but seriously man, music and melody enter the mind on a much deeper level than rational thought can. The Radziner Rebbe holds that the reason why animals can only make noises and not speak is because they are constantly in such a deep state of devekut with G!d.
    Don’t knock a niggunim unil you have spent an hour singing the same niggun over and over with a group of chassidim completly blissing out on the unitity of the universe.

  4. davidamwilensky April 9, 2008 at 7:20 am #

    Getzel- Remeber the part where you’re neo-Chasidic and I’m some sort of Reform neo-Litvak?

    How can nigunim be called the highest prayer in the world? How can they be called a prayer at all? A prayer requires us to say something or inquire something, but a nigun has no content!

    And don’t get me started on your notion there from the Radziner Rebbe.

  5. Anne Yardley April 11, 2008 at 7:20 am #

    David
    Thanks for your reflections here on what we have talked about in class. I love your intensity about and respect for the words of prayer. I agree that they need to be said with utmost respect. But I disagree with you about the communicative power of music. There are emotions and experiences that transcend our ability to put things into words. That is why there are so many love songs out there! And when a musician writes a beautiful love song to G’d then for many people that connects them to the divine in a way that words never do. It doesn’t seem to be the medium that speaks to you most deeply. But I would urge you to recognize that it does for others. I have the same problem with dance. Dance rarely connects me with the divine in the same way that music or prayer does. Yet for others it is the most intense form of prayer. In my view we need to respect the paths that work for people even if we don’t embrace them ourselves.

  6. David A.M. Wilensky April 11, 2008 at 8:08 am #

    Dean Yardley- I respect what it does for others. I don’t get it, but I respect it. Remember, I’m just talking here about magical ideal David-world.

  7. Maryjane April 11, 2008 at 3:21 pm #

    Hi David,
    This is the first class in my 2 years in the Theo School that I’ve had CLA students in my classes. As someone who is most probably older then your parents, it has been an opportunity to deal with another generation. It’s been a good experience to get to know you outside of reading what newspapers have to say! With everyone’s schedules, we don’t interact enough, given the close proximity of our respective academic buildings. For that opportunity, I am grateful.
    Last Friday, I took Jooyeon home, by way of a Synagogue in Teaneck. I don’t have the name in front of me to spell it correctly, but it was a Reformed temple. The only Hebrew I’ve ever had is a crash course by a Rabbi from Toronto who is also an Air Force Reservist. Those 2 weeks of classes would not allow me to feel comfortable enough to attempt to give voice to the words, but when music is involved, I could softly blend in.
    The cantor at the service we attended was a woman with a beautiful voice. Once she got the congregation going, you could here her fade into the background. I can understand your not liking the complicated music, because it doesn’t allow everyone to participate. It tends to exclude, rather then include people. Even with that said, music adds a special dimension to prayer. As Ecclesiastes III tells us, there is a time for everything. So too it should be with music. Have a great weekend!
    Grace and peace,
    Mj

  8. Susie Thomas April 11, 2008 at 3:38 pm #

    Hey David,

    I love your blog! And I’ve really enjoyed having you and the other CLA students in our music class – as Mj notes, we Drewids don’t mingle enough.

    I see that you write the way you talk – articulately, in paragraphs, and with a certain…self-confidence! Keeping in mind that you are writing in this post only of David’s ideal worship-world, I’ll just offer the Taize chant as a parallel to nigunim.

    Taize songs aren’t composed of nonsense works as i gather that nigunim are; the lyrics are, though, ultimately simple, along the lines of “Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy name,” sung to a simple melody, over and over again. The singer is taken from the world of the word through the sheer power of repetition, and into a wordless place, where God may live. It’s just as Getzel described his/her end of the day experience with nigunim.

    Such an interesting topic, word and music! Blog on, man,

    susie

  9. Sarah Wilensky April 12, 2008 at 12:37 pm #

    My ideal music world looks pretty much the same as yours, David. Lemme know if you ever happen upon it!

  10. David A.M. Wilensky April 12, 2008 at 4:04 pm #

    Sarah- further proof that we’re related!

  11. Noa April 24, 2008 at 1:10 am #

    I know I’m a like a week behind everybody, but I’m just catching up on your blog.

    I think I would survive, though not particularly enthusiastically, in your ideal-David-world. I totally agree with you about the performance thing, and the fact that the words are more important than the music. But having participated in services at a Jewish Choral Festival, with a bunch of other teenagers who happen to be really great singers, I can tell you that having some exciting (or as you may say, “complicated”) musical stuff happening is incredibly moving.

    On the other hand, when the guy leading services began conducting the Sh’ma, I became quite peeved…so there’s a fine line. And since you mentioned Carlebach, this is a quote from his daughter, Neshama, who is also a famous musician:

    “My father always said that when we sing, it’s like we’re praying twice…somehow, when we don’t have the words to express all that we need, music says it for us.”

    so there’s your relationship between words and melody. anywho, keep it up :)

  12. davidamwilensky April 24, 2008 at 7:25 am #

    Noa- You said “I can tell you that having some exciting (or as you may say, “complicated”) musical stuff happening is incredibly moving.”

    But it’s so hard to participate with that. It becomes a performance. Not to mention the fact that sometimes the only people who like it are the ones performing it.

  13. Noa April 25, 2008 at 1:57 pm #

    I suppose that was a special case–all of the people participating in the services were musically inclined, and it was phenomenal because it was exciting, and everybody was participating. I get what you’re saying. When I’m on the listening end of something like that it’s a pain.

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