Gospel Music at Shul: Yay or Nay?

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There’s this weird trend going on at my shul recently. Hadar has always been big on people bringing in new tunes to use for kedusha and other parts of the service. It’s always beautiful, and I like that moment where you’re singing along and trying to figure out how you know the melody. Recently I had one of those ‘wait–how do I know this tune?’ moments, and realized a few minutes later that we were singing Sim Shalom to the tune of Amazing Grace.

This is the kind of thing that I would expect to hate. I’m very careful not to mix Christianity with my Judaism partially because I don’t want anyone thinking I subscribe to anything Jesus-related, and partially because I feel like Christianity is too often shoved down the throats of unsuspecting American Jews and I don’t want to be a party to that. So though I find gospel music attractive in some ways, I don’t approve of it in shul.

Except–I think Amazing Grace is the perfect tune for Sim Shalom. It’s really beautiful, and conveys a message of grace, which is inherent in the Sim Shalom blessing. It worked for me, but I was very conscious of how much I should have hated it.

Not surprisingly, there are a number of responsa on this subject, and when I consulted with a rabbi I was told that it’s technically allowed, but if the people singing along in shul will be thinking of the Christian lyrics in their heads then it’s not okay. I only know the first few lines of Amazing Grace, but I definitely was thinking about them at shul while we sang Sim Shalom, which makes me think it should be avoided.

I’m ambivalent on this. Seems like I shouoldn’t like it, but I do, and it seems like it shouldn’t be allowed, but it might be halakhically fine.

Now, let’s watch some Sister Act.

Posted on August 24, 2009

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3 thoughts on “Gospel Music at Shul: Yay or Nay?

  1. The Doctor

    Adding new tunes to liturgy has it’s precedents [I mean, Carlebach and Debbie Friedman didn't come down from Mount Sinai] although there are some melodies that are so strongly associated with christianity ["onward christian soldiers" for example] that I would have difficulty keeping an open mind.

    We have had experience with the insertion of actual gospel music such as Amazing Grace [which by the way doesn't mention Jaysus specifically] into our “creative family service” on Rosh Hashanah with the rabbi giving a talk on how the values expressed in the song meshed with the themes of the holiday; and at our current shul there’s plans afoot to do some [selected for Jaysus-free lyrics] gospel music on MLK/Heshel Shabbat [which seems also appropriate].

    Having done Adon Olam to Simon and Garfunkle, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the Beatles, I’ll keep quiet about the entire concept of adapting outside melodies. Sonmetimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t…

  2. The Doctor

    Lorne,

    Perhaps the particular animus against christianity relates to a 2000 year history of targeting Jews for conversion and/or discrimination, marginalization, and murder. We don’t have that history with shinto, dao, hind, or buddhism [which in my experience including visiting buddhist shrines does not involve sacrifice to idols].

    When the official posture of numerous christian denominations is that part of the mission statement is the conversion of the Jews, and when funding goes to groups that claim that Jews are misguided and that they don’t realize that their religion should include worship of Jaysus, should you really be surprised that we aren’t rushing to incorporate christian tunes and lyrics into our core religious practices?

  3. The Doctor

    [reply posted here as this computer won't let me post to the discussion thread on this topic---sorry!]

    Lorne,

    You miss the point. It’s not a matter of hating the music. There’s lots of music I like by non-Jewish composers [although when Simon and Garfunkle came along everyone else should have quit. But that's another story...]. Some music is so loaded with symbolism and connotations that it can’t be ignored despite how pretty it is. The melody for the old German anthem is quite nice, but none of us can forget what “Deutschland Uber Alles” came to symbolize. Wagner is frowned upon in Israel not because the music stinks [it doesn't] but because his antisemitism and the association of his music with Hitler can’t be ignored.

    There are a lot of melodies that are quite nice, but are so closely associated with christianity and the worship of Jaysus [and "Onward Christian Soldiers" comes to mind] that it would be completely inappropriate to incorporate tem into a Jewish worship service. “Amazing Grace” doesn’t fall into this category for me, nor does the Shaker melody “A Simple Gift” [used by Aaron Copeland in Appalachian Spring" and hijacked by certain groups as an evangelical anthem with new words]; but some things just don’t work.

    And it’s not a matter of “hating all things christian” or “disliking a melody because of the religion of the composer.” We don’t hate christianity [at least I don't] but I feel that it is neither necessary or appropriate to force a melody that is plainly and obviously associated with christian worship into a Jewish worship service.

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