Does the synagogue you attend speak your language? If you are not a synagogue goer, might you go if the folks there spoke your language? By language, I don’t mean Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, etc.
One of the central purposes of religion is to make sense of the world around us. “Religion,” from the Latin word “religare” means to restrain, to tie, to bind. Related to the word “ligament,” religion “binds” our ideas and experiences together into a cohesive worldview. Religious language is valuable only to the extent that your personal, most existential questions are dealt with, and in a manner that speaks to you.
Remember this scene of young Alvy Singer from Woody Allan’s Oscar winning Annie Hall?: Alvy Singer’s mother has taken nine year old Alvy to the Doctor.
Alvy: The universe is expanding.
Doctor Flicker: The universe is expanding?
Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if its expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
Alvy’s Mom scolds: What is that your business? (To the doctor) He stopped doing his homework!
Alvy: What’s the point?
Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson points out that while science has made great strides in increasing human knowledge on matters of the human scale, certainty about what we know decreases when we consider issues much larger or smaller than we have been evolutionarily conditioned to reckon with. He writes:
“… We are limited to an intuitive sense that pertains to our range of size and our durations of time. For size ranges vastly larger than our own (planets, galaxies, space-time) or vastly smaller (molecules, atoms, atomic particles, and quanta), human intuition and logic is not reliable…[T]he only effective system of human relation and expression (constrained by our scientific knowledge) is the Four M’s: Math, Metaphor, Music, and Myth. Each provides a syntax and narrative to link our consciousness and existence to those realms of reality vastly larger or smaller than our own size range, or vastly shorter or longer than the time frames we are evolved to recognize and intuit.” – Ba-Derekh: On the Way – A presentation of Process Theology
Math, Metaphor, Music, Myth – Each of these four M’s is a language that can be used to discuss that which is much grander or much more minute then the everyday experience of humankind. Each language (each of the 4 M’s) can operate “religiously” by connecting what we cannot fully fathom to an expression that is more familiar and meaningful to us. And while each language helps us understand our place in the universe, we must acknowledge a lingering lack of certainty of the truths, or partial-truths, that each language helps us uncover.
I think it might be the case that each of us is hard-wired to have preconceived preferences among these four languages of meaning. I have students who prefer the language of math and logic. But, with imaginary numbers (such as infinity) and thanks to pioneering mathematicians such as Godel, even certain aspects of math, once considered the epitome of logical language, can be understood as limited, or merely theoretical. I have family members whose spiritual lives are fed by music. For me, I am focused on the lyrics, captivated by metaphor and myth (“all we are is dust in the wind”), rather than the notes or tones. For them, the harmonies and unexpected chord progressions thrill them to the point of goose bumps.
Religion as a Verb
What language do you religion in? Each of the four M’s has power to uncover partial truths. Each of us may prefer Math, Metaphor, Music, or Myth over the other three, but are we missing something vital when we ignore the other languages?
The Mishnah teaches, “Who is truly wise? The one who learns from everybody.” There is wisdom here, but a question lingers. If your synagogue (or the one you don’t go to) does not speak your meaning-making language, should you go elsewhere? Or, should you push yourself to find a bit a meaning in a foreign language?
Imagine the uproar that would happen if a rabbi said that he or she composed a new Torah. The rabbi would face criticism across the board.
Recently one of our Rabbis Without Borders, Rabbi Zach Fredman shared a new “Torah” called The Maqam Project with some rabbis on a listserv. The negative reactions came swiftly. Not knowing that a “maqam” is a is an Arabic musical scale, similar to a jazz mode, which repeats a musical theme while allowing for and encouraging improvisation and has been used for centuries by Syrian Jews as a means of interpreting Torah, the rabbis on the listsev reviled Rabbi Fredman’s supposed “Torah.” Some ungraciously asked who was this guy? Was he even a rabbi?
Imagine their surprise when it turned out that Rabbi Fredman is reviving an ancient Judeo- Arabic tradition of Torah study. What he is doing may be new to us, but is actually quite old. Each weekly Torah potion has a melody that goes with its story line. Rabbi Fredman studied these melodies and then teamed up with another rabbi, James Stone Goodman, to create an interplay of poetry and music which explains the main themes in the weekly Torah portion.
Both the music, which has a distinctive Arabic sound and the spoken word, might sound strange to our Western ears. This is not how my Eastern European ancestors learned Torah. It is different, but it is also traditional Torah. What is old becomes new again.
The Maqam Project is border pushing in the Jewish world. It causes people like me, an American born and raised Ashkenazi Jew, to expand my understanding of what Torah is and how I can access it. I find it both unsettling and beautiful at the same time. I am thankful to have been given a new way to approach Torah.
Take a listen. I would be curious to hear your reactions.
During my first year with a new congregation, I’ve been offering a creative service slot once a month. Borrowing the term from Rabbi Hayyim Herring’s book, ‘Tomorrow’s Synagogues Today’, our ‘Ritual Lab’ Shabbat lets congregants know to come expecting the unexpected for that particular service. Over the course of the year, some services have been more experimental in format than others – more or less similar to the flow and musical styles of our regular Shabbat worship – but each have had a specific goal in mind.
My ‘training’, such as it was, for shaping these creative services came from the Jewish Renewal movement, having spent many years praying with these communities and creating prayer services in that context prior to my formal rabbinic studies. There, one of the terms coined is ‘interpretive davenning‘ – a way of entering the prayer experience in an interpretive mode so that there is a sense of narrative and conscious spiritual journeying that accompanies the flow from one prayer in our liturgy to the next. Different modes may be explored to accompany particular prayers in a way that helps to peel back the layers of history, poetry, and other aspects of meaning found in each prayer. Each of these modes helps to uncover something of the meaning of the prayer, or highlights an aspect of personal spiritual reflection that a prayer might help to highlight. Sometimes it is the mind that is engaged, and sometimes it is something more experiential that helps us see the words of prayer as vehicles for getting beyond words; in many ways this can be the deepest experience of prayer. Such modes can include meditation chanting, movement, dance, study/discussion of a prayer text in pairs, juxtaposing traditional prayers with other kinds of texts to create new readings and meanings, and more.
I so often hear congregants say that the words of our traditional liturgy get in the way of being able to find spirituality in the Jewish communal prayer experience.This is partially because we lack the tools in our spiritual toolbox to unpack the layers of meaning and possibility found in those prayers. But it is also because the sheer amount of words can be overwhelming so that we cannot possibly derive significant meaning from all of them in every service. Of course, not everyone enters into prayer with this expectation – for those who pray in a more traditional mode, it is the overall ritual and rhythm of the familiar prayers that provide the vessel for taking time out to enter into a different mode that is the primary experience. But for many Jews, and certainly in what has been, historically, the more rationally-focused Reform movement’s approach to prayer, the perceived lack of meaning gets in the way for many individuals seeking a spiritual practice that truly touches and transforms them.
In our ‘Ritual Lab’ services, typically two things happen simultaneously; the prayer service becomes a vehicle through which we can attach a learning experience on an infinite number of topics and, at the same time, the materials or experiences we weave into the service brings a new sense of meaning to the individual prayers that have always been there. The next time we pray our way through our traditional liturgy, we bring the insights from these interpretive experiences with us, and they forever change our understanding of and relationship to these traditional prayers.
So, for example, the Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, we held a drumming worship service, juxtaposing insights from Native American spiritual traditions with Jewish ideas and writings that resonated with similar insights. During Pesach we held a ‘Song of Songs Shabbat’ that raised awareness of the Song of Songs being read at Pesach, introduced Jewish mantra chanting into the worship experience, explored the mystical roots of Kabbalat Shabbat and the connections to Song of Songs, and highlighted the nature imagery in our traditional prayers and our own spiritual experiences in nature. Sometimes I’ve been intentionally provocative. For example, there is great ambivalence in the Jewish world about acknowledging Halloween in any way in our Jewish community. I personally don’t feel that this is a useful battle to pursue, given the place of this day in American popular culture and the families and children who delight in the modern expressions of dressing up and going trick-or-treating. Instead, the Friday night closest to Halloween became a time to weave teachings about Ghosts, ghouls and demons found in Jewish folk and mystical tradition into the fabric of our service, demonstrating how some specific prayer and ritual traditions that we still have today may have their roots in these stories and beliefs.
For some of our more regularly attending worshipers, these services have become a highlight. They tell me that the format offers a way for them to be exposed to different kinds of spiritual practice and ways to pray that are accessible and can be internalized, while also providing a forum for learning in a setting other than an adult learning class. The feedback tells me that these creative services are fulfilling their purpose. I look forward to another year of experimentation in our Ritual Lab.
Last year I was chatting with a member of my congregation over bagels with our Tot Shabbat families. She mentioned a mutual friend who has a photo of himself with Robert Redford on his wall. Having been a big fan of Redford as a young adult, that is – years ago – I was tickled. But in this conversation I noticed that another young woman who was standing with us at that time had a blank look on her face. I asked her if she knew who Robert Redford was, and she said, “no.” Oh, did I feel old!
Last week I saw an interview of Crosby, Stills and Nash on a morning TV show. You know Crosby, Stills and Nash, right? They were (and still are) a folk rock supergroup of the sixties, seventies, and beyond. “Teach Your Children” is one very famous song they contributed to the American musical lexicon. I still listen to their music regularly for its beauty, power and social justice themes. I wish the folk rock music of that era was still the cultural currency of our day!
So imagine my surprise when I sat at a table in a very crowded Apple Store in NJ and noticed a very familiar looking man standing next to me, talking with some companions. I know I could be wrong, but I was thought it was David Crosby. I was so excited; I opened his Wikipedia page to check the photo while he walked away. At that moment the Apple Store technician, clearly 25+ years my junior , came over to assist me. I was all excited — “Hey, he was just standing here!” I said as I pointed at the picture. The technician gave a cursory look at the web page and said, “oh”, “now how can I help you?” I was frantic to find someone in the store who had noticed the (apparent) celebrity, so I searched the faces of the crowd. No one seemed to have noticed. Young, almost all a generation younger than my own, they were oblivious.
This is a guest post by Rabbi Darby Leigh.
It was 1984 when Dee Snider first asked me what I wanted to do with my life. The answer was then, and still is, “I want to ROCK!” Given a rather conventional and full life as a congregational rabbi with two amazing children and a partner who is an OB/GYN resident, the truth is I don’t really get to rock on a daily basis- even though I need it man, oh how I need it!
Sure, I infuse my daily routine with rock when I can. Lately I listen to Anthrax’s Worship Music on my commute to work and I write sermons while listening to Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction. Rock lyrics find their way into my teaching and preaching, but nonetheless, my relationship to rock is not what it once was. It’s not the same as being in the mosh pit. It’s not the same as being pressed up against the barricade in front of the stage. It’s not the same as watching the house lights grow dim, waiting for the band to emerge and feeling the collective roar as the stage lights go up and the first notes wail. In the crowd you become part of an enormous community, when your voice merges with thousands of others, your individualism and ego are dimmed. For a brief moment, you can lose yourself to a collective consciousness and experience being part of something much greater.
Over the years I have been paying close attention to the experiences people have and cultivate that they consider to be “spiritual.” Spirituality today is so often characterized as meditation, yoga, chanting, or sitting in a circle contemplating unity, oneness, and the truth of our interconnectedness. In other words, for many of us, cultivating spiritual experiences is about trying to turn down the volume and pace of our daily lives. In the Jewish tradition, the spirituality of Shabbat often receives the same monochromatic treatment.
It is not a new or radical statement to suggest that the concept of Shabbat, and the experience of Shabbat is one of the greatest gifts the Jewish tradition offers its followers. The observance of Shabbat is said by many to be the “first labor law” in the history of humanity. We are commanded to “take a break” every week, to not permit our lives to be solely about work and the mundane. Shabbat, we are taught, should be an oneg, a joy and a delight. Indeed we engage in the unique joy and pleasure of being in the company of family and friends sharing meals and thoughts about deeper matters, and about Truth. This core Jewish tradition and observance is a profound teaching in and of itself.
There are different spiritual personalities in our world and for some spiritual types, increasing volume and speed is an equally powerful and authentic way to access an authentic Shabbat experience. In fact, while turning the volume down and becoming more still can support our experience of the spirituality of Shabbat, so too, turning the volume up on the Marshall Amp stacks can do the same thing. Rock & Roll can generate for me, joy, delight, rest, and a break from work and the mundane. Since I can’t rock out every day, when would I rock, if not on Shabbat?
Not only is my spiritual personality occasionally better served on Shabbat with a dose of Rock & Roll, but it is an authentic Jewish experience to do so. Every Shabbat we symbolically reenact the moment of revelation at Mount Sinai. The Biblical account of revelation at Sinai seems to me to be more like a Rock concert than a silent meditation. “There was thunder and lightning, a dense fog covered the mountain, there was a loud horn and everyone shook. Mount Sinai was smoking, and trembling violently, the horn grew louder…all the people saw the sounds of the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and of the mountain smoking.” (Ex. 20) One might argue that attending a rock concert, with a laser light show, fog and smoke machines, booms of horns and thunder, pyrotechnics perhaps, and a crowd of thousands all listening for Truth, would be the most authentic way to symbolically recreate revelation.
There is also an implicit sensuality that runs through Rock and Roll, ever since Elvis’ hips first gyrated. While some might argue that rock and roll with its sensuality, passion, and intensity is counter to the religious spirit of Shabbat, I would argue that on the contrary, Shabbat is an extremely physical, as well as a spiritual time, when we are meant to take delight in sensual experiences of touch, taste, and smells. There is a long standing Rabbinic tradition, both in mystical Judaism and in the Talmud, that erev Shabbat, the evening of Shabbat, is a particularly auspicious time for sexual relations. Sexual relations on erev Shabbat are viewed in these texts as acts of joy with spiritual and potentially profound mystical ramifications. Sexual activity is viewed in this context as a sacred spiritual act with purpose that goes far beyond a simplistic notion of sex as an act of procreation.
So in honoring the part of myself, and of many members the community that crave the spiritual experience of “rocking out,” I have been working with members of our community to create Bnai Keshet’s first ever, “Rock On Shabbat!” At this service, we will move our way through the matbeah, the traditional structure of a Friday night service by setting some liturgical pieces to rock and roll or more upbeat tunes. We will also insert rock songs into certain ‘thematic’ prayers at key moments in the service. The service will be followed by a concert and party.
We can’t wait to Rock on Shabbat & celebrate!
A life-long “truth seeker,” Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh is a native New Yorker who loves mountains. Rabbi Leigh is a fire-juggling Generation Xer who toured as a leading actor with the Tony award-winning National Theater of the Deaf. He received a B.A. in religion, summa cum laude, from the University of Rochester and an M.A. in religion from Columbia University. He also spent a year at Gallaudet University, where he received the President’s Scholar Award. Rabbi Leigh provided consulting services for the Oscar-nominated documentary Sound and Fury and for Hands ON, an organization that provides sign-language interpreting for Broadway and off Broadway productions He has also taught on issues related to deafness for organizations including the NYC Fire Department, and the NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Rabbi Darby J. Leigh is the Assoicate Rabbi at Bnei Kesht in Montclair, NJ.
Jordan, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is Ethiopian, has been Jewish for 12 years and involved with Judaism for more than half his of his life. But only recently he decided to publically come out of the closet about being gay.
Growing up in Baltimore, Jordon did not have a strong Black identity. His diverse group of friends and his interest in punk rock – he shaved his head and sported a Mohawk for a while- set him apart from other black kids. But even as a young kid others identified him as gay and bullied him. Yet as a teen, when he was drawn both to drag and to an observant life, he felt he had to choose between his identities. And so being gay was not officially part of the equation for many years. Ironically, as he became more observant and involved in the hassidic community, being black became more central to his sense of self. Eventually, however, hiding part of himself, meant that he felt less able to fully embrace the mitzvot that originally drew him to Judaism.
So for Jordan, coming out is a coming together of all of the elements of his self. Speaking by phone he explained, “Prioritizing identities, that’s a concept does that does not exist, I am never more one thing than another… now I am able to express myself fully.”
While there are those in the Orthodox world who have condemned him for coming out, the reaction has been overwhelmingly supportive. Both the hip hop and Orthodox worlds have reputations for being homophobic but Jordan’s experience since coming out publically in Out Magazine suggests that the world is changing. Last week rap impresario Russell Simmons reached out and so did some prominent Orthodox rabbis. It makes him wish he had taken this step years ago.
Y-Love has long been a role model for Jews of color, advocating for diversity in the Jewish community. Now he has added the LGBTQ community to the list of those he seeks to motivate and strengthen. “I’ve heard from a trans woman who says I’ve inspired her to continue studying towards conversion to Judaism and from other rappers who say they wish they had my courage to come out,” says Jordan clearly gratified that his choice to come out is inspiring others.
On January 9, 2011, a sweet singer of Israel, Debbie Friedman, passed away. While her Hebrew yahrzeit is at the end of this month, for many this is becoming a month of remembrance. Family gatherings, concerts in her memory, special Shabbat Shira dedications in early February, as her legacy and her songs live on.
On Monday night, I ended my eighth grade class with a brief sharing of some of my own personal interactions with Debbie, and the enormous role she had in pointing the way to the path that became my life as a rabbi. When I teach Torah about m’lachim – angels in Jewish tradition, I often point out how, when they show up in our holy text, they bring a message that redirects the life path of the one being visited. Think Hagar (twice), Jacob wrestling with an angel, Joseph meeting a ‘man’ in a field who redirects him to find his brothers (without which the rest of the Joseph story that we have recently read in this year’s Torah cycle might never have unfolded). When I teach these texts, I ask people to think of the encounters in their own lives that might fall into this domain. Debbie was most certainly ones of those people for me. One of the last songs she wrote was a new setting for Shalom Aleichem – the poem we sing on Erev Shabbat to welcome the Sabbath angels into our homes and our lives … how fitting.
Many have written far more eloquently than I about the legacy of Debbie’s music; how she transformed the way we sang our souls to God, and the sound of prayer in our sanctuaries; and how her blending of English and Hebrew enabled us to understand and connect with the prayers in a deeper way. For me, and for many who had personal encounters with Debbie, whether they were intimate friends, or once-only events, the legacy that we remember goes beyond the gift of the music. In the outpouring of remembrances that were shared online in the days and weeks that followed her passing, what so many shared was the way that Debbie was deeply and truly present to others. She had a gift for seeing within another person and, in that moment, asking the most important question. She was a Spiritual Director of sorts, although she would never have claimed that label.
During this month of January as I remember, sing Debbie’s songs, look through old photographs, and connect with others, I know that all who do likewise, in the USA and beyond, are truly making her memory be for a blessing. ‘And you shall be a blessing’, she sang to us. Now we sing it for her.
At the end of my eighth grade class, I played the original recording of Debbie as a teenager singing the Shema. I told them how young she had been when she began to write these melodies, how she song-lead at camp, how she went on to touch so many thousands of lives. I pray that, while they will never have the blessing of meeting Debbie Friedman, they may still be touched by her gifts and inspired by her life.
But it wasn’t the song or their new video that drew me in, but their fundraising efforts on behalf of the Gift of Life Foundation through the website www.MakeSomeMiracles.com.
The Maccabeats are inviting donations of ten thousand dollars a day for each day of Chanukah in the hope of securing much needed funds for Gift of Life, a bone marrow registry organization.
With a personal video narrated by Mayim Bialik and each of the members of the Maccabeats, their call is honest and sincere. As of this writing they have already raised $22,000!
I clicked on the donation button. Suddenly, I was involved in making a miracle for Chanukah — not just receiving an ancient one. The miracle that the Maccabeats are giving light to is a miracle that keeps on giving life and hope to people with cancer beyond this holiday season.
So can we make some miracles?
Many interpretations suggest that the miracle of Chanukah was that we didn’t give up even when we had no chance of winning against the Greek/Syrians. In spite of the powerful forces that encourage our continued assimilation or disappearance we have survived and adapted to the modern world in which we live in as Jews. We live precariously on the edge while we persevere through a revolving door of constant change. The miracle of the Maccabeats is the miracle of our people.
We have come a long way from the Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song from “Saturday Night Live” in 1994 which centered on the theme of Jewish children feeling alienated during the Christmas season, and Sandler’s listing of Jewish celebrities as a way of sympathizing with their situation.
With the Maccabeats, the traditional and the contemporary merge to create a blend of Judaism and Jewish music that continues to define our communal confidence with viral velocity.
We revel in religious freedom in America. A Yeshiva University a cappella group has reached beyond their ivory tower borders to educate and entertain. We all received the instant messaging. Again, history has shown us, that we are the miracle of Chanukah!
Yes, we can make modern miracles. Click and contribute to a new miracle this Chanukah 5772!
Yesterday morning, in a weekly class on Jewish mysticism that I teach in the local community, we were concluding our study of the ten psalms that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav selected for the practice of the Tikkun haKlali – the Complete Repair. Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810) was referring to a spiritual repair – healing at a cosmic level – in which all that was broken would be healed and the flow of Divine energy through the sephirotic system found in the teachings of Kabbalah would come down to us unhindered.
This system consisted of 10 Divine attributes which, together, form the kabbalistic Tree of Life. There are a multitude of explanations and allegorical images used in kabbalistic tradition to try and convey something of the nature of these 10 attributes. Among them, Rabbi Nachman spoke of 10 melodies – 10 kinds of sound resonance that, when unblocked, would vibrate in perfect harmony with each other, bringing perfection and wholeness to the world.
I sometimes liken the teachings of Kabbalah to that of theoretical or particle physics, not only because there are some truly amazing resonances between some of the teachings in each discipline, but because Kabbalah is very abstract and requires translation into something that we can respond to in the here and now. Rabbi Nachman, by proposing a ritual practice of the recitation of 10 psalms, sought to provide a spiritual methodology by which even an individual could make a small contribution to the greater Tikkun by speaking words that he believed carried the resonances of the ten kinds of melody. At the very least, these might help to release some of our own blockages as we seek to be more ‘in tune’ with ourselves and with others.
The last of the ten psalms is Psalm 150:
In the context of Rabbi Nachman’s Tikkun HaKlali, this psalm literally vibrates with the sounds of the instruments played in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. Rabbi Nachman taught about the spiritual importance of fostering joy, and the power of music and of singing to lift oneself up, even from the most difficult of circumstances. Our study group considered the power of song and of music at multiple levels.
It was in this context that a member of our study group thought of the example of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the role that music and song has played quite literally in her physical healing. If sound has the power to shatter glass, might it not also have a literal potential to heal, in addition to the emotional and spiritual sustenance that it can provide?
Rep. Giffords has been working with a music therapist, among others also tending to her treatment and recovery. Music has had the power to tap into her memory, and assisted with regaining language mastery, as the music appears to help the brain to access new ways to communicate. Her therapist, Morrow, explains:
“It’s creating new pathways in the brain … Language isn’t going to work anymore, so we have to go to another area and start singing and create a new pathway for speech…”
The article went to say, “Music is also linked to brains areas that control memory, emotions, and even movement. “The thing about music is that it’s something that’s very automatic — part of our old brain system,” Morrow said. “If I play a rhythm, I can affect the rest of the body. The body naturally aligns with a rhythm in the environment.”
Throughout my childhood I often accompanied my mother who would go and sing at Assisted Living and Nursing Homes. And time and time again, I would witness residents who would not or could not easily speak or communicate any more literally return to full life when the music began. Intentionally singing a repertoire of music that would be familiar from their youth, my mother would have residents singing along, moving their bodies – even getting up to dance.
The enormous power of music and sound, working at the physical, emotional and spiritual level, has always been evident to me. It has been an integral part of my Jewish spirituality as I have found ways to access the meaning of our rituals and our prayers through the vehicle of the melodies we bring to them. Rabbi Nachman understood this two hundred years ago. We’re just beginning to tap into the potential that vibration, sound, and song have to bring healing to our lives.