When our ancestors came to the shores of America some 350 years ago, the new frontier was pristine, practically untouched, and wide open. The possibilities opened to us as a Jewish people were many, and we’ve certainly been blessed to see a time and live in a place where we can freely express our Judaism.
When we first came to this land, we brought with us from across the Atlantic our old world practices: We brought Yiddish and Ladino over to speak with one another; we brought recipes for our ethnic foods; we brought our religious garb, our mannerisms, our customs… and, of course, our music. Although one could take the Jew out of Europe and Asia, one couldn’t take Europe and Asia out of the Jew.
After several generations in this New World, Jews began to do in earnest what they have always done in the countries in which they lived: They adapted and adopted the customs of their new home into their Jewish expressions. As many of us are aware, it is hard for us to change our customs and practices—even with the preamble to this evening’s service, it may have been difficult to not hear the Viennese, “Sh’ma Yisraeil.” Over time, American Jews came to establish new Jewish and distinctly American customs: Bringing English into the prayer service; using instruments such as the organ and piano; bringing mixed gender choirs to help enrich the service… these were practices which were beginning to happen in Europe but had more widespread use in the Americas. In fact, by the 1800’s, many Reform synagogues in America held services that resembled Protestant Christian worship, complete not only with the English hymns, but with the Rabbi being called, “Reverend” and even the Sabbath moving from Saturday to Sunday.
As American Jews grew into the 20th century, the effort to bring new musical expressions into the synagogue was tempered by the notion that we, as Americans should be praying in a modern way, abandoning totally the sound of both Eastern and Western Europe. The first to do this on a grand scale was Ernest Bloch, whose “Sacred Service” in the 1920’s, was and remains a grand artistic worship experience for cantor, choir, and full orchestra. Just the fact that the worship service could be orchestrated made it more distinct than any music previously written for the synagogue.
As we have explored this evening in our own worship, Jewish composers have tried a myriad of ways through various styles—some sounding more characteristically “Jewish” than others; some more popular sounding than others; some more esoteric than others—to give voice to American Jews so they might dialogue with the Eternal. And yet, we are still inspired today by the sound of Europe, Russia, and even the ancient sounds of our people’s chants from hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.
Which brings us to today: Our identity as American Jews is going through yet more evolution. In a post 9/11 world—a world just as uncertain and challenging as after both World Wars, Jews are coming back to the synagogue to consider their lives, their places in this world and the universe, and seek out solace and healing within the walls of our sanctuaries. Music is such a large part of that search, for music speaks to our hearts, our heads, and our souls, in a way that mere words may not always do. But by what music will the Jew of tomorrow be inspired?
I recently spoke with noted composer, Bonia Shur, who visited our synagogue in December. We were both talking about writing music for the synagogue and he reminded me of something which should be at the heart of any discussion regarding music, prayer, and Judaism: “God should be in the music,” he said. I couldn’t agree more strongly. Jews returning to worship expect a sound that is familiar. And who can blame them? Coming to the synagogue should be like coming home. At the same time, although a sanctuary is a place to feel safe, it should also be a safe place to be challenged. And music which inspires us to turn our hearts and heads towards the Eternal can be both simple and palatable, and complex and artfully crafted to all who pray.
In other words, although those of you here today are joining in the experience of prayer through the consideration of this Jewish music, the true audience of our prayers is the Eternal. We should aspire to offer the finest fruits of our voices and talents when giving praise. This is one reason why I try to encourage us all to not only sing, but to sing with intention and volume! As well, I try to inspire us to consider the text of our prayers through musical settings which are purposefully unfamiliar so that we may listen to familiar words with new ears and open hearts—not only at a service like this, but every Shabbat.
When we consider the future of American Synagogue music, we have to look at the role that music plays in our worship as well as the role music can play in our worship. Are we, as a congregation, satisfied solely to pray as a sing-a-long, an experience we can have at our homes or in front of a camp fire? Are we, as a congregation, looking to only feel safe, protected, and shielded when we pray? Or are we willing to consider that music can inspire us, not only when we sing it together, but when we listen carefully to its message and its construction? Are we willing to be challenged when we enter the sanctuary, opening our minds and hearts to new possibilities? I would like to hope that it is a mixture of all of these.
In a day and age of holism—there is a place and a time for most everything. The synagogue is no different. When I, along with my clergy partners, construct a worship experience, I am mindful of being eclectic. Not everyone is in a place to lend their voice to the song, and not everyone is in a place to actively listen to art music; Not everyone is fond of the classical musical literature of the likes of Salomone Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski, and not everyone is fond of the more popular sounds of the works of Meir Finkelstein or Debbie Friedman. Everyone is inspired in different ways.
My hope and prayer for the future of the music of American Jewish worship is that we continue to find our voice as a community: A voice that proudly declares the power and majesty of God; a voice that sings of God’s mercy and forgiveness. And a voice that is as expressive and different as all of us in this place this evening. The hallmark of Americans is that we are an independent and individualistic people, with a wide array of opinions and tastes. Our worship should reflect that.
In fact, our own Gates of Prayer teaches us this: “O God, the guide and inspiration of all humanity, You have spoken in a thousand tongues for all to hear. In every land and age, we, Your children, have heard Your voice and imagined You in our separate ways. And yet, O God, You are One: though each may see You differently, You are the One God of all humanity.”
With all of our differing ideas, tastes, opinions—we are united by the idea that there is one God. How we each view that God may be very different, but we come together this night and every time we gather to worship to affirm our united search for the Eternal. And every time we gather to worship in words and in song, we should seek inspiration from many sources. If the composer is inspired to put God into the music, then the one who experiences the music will be inspired as well.
My prayer this evening is that you have and will continue to consider how music can inspire you to be a better person and a better Jew; that you rejoice in the words in prayer and that the music lifts your spirits; and that you take the still, meditative moments in our worship to reflect on your lives. Let us always be inspired to “Sing an ever-new song unto God,” so that our hearts, heads, and souls be ever renewed and committed to a common purpose.