Studying (and Teaching) Piyyut in the Age of Social Media

This week we discuss both the general lines of the historical development of Jewish liturgy, and the history of its study in modern times.

And yes, rest assured that we do put “liturgy” between quotation marks, as we evaluate the relevance and value of this term and its original etymological implications, both in the democratic system of the Greek polis (very important in our upcoming examination of the political aspects of synagogue life), and in the varying dimensions of Christianity. We also touch upon the related notion of “ritual” in anthropology, as well as in everyday life (and perhaps even the reasons why “ritual” is often perceived as sexy, but liturgy certainly isn’t, in common knowledge and in popular culture).

We discuss as well the meaning of core Hebrew words/concepts related to liturgy, especially ‘avodah (“service”), tefilah (“prayer”), and minhag [ha-maqom] (“[local] liturgical custom”). But also piyyut (aka “Hebrew liturgical poetry,” probably from the Greek, poieo, a much celebrated verb that indicates poetical creativity).

In doing all of this, we confront both history and historiography. On the one hand, we discuss the development of liturgy from the Temple into the Synagogue, from Palestine to Babylon (and back), and then, of course, the myriad of differentiations across the global Jewish Diaspora. On the other, we face the evolving reasons that brought scholars of different cultural (and religious) backgrounds to engage with the study of Jewish liturgy, from the Rabbis of the Talmudic era to the Christian Hebraists of the European Renaissance and their Jewish Kabbalist counterparts, the 19th-century “scientists of Judaism” (from Samuel David Luzzatto in Italy to Leopold Zunz in Germany), and 20th-century scholars like Abraham Zvi Idelsoh and Ismar Elbogen (followed by many others!), on whose shoulders we all timidly stand today.

But then, looking around our very own digital courtyard, we cannot but mention the pivotal role of an independent Israeli website (hosted by the servers of the Hebrew University), oddly named piyut.org.il. The brainchild of a handful of highly creative Israeli cultural operators–among whom stands out a musician, Yair Harel (see my post on Harel in musicinisrael)– the piyyut website has created a stunning database of Hebrew poetical texts and their scrumptiously diverse musical renditions across the global Diaspora.

See for example a selection of twelve most representative Hebrew liturgical poems from the piyyut website here.

In a few years, this site has perhaps done more to spread knowledge and awareness about one of the most fertile aspects of Jewish life, culture and creativity, than most realize. It certainly banks on the scholarship of others (but not enough, and its interpretive materials could certainly be improved) and on the thorough work of musical documentation carried out since 1964 by Israel’s National Sound Archives (a gem of an institution in its own right; see a related post here). But it adds something more, and perhaps more valuable. I am not referring only to the real or perceived immediacy afforded by the Internet and especially its social media aspects. I am specifically pointing to the collective mind that the site fosters, and to the resulting collaborative practice it generates, a practice that allows repositories of cultural heritage, individual culture bearers (synagogue cantors and others), scholars, poets, and artists, to seamlessly share global knowledge about an exciting, albeit seldom recognized as such beyond select scholarly circles, global cultural phenomenon.

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