Tag Archives: liturgy

Sacred Subversion: What Do We Listen To When We Listen to Jewish Music

In the past weeks, we have approached the topic of “Jewish music” according to two parallel paths.

On one hand, we took the very expression, “Jewish music,” as a cultural construct. And we studied who, at different times in history (beginning in the early-modern period, in Europe), has expressed an interest in defining, and therefore “studying,” music in a Jewish context.

We have explored nine or ten competing notions of “Jewish music” that have emerged since the 16th century. These notions include antiquity (the idea that walking into a synagogue is similar to visiting a musical-liturgical “Jurassic Park” of sorts, in which all texts and melodies come by default from the ancient world), nationalism, hybridity, revival, and so on. A hopefully useful summary appeared on our whiteboard, so here it is:

Cultural Agendas and "Jewish Music"

These are notions that compete in defining “Jewish music” in our society. We “hear” them when we hear “Jewish music” and they define the music we listen to for us.

On the other hand, we also analyzed various modes of Jewish musical interaction, focusing on ritual performance in the synagogue. Several concepts have emerged. They are somewhat abstract, since we wanted to look at general forms of interaction, and not at the specificity of each musical “tradition” in the global Diaspora. But they also include some of the most basic form of vocal expression known to humankind:

  1. listen to a solo voice, or sing as a group;
  2. sing, then repeat (responsorial practice) or sing, then sing something different (antiphonal practice);
  3. apply strictly regulated formulas to voicing texts, or leave it up to modal improvisation to do the job, or divide your text sentences in 2-part (or 3-part) units, or associate a text with a “tune” of your choosing…

Here, too, the whiteboard kept a trace of our class conversations:

Music in the Synagogue

Finally, we established the top aspects we are looking for (or listening for) in our study.

Focus on Jewish Music

The last list establishes the “top three” aspects of musical interaction we are focusing on in our study of Jewish liturgy as performance.

  1. We are definitely interested in the materials of music, in what music is made of. We use terms like melody, rhythm, harmony, mode to do this. We also look at “native” (or “pertinent”) terms, used by Jewish musical practitioners, such as nusach (an Ashkenazi notion connected to modality and improvisational formulas, which has been extended beyond the strict realm of Ashkenazi music itself) and maqam (referring to the use of the Arabic and Turkish modal systems within many Jewish communities from the world of Islam).
  2. And we are equally interested in “performative dynamics.” By carefully watching “who” does “what” in the context of Jewish liturgy (who sings what prayers, and who doesn’t; who chooses the music materials; who participates and when, and to what extent, etc.), we connect our close analysis of musical interactions with the symbolic roles of synagogue life as we have examined in previous weeks. What real say does a hazzan (cantor) have over the choice of musical materials? Can a Rabbi stop the singing of a prayer to a popular tune he or she deems inappropriate? Can others also do that?
  3. Finally, we closely watch the multi-faceted relationship that music, as a predominantly oral tradition, entertains with the texts of the liturgy. Are texts and musical materials in perfect alignment with one another? (Some texts are typically associated with multiple melodies: do they all perfectly “fit” with them?). And when they are not, which aspects prevails? Are texts extended or shortened to preserve musical integrity, or, vice-versa, is music adapted to the meter and the length of a particular text? When the melody of a popular song is adapted to a Hebrew prayer text, which of the two will be the object of compromise? Will popular culture prevail over Hebrew liturgy, or not?

In considering these top three aspects of musical interaction within Jewish liturgy, we are thus interested in understanding up close how music acts as a vehicle to express ideas, interpretations, emotions, and more, outside the boundaries of verbal communication. Then, we want to connect music to body language (and ritual objects), and look for how they interact in expressing culture beyond its normative boundaries.

In essence, we are interested in liturgical performance as a platform for the expression of subversive behavior, right at the center of the “sacred.”

A High Holy Days Time Turner: Harry Potter and Jewish Liturgical Competence

An image showed up in my Facebook feed this past week, and caught my attention. High Holy Days Time Turner

It was posted by my friend and colleague, Aviad Stollman, Judaica Collection Curator at the National Library of Israel, via a Facebook page, Jewish Harry Potter.

As it is often the case in sub-culturally-specific domains, the image interlaces two very distinct areas of knowledge: the Harry Potter saga by J. K. Rawlings, and  the Hebrew liturgy for the Jewish High Holy Days.

In the image, Hermione Granger shares with Harry Potter a “time turner,” a magical objects that allows to travel back in time, as featured in the third volume of the saga, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjPb3ziyYYo]

But in this context, Hermione says to Harry: “I will bring you back in time by 3 minutes, and this time do not forget [to say] ‘ha-melekh ha-qadosh [the holy King].'” Jewish Hermione’s recommendation requires a more in-depth explanation.

The words, ha-melekh ha-qadosh replace the standard text (ha-el ha-qadosh) of the third benediction of the ‘amidah prayer (the central daily prayer in Jewish liturgy, centered around 18—well, really 19—benedictions, which are reduced to 7 on the Sabbath and on certain holidays) only on the High Holy Days. It is such a slight (yet fundamental) textual variation—the standard text says ha-el ha-qadosh—that is easy to forget it. Hence, the magical “time turner” that allows one to go back in time and fix a liturgical “mistake.”

The change of wording in the High Holy Days ‘amidah prayer is a rather complex feature, which our outdated, yet extremely useful, textbook (Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, Jewish Liturgy and Its Development, 1932), explains while examining the Services for the High Holy Days (chapter XVI):

The services for the High Holydays [sic] may well be considered the climax of Jewish worship. In them the most important Jewish ideals are expressed: The sovereignty of God over all creatures, the brotherhood of the human family, the revelation of the divine spirit to man, the providence of God, the concept of reward and punishment, the restoration of the Jewish people and the sanctuary in Zion where a center for enlightenment for mankind shall be created. In addition to these ideas, the idea of renouncing one’s own sins, seeking forgiveness, and vowing to lead a clean life is emphasized on the Day of Atonement. […] For these reason, these days are dedicated entirely to worship and meditation. For this purpose, the service was elaborately built up of laudations and prayers, hymns and poems, meditations and petitions. The Talmud already calls attention to the length of the prayers on these days. […]
In accordance with this outline, several prayers are common for both holidays: New Year and the Day of Atonement; while several others are especially for the one or the other day. […] (p. 205)

Idelsohn then describes the “standard prayers” for the High Holy Days:

The standard prayers are elaborated with special insertions in the Amida and with the blowing of the Shofar [ram’s horn]. […]
In its structure, the Amida is similar to that of Sabbath and the Festivals; that is, it has seven beneditions of which the three introductory and the three concluding are the same. It has the following insertions: […]
In the third benediction: The following short paragraphs are inserted:
[…]
Qadosh atah — There is only One God and none other.
The passages are important enough to have their translation reproduced:
[…]
“Holy art thou, and dreaded is thy name, and there is no God beside thee, as it is written, And the Lord of hosts is exalted in judgment, and the holy God is sanctified in righteousness. Blessed are thou, O Lord, the holy King.”
The last paragraph used to be recited daily in the old Palestinian ritual, at least the first sentence; while the Babylonian ritual adopted it for the High Holydays [sic] only.
This benediction concludes with hamelekh haqadosh—“The holy King”—instead of with “The holy God” as in the daily prayers. […]
In the Italian and Yemenite rituals, the first sentence of qadosh atah is missing. This version follows that of Maimonides.

An in-depth analysis of the structure of the prayers that compose the Jewish Prayer Book is by default complex, since the structure itself is extremely complex, containing a number of variants which, as we have just read, depend on specific liturgical occasions as well as on the variety of customs across the Jewish Diaspora. At times, it may feel that liturgy is almost too complex

Had Monty Python devoted some of their talents to Jewish liturgy, I am sure we would have some additional fine examples of comedy. Along the following lines.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd8qzqfPfdM]

What fascinates me about the exchange between the Jewish Hermione Granger and the Jewish Harry Potter above is that it takes the quasi-absurd complexity of Jewish liturgy into account. It states how the inner workings of liturgy are not only difficult to analyze, but also extremely difficult to perform, and to commit to memory, by their practitioners. Forgetting what texts to use at a given liturgical time, and trying to remember how to correctly perform them, is part of the liturgical experience itself. By using a time turner, the two characters grant themselves the ability to travel back in time and correct their inevitable mistakes.

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.

A Prayer is a Prayer is Prayer (A New Gallery Show in Chelsea)

Andrea Popowich Meislin is an art historian, writer, and independent curator. She was formerly the associate curator of photography at the Israel Museum (Jerusalem), and an independent research associate at the Phoenix Art Museum. Meislin has organized museum and gallery exhibitions, and cataloged numerous significant private collections.

Andrea Meislin’s new gallery space is about to open with a group show featuring nineteen artists whose photographs capture Christian, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists practicing rituals of prayer across the world — including in China, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Ukraine, and the US.

Read the full press release below, and do take a look at the exhibition website. It may be an additional resource for us to focus on the relationship, and the distinctions, between liturgy and ritual (which, incidentally, is our goal for next week).

History, Ethnography and Synagogue Life

Our readings this week are split on two separate (but hopefully converging) “fronts.”

Lee I. Levine is a historian and archeologist. His book on The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years constitues a phenomenal attempt to bridge several fields, from archeology to philology to anthropology, in order to reconstruct the genesis of the establishment of the synagogue as a foundational institution in Jewish life. In the Introduction (p. 2), we read about how the synagogue, since its inception in the early centuries of the common era, was a revolutionary institution when compared to the Jerusalem Temple, in at least four ways:

1. Location. The synagogue was universal in nature. Not confined to any one site, as was the ‘‘official’’ sacrificial ritual of the post-Josianic era, the synagogue enabled Jews to organize their communal life and worship anywhere.
2. Leadership. The functionaries of the synagogue were not restricted to a single caste or socio-religious group. In principle, anyone could head the institution. Priests may have played a central role in its religious affairs as well, owing to their knowledge and experience in liturgical matters and not necessarily because of their priestly lineage per se. Synagogue leadership was— in theory, at least— open and democratic (in certain functions and places, regarding women as well).
3. Participation. In addition to the communal dimension, the congregation was directly involved in all aspects of synagogue ritual, be it scriptural readings or prayer service. This stands in sharp contrast to the Jerusalem Temple setting, where people entering the sacred precincts remained passive and might never have even witnessed the sacrificial proceedings personally unless they themselves were offering a sacrifice. In many cases, visitors to the Temple remained in the Women’s Court without being able to view what was transpiring in the inner Israelite or Priestly Courts. Moreover, non-Jews were explicitly banned from the Temple precincts under penalty of death (warning inscriptions were set up around the sacred precincts), whereas the synagogue was open to all; in many places, particularly in the Diaspora, non-Jews attended the synagogue regularly and in significant numbers.
4. Worship. Perhaps the most distinct aspect of the synagogue was that it provided a context in which a different form of worship other than that of the Jerusalem Temple developed. Over the course of Late Antiquity, the synagogue came to embrace a wide range of religious activities, including scriptural readings, communal prayers, hymns, targum, sermons, and piyyut. Instead of the silence that characterized the Temple’s sacrificial cult, the synagogue placed a premium on public recitation— communal prayer, as well as the reading, translation, and exposition of sacred texts.

Levine’s study moves on to examine archeological evidence and literary sources about the historical development of the synagogue in ancient Palestine (emerged primarily through excavations in the State of Israel) and the Diaspora. It then focuses on the ancient synagogue as an institution, isolating the following aspects (all reflected in dedicated chapters):

  1. Architectural buildings
  2. Communal dynamics
  3. Leadership
  4. Rabbinic involvement
  5. Women
  6. Priests
  7. Liturgy

Samuel Heilman based his study on Synagogue Life on a participant-observer approach that combines “the ethnographic approach, which in its description embodies explanation, with the sociological one, which tends toward analytic generalization.” His research was based on a year-long fieldwork process, during which he assiduously frequented a “modern-Orthodox” synagogue in Queens, NY (which in the book he calls “Kehillat Kodesh,” or Holy Community, an alias designed to preserve the anonymity of the congregation and its members), describing what he experienced there according to a specific point of view.

Heilman considers synagogue life as “the interaction generated within and by the members of [a] synagogue.” (Incidentally, in the book he refers to the synagogue with a Yiddish term, shul, that is popular among Ashkenazi Jews in the United States). Synagogues offer a specific “setting” for the interaction among individuals who, in the context of daily worship, study and assembly, fulfill definite symbolic roles, acting within a space of “institutional sanctity.”

The symbolic roles are outlined by Heilman as those of a predefined “cast of characters.” The theatrical and performative connotations of this approach are obvious, and inspiring in many a way. The characters that act on the stage of synagogue life include:

  1. males and females
  2. the gabbai (a dispenser of “kibbudim,” or ritual honors)
  3. the synagogue’s lay leadership (the “President”)
  4. the chazan (cantor)
  5. the “quasi-chazan” (a figure that stands in a dynamic relationship
  6. with the cantor)
  7. chiyuv and yartsayt (those whose presence at services is mandatory)
  8. rabbinic authority
  9. strangers and guests
  10. mendicants, beggars, shnorrers and meshulachim
  11. children

Both scholars adopted an inter-disciplinary approach to study synagogues and synagogue life. History and archeology, sociology and ethnography are all at play in describing this extremely dense aspect of culture. Comparing Levine’s study with Heilman’s is also useful in identifying some elements of continuity in the development of synagogue life after its “first 1,000 years.” We are thus keeping their respective efforts, and the lists of categories we can derive from them, in mind while continuing our study.

In the exhibition, Case Study No. 2: The Inventory Project, which opened yesterday at The Magnes, there are several items that illustrate some of the dynamics of synagogue life highlighted by both Levine and Heilman. You may want to single them out on your own. (I Spy-style hints: a textile with the names of a man and a woman; a synagogue seating chart; a list of the value of ritual honors; a schedule of liturgical services; a reminder of yartsayt dates; and more…).