Tag Archives: Text

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.”

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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.

A Galaxy of Meanings. Languages and Texts of the Jewish Prayer Book

This week we begin confronting the idea of Jewish liturgy as an inter-textual continuum. This is an important idea, which will carry over in our upcoming analysis of musical patterns in synagogue music, of ritual body language, and beyond, all the way to the study of the aesthetics of Jewish ritual.

Neither the text, nor the language of Jewish liturgy are one. They are instead the result of a stratification and fusion of languages, sources, meanings and interpretations.

If we examine the competing notions of “Jewish language,” we are confronted with a series of methodological strategies deployed to manage the multi-dimensional nature of language within Jewish life. However defined (we touched upon ideas ranging from “any language spoken by Jews” to notions of linguistic fusion and koiné, to the relationship between language and cultural identity), a Jewish language is the result of several different concurring linguistic agents.

In learning about the emergence of piyyut (liturgical poetry), for example, we explored the origins and the implications of the very word, “piyyut”: a Hebrew adaptation of the word poiesis (the Greek etymological source of “poetry”), related to texts written predominantly in Hebrew, originally in a metric derived from Arabic poetry. The word, “piyyut,” is then at the roots of a confluence of Jewish, Hellenistic, and Islamic cultural traditions.

By observing the diversity of Jewish languages across the global Diaspora (thanks to an excellent website and its map of Jewish linguistic differences around the world, and to musical examples drawn from an audio-anthology prepared by Israel’s National Sound Archives), we encounter structural similarities that can be analyzed through a suggestive metaphor, coming from the realm of astronomy. Echoing Walter Benjamin’s notion of “constellation” (of related ideas), we may describe each “Jewish language” as a galaxy of linguistic interactions. The galaxy of Jewish language involves a core language, its fundamental relations with Hebrew and/or Aramaic, and the com-participation of a host of satellite languages. (The understanding is that Hebrew, and Aramaic, can also act as the core language of individual linguistic systems).

Jewish Linguistic "Galaxy"

Similarly, the textual sources of Jewish liturgy are not homogenous. They encompass the following:
– the entire Tanakh (the canon of the Hebrew Bible, comprising the Pentateuch, the Prophetic books, and the remaining writings)–including both the original Hebrew text and its subsequent translations (beginning with the Aramaic Targum and continuing with translations in other languages);
– the Talmud, which is both quoted textually in some sections of the Prayer Book, and a source of inspiration for the structure of the liturgy and the basic formulas that inform it (the blessings, or berakhot)
– other prayers
– liturgical poetry (piyyut)

Inter-textuality of Jewish Liturgical Texts

In the textual continuum of the Jewish Prayer Book, the Siddur, these textual sources are constantly present. They intersect one another, and complete and comment on one another in a dynamic galaxy of competing layers of meaning.