Monday, December 31, 2012

Good Music and Good Friends

I have been blessed over the years with good friends. They check in on me when they don’t hear from me in a while. They send me pictures and messages on Facebook that they think I would like. They send emails about what is going on with them and their families and ask me about my children and my work. In good times and bad, I am blessed to have good friends I can rely on.

One of the things that make our friendships strong is that we don’t base our relationship on external things. I don’t care what kind of a car they drive or what color they paint their home. They don’t have to dress to impress me since what we value is on the inside.  It is our values and character that drives our friendship, the rest is interesting but not crucial. When you have good friends, you overlook the details because the inside is so precious. 

This past Shabbat, I realized that the same thing can be said about prayer. One of my teachers was amazed about how I could find so much spirituality in my prayer. After all, they are the same words, recited every day ; how could I pray every day in my minyan, davening at or near the speed of light, and still have them pierce my heart and move my soul?  I explained that, to me, each prayer is like an old friend. I get to greet him each day and see what he has to say to me.  Sometimes we just nod a greeting to each other, but other times I find important wisdom in his words or he sparks an idea in my head that unfolds like a flower. The daily Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv converse with me like old friends and I never tire of their company. 

But just like my personal friends, I don’t worry too much about what is on the outside. I know that there are those who pray and who love to pray in exactly the same way every day. They have their favorite tunes, favorite siddur and favorite place to sit in the synagogue. It is not the same if anything is changed. They claim that it undermines the service if someone should sit in their seat, use a different book or sing a new melody. I see their point. Changing the music or the siddur does change the experience of prayer, but that is not a bad change. Like turning a diamond to see the different ways the light is refracted in the gem, so too, when we make minor changes in the liturgy, or the way we sing the liturgy, we can discover new ways to understand our prayer and our relationship with God. 

It is easy to try this. Take a favorite prayer and change all the masculine pronouns for God and turn them into feminine pronouns. The prayer suddenly will have new things to teach. Or replace all gender terms for God with neutral terms, “He” or “She” becomes just “God”. How does this change the way we think about God in our lives? When I use an older prayer book, I change the “thee” and “thou” to “you” and “your” and suddenly the prayers take on a more contemporary feel.  Adon Olam has thousands of tunes you can sing it too, and each one lends a different flavor to that moment at the end of the service. Do we end the service reverently? Cheerfully? Whimsically? It is all in the tune we choose. 

Think of the song, “Lean on Me” sung by Bill Withers. In its original melody, it is an ode to friendship. Take the same words and give them a reggae beat and it becomes a celebration of friendship. Take the words and give them a gospel sound and the lyrics become a spiritual prayer. The music is like a different costume, a different look, but the changes in music change our perspective on the words. The changes in style set the words free.

Just as our friends grow and change, a development that matches our own growth, so too can we discover new meaning and life in old prayers if we let them grow and change over time like us. Holding our prayers stagnant over time is like trying to hold down our dear friends. They may enjoy our company and the extra time with us for a while, but eventually they will grow restless and feel the need to move away. Just because we let them go away, does not mean that the friendship is over. It only means that we have given it the space it needs to grow deeper and stronger.
Changes in the service should be welcomed and embraced. The old have not been discarded. My friends, the prayers, are still there to embrace me with their warm hugs each morning and evening.  They are just wearing different clothes, and I have a chance to see them in a new light and from a different point of view. As always, I am richer for the encounter and my heart is filled with the love we share.


Hillel said...

I agree that change and growth are both good things.

My reservation is change for the sake of change, detracts from larger objectives of prayer. The focus becomes what is new, and not the essense of prayer and its inherent purpose.

In other words, singing for the sake of singing for me, detracts from prayer. When a leader chooses a song just for the sake of singing, it is not as meaningful as someone who chooses a tune which they think best expresses their momentary feelings (be it whimsical or spritiual, etc).

Its a question of relevance and meaning for me. The objectives of prayer need to be defined for each individual, and then one can achieve those objective in various means. However, when the objective is to change and do things differently, then the original purpose of prayer moves into the periphery and the a new objective is imposed. For me, this change of focus detracts from my objectives prayer.

Randall Konigsburg said...

Hillel, I understand your reservations but I am coming from a different perspective. The changes in music can help us, especially when we are very familiar with the prayer, see the prayer from a new and different perspective. Yes it may be jarring or interrupt our flow of prayer, but that is not a bad thing. Prayer needs to be interrupted if it has become too regular and too stale. We need to reflect, from time to time, on what we are saying, why we are saying it and if we still mean what we say.
That being said, yes, there are some who misuse music to serve their own purposes. If they are using the music to showcase their musical range, to show their musical abilities or to entertain the worshipers, then I agree, such music belongs in an entertainment venue not in a worship service.
There is also an issue of appropriate music that I am not covering here. This post refers to those who think there is only one way to sing any prayer, the way they learned as a child. The Hazzanim call these "Mi Sinai" tunes because they are considered by some worshipers as if the tune was commanded at the revelation at Mt. Sinai. these melodies must be free to grow and change as the worshipers grow and change lest the service become dull and meaningless.

The Wifely Person said...

A chazzan who grandstands should be on a stage, not a bimah. That chazzan does not increase the spirituality of a shul; that chazzan dismantles it. The job of a chazzan is to bring his congregation into the prayer, not shove the prayer into the congregation.

The tunes that make a service familiar doesn’t necessarily make it stale. In fact, those tunes help to bind davveners into one kehilah. Sometimes, it is the very act of repetition of the same niggun that brings the davvener back to the center. There is comfort to be found in the familiar, and that way provides a less stressful expression in times of stress. Some niggunim are m’Sinai for a reason; the sound, the tone, even the parsing of the phrases resonated with davveners throughout the centuries. Not only is there nothing wrong with that; there is something so totally right that it’s almost tamperproof. And if your congregation is soulfully involved in prayer, maybe it’s not such a bad thing.

That said, there is a time and place to introduce new niggunim and liturgy, but in an established congregation is must be done with great sensitivity and deliberation. It cannot feel like it is an intentional rending of kavanah for the group or the individual.

Randall Konigsburg said...

I agree that some Hazanim don't know when to daven and when they are in concert. There is a difference and all prayer service leaders need to understand that being on the bima is not like being on a stage. It is not a time to show off.

Still, While the familiar can be grounding, it can also be stifling. There is importance in staying with what we know, with what is familiar, and the need to move on and grow. I have nothing against familiar tunes, only when they become "unchangeable". The sound of a service should NOT depend on the feelings of the congregants only. It should change in relationship to what is happening in the world (the service after the Newtown shooting should not be the same as the service before the shooting) the time of year (adjustments for holidays and seasonal feelings)and the ongoing education of the congregation.

Prayer leaders should have a large collection of familiar tunes for every prayer that they can weave into a service that is meaningful for the time, the place and the worshipers.