“Prayer can be electric and alive. Prayer can touch the soul, burst forth a creative celebration of the spirit, and open deep wells of gratitude, longing and praise. Prayer can connect us to our Living Source and to each other, enfolding us in love and praise, wonder and gratitude, awe and thankfulness. Jewish prayer in its essence is soul dialogue and calls us into relationship within and beyond. Through the power of ancient and modern words and melodies, we venture into realms of deep emotion and find longing, sorrow, hope, wholeness, connection and peace. When guided by skilled leaders of prayer and ritual, our complacency is challenged, we can break through outworn assumptions about God and ourselves, and emerge refreshed and inspired to meet the challenges our lives offer.”—Rabbi Shawn Zevit and Rabbi Marcia Prager, Adapted From the Davennen Leadership Training Institute.
On Life’s Journey
On life’s journey, I find I speak less of Jewish music and prayer, and more of the prayer and music that comes through or is an expression of the Jewish people, culture, individual and collective Soul. There are so many varied musical expressions coming through our communities today: a continuum of traditional and experimental synagogue worship, Jewish camp emerging musical culture, drumming, chanting and kirtan services and concerts, electric and jazz klezmer, Kabbalat Shabbat services done to the score of Joseph and the Technicolor Dream-coat, the Beatles, Jewish hip hop, etc.
I move between traditional nusach and original melodies culminating in my grandfather’s zmirot from Europe. I find that with kevah and kavannah clearly connected to the liturgical underpinnings (not just random tunes patched together) and being open to the immediacy of the experience taking place in the room, a wide range of “soul” music is not only possible, but transformative.
There is a continuum of options for inviting a creative musical environment, both innovative and deeply rooted in our musical and textual heritage. A niggun can begin a text study session or a service learning tikkun olam action. An instrument can underscore a reading or meditation. A choral or multi-part piece can serve as a group building exercise at a board meeting or leadership retreat. Nusach, trop, traditional text, are fundamental to getting inside the carrier wave of our people before adding a patchwork of popular melodies or doing surgery on the liturgy. As in any spiritual practice, music unrooted or unrelated to the meaning of a service, ritual, learning or social justice event can be self-serving, potentially distracting, and even jarring for anyone trying to connect deeply to the meaning of a moment.
The Hebrew Bible begins with a grand series of creative acts. Out of a soup of divergent energies, competing elements, and lack of distinctions, the Spirit of God washes over creative potential and with a “Let there be” mission, transforms the unformed into the manifest. Out of a no-thing comes a “some-thing”. The “soundscape” begins immediately with the crashing of waves on the newly formed shores of land. Birds are soon chirping and the music of life plays on. Long before the Psalmist details the instruments of the Temple band in Psalm 150, there is chorus of creation declaring its very existence. The song of creation and the score of the world’s soul has already been launched.
Music and prayer were intimately tied into spiritual practice during both Temple periods. Even after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e. when instruments were no longer part of a lost Temple ritual, the very chanting of the Torah, prayers, niggunim (wordless melodies), and mantra-like intonation of Talmud study continued the unbroken musical pulse of the Jewish people’s yearning to express an individual and collective response to the acts of hallowing life.
“Soul-praise, is an entirely different sort of music. It is purely spiritual, unadulterated by any medium, nothing more than an expression of the simple desire of the soul to rise up in its praise, surrendering its existence to be reunited with its source. In other words, instrumental music is music of the body, and song is the music of the soul. In the Holy Temple, the revelation of Godly light was extreme enough to contain both the source of souls and of angels—which is why there was both instrumental music as well as song.” (Likkutei Torah, Vezot Haberachah 98d)
I approach both the subject of prayer and music from an integrative perspective. By this I mean my background in commercial scripted theater, ensemble work in educational and social theater, improvisation, Playback Theater, and Bibliodrama, often blends with my work as a rabbi, leading prayer services, singing, and composing. Rarely is my creative work in any of these areas devoid of influences or use of the other modalities. Since 2000, when I co-founded the Davvenen Leaders Training Institute with my friend and colleague Rabbi Marcia Prager, influenced by the Davvenology approach of Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi (z”l), I have been shaped by and helped train a generation of prayer leaders, musicians, cantors, rabbis and spiritual leaders in the high art of public prayer. Davvenology is discussed in Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s book, Paradigm Shift (Jason Aronson, New Jersey, 1993). Paradigm shift is a record of his major teachings that includes contemporary thinking about God and even a sound and movement score for the Amidah prayer.
While I strive to find the truth in artistic and educational expression, I am by no means a purist in either of these fields. In fact, the more my rabbinic, educational, performance, and consulting work take me into a variety of settings, the more I feel being of service to sacred values is more fully served by finding the modality, or combination of modalities, that suits the message and the group best. Process and outcome, form and content become mutually enhancing and interdependent ways of being b’tzelem Elohim– embodying, mirroring, manifesting and opening up to the flow of Life Itself coming to and through us.
A New Song
Somewhere between singing a new song and acknowledging the very limits of our voices to express the infinite wonders of life is a soundtrack to life that all can participate in. As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan writes in The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (Wayne State Press, Detroit, 1994). “The liturgy speaks of God as renewing daily the works of creation. By becoming aware of the fact, we might gear our own lives to this creative urge in the universe and discover within ourselves unsuspected powers of the spirit.”
Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), ideological founder of Reconstructionism, was a towering figure in North American Jewry. His unusual combination of theology and common sense led him not only to construct new approaches to Judaism geared to our time, but to devise practical expressions as well. He was a champion of creating dynamic Jewish art and developing Jewish artists as one of the highest expressions of Godliness in the world.
Similarly, finding a variety of places to give expression to our voices (in song, chant, poetic reading, humming a note, choral singing, prayer services, etc.) creates a variety of opportunities for both the gifted singer, composer or musician, and the less vocal or more musically challenged individual to find their place in the soundscape of the community. We inter-act and inter-are in the context of communal prayer, lifting us out of the confines of our own limited life-narrative to join a song that includes and transcends our personal, denominational, stylistic and liturgical constructs. It is also important to remember that the Jewish way of transmitting wisdom and spiritual truth from generation to generation was aided by chant, trop (cantillation for the Torah and Haftorah), and nusach (melody lines for liturgy).
Tehillim, The Psalms
Of all the liturgical options available to us in the Jewish lexicon, outside of original compositions not related to scripture or liturgy, it is the tehillim, the Psalms that invite me most deeply into the realm where pray-er become prayer and singer becomes song. The moments I have felt most encompassed by the holy and simultaneously an expression of the Divine pulsing of creation itself are in these psalm-based expeditions.
The ability of the vast array of classic biblical and contemporary psalms does not limit or judge human expression in the realm or prayer and sacred music. Here are some of my own interpretations that gave birth to music that also came through me covering the depths of despair and bliss of existence:
The first one is from Psalm 27 (words & music: Shawn Israel Zevit, 1994, Inspired by the psalmist, http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/zevit1)
When pressures and perspective of a cynical life
Threaten to bring me down
I ride the wave of undying faith
And its lies that finally drown
For one thing I ask, for one thing I long
To build Your house with my life
To see the beauty in every soul
And the light in every night
Hear me, Dear One, when I cry aloud
Have mercy and answer me
My heart won’t rest it shouts, “Seek My Face”
And then your soul will be free
Though the world as we know it might crumble down
I know You won’t forsake me
Lead me on the path of a righteous life
And I know I shall surely see that
You are my Light and my Salvation of whom shall I fear!
You are the Stronghold of my life of whom shall I be afraid
I will look to You be strong in hope
I will look to You, my GOD
I will long for You
Wait for You
Till eternity with You
Oh, my GOD
The second one is from Psalm 22 1996 Words & Music: Shawn Israel Zevit, Inspired by the psalmist, www.cdbaby.com/cd/zevit1
I cry by day, but You don’t answer
Numbed at night, I hear no laughter
Eli, lamah azavtani (my GOD why have you left me?)
Oh, my soul is poured out like water
My heart’s like wax, its melting over
Eli, lamah azavtani
Others have been here- I know they have trusted
Others have hung in and not been disappointed
Others cried out and found a way through the forest
But what of me?- Eli
Don’t be so far when trouble’s so near
Why does it hurt so, why do You disappear?
Eli- lamah azavtani
You claimed my heart since its very first breath
You’ve been my GOD, and will be ’til my death
In the silence, I listen for Your help
Save me now from a hardened heart
Why have You left me? Why have You gone so far?
Shut Your ears to my anguished roar
Eli- lamah azavtani
Let the ends of the universe turn around
Open Your souls and soak in the sound
It’s a greater love than you have ever found
GOD has acted, look out now,
GOD in action. Eli….
We yearn to participate in the perpetual renewal of creation, as we pray in the first blessing before the Shema: “Hamechadesh betuvo bekhol-yom tamid ma’aseh vereysheit” the One who renews Creation’s work each day. May these words and thoughts help inspire and support you to move beyond the page into the plays and sounds of the Soul of all Creation waiting within in you for expression.
Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit is the lead rabbi at congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, PA, Rabbi Zevit (www.rabbizevit.com) and has consulted with and supported dozens of congregations, organizations, social justice initiatives in the Jewish and larger world. He is co-director with Rabbi Marcia Prager of the award-winning Davennen Leader’s Training Institute (www.dlti.org) where he coaches rabbis, cantors and lay leaders of all denominations, and is a spiritual director and Associate Director for the ALEPH Hashpa’ah Jewish Spiritual Direction program (https://aleph.org/ordinations/hashpaah), working at the nexus of spiritual formation, development and healing on a personal, interpersonal and communal level.