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Welcoming the Musical Stranger

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

In his essay, “The Vocation of the Cantor,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “To attain a degree of spiritual security one cannot rely upon one’s own resources. One needs an atmosphere, where the concern for the spirit is shared by a community… It is the task of the Cantor to create the liturgical community, to convert a plurality of praying individuals into a unity of worship.”

Those of us who lead communities in worship (shlichei tzibbur) are always striving toward this goal. Rarely do we encounter more challenge than when attempting to lift our communities with a new musical setting for a particular prayer. In defense of our congregations, I often feel that we are guilty of an unintentional lack of transparency from the bima. And so I share some thoughts that I hope will open minds and hearts to a broader perspective on the introduction of new music within the context of communal worship:

• The use of new melodies in worship grows from a desire to help the words of the siddur or the poem or the iyyun (contextualization or illuminating thought) jump off the page and into someone’s heart. The musical settings are means to an end. As a shaliach tzibbur, with any number of diverse congregants present at any given moment, we must make use of a vast repertoire. Not every melody will unlock every heart, and the “right” melody is dependent not only upon the individual desires of each congregant, but upon the ever-changing needs of the community and the world from week-to-week, or even day-to-day.

• I do not have to produce sound in order to pray. I’m always surprised when new musical settings for our prayers are judged primarily by their capacity for immediate communal singing. There are times when I have so much more to gain by opening my heart and my ears instead of my mouth, and allowing the music to carry me to places that my own voice cannot go. Many of us awaken suddenly and significantly at the symphony, or a Broadway musical, or in numerous other venues where deep engagement is achieved simply by means of a listening heart. We do not participate in a sunrise or a rainbow or other awe-inspiring moments except by bearing witness, and allowing them to “do their thing.” These are moments of blessing. In worship, I do not want the enormity of my gratitude, or longing, or grief, or joy to be limited by my own capacity for vocal expression. Sh’ma. Listening from the heart, sometimes even to melodies that we have heard a hundred times or more, is also participating, unifying, strengthening, and praying.

• Really beautiful communal melodies often take time to learn. What if we treated new melodies as honored guests? Wanting to put our best foot forward, we can welcome them warmly, engage them in conversation, listen to and learn from them, and invite them to return in order that we can get to know each other better. I need to open myself up a bit, in order to give them permission to do the same. Every beloved, cherished, old melody was once new.

Some melodies will become old friends, some will challenge and teach me, some will hold the key to someone else’s heart, and I can appreciate that as well. I will enjoy sitting quietly with some, and audibly expressing my joys, hopes, or sorrows with others. Some relationships will deepen more quickly, and some melodies will never be more than acquaintances. But they can be recognized as members of our congregations who have come to share their gifts, and are strengthened in turn by our open doors and hearts.

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