So, you know how there are tons of melodies for Adon Olam? You may never have thought about it before, but there are many out there. Yes, each congregation may default to one or another, but the words to Adon Olam can be fit into many modern tunes. As rabbinical students in Jerusalem, we used to do a sing-down game where two teams would compete to see how many melodies to Adon Olam we could come up with. (Yes, this is what we did for fun). My favorite has always been "Rock Around the Clock." Go ahead, take a moment and give it a try.
I love Jewish and liturgical music. I don't mean any disrespect to my fellow rabbis out there, but the music has always served as a much more spiritual component of the service for me than the spoken word. The right melody-a favorite Janowski, Lewandowski, Richards, Isaacson, Friedman, or Klepper-especially one that evokes a particular memory or moment, feels like it opens the heavens and communicates with the Divine in a deep, meaningful manner. It's hard for me to stand still during some of my favorites - I just have to tap my foot or clap my hands or even do the special hand motions that I had learned at camp or in youth group. This is, naturally, a bit challenging when I'm in the role of "serious rabbi on the bimah," but that's just the nature of the job, I suppose.
One of my most treasured memories of my years at URJ's Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) camp was the weekly "Shabbat shirah." After Shabbat dinner and services, we'd all head over to Port Hall, still dressed in our Shabbat finery. Once there, all of the camp's song-leaders would gather in the center of the room, and campers of all ages would arrange themselves in concentric circles around the room's perimeter. The song-leaders would start with peppy, upbeat songs that encouraged us to boogie a bit and sing along in harmonies and call-and-answer routines. Then, eventually, they would transition to slower songs, and the lights would magically begin to dim. (I never did find out whose job it was to do that.) Shechinah most certainly dwelled there with us, floating on the precious melodies that emanated from our lips. There was an ineffable magic to the songs, and we could all feel its power to transform. In those moments, I knew that I had to always have access to Jewish music in my life.
As I learned more and more about Jewish text over the years, I loved that this week's Torah portion, B'shalach, contained Shirat HaYam, the "Song of the Sea" (Exodus 15:1‒21). This song, written in a special format in every single Torah (reminiscent of waves of water), was sung by Moses as our ancestors took their first steps of freedom on the other side of the Sea of Reeds. In fact, the song is so central to the portion that the entire Shabbat has a special name: Shabbat Shirah, just like our wonderful weekly experiences at OSRUI!
It fascinates me that this song is treasured so greatly by our tradition - we are even taught to stand when it is read during worship. The centrality of music in Judaism, and further proof of its import, is reinforced when Miriam leads the women in her own song, timbrel in hand (Exodus 15:20‒21). These prophets could have merely given a big speech, orating grandly to the newly freed Israelites. But, no - instead, they sing songs, creating poetic verses infused with joy, exaltation, and praise. This validates our own desire to express emotions during ritual moments through music.
I am grateful to all of our cantors, song-leaders, and musicians who help make Reform worship beautiful, transformative, and spiritual. I am likewise grateful to all composers of Reform liturgical and camp music (and the frequent overlap between the two) of past, present, and future. Without them, we wouldn't have the melodies to form the foundation of our blessed moments. Music takes us out of our own heads, encourages us to join our voices to those of our community, and allows the waves of song to ascend to God's heavenly courts. I am confident that God celebrates these sacred melodies just as much as we do.
(A portion of this d'var Torah first appeared in The Jewish Week. See http://www.thejewishweek.com/features/reform_really/power_music_night)
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as the rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. She also writes the "Reform, Really" column, which is featured bimonthly on the New York Jewish Week Web site.
In his recent article in the CCAR Journal, Cantor Evan Kent writes, "While I cannot exactly recall the first time I experienced [Debbie] Friedman's Mi Shebeirach, I do know it created a seismic shift in my own theology and my philosophical understanding of the power of liturgy." 1
I can recall it exactly. I can remember sitting in the kahal of Beth Emet: The Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL, as Cantor Jeffrey Klepper led the congregation in the words of Friedman's Mi Shebeirach. I was twenty years old, a senior in college, having grown up without exposure to prayer or spirituality. Someone very close to me was dying of terminal cancer at the time, so when the rabbi asked for names, I found myself speaking the name on my mind and in my heart. Then the music began, the community began to sing together, and I just cried. That was my prayer. I returned Shabbat after Shabbat to Beth Emet, waiting patiently through the bulk of the service for the words of Friedman's Mi Shebeirach so I could cry once again. In that moment, every Friday night, the window to God was opened and we, God and I, would come together in the most profound and moving way.
Was it the music, the lyrics, the sense of God's very near Presence that affected me? Or was it the simple impact of the community gathered in that sanctuary, joining together their voices and-more profoundly-their hopes for healing and wellness, which served to move me spiritually? Cantor Kent speaks of the individual voice rising and riding "on the wave of the community's support." As in the desert, as in our congregations, as in Judaism always, when prayers and songs of Torah are shared, the Divine rests within the community.
1. "A Very Personal Reflection: Debbie Friedman's Setting of Mi Shebeirach as a Sonata," CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Summer 2012, pp. 183-189
Rabbi Laurie Rice is co-rabbi with her husband Philip "Flip" Rice at Congregation Micah in Nashville, TN.
B’shalach, Exodus 13:17–17:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 478–507; Revised Edition, pp. 431–461;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 379–406