Spirituality and Synagogue Music: A Case Study of Two Synagogue Music Ensembles

By Shansky, Carol | Research and Issues in Music Education (RIME), September 2012 | Go to article overview

Spirituality and Synagogue Music: A Case Study of Two Synagogue Music Ensembles


Shansky, Carol, Research and Issues in Music Education (RIME)


Introduction

In 2009-2010, I conducted a study of the adult choir (Kol Emet) and band (Temple Emeth Band) at Temple Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Teaneck, New Jersey, USA, in an effort to begin to understand what may be the spiritual connections and musical/religious educational experiences of those that participate in synagogue musical ensembles. This is an area that has not been researched in the music education field and very little is found in research on ensemble participation in synagogues. One obvious reason is the prohibition of such ensembles, especially instrumental, at Orthodox and most Conservative synagogues. But, they are increasingly prevalent in the Reform movement and this type of involvement on the part of congregants bears attention.

An aspect of community music, participation in a synagogue choir or band provides the same music education opportunities as do their counterparts in the secular world. The synagogue, or temple, is a community, bound by common religious and cultural beliefs and traditions. Choirs, especially, maintain the community's music as well as providing an outlet for musical expression and learning for its members. In addition, participation in a synagogue musical ensemble can offer the added layer of a spiritual connection that can be made through music making. Further, performing synagogue music affords the participant the opportunity to learn more about the liturgy and the service. This study provides an example of music/religious education and spirituality at a specific house of worship the results of which suggest important implications for research in religious school curriculum development, community music, and studies of spirituality.

Background

In the Reform movement, the cantor's role encompasses both prayer and song leader as the congregation is generally encouraged to sing along during the service. It is common for congregations to maintain a choir of volunteers that participate in some services and range in experience from almost professional to very amateur. The use of musical instruments was banned from use in the synagogue after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in c. 70 C.E in part because they suggest celebration. Shiloah tells us that, "Jews must forever mourn the destruction of the 2nd temple ... " and "instrumental music is identified with pleasure and the secular world [the use of instruments] may copy the melodies and actions of non-Jews" (Shiloah, 1992, p. 86).

While the Orthodox and most Conservative denominations maintain this ban, the Reform movement has embraced the use of instruments, particularly the organ. Ironically, it was in an effort to be more like Christian worship that the organ was introduced to Reform worship practice. While organs appeared early in the development of the Reform service and the guitar as a product of the folk song movement of the 1960s, the regular use of other instruments have appeared more recently. Since 1985, there has been an increase in the appearance of musical instruments in synagogue services, accelerated by the advent of the "Friday Night Live" service, composed in 1998 by Craig Taubman as a service for young adults (ages 25-40) in an effort to draw them back to temple life (http://www.judaism.com/gif-bk/99011b.gif).

The Reform movement prides itself on adaptation, modernization and balance. As stated on The Union for Reform Judaism website, "The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition" (http://www.urj.org/). The re-appearance of instruments as part of the worship service is an important example of that.

The changes in the nature of how the music of the prayers is delivered in the service have also created a new role for music as a device to foster a sense of spirituality. Beyond serving as a means to chant required text, many congregants see the act of singing or listening to singing to be an integral part of their spiritual experience. …

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