In the age-old quest for deeper spiritual feeling and understanding, Jews and followers of other faiths have tried a variety of actions. Some are cerebral: reading and writing prayers, studying, and researching are chief among them. Others are physical: performing arts such as music and dance, meditation, delving into fine arts and crafts, even less obvious fields such as gardening, hiking, and such.
Jews of all types have their reasons and motivations for seeking greater spiritual sustenance, within the parameters of Judaism and elsewhere. Young and old, female and male, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and the several subgroups within Orthodoxy; Jews from all walks have made their attempts to grow spiritually. For some, it is a lengthy, patient, ongoing march; for others it is an impulsive, short-term, dilettante exercise.
One factor is whether or not to make one’s spiritual development a solo excursion or include group endeavors. A majority of Jews employ a mix of activities in their spiritual pursuits. Balancing singular versus group is not always easy, and can vary with a person’s needs and stages.
When it comes to tapping into Judaism, spirituality, and music, there are times when a person may just want to listen to songs, compose tunes on a musical instrument, and the like. But to a great extent, music, and especially singing, is a group activity and can be a major spiritual stimulant.
Singing, in particular, is an activity that Judaism frequently places within a group setting. The most obvious is the synagogue: there are communal prayer services morning, afternoon and evening. The minyan, the quorum of at least ten adult men (for the traditional) or ten adults, male or female (for Conservative and other groups) is considered preferable to solo prayer. Although there is certainly a place for personal prayer, Judaism prizes the group for many reasons. Congregants sing along or in response to the hazzan, the cantor, or other participants in the service. And, in many synagogues, a weekly or occasional or holiday choral group may play a part in the musical environment.
This prompts a few important questions: Can choral singing elevate the spirituality of those who listen and respond during a religious service or during a concert? And does choral singing elevate the spirituality of participating singers? Or is the singing perceived primarily as a time to listen passively (for those listening) or a nerve-wracking performance (for those singing)?
I have thought about this at length because I sing with a small group that accompanies our shul’s cantor, primarily during the yearly High Holiday services but also on other occasions (for instance, our synagogue’s 90th anniversary ceremony and other holidays). Our group began in 2008 with eight singers; two per voice in the SATB format. We grew slightly and, at our largest, we were a dozen singers. But one alto died; one baritone moved upstate in New York; our third tenor separated from and divorced his wife and moved away. Currently we are the “nine person octet,” with three sopranos and two each for the other voices. (I am one of two tenors.) And occasionally I lead prayers or chant haftorah portions.
At times, I grow nervous about being on stage, the bimah, and chanting Hebrew. Although I feel a sense of satisfaction at doing these parts of the service, I have not felt the same deep emotional pull that can occur when I sing with the octet.
At times, when singing with the octet, along with our hazzan (“Cantor Sam”), I feel…elevated. Emotional. Our voices blend and lock in on certain musical or word phrases, and for lack of a better word, it feels spiritual. Uplifting.
Chabad writers Tzvi Freeman, in his article “Music, Spirituality and Transformation: The Centrality of Song in Chabad” writes that “Song carries the soul upwards to be absorbed within the Infinite Light.” Touching upon age-old themes, “That is why the ancient prophets would sing and play musical instruments as they awaited the gift of prophecy.” Granted, singing can be highly moving when rendered by a designated vocalist with a gifted, stirring voice. Can it be as effective, or perhaps even more so, when offered by a group of singers taking various melodic parts?
A non-denominational look at faith-based singing, “Singing Meditation: Together in Sound and Silence” by Liz Hill and Ruthie Rosauer, notes that “We’ve all experienced a sense of wonder and magic when a great choir performs sacred music.” While that may oversimplify, it does bring up the fact that many people feel a pull when hearing choirs that work well together.
“The effect is even greater when we participate in singing together. Joined in song, our motions are not merely stirred; they merge and dissolve with the emotions of others, deepening our human connection. Singing in community provides a tangible power that doesn’t exist when we sing alone.” Although some may debate that (it can be a highly personal attitude), group singing in a religious setting, as well as other settings (schools, athletic games, popular music concerts, parades, marches, military ceremonies) can be exceptionally moving, or at least a social experience. Sing-alongs, modern flash mob singing, activist events with a political or social agenda–many of these utilize singing, planned or spontaneous outbreaks, to carry a message, to entertain, to bring people together via their identity or causes.
Brief Historical Background:
In Exodus 15:1 we read “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord; they said,” I will sing to the Lord…” This is not only read during a Saturday morning Torah reading portion, it is part of the daily prayer “Az YaShir,” and serves to remind us of the importance of singing to God.
A number of the Psalms, Tehillim, discuss singing to the Lord with praise. A few list musical instruments and structured singing. Number 47 states, “Make music for God, make music, make music for our King, make music… make music, O enlightened ones.” Number 57 states “I will sing and I will make music… I will sing to You among the nations.” In Number 92 mentions “…with singing accompanied by a harp,” which goes beyond a cappella singing. Number 98 states “Call out to HaShem, all inhabitants of the earth, open your mouths in joyous songs and play music. Play music to HaShem on a harp, with harp and song of chanted praise.” A few other psalms like the final one, Number 150, mention types of instruments (percussion, winds, and such).
According to “The Choir In Jewish History,” by Jonathan L. Friedmann in the May 2008 edition of The Jewish Magazine, “King David is credited with establishing the first Israelite orchestra and choir, with the purpose of enhancing the spiritual mood of sacred services. Most of the musicians and singers David employed came from the tribe of Levi,” as described in 1 Chronicles 15.
“Professional synagogue choirs were established as early as the 16th century, following the artistic model of European churches. Choirs of six to eight members would singer prayers like ‘Alenu,’ ‘Ein Kelohenu,’ and ‘Adon Olam.”
The Jewish Encyclopedia, Volume 4 mentions that “Maimonides permitted the choir to sing in God’s praise at the synagogue and at all religious feasts.” Years later, the renowned Solomon Hazzan of Metz, in his manual for cantors, admitted “that a cantor cannot get along without choristers.”
Acclaimed Jewish composers such as Salamone Rossi, Salomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski, Samuel Naumbourg wrote or arranged music with choirs in mind.
I asked a few people who sing in synagogue choirs to reflect upon the nexus of choral singing and spirituality. Here are their thoughts.
Singing “has changed for me over time, partly because I’ve become more involved in organized religion and am more familiar with prayers.”
“I asked Sam (the cantor) what he felt was the fine line between prayer and performance” and they spoke about that. She noted that it had changed for her, with more emphasis on the prayer aspect.
She has moved from focusing solely on “my own private prayer, to some extent sacrificed for the group effort, but I’m happy to belong to the (octet) and to sing with it. We help the congregation to get into the spirituality of the service and the Yom Tovim (High Holidays). The U’ne Taneh Tokef prayer in particular “is very spiritual now for me.” This key Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur prayer is when she really sees the cantor “getting into the zone, and it helps me as well” to concentrate on the feeling of the prayer and the singing.
As far as the highlights of spiritual depth and singing, “for me it is singing Selichot with the choir, Kol Nidre and B’Sefer Chaim with the octet. When we sing Avinu Malkeinu with the whole congregation, especially during the end of Ne’ila, it is very moving.” Certain prayers spark deeper emotion and communal solidarity for her.
A man who sings with our synagogue choir, writes that, “when I sing the High Holiday liturgy with the choir, or even the Kedusha, I cannot explain it. It is as if I am detached from earth to other spheres. Especially when I close my eyes and concentrate on what I am singing. You feel certain unexplainable metaphysical closeness with” God.
“I think definitely there is more of an ‘electric’ feeling during High Holidays, for instance. Especially Kol Nidre, there’s just something in the air that you won’t feel the rest of the year (probably a combination of sheer congregational numbers as well as the significance of the day). I wouldn’t say that I necessarily feel more spiritual when I sing in shul, but it does give me enormous pleasure to know that I’m helping to enhance the devotion of someone within listening range, or that the music is bringing solace or comfort to them. That’s tremendous and powerful but also very humbling that sacred trust exists between chazzan/choir and the congregation.” As well, some songs from Selichot and Hanukkah “are like old friends… whenever we meet it’s like we were never apart.”
“I don’t think I have experienced any spiritual feelings in a literal sense though there have been times when I found the final performance of a piece to induce chills. I think I get more feelings with a group (as opposed to soloing) because I am more relaxed. It is like being part of a team.”
Peruse You Tube for videos of legendary cantors, singing with choirs. Rosenblatt, Oysher and others sang along and responsively. Some of these decades-old recordings are remarkable.
Modern Jewish music has a variety of choir configurations. Among the non-Orthodox and some Modern Orthodox groups, there are community and congregational co-ed choirs as well as single-gender choirs. More stringently Orthodox groups favor male choirs. Boys’ choirs, such as the Miami Boys Choir, have an endearing following, but whether or not they are highly spiritual or viewed more as cute, is another issue. Then there is the growing niche popularity of Jewish a cappella groups, spurred by You Tube videos. Units such as the Maccabeats, Six13, Shir Soul (all male outfits) and Koleinu (a co-ed group) popularize Jewish choral singing, often with songs using well-known pop tunes and parody lyrics. These are largely meant to entertain, but for some people it could lead to further spiritual interest in Jewish group singing.
A smaller, quirkier Jewish group style is “kosher gospel,” popularized by Joshua Nelson and the Kosher Gospel singers. Nelson, a Jewish gospel-style singer who also works at a Baptist church in Newark, New Jersey, often sings with a backing choir. His influence has been limited, but does inspire a niche group of fans; his style could have a spiritual impact but for some listeners it may seem more a novelty.
It is obvious that choral singing can spur the spirituality of Jews, both singers and listeners.
Ellen Levitt is the author of the three books in the series The Lost Synagogues of New York City (Avotaynu) and 3 other books. She has also written for various online and print publications, including the New York Times and New York Daily News. Ellen is a longtime member of the Flatbush Womens Davening Group. She and her husband and children reside in Brooklyn, NY.