This article in a local paper, as my friend Robin's Aunt Shirley might say, really got my panties in a bunch:
"Fighting Sing-Along Services
Is composed synagogue music becoming an object of nostalgia heard only in a museum setting?
That's the fear of numerous experts on Jewish music and worship, but they aren't prepared to surrender quite yet to the guitar-playing song leaders. A three-day conference set for Nov. 12-14, 'Reclaiming American Judaism's Lost Legacy: The Art of Synagogue Music,' including a model service (Sunday at 8 p.m. at Park East Synagogue) and major concert, is their first step in attempting to revitalize what they believe is an embattled worship tradition."
Now, I think this is wonderful. It's gorgeous music that everyone should hear. But I disagree thoroughly with these next comments:
"It is based on the supposed need to have participatory congregational singing, that the congregation should not be ‘sung at’ but ‘singing with,’” [composer Jack Gottlieb] says. 'I'm not altogether convinced that that's the way to achieve a prayerful moment in a synagogue service.'...
'The participatory music . . . has to be by definition the lowest common denominator to have the layman join,' he says. 'What I have witnessed going on does not thrill me. But I’m not the judge, the future is the judge.'
'...Composers whose music has a high aesthetic end have been replaced because of the need for ‘music to make me feel good' [says Mark Kligman of the School of Sacred Music at HUC-JIR]."
But... what's wrong with "music to make me feel good"? Isn't that the point of prayer? Are we supposed to sit passively while an expert engages in a religious experience on our behalf, as if we weren't qualified to do so? I don't dispute that hearing beautiful music can take us to amazing spiritual heights, or that listening to the cantor, at times, is preferable to joining in. But singing along doesn't have to be a "lowest-common denominator" experience; we're far beyond humming "Kumbaya" to the strumming of a flat guitar. A simple tune that we create ourselves in partnership with the voices of others can reach the heart much quicker than a display of vocal pyrotechnics. And the music at my synagogue is proof that singable melodies can indeed be of "high aesthetic." The answer, I think, is not to "fight sing-along services" but rather learn from congregations that attract thousands of members with their version of this approach--and not be afraid to embrace a new tradition.
End of rant... and Shabbat Shlaom!