Wednesday, March 07, 2007

465. Language

I never heard of Hebrew-English leyning until this thought-provoking (as always) post by Rachel. I've gone to approximately, um, one traditionally Reform service in my entire life, with the remaining 99% Conservative-flavored or a sadly moribund version of Orthodox. None included chanting in English. But I agree that it's a great idea, and have had a taste: one of the very first events presented by Storahtelling, which also coincided with one of the first Shabbat morning services I attended in years, was a Torah reading assisted by a meturgeman, a line-by-line instantaneous translator. It's an old concept--this was the usual custom about a thousand years ago--and was completely electrifying. I had always read the English part during services, of course, but making sense of archaic words while trying to listen to their incomprehensible language of origin took more coordination than I possessed on a Saturday morning. The meturgeman demonstrated how alive that old book could be, and made me want more. I felt like Helen Keller with her hand under the faucet; text changed in an instant from symbol to meaning, and my life really was completely different afterwards.

That said--despite the pivotal role of translation in my spiritual life, I prefer to hear very little English during services. The language of prayer for me is Hebrew, and chanting is prayer. Yes, I need to understand the story in order to tell it, but I'm fine with that part happening before and after the moment. On one level it makes no sense: why knowingly limit my comprehension? But Torah is art, not science, and therefore completely bound to mystery no matter how hard we try to untangle meaning. So we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. Her words are music, not just via the lilt of ancient melodies but because of their ability to bypass mind and go directly to heart. Every time I ponder that phrase or this combination of letters, I remind myself that dictionary definitions are sufficient but soulless, like a script in the hands of a bad actor. Understanding is not equivalent to praying.

I also need to pray and chant in Hebrew as a constant reminder of what I don't know. God is encouraging me to reach further than I can ever imagine, and is keeping my ego in check in the process.


Erik said...

At the Reform synagogue I sometimes attend, the Rabbis usually translate themselves, phrase-by-phrase, as they read (and they do read rather than chant, which makes me sad... but that does make it extra-special when the Cantor takes a turn at it!)

I think this is my first time posting, but I have very much enjoyed reading your blog. I am not Jewish, but I spent ten years singing in the choir at this same synagogue and have a deep respect and affection for Jewish liturgy and its music.

alto artist said...


Thank you so much for reading and posting! Yes, agreed--the public declaration of those words was meant to be sung, not read. I am all for bending tradition, but that "innovation" makes me sad, as well.