Sunday, May 1, 2011
Music as Holy Heresy (a sermon for Boise Music week)
In the Beginning—Music as Holy Heresy (A sermon for Boise Music Week)
Back in high school, my friends and I spent almost all of our free time and money buying, playing, listening to, and talking about music. Our heroes were Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, the Clash, and The Who. And our favorite topic, over which we argued incessantly, was the “desert island” question: if you were marooned indefinitely with just one album, which would you choose? Born to Run? Who’s Next? After the Goldrush? Did you go with the indie snob appeal of some esoteric bootleg concert? Or my personal favorite, Bob Dylan’s 1975 masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks?
Growing up as the rabbi’s son, I was expected to be a good Jewish boy—and, on occasion, I obliged. But my real religion was music. I have now been a rabbi myself for nearly a quarter of a century—yet in significant ways, not all that much has changed. Music is still the heart and soul of my spiritual life.
Along the way, I happened upon a biblically-inspired version of that old desert island disc dilemma. It seems particularly appropriate in this season, just a week after the Passover festival marking our liberation from Egyptian bondage. Here’s the scenario: You are cast into the wilderness, on extremely short notice, for a long and arduous journey. The luggage requirement is even more stringent than that imposed by today’s airlines; you are limited to what you can carry out on your back. After packing a minimal supply of food, water, and clothing, you have room for just one personal item. What do you bring?
The answer—at least for the Israelite women—is: drums and tambourines! We know this because after we pass through the Sea of Reeds, Miriam and the women dance and sing, driven by the celebratory beat of their timbrels. How extraordinary: we leave Egypt in such urgent haste, we do not even have time to let our bread rise, yet the women have the wherewithal to pack the percussion section!
Thus Torah reminds us that music is not a luxury; it is, instead, a staple that is for many of us as indispensible to the life of the spirit as food, water, and shelter are to the body. Indeed, I would like to suggest that music is as essential to human life as language, and may even take priority over words. Evolutionary psychologists, linguists and musicologists argue over which came first in human development: speech or song. While this debate rages on, I would like to make the case, tonight, for the primacy of music, both in general culture and, in particular, in the realm of religious life. Since I’m a rabbi rather than a scientist, my evidence is largely anecdotal.
Consider, then, the art of my aforementioned favorite musician, Bob Dylan. I am a die-hard Dylanologist, yet even I cannot make out a significant percentage of his nasal-inflected, half-mumbled lyrics. And even when I can decipher the individual words, the meaning of Dylan’s phrases can be elusive at best. But I don’t care. The hypnotic, incantatory power of the music renders these matters trivial.
This experience always strikes me as utterly familiar, because much the same thing happens every week in my synagogue. Our service is mostly sung, in Hebrew, which hardly anyone in the community really understands. That doesn’t matter, for the potency of the prayers does not lie in the rational meaning of the words. Whether it be a psychedelic Dylan song, an ageless Hebrew chant, or, for that matter, a Verdi opera, the music is the thing.
For another example, I turn to the story of Yigdal, the medieval hymn that marks the conclusion of nearly every synagogue’s festival services. Yigdal is sung throughout the Jewish world—yet few know its history, which is fascinating. For centuries, rabbinic authorities tried to insert a standardized creed into the prayer book, based on Moses Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith. Maimonides was the greatest Jewish scholar who ever lived—yet time after time, the rabbis’ efforts to canonize his words failed miserably. The people in the pews simply refused to recite these principles; we Jews tend to be strong-willed and opinionated, unwilling to accept any creed, even that of our most revered sage, as the last word on anything. Then, in 1404, a poet named Daniel ben Judah Dayyan had a brilliant idea. He translated Maimonides’ creed into rhymed metric verse, and it was soon set to music as Yigdal.
As a hymn, it secured, at last, the beloved place in the prayer book that it could not gain as prose. The lesson is clear: if you want people to recite words that they don’t necessarily believe, or want to recite, be sure to arrange them to a catchy tune.
My final case for the primacy of music comes from the simple observation that unlike language, it is omnipresent. While speech is limited to human beings, and perhaps a few of the higher mammals like chimps, whales and dolphins, music fills the natural world. Creation’s song is unceasing, a vast chorus of chirping insects, singing birds, rustling leaves, raging rivers, thunder and wind and rain, and so much more. The great Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov would pray: “Master of the Universe, may it be my custom to go outdoors each day, where every tree and blade of grass chants to its Creator.” And the Psalmist proclaimed in wonder: “The heavens sing of God’s glory.” Fumblingly, we give language to the world; with utmost grace, the world gives its eternal song to us.
Of course, some would argue with me here; the defenders of language might begin with the story of the creation itself. In the Genesis text, God speaks much of the world into existence with the word “va-y’hi”—“Let there be”. . . light and firmament and dry land and flora and fauna and, of course, us. Christian Scripture declares: “In the beginning was the Word” and rabbinic tradition similarly suggests that in creating the world, God followed the pre-existing words of Torah as a blueprint.
But when we Jews listen to the creation story each fall in synagogue, as part of our annual cycle of Torah readings, we do not hear “And God said, ‘Let there be light’” [spoken] but “Va-yomer Elohim y’hi or, va-y’hi or” [chanted with trope]. We experience the words as music, chanted according to notation established by the Masoretes in northern Israel over a thousand years ago. Furthermore, a close look at the text itself echoes the suggestion that music precedes language. Genesis does not open with a blank slate. Before God says “let there be” anything, the raw material of creation is already at hand: wild and waste, and the dark-shrouded deep. “V’ruach Elohim m’rachefet al p’nai ha-mayyim—the rushing spirit of God moved over the face of the water.” In other words, the world begins with water and wind—and when water and wind are moved by God, how, amidst that great rushing spirit, could there fail to be music? As Pete Townsend of The Who observed and sang: “There once was note, pure and easy, playing so free as a breath rippling by. The note is eternal, I hear it, it seems me, forever we blend and forever we die.” In the beginning, was music, primal and omnipresent, humming through the unimaginable vastness of the universe into our waiting heads and hearts.
But music’s primacy is not only temporal. In his extraordinary book, This is Your Brain on Music, evolutionary neuroscientist—and former rock and roll player and producer—Dr. Daniel Levitan notes that more than any other mental activity, making and listening to music involves every region of our brains. Recent research with functional MRIs demonstrates that while language is generated almost exclusively in the cerebral cortex, music lights up everything from the centers for abstract learning and mathematics to the primal lizard brain. Unlike almost anything else that we engage in, music defies compartmentalization. I believe that this is the key to its potency. We love music precisely because of its unique capacity to cross, confuse, and ultimately confound all boundaries. As the much-revered folk singer Pete Seeger reminds us, “Music leaps over barriers of language, religion, and politics.”
This is its power, too, for people of faith. We experience it this evening in the strength that surges through all of the magnificent performances we are blessed to hear. “Church Night” is part of something bigger, as is the whole of Boise’s venerable Music Week celebration. For in the end, music also transcends the artificial boundaries that we draw between sacred and secular. That is why we have so many classic Christmas songs composed by Jews—and Jewish liturgical music set to Christian Bach cantatas. It is why you can be deeply religious and still love secular show tunes, or avidly atheistic yet thrill to the passionate energy of a gospel choir. Does it matter that the high hymn of American civil religion, “The Star Spangled Banner”, is set to an English drinking song? Or consider: when Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics for “Our Love is Here to Stay” just one month after the death of its composer, his beloved brother George—what kind of love, exactly, did he have in mind? Is the song a pledge offered by a romantic young man to his lover? Does it represent Ira’s love and loss-filled lament for George? Or is it something else entirely? The chorus declares: “In time the Rockies may tumble, Gibraltar may crumble, they’re only made of clay. But our love is here to stay.” Recently, a colleague pointed out to me that these words are remarkably similar—perhaps not coincidentally—to a passage from the book of Isaiah: “For the mountains may move, and the hills be shaken, but My love shall never depart from you.” Was Ira Gershwin nodding to Scripture or unknowingly composing a sacred song?
Or is “Our Love is Here to Stay” all of the above, and even more: romantic and fraternal, mournful and joyous, human and divine, at the same time?
For all of these reasons, and countless others, music is infused with holiness, with the power to rescue us, body and soul. During one of the darkest periods of my life, I took solace in the daily routine of my silent morning prayers—and in raucously playing my harmonica at a weekly Sunday night blues jam. I found comfort in the Psalms, that holy poetry legendarily written on and accompanied by King David’s harp—and in the wisdom of my teacher and therapist, Bruce Springsteen. When I was at my lowest, I would crank up The Boss singing “Lonesome Day”, with its elegiac verses, echoing my own sadness, overcome in the end by the irresistible triumphant chorus: “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright.” That music saved me.
And I am not alone. For some of us, salvation comes through John Coltrane’s haunting wails of “A Love Supreme.” For others, it arrives via Bach or Beethoven. The vessel can be the muezzin’s call, a Buddhist chant, or a Hindu raga, Yigdal or Ave Maria or “Amazing Grace.” It is the coal miner’s daughter, Loretta Lynn, and Luciano Pavarotti, the gospel chorus and the Motown band, rock and rap and R&B, Don Giovanni and “Tangled Up in Blue.” It is sacred or secular—no, it is sacred and secular—and it is a priceless divine gift whether or not we believe in God. It has been here since before the beginning, and ever will it be.
Which brings me back to Miriam and the women on the shore of the Sea of Reeds. Why, of all things, did they pack their timbrels? Because, in their wisdom, they knew that as much as food and water, the journey that lay ahead would demand the kind of courage best-mustered through the power of song.
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, African-American demonstrators risked their lives in the deep south, facing down brutal white supremacists with remarkable courage. When asked about the source of such bravery, Bernice Johnson Reagon, daughter of a Baptist minister and founder of the a cappella group “Sweet Honey in the Rock” pointed to the music. She says that singing the songs of the black church conferred upon the people a collective conjured strength. The music created a kind of protective barrier between the demonstrators and the police, allowing the marchers to move beyond their fear. As Ms. Reagon describes it: “Those songs do something to the material that you’re made of. The singing connects you with a force in the universe that makes you different. You become part of a community. And then they can’t get to you.”
As I imagine the scene at the Sea of Reeds, that’s much the way it was with my biblical foremothers. As the Egyptian army bore down upon them, they must have been seized by doubt and fear—until Miriam took up her timbrel and began to play and dance and sing. Then, with the rest of the women fortified by the contagious courage of her song, the music rose in a mighty crescendo, parting the waters and paving the way to freedom—even as it does, still, today.
So let us end with their song, which is comprised of just six Hebrew words.
I invite you now to sing it with me:
Ozi v’zimrat Yah, va-y’hi li l’yeshua—
God is my strength and my song and has become my liberation.