Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Kol Nidre 5784: Singing Our Way to the Promised Land

Late summer, 1970.  I’m nine years old, lying in bed, lamenting that my baseball team, the perpetually terrible Washington Senators, have lost yet again.  My low-fi transistor radio is hidden beneath my pillow, its bulbous white earpiece furtively wired up to my right ear.  As the postgame show winds down, I start to doze, too sleepy to turn off the radio.  And then, like a bolt of lightning, I’m wide awake, enraptured by the strange and breathtaking music crackling through the headphone: Oh, Mama, can this really be the end, to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again?

That was the first time I heard Bob Dylan, and it changed my life.  “Stuck in Inside of Mobile” is a surreal seven-minute journey populated by mythical and historical characters: the Senator, Preacher, Shakespeare, Rag Man, Rain Man, Neon Madmen, and a recently deceased grandfather who “built a fire on Main Street and shot it full of holes.”  As I listened that long ago night, I had no clue what the words were about, and though I’ve been an amateur Dylanologist my entire adult life, I mostly still don’t.  But it didn’t matter, because the music was so remarkable—an uncanny mix of electric guitar, organ, and harmonica that Dylan later described as “that thin wild mercury sound, metallic and bright gold”— the closest he ever came to capturing on vinyl the tones he heard in his own head.   I was mesmerized, transported to a brighter, weirder world, unbound by laws, where the possibilities felt limitless.  All I understood was that I wanted more.  What I felt was awe.


Awe is my theme for this sacred season, the Yamim Nora’im—Days of Awe.  In his new book on the subject, Dacher Keltner identifies several realms where we experience deep wonder.  On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about two: nature and moral beauty.  Tonight, I turn to another: music.  After all, it is a melody—Kol Nidre—that gives this holiest evening of the Jewish year its name. The story of that song says a lot about how and why music moves us.

While one can trace the origins of this legalistic annulment of vows, we know that, from its first appearance, in 8th century Babylon, most of the leading Sages opposed its inclusion in our liturgy.  In 879 CE, the editor of the first siddur, Rav Amram Gaon, called it minhag shtus, a foolish custom.  Since then, many venerated rabbinic authorities have argued against Kol Nidre, dismissing it as a misguided practice that makes light of pledges and promises.  

And yet, despite centuries of vehement opposition from leading scholars, Kol Nidre endured—because the passion of its music trumped the rabbis’ reasoned resistance to its words.  The melody is the message.  It opens with a fall, a descending minor tone, which continues for two full phrases—then breaks away to a determined rise.  It acknowledges our pain and heartbreak, then lifts us with a heroic—even defiant— echo of endurance, crescendoing into hard-earned triumph.  As Rabbi Reuven Hammer teaches, “the emotional experience of Kol Nidre overwhelms any individual attempt to understand what is being said.”  It’s all about awe.


On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, our great Jewish theologian of awe, who was deeply committed to natural wonder and social activism.  Heschel also wrote movingly about the power of music.  Given that his wife, Sylvia Strauss Heschel, was an accomplished concert pianist, this experience was near and dear to him. In his essay, “The Vocation of the Cantor,” he reflects:

The only language that seems to be compatible with the mystery of being is the language of music.  It is a reaching out. . . beyond the reach of verbal propositions.  I define myself as a person who has been smitten by music.


What is it about music that evokes such awe?  Why does it so universally and uniquely stir us? 

I believe the magic starts in our flesh and bones.  Much of our lived experience unfolds in our heads, but that’s not where wonder and wildness flourish.  The cerebral cortex is optimized to categorize, rationalize, and order the world.  While this is often helpful, even essential, we want more—beyond the operating instructions, we need the poetry, the muse, the unabashedly physically felt-emotion of music.  Philosopher Susan Sontag observed: “I listen with my body, and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in the music.”  Like the Beach Boys Brian Wilson, we all want to keep those good vibrations happening.

This is why music both literally and metaphorically moves us.  As individuals, we respond to music by tapping our feet and clapping our hands. If we’re bold, we may even twist and shout.  En masse, music fuels communal change—it’s no accident they’re called social movements, because music has been rousing us to action since Moses and Miriam sang our ancestors through the Red Sea to freedom’s shore.  America has a rich heritage of potent protest songs, many of which were written by Jews, from Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” to Dylan’s civil rights and anti-war anthems to the feminist riot grrrl rock of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein.  Sometimes the lyrics carry the message; other times all it takes to rouse the believers is a killer beat—consider some of the artists that propelled the quest for LTBGQ equality: Madonna, Queen, George Michael, Dianna Ross, Lady Gaga, and the Village People.  All affirm the worldview of the American-Jewish immigrant activist Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.”  


If one aspect of musical awe is primal physicality, another is elegant complexity.   Many of us love music because of its unique capacity to cross and confound simple boundaries.  Influences blend across time and space; discord and harmony wrestle and resolve; melodies and lyrics contain wildly different emotions.  It’s complicated, in the very best sense.  Listen to Bach—the beauty lies in the intricate variations, two and three and four parts, impeccably woven together. Or, for a very different example, consider Jimi Hendrix’s electrifying version of the Star-Spangled Banner.  It’s simultaneously nationalistic and subversive, traditional and radical—a young black guitar virtuoso’s protest as patriotism that both honors and challenges Francis Scott Key, and with him, all American history. 

Music also blurs the often-arbitrary barriers between sacred and secular.  That’s why you can be devoutly religious and still love classic rock, or ardently atheistic and take profound comfort in Gregorian chant.  When Taylor Swift belts out her gospel-influenced electro-pop hit “Don’t Blame Me”, the packed stadium crowds regularly respond: “Take me to church!”  For while the lyrics address human love and obsession in a media age, the light show and music and iconic imagery transport the audience to a kind of heaven on earth. This blend of holy and profane runs deep in Jewish music, too—that’s why we chant Shema to Viennese waltzes and Adon Olam to everything from medieval French drinking songs to. . . well, Taylor Swift.  As Joey Weisenberg concludes in his book, The Torah of Music

When we sing, sound merges with silence, sadness with joy, slavery with freedom, poor with rich, night with day, war with peace. . .  Song emerges from the reconciliation of different ideas, when we hear each others’ experiences and prayers.  

Or, as Walt Whitman would have put it, music contains multitudes.


Music is awe-inspiring because it is physical and complex—and, perhaps above all, because it is communal.   While my first transformative musical experience with “Stuck Inside of Mobile” was solitary, almost all that have followed were shared in the good company of fellow music lovers: 

Long, late, lyrical teenage nights listening to Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, and Bonnie Raitt with buddies in my best friend’s basement.  

Almost fifty years of stellar shows, from Jackson Browne premiering “Running on Empty” at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in 1977 to Esme Patterson owning the main stage at Treefort. 

And, of course, playing with so many avid musicians: blowing harmonica on tunes by The Who and Howlin’ Wolf with my high school band; jamming on “Sweet Home Chicago” in a blues bar in Kathmandu; Simchat Torah banjo-picking Ein Adir with the Red Sea Ramblers.  It’s been a wild, wonderful, truly awe-filled ride.


We know that language too often divides us, as Torah teaches with the Tower of Babel.  In a world awash in different tongues, most of humanity cannot converse with one another.  And even among those lucky enough to share a common language, words may create barriers as much as bridges.  Speech so easily lapses into un-constructive criticism and rigid dogma, dichotomies of right and wrong, us and them.  Words frequently harden into walls that keep us apart.  

Music tears down those walls.  People unable to speak together can sing and dance in beautiful harmony.  As the great 20th century troubadour Pete Seeger explained, “Music leaps over barriers of language, religion, and politics.”  Seeger drew on lived experience.  During the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted for nearly a decade.  But this did not silence his song.  Pete Seeger continued to play for peace and justice well into the next millennium.  When he died in 2014, at the age of 94, President Obama eulogized him, lauding his steadfast belief in music’s capacity to create community.  Speaking for so many Americans, and people around the globe, Obama concluded: “He always invited us to sing along.”


Indeed, musical community even transcends humankind.  While written language is limited to humanity, music fills the natural world.  Creation is a magnificent ongoing yet ever-changing song of chirping insects, whistling birds, rustling leaves, drumming rains and so much more.  Just listen to the psalms in our Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy, where seas thunder and rivers clap hands, fields exult, mountains dance, and trees of the forest sing with joy.  No wonder the great spiritual master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, prayed each day: 

May it be my custom to go outdoors among all growing things to talk with the One to whom I belong. May the foliage of the field - all grasses, trees, and plants - awake at my coming, to send the powers of their song into the words of my supplication. . .

Rebbe Nachman’s vision of prayer here is pure, unalloyed awe—the overwhelming joy of being a tiny yet meaningful voice in an unimaginably vast cosmic choir, to hum along with the celestial spheres.  This is music’s greatest gift, situating us within the living, breathing, singing congregation that is our universe.  As the psalmist proclaimed: Kol ha-neshama t’hallel Yah—the Soul of All Creation chants praise to the Holy One.


I opened with my first musical hero, Bob Dylan.  As I draw toward my final chorus, I turn to another inspiration, Bruce Springsteen, who, for me, embodies the spirit of musical community.  I first saw the Boss in 1980—he opened with “Prove It All Night” and proceeded to do just that, taking us on an epic journey from the despair of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to the unbridled exhilaration of “Born to Run.”  I’ve been to four shows since, mostly recently last February, and every one has been a profound spiritual experience.  Here’s how he describes his mission:

I want to go on a pilgrimage! I want to find that river, that river of life! I want to go on a pilgrimage to that river of love, that river of faith, and that river of hope. That's where I want to go tonight, to that river of joy and happiness. . .  And what I want to know now is, are you ready to go with me? Because I need to go with you. You can't get to those things by yourself. That's why we're here tonight, and that's why tonight I want to throw a rock and roll baptism! A rock and roll exorcism! A rock and roll bar mitzvah! We're gonna wash ourselves in those waters and set ourselves free! 


Tonight, I confess: my ultimate goal as a rabbi and ba’al tefillah, a conductor of prayer, is to officiate a service with even a semblance of the spiritual power of a Springsteen concert.  This may be an impossibly high bar, and I realize I have so much to learn.  But there’s one thing I know for certain: music is the way.

My dear colleague and paddling partner, Rabbi David Fine, has taught me that every person and congregation has its own super power.  Friends, here at CABI, ours is music.  We are, thankfully, a synagogue that sings, loud and proud.  That’s no small part of why I have stayed here for three decades, for it has been an extraordinary privilege to make music with you.  We’ve got Red Sea Ramblers and Moody Jews and Hila Lenz and Joel Brotman and a proud history of late greats from Joel Stone to Dan Stern to John Barnet.  And most of all, we have you, the Jews in the Pews—our equivalent of the heart-stopping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking E Street Band—out here raising a joyful noise, serving the Holy One with gladness and song!

In nine months, I’ll be stepping back from center stage, but I have endless hope and rock-solid faith that you will keep on keeping on, singing a new song, and some old ones, too—all those holy awe-inspiring melodies that lead the way to the Promised Land.

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