Words and Music

Today is Hoshannah Rabbah. While the gates of repentance close on Yom Kippur at Neilah, the rabbis added in a little more time for those slow to change or to face up to the need for it. Today is it. Here is a relevant thought, before the holidays move totally to the rear view mirror.

As you may know, I am the rabbi AND the cantor in my little shul in Warrenton. The latter role is way more challenging. This year I had a cold on Yom Kippur, which made it even scarier. The High Holiday melodies are difficult to sing, and until now I didn’t have a clue why, thought it was just some kind of cruel trick on me. See what you think of this commentary by Elliot Dorff, a wise professor at our L.A. rabbinic school. Longer than my usual, take your time.

I have a Ph.D. [writes Dorff] in philosophy from a philosophy department that espoused analytic philosophy, which focuses on the meaning of words. I am therefore probably the last person you know who would tell you to ignore the words of Yom Kippur – the words of the liturgy and the words spoken in sermons during the day. Words bear meaning, and the words of the Yom Kippur liturgy are especially graphic in describing the brevity and weakness of our lives, the lack of control that we have over much of what happens to us, and yet the great responsibility that we have for what we think, feel, and, especially, do.
But music also conveys meaning. The exact same words sung to different melodies or at a different cadence can mean completely different things. The Kaddish, for example, is traditionally sung to nineteen different melodies throughout the Jewish year, and listening to a skilled hazzan sing the exact same words in different melodies and beats does indeed make them feel very different and thereby convey very different meanings, even though the words, if translated, would mean the exact same thing each time.
For me [this is all Dorff], though, the Aleynu prayer is the best example of how music conveys meaning. That prayer began as part of the Malkhuyot section of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. This section focuses on God’s sovereignty, because it asserts that we have a duty (aleynu l-) to praise God who created the world and taught us Jews our distinctive way of living and who, we hope, will teach that to the rest of the world so that all human beings understand that they must live with the recognition that only God is sovereign (not money, idols, etc.). The prayer is attributed to Rav, who lived in the third century, but during the Middle Ages the practice was begun to end every morning, afternoon, and evening service with the Aleynu prayer. During the year, the melody to which it is sung – you know it – hugs the melodic line. In contrast, during the High Holy Days, the melody to which it is sung [the one where the hazzan gets down on his knees] skips octaves. I want to suggest that that is not an accident – for most of the year we feel God’s immanence – that God is with and among us – but on the High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, we feel God’s transcendence – that God is far above and beyond us and different in kind from us. By hugging the melodic line during the year, the music articulates God’s immanence, and by skipping octaves on the Days of Awe, the music draws attention to God’s transcendence.   The same is true for the iconic music of the Kol Nidre prayer. It too skips octaves [which is why Rabbi Rudolph fails miserably to sing it.] And its minor key adds to the transcendent feel of God, for it expresses our sense of fear and awe before the One who will judge us on this day, knowing, as we inevitably do, that in the past year we have not lived up to all that God would want us to be in our interactions with each other and with God.

So [Rabbi R now speaking] next Yom Kippur by all means pay close attention to the words of the liturgy and the sermons, but also pay attention to the music. Both the words and the music will hopefully make the Day of Atonement the cleansing moral experience in the face of a transcendent God that Yom Kippur is intended to be, and that Hoshannah Rabbah completes.
There is your music lesson, but it’s really theology. I hope it resonates. Best, Bill Rudolph




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