May 6, 2004
Music Makes the Service Go ‘Round
Since distributing a CD of hymns to members of Tustin's Congregation B'nai Israel, the Conservative synagogue's cantor, Marcia Tilchin, and congregant Carl Cedar, a veteran musician, no longer sing alone in the sparsely filled sanctuary on Friday night.
"The house was rocking," said Cedar, who last summer first began accompanying Tilchin on an acoustic guitar during "kabbalat," a less formal preface to the mandatory Friday evening Shabbat service.
"The congregants were drowning us out. It's very different then it was even a month ago," he said.
Both musical innovations reflect a cultural shift by the county's youngest Conservative congregation and reveals the challenge facing Conservative Judaism.
Since an organist was welcomed in Reform pulpits as early as 1817, the addition of a guitar player is sure to strike some observers as a tempest in a theological teapot. But playing sacred music remains a forbidden Sabbath activity in most Conservative synagogues, though organ music was sanctioned after the State of Israel was established. The exception remains the West, where even 10 years ago half the congregations enlivened worship with instruments, a percentage far higher than elsewhere in the country.
So local Conservative congregations are latecomers, experimenting with instruments only in the last two years. But what is welcomed by some congregants alienates others, who feel compelled to worship now in Orthodox settings, said Rabbi David Eliezrie, who said his Yorba Linda Chabad has seen a small influx from Conservative congregations.
Other leaders say music is too powerful a spiritual engine to forego.
"I think it's the right thing to do," said Stuart Altshuler, rabbi of Mission Viejo's Congregation Eilat, where once a month piano, guitar and mandolin are included in a service that is better attended than most. "It makes the whole experience more meaningful."
Doris Jacobson, president of Anaheim's Temple Beth Emet, hired Craig Taubman this year to lead four abridged Saturday services, where he played guitar and led congregants singing prayers in a smooth-jazz style. Four-hundred seats were filled instead of the normal 75.
"There is a joy to it," she said, absent from liturgy sung to melodies that are generations old. "We have to change as times change. It doesn't mean our values are devalued. It's like freeze-dried coffee. Why drink it when you can go to Starbucks and have so many choices?"
Aside from the human voice, musical instruments historically were banned because their use could lead to violating prohibited Sabbath activities, such as public carrying and fixing, and out of mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
"Rabbis say they're willing to accommodate because of the payoff both in numbers and quality," said Dr. Jack Wertheimer, provost of New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement's flagship academy. "Synagogue renewal regards the use of music as a critical force for positive change, and getting them involved, and enhancing their religious experience. This is very much in the air," he said.
Yet, contemporary issues, such as music and same-sex marriage, create tension within the Judaism's centrist denomination, whose mission is to integrate modernity with devout religious observance. United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement's congregational arm, claims 760 congregations with 1.5 million members. But the number of self-described Conservatives declined 10 percent over a decade according to two population surveys, though survey questions about affiliation were not exactly comparable.
Conservative leaders like Tilchin consider music an invaluable hook to engage a constituency lacking fluency in Hebrew and whose allegiance is based on relationships rather than ideology. Even clergy steadfast in their opposition to instruments nevertheless feel pressure from lay governing boards trying to encourage adherence to Jewish laws while still reaching out to the unaffiliated and disengaged.
"You have to meet people where they are," said Tilchin, who joined B'nai Israel two years ago. She estimated half of its 495 families read Hebrew.
"I'm trying to teach my congregation to daven," she said, describing "Shalom Aleichem: The Music of Kabbalat Shabbat," as a "beautifully produced learning tool."
The CD cost $10,000 to produce and was distributed in December.
Tilchin's selections blend Ashkenazi sacred melodies with more contemporary ones that also previously were paired with prayers. Cedar, after familiarizing himself with popular Jewish music stars, contributed his professional talents by recording, arranging and performing separate tracks for guitar, percussion, bass and clarinet.
"In theory, you could do this style for every service," Tilchin said. "It's a fantasy."
In the meantime, she is working on a fully transliterated Friday night prayer book as a companion guide to the CD. She hopes to complete it this month and distribute one to each congregant.
"Now, when they come, they'll be able to participate," Tilchin said.
Elie Spitz, B'nai Israel's spiritual leader, lifted the instrument ban after researching technical issues and determining that musical accompaniment enhanced rather than distracted from religious experience.
"The guitar helped people sing along," he said. "A capella is sufficient if you know the music."
Spitz and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a philosophy professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, are members of the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which decides issues of Jewish law. They are co-authors of a recently submitted "responsa," their explanation of permissible use of music on Shabbat. Their arguments must win the approval of six of the panel's 25 rabbinical members to be considered a valid opinion. Opinions are not binding, though acceptance could influence broader use of music within the Conservative movement. The panel isn't expected to consider their responsa for another year or more.
Dorff said the responsa explains the rationale behind the historical music ban and under what circumstances an instrument circumvents Shabbat prohibitions about creative activity.
Eliezrie, the Chabad rabbi in Yorba Linda who is president of the all-Orthodox Rabbinic Council of Orange County, is dismissive of such explanations. He cited an instrument ban from the Mishnah, oral explications of Torah recorded around the year 200 C.E.
"In an effort to market Judaism, do we loose the essence of Judaism? When you cross the line," Eliezrie said, "you lose your raison d'etre."
Tilchin, for one, is looking beyond theological lines.
"More people are singing than ever before," she said. "Music is a universal language for people who feel distant from the idiom of the liturgy."