Singing the Self

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There was a time when the academic study of religion meant the scrutinization of doctrines and texts. Rituals, ceremonies and other cultural pursuits were considered minor accessories to a religion’s cognitive content. Vedas and Sutras contained all one needed to know about the Hindus; Muslim life could be deciphered by reading the Qur’an; Zoroastrian affairs were explained in the Avesta; and so on. This paradigm gradually shifted in the twentieth century with the writings of Marcel Mauss, Victor Turner, Catherine Bell and others. Coming primarily from the practice- and action-oriented fields of sociology and anthropology, these scholars argued that dynamic actions, not static documents or dogmas, were responsible for shaping and defining religious life. They saw ritual as the “doing” or “performing” of religion, and sought to understand how such enactments form conceptions of history, identity, authority, meaning and transcendence. More important than the stories and teachings themselves was how they were translated into action.

While emphasis on the doing of religion was groundbreaking in academia, it was nothing new for practitioners of Judaism. Jewish systems across the spectrum of observance have always promoted a performative approach to texts. The People of the Book are also the People of Deeds—specifically mitzvot (commandments) derived from biblical and rabbinic sources. The amount of mitzvot and the stringency with which they are observed vary greatly from community to community and individual to individual. But the premise is the same: beliefs and convictions are essentially worthless until and unless they are put into practice.

The foundation of this philosophy can be traced to the biblical dictum, “na’aseh v’nishma”—“we will do and we will hear/understand” (Exodus 24:7). With this phrase, the Israelites’ accepted the requirements the Torah imposed upon them. The order of the statement suggests that one is to carry out stipulated actions first and understand them later. Not only did this give preference to performance over study, it also led to the rabbinic conclusion that fulfilling a mitzvah does not necessitate reflection or even comprehension. For both Judaism and ritual scholarship, it is the deed, almost independent from the rule or rationale, which shapes the identity of the actor.

This helps explain the prevalence of singing in Jewish religious life. Singing is, at core, the performance of words. It is a complex action involving muscle coordination, auditory perception and specialized body movement. Singing unlocks memories, induces emotions and summons images. Communal song—a dominant modality in Jewish settings—can heighten awareness, bolster camaraderie and connect individuals to a force larger than themselves. Most crucially, the sensations, thoughts and bonding facilitated through singing are concrete: they leave one feeling that something real and momentous has occurred.

Jewish ritual is fundamentally liturgical: it is structured, time-specific and text-heavy. All of this can contribute to a passive experience. How the words are presented is thus of paramount importance. Prayer texts attain their greatest impact when they are sung or chanted, mainly because it is an active, living experience. And if it is true that religious life is characterized more by practices than written sources, then the musical rendering of liturgy is a vital act of self-definition.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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