Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
In the summer of 1953, Cantor Reuben Rinder of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco submitted a composition to Julius Freudenthal, his trusty publisher at Transcontinental Music Corporation. It was a setting of Adon Olam (“Master of the Universe”), a closing doxology of Jewish prayer services. Rinder received a letter of rejection from Freudenthal, who explained, “Time and again we encountered great reluctance on the part of the synagogues to change the music for the final hymns of the service.” Adon Olam exists in hundreds, if not thousands, of renditions, and fresh ones are being written all the time. Despite this, most congregations settle on a few versions and have little desire to try something different from the array of alternatives.
What accounts for this hesitation? There are a few simple explanations: the comfort of the familiar, the fulfillment of expectations and the old maxim of complacency, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But these only go so far. Familiar prayer melodies are tightly woven into the fabric of the service and etched into the identity of the congregation. Replacing the music is tantamount to a desecration. The service and all of its repetitive parts are felt as holy, and musical departures threaten the sacred flow.
The reasons for this are rooted in what mythologists call “strong time.” We live in a complex, unstable and rapidly changing world. The only certain thing is uncertainty. Myths offer a remedy for this fluctuating and unpredictable reality. They give a perception of strong time: prodigious moments when something foundational, unparalleled and inflexible was made fully manifest. These are episodes removed from the laws of nature and the ambiguities of the day to day. They include creation narratives, hero tales, miraculous interventions and other legends. They are the unshakable and unhistorical stories that people gather to commemorate, and around which identities and ideologies are constructed.
For strong time to remain strong, it must be periodically recounted in rituals, recitations and song. These scheduled reminders, which punctuate the calendars of devotees, provide a sense of steadiness amidst the randomness of existence. If these observances were neglected, the world would fall into chaos—or at least the turmoil of reality would become more apparent. Repetition imparts stability.
It is largely because of this that prayer-songs resist change. Worship services are devised to harness and project strong time. Repeated scripts, regulated rituals and predictable choreographies transmit a sensation of security. The musical score to which the liturgical drama is set likewise demands consistency. Certain melodies become attached to certain occasions. Their specific sounds encompass the essence of the events themselves. Deviations from the expected music are experienced as more than just novelty or harmless variety. They are, quite often, unwelcome reminders of life’s fragility.
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