Tag Archives: Ritual

Instability and Control

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The concept of liminality was first formulated by ethnographer Arnold van Gennep in 1908. Victor Turner fleshed out the theory in the 1960s. Both men were intrigued by the various ways small-scale societies identify, confront and resolve times of flux and uncertainty, known as liminal periods. Almost without exception, these changes—which occur in the human life cycle and in the cycle of time—are met with rituals designed to ease the precarious movement from separation to transition to incorporation. In large-scale societies, rites of passage and rites of time can be informal, as with birthday and holiday parties, or formal, as with wedding ceremonies and time-specific prayer services. At the root of all these activities is the desire to conquer the “betwixt and between” of liminality and reenter a state of relative equanimity.

Not surprisingly, music tends to play a major role in these formal and informal rituals. The order implicit in most types of music infuses transitional periods with a measure of assurance and stability. The structure of music—especially music that is familiar and that has been used at similar events—injects a steady presence into an unsteady time. Consciously or unconsciously, the music provides an undercurrent of consolation for the actor or actors in transition.

Two cases drawn from the anthropological literature help illustrate this point. The first is an eight-day puberty ceremony enacted for girls of the Mescalero Apache tribe. During the rite, the girls take on the persona of the female deity and are celebrated into womanhood. Physical changes are translated into a spiritual transformation. Time-structuring elements of song—pulse, modulation, repetition, silence, etc.—are carefully arranged to give the ritual a sense of flow and logical progression. The imprecise and seemingly haphazard events of the first day gradually resolve into coordinated actions through the rhythm of rattles and the jingles of dresses. As the days move along, formulaic songs, chant-like verses and contoured refrains are performed to mark and enhance sections of the ceremony. On the eighth and final morning, the music comes to an end, the tipis are dismantled, food and sweets are passed around and ordinary time resumes. Liminality is overcome and the actors assume their new social standing as adults.

The second example involves lullabies sung by Iraqi Jewish mothers. In contrast to a formal rite of passage, the setting of this ritual is informal, private, domestic and daily. Yet it, too, confronts a liminal period: the disquieting shift from day to night and wake to sleep. The mother’s songs are more than just solace for the child; they are opportunities for her to address her fears, worries and emotional pain. The anxiety of evening brings life’s uncertainties to the surface, and the mother sings herself (and her child) into reassurance. A typical lullaby contains these lyrics: “And when I am depressed you will cheer me, and when I am troubled you will come to me . . . and you are safe, precious ones, so you will be my help.”

Our species is keenly aware of thresholds in life and time, and instinctively greets them with ritual behaviors, whether religious, civic or personal. At moments that challenge the normal pattern of existence and evoke palpable uncertainty, we long for and manufacture a means of control. And because music projects order and stability, it frequently assumes a prominent role in the process.

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

Music Itself

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Conventional thought holds that liturgical song is of two basic kinds. The first is logogenic (word-born), where rhythm, shape, movement, phrasing and cadences are directed by the ebb and flow of a text. This is essentially musical grammar—sometimes called speech-melody or stylized speaking—and is the dominant trait of scriptural cantillation and modal prayer chant. The second type is melogenic (melos-born), where words are fitted to the music. This includes prayer-songs in which musical considerations, like meter and melody, outweigh textual concerns. There is room in each of these categories for simple and complex music, literal and interpretive approaches, prosaic and creative treatments.

While the full range of liturgical music can be divided between these groupings, there is a third, somewhat different class that deserves our attention: pathogenic. Strictly defined, pathogenic (emotion-born) songs are distinguished by vocables: meaningless or nonlexical syllables sung to deliver melodies. This is a common feature of Native American songs and the wordless tunes of Hassidic Jewish origin. The music is devoid of verbal syntax and substance, and emotional outlet is the foremost purpose.

Although pathogenic songs are technically extra-liturgical—they do not involve prayer-texts—many who attend liturgical worship experience the music in a pathogenic way. This is especially so in settings where texts are in a foreign language and/or contain ideas foreign to a participant’s worldview. An example would be a Jewish congregant who is an atheist and does not understand (or care to understand) Hebrew, but still finds satisfaction in synagogue song. He may be an object of pity for the pious clergyperson or the high-minded composer; but he is common—perhaps the majority in some places—and his experience is as authentic as anyone else’s.

Whether the design of a prayer-song is logogenic or melogenic, the music has an essence and vitality of its own. Of course, the skilled composer or presenter will use musical devices to bring out qualities they find in the text, and they generally expect worshipers to pick up on the word-music interplay. However, once notions and emotions are translated into sound, they tend to take on an independent life. Although the text is the reason for the music, it is not always the reason a person is attracted to the music. (In fact, one’s affection for a song may be diminished when he or she discovers its meaning.)

If we expand the discussion of liturgical song to include the experiential aspect, then pathogenic becomes a legitimate and profitable classification. This approach is consistent with the updated understanding of ritual music, which sees text as one of several components of musical worship.

In contemporary scholarship, ritual music addresses the entirety of the rite: words, actions, artifacts, music and physical space. This holistic view looks beyond language and transcends debates about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a particular musical setting. It is the rite—not just the message—that shapes and reinforces identities and brings meaning to the lives of participants. The words may or may not be understood and may or may not be relevant for everyone in attendance. But there is acknowledged value in all elements of the rite, including the music itself.

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

Emotion, Spirit and Sound

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Benjamin Ray includes this optimistic observation in his textbook, African Religions: “Through ritual man transcends himself and communicates directly with the divine. The coming of divinity to man and of man to divinity happens repeatedly with equal validity on almost every ritual occasion.” The thought of a ritual—or another periodic activity—having the same impact or perceived potency each time it is performed is foreign to most people. Human beings are complicated creatures, and the potential elements of complication—interpersonal conflicts, financial worries, professional turmoil, indigestion, etc.—tend to hamper full engagement. Even the most devout will admit that spiritual highs are much less common than spiritual middles or lows. Perhaps things are different in generic Africa, though that is unlikely.

Added to this is the nature of ritual itself. In order to earn its designation, a ritual must be standardized, controlled and occasional. Several benefits stem from this predictability, not the least of which are feelings of stability and authenticity. But the religious ideals of attentiveness and elevation are often lost in repetition. The struggle to find personal meaning in religious ritual is as prevalent as ritual itself. This is especially so in liturgical traditions, where participants are expected to absorb themselves in texts they have read or heard hundreds of times before.

Music is typically turned to as a tool for fixing fractures in devotional concentration. There is an implicit awareness that text alone is not always compelling or stimulating enough to envelope the distracted worshiper, and musical strains are employed to do the trick—or at least aid the process. Of course, musical solutions are not infallible: liturgies are sung in faith communities the world over yet the challenge of focus still persists. Nevertheless, music’s unshakable place in religious services owes greatly to its ability to ameliorate—though not alleviate—barriers to concentration.

The success of music in this regard derives from the close proximity of spirituality and emotions. On some level, these sensations are indistinguishable. A flush of emotions felt in a religious setting—a holy site or house of prayer—and/or linked to texts considered holy—scripture or liturgy—is likely to be designated spiritual. Likewise, a peak or epiphanic moment outside of a formal setting may be understood as spiritual depending on the outlook and vocabulary of the actor(s). Thus, a more precise classification might be that a spiritual experience is an idiosyncratically determined species of emotional experience.

Whether such emotions are a sign of something beyond, a pathway to self-realization, or a combination of the two is, from an experiential standpoint, inconsequential. The important takeaway is that the emotional part of the human persona must be activated in order for worshipers to feel the “coming of divinity to man and of man to divinity,” as Ray puts it.

Herein lies the fundamental value of sacred music. Music serves to dramatize prayer, giving the language a personality and making it come to life. Music also generates psychophysical responses, steering the mind and body to feel a certain way. This influence can be traced to culturally conditioned reactions to musical techniques, such as tension and release, as well as personal and communal associations, such as nostalgic memories. In the end, the effect of the music becomes its character: calming, disconcerting, charming, invigorating, depressing, etc.

Again, music’s emotionalizing function is not a sure-fire way of drawing people into prayer or of retaining their attention. Old tunes, like old texts, can become dry after too many repetitions, and a given piece must be at least moderately attractive (not repulsive) to the individual. But under ideal conditions, music prompts emotional responses, which kindle spiritual connotations, thereby triggering thoughts of a heavenly source.

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

Ritual Chickens and Musical Eggs

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

John Blacking, the late British ethnomusicologist, posed an ostensibly innocuous question: “Which came first: music or ritual?” The conventional assumption is that ritual was first, since ceremonies seeking contact with the spirit world arose in the early phases of human evolution. Music and dance, it is thought, were added to ritual as a reliable means of promoting the desired atmosphere. But Blacking postulated that it might have been the other way around. Just as children instinctively dance, sing and gravitate toward instruments well before they begin to walk or talk—let alone engage in structured activities—musical experimentation might have been the primordial spark that ignited ideas of a supernatural realm and eventually led to ceremonial enactments. The absorbing effect of music—mysterious to peoples ancient and modern—sent the mind groping for otherworldly explanations. To ensure that musical-spiritual sensations would be controlled and repeatable, increasingly complex mélanges of words, objects and gestures were devised, and music took on a (seemingly) secondary status. In other words, music was the egg that hatched religion.

This scenario is entirely plausible. Music was discovered long before religious behaviors developed and could have inspired beliefs about contactable spirits. But since we are so distant from that prehistoric moment, a conclusive statement on musico-religious origins remains out of reach. What is uncontestable is that music and ritual have been joined for millennia.

This is important when examining liturgical segments of the Hebrew Bible. Although the book is brimming with prayer-songs—including a daunting assortment of 150 psalms—references to associated rituals are surprisingly sparse. Even if we presume—as we do—that prayers were regularly sung in ceremonial contexts, the Bible itself provides only hints of confirmation. In fact, it is our own experience of music in ritual that best supports a biblical link between music, liturgy and cultus. Were it not for that alliance, we could hardly account for the preservation and transmission of psalms over extended periods prior to their canonization. But again, concrete evidence is lacking.

The place of song within biblical religion is treated extensively in the writings of Sigmund Mowinckel. Taking a “cult functional” approach, Mowinckel maintained that all of the psalms were connected to the cult: they both originated in and were intended for communal ritual. Placing this general claim in a specific setting, Mowinckel attached more than forty psalms to a hypothetical autumnal New Year festival. His grounds for this celebration came from the Babylonian New Year feast, which celebrated the rule of the chief deity Marduk and the corresponding earthly reign of the king of Babylonia. The king played a major role in this dramatic celebration, and was a central figure in cultic activities more generally. Mowinckel proposed that the festival, which had pre-Davidic roots but apparently lingered in the Israelites’ consciousness, was the basis for Israel’s own autumn New Year commemoration (Exod. 23:16; 34:24; Lev. 23:23–24). According to Mowinckel, the event culminated with the procession of the Ark to the Temple, representing God’s enthronement, and the singing of “enthronement psalms” praising God as king (e.g., Pss. 47; 93; 95–99). Following Babylonian practice, the ritual coincided with the reaffirmation of the Israelite king, and was proclaimed in “royal psalms” celebrating his status as the earthly embodiment of God’s heavenly kingship (e.g., Pss. 2; 89; 110).

Although Mowinckel constructed this festival without direct biblical support, the Bible does divulge a few subtle indications of musical-liturgical ritual. For example, there is the priestly benediction with which Aaron and his sons blessed the Israelites (Num. 6:22–26), and the cultic liturgy of the first fruits (Deut. 26:1–11). Solomon’s Temple included “prayer and supplication” (1 Kgs. 8:28), while prophetic books attest to a statutory Temple liturgy (e.g., Isa.1:15; Jer. 33:11; Amos 5:23). Whether the occasion was a local festival, national holiday or regular offering, the singing of psalms and psalm-like prayers seems to have been a regular part of public ritual.

On a practical level, it matters little whether or not we can ascertain details of worship rites in biblical times, or whether music or ritual came first in the development of religion. The bond between music and ceremony is sealed so tightly as to suggest an eternal union. It is an expected element of societies past, present and future.

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

Is It Music?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Neither the particulars nor the generics of musical sound are universally agreed upon. Music exists in many and widely variegated “dialects.” No single conception of what constitutes music is applicable cross-culturally; a definition that satisfies Western principles might fail when applied to a non–Western society. Arriving at a useful conception of music is further complicated by the fact that ideas about sounds change over time, as most music-cultures interact with the outside world, respond to internal and external pressures, and contain subgroups with divergent tastes and preferences.

It is not even foolproof to identify music by ingredients traditionally thought of as musical: rhythm, meter, pitches, durations, dynamics, etc. The musical envelope has been sufficiently stretched in our postmodern world to include an endless array of possibilities. Perhaps the best we can do is combine a few intentionally broad definitions, if only to enhance our recognition of music’s subjectivity.

Edgard Varèse famously called music “organized sound.” Taking a lead from ethnomusicology, the Encyclopædia Britannica states, “while there are no sounds that can be described as inherently unmusical, musicians in each culture have tended to restrict the range of sounds they will admit.” Philosopher Lewis Rowell avoids the “dangerous task” of defining music, recommending an inclusive approach instead: “let music signify anything that is normally called music.”

Merging these quotations, we arrive at a practical (though still lacking) elucidation: Music consists of tightly or loosely organized sounds that adhere to strict or lenient parameters of a given culture or sub-culture, and are accepted by a consensus large enough to qualify it as “normally called music.” But, as intimated above, attempting a catch-all definition is hopelessly problematic. Hearing something as music always depends on a complex web of culturally and personally determined factors, which are themselves subject to shift depending on the agenda of a person or group.

An illustrative case in point is the shofar, a sound-maker fashioned from the horn of an animal in the Bovidae family (excluding the cow). The shofar appears seventy-two times in the Hebrew Bible, usually to announce festivals, rally troops, intimidate enemies and call out to the deity. Any discussion of biblical instruments, long or short, includes a section on the horn. But Talmudic sources refrain from labeling the shofar a musical device.

The rabbis’ rationale had a double motivation: one part aesthetic, one part pragmatic. Outside of modern-day novelty acts (like the shofar player who blows Hatikvah), the shofar is a notoriously temperamental horn. The average blower produces two to three tones, which typically come across as unsettling or unattractive. Unlike other instruments, the shofar does not accompany singing or provide mood-setting preludes, interludes or postludes. Rather, it serves a ritualistic role akin to lighting candles or drinking from a ceremonial cup. For these reasons, it was not thought of as musical.

On a practical level, the rabbis felt obligated to include the shofar in the sacred service despite their ban on musical instruments (a ruling based on historical factors too involved to be discussed here). First and foremost, the biblical command to observe Rosh Hashanah decrees that the day be commemorated with shofar blasts (Lev. 23:24). Added to this are the vivid and abounding associations aroused whenever the horn is blown. Since biblical times, the sound and appearance of the shofar have served as a symbol of group identity, and eliminating it from practice would have diminished Jewish solidarity and self-awareness. Thus, it was not advisable to lump it in with other (banned) instruments. (As an aside, in communities bound by Jewish law the shofar is not blown on Shabbat—not because it falls under the prohibition against instrumental playing, but because it might be carried four cubits in the public domain, which is considered work. See BT RH 29a.)

Taking the minimal view that music is defined as organized sound understood as music, the shofar is clearly a musical instrument. And it has been described as such in enough publications and conversations to make it indisputably so. Still, the rabbis had ideologically coherent reasons for excluding the shofar from the musical realm. Similarly overt motives are present whenever someone remarks that a certain genre “isn’t music,” or makes (elitist) claims about “real music.” Though it is difficult to formulate an objective definition of music that is applicable everywhere, subjective opinions and agendas are easy to spot.

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

Theurgy and Concentration

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Sometime during the exile following the destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple (586 B.C.E.), a rift emerged between Israel’s hereditary priestly classes: the Levites and Kohanim. The Kohanim won the conflict of power, assuming religio-political dominance in post-exilic Jerusalem. The Levites were consequently reduced to subordinate roles in the restored Temple. Kohanim conducted sacrifices and administered the religion; Levites prepared the sacrifices, held custodial and clerical duties, and provided music for the Temple service. Whether the latter activity—singing and instrument playing—was really ancillary is debatable. According to some sources, the purpose and efficacy of cultic ceremonies relied entirely on the Levites’ musical presentation.

The writings of Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.–30 C.E.), a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, portray the high priest entering mystical awareness with the aid of music. Midrashic literature similarly shows the high priest reaching music-induced ecstasy. Attaining this elevated state was crucial for the high priest’s vocation, which rested on his perceived ability to access and make palpable the divine presence. The music he listened to was not just beautiful; it enabled him to channel and absorb spiritual energy from the heavenly source.

A passage from Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen, a thirteenth-century kabbalist, elaborates on this musical-magical-mystical phenomenon. Though a late source, its imagery is rooted in earlier material. The rabbi affirms the hierarchical structure of the priestly system, ascribing different levels of understanding (greater and lesser) to the high priest and the musicians. But he also highlights the imperativeness of music in facilitating mystical union, implying that without music the rite would not succeed: “[The high priest’s] power is awakened by the sweetness of the song and the pure prayer. So do the musicians direct their fingers, according to their elevation and understanding, on the key-holes [of wind instruments] and on strings, arousing the song and the melody to direct their hearts toward God. Thus the blessings are aroused and the divine presence resides in them, each one according to his performance and according to his understanding.”

Central to this passage is a progression from music to concentration to theurgy. The high priest first listens to the music, then enters a spiritual state, then achieves a theurgical aim: influencing the supernal structure to release its concentrated energy in the mortal world. According to Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen and others who have written on the subject, it is musical sound that grants the high priest access to divine power, which he harnesses and directs toward a desired end.

This scenario is an instructive study in music perception. Frequently, musical strains are felt as sacred portals connecting natural and supernatural realms. The energy music exerts on our minds and bodies is often beyond mundane description, thus lending itself to otherworldly explanations. Specific concepts and formulations vary from culture to culture and system to system; but the force of music rarely evades spiritual interpretation. This earned the Levites a permanent—albeit secondary—place in the Temple rite, and has guaranteed the inclusion of music in virtually all spiritual paths.

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

Inventing Hymns

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.  

The biblical account of the exodus from Egypt culminates with the fervent singing of the Song of the Sea (Exod. 15:1-21). It is the first instance of communal worship in the Bible and the first time singing is used to express divine praise. Presented as a spontaneous response to the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the Song celebrates the Israelites’ escape from bondage and release to freedom. In style and structure, it is identical to poetry found in the Book of Psalms—so much so that it could be plucked from its surroundings and wedged between two psalms without raising suspicion. This close affinity seems to suggest that the Song is a perfect prototype for later prayers. After all, it comes about a thousand years before the heyday of devotional singing in the Second Jerusalem Temple. But critical scholarship views the Song as an inset hymn, which was added to the story for religious and literary purposes.

During the Second Temple period, there was a calculated effort to shape biblical literature for use as liturgy. This was accomplished by injecting original poetry into sacred stories or embellishing poetic kernels already present in the text. This is why we find epic psalms at the climax of the exodus, at the end of Moses’ life (Deut. 32:1-43), after Deborah’s victory (Jdg. 5), as Hannah’s expression of thanksgiving (1 Sam. 2:1-10) and so on. (Other instances are 2 Sam. 22; Isa. 38:9-20; Jon. 2:3-10; Hab. 3; Dan. 2:20-23; and 1 Chron. 16:8-36.)

These poetic excursions create stark breaks in their respective storylines, and often seem out of place or contradictory to the presenter’s personality. Hannah, for example, is shown as a meek and quiet woman, yet after bearing her much-longed-for son, she becomes a verbose and exquisite poetess. It is also common for inset hymns to reference events or institutions of later eras. Hannah’s prayer mentions a king although her story takes place before Israel’s monarchy came into being.

These insertions were mainly used to establish precedence for Temple liturgy. By putting prayers into the mouths of biblical heroes and infusing key narratives with devotional flourishes, the liturgical authors read themselves into Israel’s hallowed past. In so doing, they devised ancient templates for their own brand of worship, and added to the (imagined) lifespan of their psalm tradition.

The Song of the Sea is an instructive case in point. Parts of the Song indicate that it is one of the oldest poems in the Bible. It shares linguistic features with Late Bronze Age Ugaritic poetry, and the short refrain attributed to Miriam is legitimately archaic (Exod. 15:21). However, its psalmic structure and reference to Philistia, the conquest of Canaan and the Jerusalem Temple (vv. 14-17) reflect the anachronistic perspective of a chronologically distant generation.

It can thus be assessed that the Song contains an ancient core—antiquated language and Miriam’s verse—which was embellished, expanded and updated by Temple liturgists. The motivation for this editorial elaboration is also apparent. Like other inset hymns, the Song had a distinct liturgical application despite being housed in a non-liturgical book. It was most probably sung during the Sabbath sacrifice in the Temple.

Viewed as a literary phenomenon, inset hymns illustrate what historian Bernard Lewis calls invented history. The hymns were affixed to older literature and introduced ideas, developments and poetic forms of later times. They were not inserted merely to beautify or liven the text, but rather to advance a liturgical agenda. Through textual invention and manipulation, ancient figures were made into proto-liturgists and Temple practices acquired a richer heritage. To use Lewis’ phrase, the hymns reshaped history for a purpose.

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

Sound Science

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The Book of Ezra chronicles the return from the Babylonian exile and restoration of Jerusalem. The sacrificial system is recommenced, the priesthood reinstated and the Temple reconstructed. During the course of the rebuilding, a special ceremony is conducted for the laying of the Temple’s foundation stones. High priests garbed in festive attire blow their trumpets. Levites assume musical formation and crash their cymbals. They sing “songs extolling and praising the Lord,” to which the people respond with a “great shout” (Ezra 3:11). Some who recall the glory of the First Temple weep loudly. Others burst forth in uncontainable joy. The music and the moment fuse to stir an eruption of emotions that can be “heard from afar” (3:13).

This ceremony did not have to occur. The construction site could have been a place of uninterrupted labor. But the significance of the location and building project pushed the people to a commemorative mood. Likewise, it was not essential that instruments be played or songs be sung. A subdued ritual could have sufficed. Yet musical effusion was the chosen modality. Organized tones and coordinated rhythms gave structure to the event and intensified the associated moods: hope, loss, exuberance, sorrow, gratitude, wonderment, awe. The music was confined in form, but boundless in effect.

This mixture of formal design and amorphous impact is why music is labeled a science and an art. Aspects of music can be distilled and analyzed: pitch, timbre, duration, frequency, volume, harmony, etc. Its sound waves can be electronically mapped and quantified. But its influence on human psychology and physiology cannot be mechanically predicted or empirically examined. In the compendious phrase of Søren Kierkegaard, “Music, like time, is measured but immeasurable, is composed but indivisible.”

The merging of science and art accrues an added dimension when we consider the relationship of music and imagination. A distinction is usually made between the kind of imagination that propels scientific pursuits and the imagination involved in artistic activities. As biologist and polymath Jacob Bronowski explained in The Identity of Man (1965), scientific imagination seeks to resolve ambiguities by conducting decisive tests between alternatives, while artistic imagination encourages divergent paths without deciding for one or the other. The “single-valued action” of science contrasts with the “tense and happy indecision” of art. In Bronowski’s evaluation, the two trajectories of the imaginative process—narrowing and expanding—form the basis of consciousness. What makes music distinctive is that it travels both avenues simultaneously.

Returning to the scene in Ezra, we can detect practical applications of music’s double nature. The songs were presumably tonal, conventional and logically shaped. These scientific qualities supplied the event with a concrete sonic framework. At the same time, the artistic aspects of the music allowed for open-ended responses. The musical ceremony was a single, choreographed occurrence with space for many interpretations. To use Bronowski’s language, it satisfied both parts of human consciousness: the longing for certainty and the desire for limitlessness.

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

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.