Kirtan Rabbi Blog

Kirtan and the “regular” Jewish service (matbea) — Part One of an infinite discussion

Posted by Rabbi Andrew Hahn, Ph.D. on December 8, 2010 at 12:18 pm.

It has been a long time since I’ve offered a Blog post. I am now making a redoubled effort to write something here regularly. Monday, I did a mini-kirtan workshop for a cohort of rabbinical students under the auspices of Rabbis without Borders. At one point in the discussion, I said that, just for myself, I actually often prefer going to the “regular,” traditional service instead of something new-fangled and innovative. This, of course, struck some people as curious, given my work bringing Hebrew kirtan to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. Another question which came up, in the same context, had to do with how to innovate within synagogue life. Below follows what I wrote in an email, perhaps a bit ramblingly, in response:


When I said I prefer a more regular service, I was being ever so slightly rhetorical. It is true, on the one hand: When push comes to shove, I prefer a more traditional practice to anything that is too drippingly “spiritual.” I think I alluded to my opinion that much of the more self-congratulatory spirituality which is going on out there (often in the name of “change” or even renewal) attempts to supply the spirituality for those on whose account they are crossing before the ark. There is something to what Max Kaddushin characterized as the “normal mysticism” of the Rabbis (the ancient sages), i.e., allowing things sometimes just to be ordinary. This means trusting that people have their own spirituality and they can supply it when they need to; it does not have to be handed to them via a silver platter of a service (or practice) which makes no room for just feeling in a regular state of mind on this particular day, or for these particular 20 minutes of a long, three hour morning. A “spirituality service” also implies that the old-fashioned service, even the choir in the pipes ones with which I grew up, somehow are not spiritual, which they are — or were in their time (see Larry Hoffman’s The Art of Public Prayer). There can be a certain arrogance on the part of those of us who present as resuscitating a supposedly moribund tradition. I am trying very hard to avoid this, which is no easy task, especially when one is excited about bringing something purportedly “new” to birth.

To that end, I actually try to avoid the word “spiritual” altogether, as it can insult. I prefer the word “complimentary” (the analogy being from medicine). More on that another time….

So, to bring it back around, I actually am all for (a) including kirtan elements in regular services (and have done so now many times), and (b) for a kirtan avodah during zman ha-t’filah which is even 100% kirtan-adik. (Indeed, I am dreaming of having a 27 hour Yom Kippur where all we do is one chant the entire time. Different people would tend the fire of that altar. This has great precedence in temples in India where the maha mantra has been going on 24-7 for centuries, no one knowing just how far back. Talk about a Ner Tamid!)

But with all of this, as you make clear, it is important to tread carefully. I have received one or two emails accusing me of trying to “change Judaism.” At first I absolutely denied this. But, in truth, maybe we are trying to change the religio, but in an evolutionary fashion and not as revolution (see Dostoyevski’s The Possessed). Also, as I mentioned, there are those who think that Jewish Kirtan people are trying to make Jews into Hindus, which is ridiculous. It is my desire that what we do be genuinely Jewish, or at least contiguous with an evolving faith’s path. So, it is actually crucial that Hebrew Kirtan (and other chant forms) be deeply liturgical—not just merely shlepping some Indian-style melodies on some Hebrew words.

But how to do this? As I say, cautiously. And in an integrative fashion. It is important to take one’s time: study kirtan (I went to dozens before I did one of my own in public); know Hebrew grammar; and, most of all, meditate, meditate, meditate. I think it also helps to be a bit older, to have walked (and even crawled) several times around the Jewish block, but that’s convenient for me to say… 😉

The other thing I’m working really hard on is, as I said at the session, to gain access to the mainstream Jewish world with this complimentary practice. There is often an initial hurdle. Sometimes a huge hurdle. But I find if I can reach the rabbi of a synagogue and talk to him or her, I always get an engagement with them. Cantors can be particularly tough; but I have yet not to win one over. Interestingly enough—for reasons I am getting a sense of intuitively—I am having the most success with Conservative communities (not politically conservative).

So, I’m working very hard at getting into all aspects of the Jewish world: synagogues, seminaries, shteiblach, Hillels, JCCs, you name it…. I also increasingly love presenting in the yogic world, something which has been growing and growing for me.

Speaking of which, I finally want to underscore what R. said about those who simply don’t go to synagogue and never will. We need to respect this, admire it. In the yoga world in particular, I find myself on the utter edge of keiruv. I can’t tell you how often people come up to me and say, “Rabbi, thank you for coming to this studio or festival. For 30 years now I’ve been doing yoga, and we chant at the end, and I like it but have never felt completely comfortable. This was the first time that I could bring it all together… to connect to Judaism at all.”

At such a moment, it is really important not to say, “Oh, great. So, now come to shul. Or, can you do another mitzvah?” (It’s even more important genuinely not to want to say this!) It’s crucial just to let the practice be the practice. I believe this strongly: There should be no “-ism” in Kirtan meditation. Just chant in vibrational Hebrew; teach Torah as kavvanot; chant some more; and end the kirtan. Period. If our tradition is so wonderful (which it is), if we see God as loving (which s/he is), if our teachings grant so much insight (which they do), then all we have to do is “not do” by presenting it as such and let, mature responsible, spiritually adept adults in the 21st century draw their own conclusions.

I think there is a great place for extra-statutory services in the Kirtan and other forms. Increasingly, the plain of Jewish prayer is going to have to go out to these fields—even as we plow into the traditional infrastructure—if we are going to cease circling the wagons, affirm love of God and proclaim the over-riding mitzvah of Gratefulness to the world.

Chag sameach and blaring light on this last evening of Chanukah,

KR Andrew


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