Kirtan Rabbi Blog

Category Archives: meditation and matbea

A prayer leader’s dilemma: Everyone’s dropped in, so why go on?

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We are two chants into a musical Friday evening Shabbat service. We have not even gotten a fifth of the way into the prayer plan. Yet, thanks to Shoshana Jedwab’s mystical drumming and whatever space I am able to hold, when that second chant comes to an end, the entire yurt is completely silent, sitting. Now what? Why go on?

Back in college, one of the professors had a cartoon on the outside of his office door which showed two Buddhists sitting in full lotus: There was a plump, senior teacher, and there was his young disciple. The disciple had a perplexed look on his face. Something was clearly gnawing at him. The speech bubble was with the teacher: “Nothing happens next.  This is it!”


Cartoon by Gahan Wilson

Last week, I had the honor to lead a musical meditation service at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. It was part of a weekend called “Let My People Sing,” and I was brought in to teach about chant and offer services and kirtan. When the second chant — song, really — came to an end (Lechu N’rannena into Shiru LaShem), we started to meditate as a group. As I find happening increasingly, it was easy, effortless: Everyone just dropped in. And… stayed there. I didn’t say anything beforehand, suggesting a direction, not even “now let’s sit.” It just happened organically. The entire yurt was still; not a person moved.

When I took a moment, a couple of minutes later, scanning the room to see how everyone was holding out, a thought occurred to me. We’re done. This is it. The “prayer service” is over: we could and should remain silent like this for the remaining hour and twenty minutes. There was no reason to go on. No Lecha Dodi. No Barchu and Shema. No standing meditation. No mourner’s kaddish. No. Nothing.

I truly believed that if I had allowed the meditation to go on indefinitely, this group was already primed to sit as long as it possibly could. I mean, if even one person had shown any restlessness – just one! – that would have been my cue to draw the others back. But no one did.

I have been blessed to experience this increasingly as I lead prayer services around the country – and all the more so, of course, at kirtans. And it’s raising a real dilemma for me: Is it right to interrupt such a moment, so pregnant, only in order to continue what we’re supposed to do next, the “should,” because that is the structure, the matbea, the “set list?” In Jewish practice, can we learn to give space to prayer, let it emerge naturally, and – if that’s the way it goes – let it resolve into “this is it,”  into silent contemplation?

Unfortunately, it is not an option just to let the service go longer, to make room for spontaneous direct connection to God. As one Conservative movement cantor friend of opened up  to her congregants in the context of my giving a talk at her synagogue: “I always feel like the time keeper here, instead of a true prayer leader. We have an hour and half, or whatever, and we have so much that traditions dictates we cover. As much as I want to take time and make it meaningful, when the services start, for me, it’s off to the races!”

As many of you know, at kirtan sessions, we nearly always hand out a sheet with at least ten chants on it. Inevitably, when a new singer practices with me beforehand, looking with concern at the sheet, s/he will ask: “Are we going to do all of these chants?” My tried and true response: “If it’s a bad kirtan, we will.”

“I find it hard to interrupt a group sitting so silently like you all are….  We now turn to Lecha Dodi…”