[Note–I usually would proof read and revise this essay for several more iterations, but it’s taken me so long to write this, to capture the urgency and desire which might help us overcome the anxiety which, for literally millennia, have colored this interval, that I’m publishing it as is. I’ll probably revise and repost next week. Or, perhaps not, as more ideas and thoughts scrabble for urgency. Thank you for bearing with me–RabbiZ)
Perhaps it’s not so appropriate to combine a tribute to Cecil Taylor, one of the “founders” of free jazz, with a rabbinic meditation of Jewish Spirituality. Especially inappropriate, one might say, in these days of Sefira, counting, the ladder of days beginning with the second night of Pesach, leading to the joyous highlight of our history and our year, entering into the most intimate of relationships with The Creator which we designate as Shavuot, Z’man Matan Toroteynu, the festival of Shavuot, the moment our Torah is given.
You see, this seven-week period which should have the emotional tone of joy and anticipation, that after the enormous jumpstart of being released from Egyptian slavery, we monitor (and guide) each days progress to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to all mankind. However, it also coincides with an especially disastrous period during the Great Revolt, The Bar Kochba war against the oppression of the Roman occupation shortly after the Bet HaMikdash is destroyed. And during this ver period, each year, we face some restrictions on our music. But, perhaps by reframing our usual experience with music, our usual experience with mitzvot and tefillot, we can find a way, especially during this hyper-vulnerable time, to renew our expression and experience of Judaism.
Think about that moment in time. Give yourself a moment to really think about it, try to experience the panic, the loneliness, the alienation. Everything I know is gone. Literally everything we knew about being a people, let along an Am Kodesh, Holy Nation is gone. With no pat answers, no expectation of continuity, perhaps largely as a logical defense and survival technique, as is often the case when exposed to zero predictability, we responded by creating a new expression of religion which will now at least strive for 100% predictability.
But, of course, the downside of 100% predictability is boredom and rote performance. Even from the first moments (end of chapter 4 of IBra when developing the new, text-rather than action path, our early sages worry and warn about boredom. Prayer that lacks urgency soon becomes mere habit.
Which brings me back to the late Cecil Taylor, the “free jazz” movement and the excitement of witnessing this intense level of spontaneous creation, with no artifice to hide behind. Not to mention creating music in real time at this level…. Although I don’t usually do this in this forum, here are some links to this type of music. (Remember, if you enjoy or are intrigued by this music, to share links to other performances in the comment section.)
Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Coltrane, Interstellar Space, Nels Cline Interstellar Space.
Compare this music the the conformity we’re all familiar with in shul. Of course, we have times that we Jews, as well can build a tremendous amount of energy, but it usually looks like a circle of identically-dressed, black-clad men, stomping in a circle. Singing oy oy oy Ai Ai Ai. As individuals, we’re not encouraged to free our neshamot to soar. We don’t often let ourselves go “off-script” (or “off-score) and expose ourselves in our greatest creativity, greatest transparency, greatest unique inner fires.
Frightened and admonished by the story of Nadav and Avihu, we so strongly flee Aish Zar, a “strange” fire, that we never contemplate what a proper, familiar, legitimate fire could be. Just as most people have a difficult line to cross to expose their most authentic selves to even their closest friends, relatives and lovers, we’re terrified of revealing that authentic self to ourselves and to God.
I think you would find the history of the evolution of our prayer to be exactly the tension you describe. In Israel prayer was more free form, and the Shaliach Zibuber had more leeway as to what he could include. Of, course there were certain prayers that were mandatory such as the Shema. In Babylon prayer was more fixed and finally codified by probably Saadia Goan in around 600 CE. Eventually the Jewish Community in Israel diminished to the point where their practices were largely lost somewhere in the3rd or 4th centuries. I think the debate between Kevah and Kavanah continues through today and impacts us all when we pray. Anyway, Shabbat Shalom and I hope your holiday was joyous and meaningful.
It’s not just the nusach, but the entire prayer experience, actually much of contemporary traditional Jewish expression that has become so stiflingly boring and conformist. God created 600,000 Jewish Neshamot. If we’re all supposed to do the identical thing in an identical way, that sounds like 599,999 redundancies….
Again, I acknowledge up front that I’m mainly talking about the future Nusach Eretz Yisrael, Minhag Eretz Yisrael. I’m not sure what will persist in the Galut, say a hundred years down the road, but know that we can’t waste our opportunity here trying to “cut-and-paste” 18th century Eastern Europe into Yehuda and the Shomron.
Thanks for keeping the conversation going, Jacques.
I understand what you mean but I think most people need structure in order to reach a level of spirituality. I see that people who go to a daily minyan, even if they do not understand the prayers, still feel more spiritual just for the experience devoting the time for the purpose of trying to relate to something spiritual. I see this especially when people are going to services to say kaddish. The words are not that important, rather it is the effort to seek the spirituality.
Very provocative piece, especially as research and social acceptance of “strange fires” of the mind can benefit from the civilizing influence of Jewish tradition creatively applied.
And the “civilizing approach” can benefit from boldness and confidence that even if it’s a wrong direction, the kavana, that being “l’Shem Shamayim” will make it a positive step regardless the immediate outcome.
Very nice!! Gut woch, Nathan