Thursday, October 16, 2008

An Eye for an "I"

As I've become involved with contemporary Jewish Music, and prayer and worship music, there is one trend that I'm concerned about, and that is "facilitating Personal Worship within the community". I think we've been painting ourselves into a corner as our worship (and worship music) evolves. In some ways, we are to blame for the lack of growth of our worship communities and for the dwindling attendance at worship services.

The disease that has infiltrated our worship services, as we seek to become relevant and inclusive, is ignoring each worshipper's Personal Connection to God. Our liturgy sets the stage for this by using language that is largely plural and what I call "group-speak." I stumbled on this when I composed a setting for the meditation, Y'hiyu L'ratzon, on the occasion of my son's Bar Mitzvah service. Searching for words that would honor this important passage from youth to Jewish adulthood, I also wanted to include the aspect of "humility," a personality trait that is deeply hidden during the hormonal bravado of "thirteen-ness." The opening words to this prayer are "I stand before this congregation, and pray to You, O G-d. May my deeds reflect Your teachings, and Torah light my way. Grant me understanding, and make my life a blessing."

This prayer hit its mark in the worship context of personalizing my own child's rite of passage. But something else occurred - our congregation wouldn't let it go. This prayer has become a part of our Shabbat worship for every service since that day in early 2000. There is something inviting and compelling (and different) in those words of worship. I consulted with our cantorial soloist, who informed me that this prayer, among her favorites, is personal. "Except for Unetaneh Tokef on Yom Kippur (the thousand year old personal awakening to repentance), there aren't prayers that speak to each person personally in our worship." Which leads me back to the issue of "Personal Worship."

I think that we've come a long way toward making our services "group-inviting." "Bring your friends and come on down" to be a part of our community and to worship "together." Our prayers speak to groups, and contemporary music makes it all the more accessible. Contemporary Jewish music has provided a medium for community worship that leaves worshippers feeling included and radiant from prayer and song - but without moments for (what I call) "Personal G_dSpeak." Each of us welcomes a sense of belonging and community, but each of us, at our core, needs the nourishment of our own personal relationship with G-d. I believe that one of the reasons that Jews unite for High Holiday worship, is the draw and personal connection to the theme of these days of awe.

Many species travel in groups for it's social component and strength, but each comes into this world, and leaves this world, alone. We each are stewards of unique gifts that give us our own spiritual fingerprint. Groups of like minded people help us to nurture our own strengths. But we also need moments to shed the group and personally make our unique connection with G_d. Contemporary Jewish music can facilitate that, but the early works in this relatively new genre are crowded with upbeat guitar strumming "feel-good" group songs and prayers. My personal mission, as a songwriter, is to provide a vehicle, through contemporary Jewish music, to help each of us reach for personal "G_dSpeak" moments in our worship. Once prayer becomes personal, the sanctuary becomes home. I'm not advocating turning our worship away from community, but rather, increasing moments within our worship, to nourish the individual.
You can listen to some of my newer pieces, including "Into the Light" and "Elohai" reflecting this idea of personal worship, (in their early musical evolution) here.

Here are a few more examples of favorite new prayers that reflect and nurture these personal moments. Dan Nichols, at the Jewish music workshop, Hava Nashira, presented a moving and beautiful setting of Birkat Hagomel, the personal prayer in thanks for surviving danger. Josh Nelson has a moving and beautiful original prayer called L'dor Vador, nurturing the connection that we have from generation to generation. This piece, for me, perfectly blends our group identity with our unique and personal relationship with G-d.

Each of us is a part of all of us, and all of us is a part of each of us.