What about music strengthens the bonds of Jewish peoplehood?

This past summer, the COVID pandemic required the cancellation of my final year as a camper at Camp Ramah New England. It also meant no participation for me in the intensive Piano Institute at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan that I’d been so excited about attending. Like all of my teenage peers, I was extremely disappointed by the prospect of remote-only social activities for the summer. And like my fellow musicians, I was frustrated by not being able to make real live music together.

I realize now how lucky I was to have the Hartman Institute Fellowship for Jewish Teens help me channel my frustration into focused study on the role of music in building community – and in particular, on the role of music in creating and strengthening the bonds of Jewish peoplehood. I was lucky because the research and writing I got nudged into doing by the Hartman Fellowship led me to a deeper understanding of music’s centrality to Jewish peoplehood, and, as a result, to a more optimistic perspective on the possibilities of Jewish community in spite of the COVID pandemic.

I began by exploring the types of musical composition most deeply associated with religious worship in the Jewish tradition. One of the earliest of these compositional forms is the “call and response,” “responsorial,” or “antiphonal” form of singing, which ensures full musical engagement from all participants, be those participants among the responsive singing group, or among the singing leaders. We know from the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, that this responsorial form of musical expression was central to the ritual singing practices of the Levites in the Temple.

My research led me to fascinating linguistic studies that show the significance of the responsorial form of singing built into biblical Hebrew. Contemporary scholars of worship music in Biblical times have even identified particular uses of the word “״להדות, “to praise,” as specifying responsorial singing. For example, as is written in Psalm 42, ״בקול-רנה ותודה המון חוגג״ — “…with joyful singing and thanksgiving, a celebrating multitude,” the “celebrating multitude” describes many people gathering to give thanks to God together in song (Nissim Amzallag, “Praise or Antiphonal Singing? The Meaning of L’Hodot, Revisited,” JSTOR, 2015).

Most importantly, I learned from Midrashic sources that responsorial singing characterizes one of the most important musical moments in the Torah: the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, through which Moses and the Children of Israel praise and thank God after successfully crossing the Red Sea. Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Nechemiah all describe the responsorial singing between Moses and the Children of Israel in different ways. Rabbi Akiva believes that Moses sang a verse, and the Israelites responded always with the same refrain. Rabbi Nechemiah believes that Moses sang a preamble to the song, to which the Israelites responded with the whole text. And Rabbi Eliezer believes that the children of Israel repeated the verses Moses sang. The key is that they all teach us that Moses and the Children of Israel sang praise and thanks to God in responsorial form for the miracle of crossing the Red Sea.

As I explored contemporary social science research about group singing, I discovered a compelling reason to explain why Moses and the Children of Israel might have sung the Song of the Sea together as they did. Scholars who study social bonding in human societies observe something special about singing. While other group activities can lead to a stronger emotional connection between individual humans, group singing is distinctive in how speedily it makes social bonding possible. It facilitates group bonding by “bypassing the need to get to know everyone…individually, creating general feelings of positivity towards everyone present.” (Eiluned Pearce, et al. “The Ice-Breaker Effect: Singing Mediates Fast Social Bonding.” Royal Society Open Science, 1 Oct. 2015). Maybe this is why it is so important that the Song of the Sea is sung by Moses and by the Children of Israel together, just at the moment that they realize God has saved them from the Egyptians. Their praising God together, in responsorial singing fashion, is what begins to coalesce the children of Israel into Klal Yisrael, the Jewish community.

The importance of responsorial singing as a way to create social bonds through praise of God can be observed in all of the many Jewish prayer services we engage in today. In the weekday Shacharit service, the very first prayer we recite, the Barekhu, can only be recited completely with both a minyan and a leader. The Kedushah section of the Amidah, most notably the version recited in the Shabbat Musaf service, also requires a minyan. By “recited” here, I mean actual singing, since all of the key responsorial prayers, even in the briefest services, require a leader to sing and the congregants to sing back in return. Some of my personal favorite tunes from tefillah come from the responsorial sections of the Kedushah.

Fast forward to the social distancing requirements of the COVID pandemic of 2020, and we know that Jewish community bonds are suffering. Obviously, they are suffering for much broader reasons than not being able to worship together or sing together. And of course, communities of all kinds across the world are suffering from the stress of restrictions on human interaction. But as I learned how important the responsorial singing part of Jewish worship is to Jewish communal bonds, I realized that we could be doing at least a little bit better. My study of Jewish texts and of biblical and social scientific studies about group singing clarified for me the possibility of a solution to weakening of Jewish communal bonds during COVID.

First, a little context to help describe how my solution might work: I had the honor a few months ago of leading the Musaf service during a Zoom Shabbat at my shul. My Rabbi had come up with the creative solution of a kind of “zoom cholent Shabbat service:” the Rabbi goes to the sanctuary on Friday afternoon and sets up all the microphone and camera equipment needed for the weekly Shabbat zoom service, and lets it sit in the sanctuary undisturbed until Shabbat has finished. All shul members are then invited to log on to the zoom call (either before Shabbat starts or on Saturday morning, depending on the individual), and various congregants are asked to lead different parts of the service from their homes.

I was grateful for the experience. I learned the distinct lesson that, from the point of view of the power of music to bond people together, Zoom was not fulfilling. As a leader, I could not hear the congregation responding. And I know that the congregants could not feel part of the kehillah when singing because they could not hear the whole congregation singing along with them. Everyone but the leader had to be muted because background noise from individual participants’ homes would interfere. Besides, even if the Rabbi decided to unmute every congregant, the social bonding that comes from group singing wouldn’t work: the problem with programs like Zoom, Skype, and faceTime is that they suffer from high latency. That is to say, they cannot create an effective “feedback loop” when it comes to music. The noticeable delay between sound-sent and sound-received makes group singing, or any kind of music ensemble over the internet, nearly impossible.

My proposed solution to this fundamental problem of latency depends on widely available technologies for audio mixing and video production. For those congregations whose halakhic convictions allow the cholent method of zoom services, I would encourage pre-recording of an important responsorial prayer. Maybe I’d start with the Shabbat Kedushah. By “pre-record” I mean that every interested congregant would record themselves on their smartphones singing the designated prayer and then send in these recordings to whichever tech-savvy shul member might be available to create the “group singing shul video” for that week. And then, when Shabbat arrives, that tech-savvy shul member could work with their cholent Shabbat Rabbi to put the shul video on a timer to play on Zoom for Shabbat morning. When that moment on Shabbat actually arrives, all shul members logged into the zoom would see and hear and be able to sing along with their fellow congregants together in the Kedushah (or whichever prayer was chosen), thereby bringing everyone together through audio and video technologies.

For those synagogues that would not allow zoom technology during Shabbat, I would suggest pre-recording parts of the Friday evening pre-Shabbat Kabbalat Shabbat service.

In sum, I’m suggesting we rely on contemporary digital technologies to create a proxy, during COVID, for the power of music to strengthen Jewish community bonds through prayer. Ideally, this would be done each week. But I know from my own amateur experience of using these technologies that the process of assembling and integrating various audio tracks into a compelling video experience is not easy. It is labor intensive and can be quite challenging. But the amazing results are distinctly gratifying. I know that many of my peers would love the opportunity to learn and apply digital sound editing, audio engineering, and video production technology skills for the sake of amiyut — peoplehood. I plan to work with my own Rabbi to see if we can find an appropriate way to give it a shot.

About the Author
David Heschel Liebowitz ("Heshie") is a junior at the Roxbury Latin School, a piano student at the New England Conservatory prep, and an alum of the Hartman Institute’s Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Thought Leaders.
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