Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Innovating Nusach, or Not

As I've mentioned before, I'm on a lot of Jewish music related mailing lists. I generally don't consider myself particularly knowledgable relative to the folks on the lists (professional klezmer musicians, songleaders, cantors, and serious frum music fans) so I tend to lurk and learn. Every once in a while I pop up with a question or a comment. This week was comment time.

One of the mailing lists got into a bit of debate between a fellow who is seriously devoted to traditional nusach (traditional Jewish prayer melodies) and a fellow who is seriously devoted to contemporary, non-nusach, liturgical music. At one point I piped up with a comment which I thought I'd share because a) I haven't been ignorant in public in a while and b) because I got a few interesting corrections via email that will have me off doing research all week. I love it when that happens.

Anyway, here's me on innovating nusach.

I'm neither an expert in Nusach nor an active innovator, so this question may not be helpful. But there is one I've been asking myself as I've struggled to learn more about both communities (and the communities who do both).

Here's the question:

Under what circumstances does (or, what are the requirements for) a traditional approach of nusach to be considered vital by a specific Jewish community and what circumstances drives a Jewish community to specific kinds of innovation. A corollary question is how successful is any specific innovation at resolving those circumstances.

I would suggest that there were two historic circumstances that prompted the Reform community to seek for a liturgical method outside of traditional nusach. First was the desire to closer tie Jewish practice with the larger spiritual and civic life of the Reform communities host countries (e.g. initially Germany and France and now
America). Second was the desire to lower the skill (e.g. effort to learn) requirements to fully participate in leading and participating in group prayer. These desires have lead to the adoption of musical instruments during services and the adoption of melodies that draw heavily from the host countries musical culture (first German church hymns and the organ and now American folk-pop and the guitar).

Similarly, I would suggest two circumstances that have prompted the Traditional (Orthodox & Chassidic) community to seek to maintain a traditional liturgy. First was a desire to retain exclusivity from the host culture's spiritual life and second a desire to encourage a significant focus on learning and practice by it's members. This has
led to a demand to maintain traditional nusach and a skepticism of any approach that deviates significantly with that tradition.

I would also suggest a third historic circumstance which seems to be pushing in equal measures at the Reform and Traditional communities. This is the evolving desire by the lay members of both communities to more actively participate in communal prayer. This desire has led to the reduction of the role of the cantor in both communities and the increase in the popularity of both group songs and call and response song as part of services. This change is playing out a bit differently in each community though. The Reform community innovated a service style organized around a "songleader," a cantor proxy who specialized in the folk-pop method and could rapidly teach and lead new material. The Traditional community has begun to adopt a similar approach rooted in the melodies of Carlebach, though in a more limited form at very specific shuls.

For me, there are a whole set of productive questions that can be asked based on these circumstances and the responses they provoked. First, how well is the response working out? On the Traditional side, nusach is still a demanding skill to learn. How well is the current generation doing in learning it (and accepting the burden to learn
it?) On the Reform side, dropping the education required to learn nusach parallels dropping standards of Jewish education in general. How well is that working out? How much do the new Reform melodies and lyrics represent a Jewish perspective vs a generic American spirituality (a critique I've often heard)?

Second, what kind off innovations are allowable, or inevitable, based on these circumstances? I would suggest that both groups seem welcome to any innovation that doesn't violate the circumstances and desires that base their liturgical praxis. That implies a different space of possible innovation for each group, but doesn't specifically limit innovation in either. I don't see the traditional community adding
jazz anytime soon, but I also don't see the Reform community adding a new melody that is in the nusach mode.

Does this make sense to anyone? I would welcome any corrections or
expansions to this thought.

Here are a couple of the corrections / expansions I got back that will have me off doing research.

1. The Orthodox community does a lot less nusach than I had imagined. At the beginning of the 20th century the Young Israel movement started introducing niggunim into prayer services. It took a century to flower, but has been highly successful at dislodging nusach as the liturgical standard in Orthodox services.

2. Evidently there have been a couple of Orthodox foray's into jazz. In particular Moshe Oysher is reported to have incorporated scat into nusach. That's something I need hear!

3. Evidently there are some folks in the Reform community who are interested in nusach. This includes both incorporating more elements of traditional nusach into Reform prayer and composing new works that derived from nusach. I have no idea how common this is, but it was something I wasn't aware of and will have to explore.

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