Monday, December 3, 2007

Guitar in Synagogue?

I had an interesting moment yesterday picking up my elder wiggler from Hebrew school at my North Coast Conservative Jewish synagogue. I had gotten there a bit before class let out to snag a last minute Hannukah present from the gift shop. (The religious/identity competition has already started. My elder wiggler, age-Kindergarten, noted some of her class mates wear little crosses. So I'm getting her a little Mogen David necklace. Sigh. I'll tell you all about our adventures with Christmas music in the schools later...)

Anyway, so there I was, in the synagogue during class time when I wandered past the main sanctuary and heard guitar playing. Insert gasps and shock here. (If you didn't have the shocked reaction, hang on. I'll explain in a minute). I knew the Hebrew school had a music teacher, but she had a class room downstairs. So what gives? I stuck my head inside the door and saw a young college-age fellow up on the bimah leading a group of what looked like middle-school kids in song. I forget which song it was, but it was a pretty standard para-liturgical piece like Shalom Rav.

Pretty standard, in my experience, in the Reform community. In fact, "song leader with guitar" is almost the definition of Reform participatory services. Typically, Conservative synagogue's follow the traditional Jewish practice of not allowing instrumental music in the synagogue (at least, not on in the sanctuary during services). As far as I'm aware, mine does. So, I was pretty surprised hearing it coming from the Bimah.

Since I didn't know what the purpose of the gathering was, and didn't have time to find out, I'm not going to comment on whether it was appropriate or not. I was just surprised. Next week I'll try to grab the school principle and see what the story is. Not that I'm going to jump up and down regardless of what her answer is, I'm just curious where the synagogue is going.

By the way, the conflict between Reform and Conservative service styles has been well documented, including the following passage from Jeffrey Summit's "The Lord's Song in a Strange Land." In this passage, Summit documents an attempt by student leaders at Tufts to plan a combined Conservative / Reform service and why the students different relationships with halacha and their own musical / litrugical identity made that attempt much more difficult that either group had expected.

"The planning committee did not have an easy job; these two services differ considerably. The Conservative service, often called "the traditional service," uses nusach and has almost no English. Most of the tunes were learned in the youth movement. Davening is led by the shaliach tsibbur, who stands in front of the group. The majority of the Conservative students hold the traditional position that instrumental music is halakhically forbidden in Sabbath services. For the Reform students, the guitar and the role of the enthusiastic song leader have become emblematic of Reform worship in high school and college. Most view the guitar as essential to meaningful, participatory, prayer. While there is a sstudent leader and a song leader in the Reform service, the leadership role in this group moves person by person around the circle, as all worshipers take turns reading a section of the service. While many of the prayers and the structure of worship in both services are basically the same, it was clear to the planning committee that they were attempting to meld two services with essentially different styles."


Keli Ata said...

Hi. I found your blog on J Blog and this topic is very interesting.

I haven't heard of the guitar in Reform services before but they were all the rage in the 1970s in Catholic churches. Every church bragged of having a guitar mass.

Jack said...

Hi Keli, that's great. I hadn't heard of Catholic churches with guitar masses. I'm familiar with Protestant churches doing it though. I actually got recruited by a Methodist minister to play guitar in his folk band worship service. I liked to play guitar. I didn't have anything to do on Sunday mornings. I figured why not. The minister had great taste in music, too.

I don't have much personal experience with the Reform songleader approach to services. At one level, I'm sure I'd enjoy the music and the participation, but I'd miss the traditional melodies. We're all creatures of our habits, I guess.