Kirtan, a Sanskrit call-and-response form of worship from India, and Rabbi, are two words not often found in the same sentence. Rabbi Andrew Hahn, better known as the “Kirtan Rabbi,” is on track to change that.
Hahn’s spiritual innovation was on display at the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York’s Battery Park last week, as around one hundred participants chanted and swayed to the words of traditional Jewish liturgy.
Kirtan is usually performed in Sanskrit, but Hahn has appropriated the form and infused it with Hebrew words and a Jewish theological and liturgical framing. But how did Hahn, who has a doctorate in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Reform rabbinic ordination, find himself in front of a harmonium, leading a flock of Jews in Sanskrit-inspired Hebrew chanting?
At a low point in his life, without secure work and fighting off depression, Hahn popped in a CD of Krishna Das, the popular Westerner who does Sanskrit Kirtan, and found himself uplifted. Then the thought occurred to him, “Whoa, I could do this in Hebrew.”
Hahn is careful to emphasize that Kirtan is a participatory event, not a performance. He sees it as a modality that can catalyze the goals of meditation: “People spend hours on pillows trying to empty their minds, but the ecstatic group can achieve that at the end in the silence.” Why shouldn’t it be easy and fun to meditate, Hahn argues.
Hahn, who has never been to India, is explicit: the goal of Hebrew Kirtan is not to be Indian. He identifies it as both a return to the long-lost call-and-response chanting of Second Temple worship, and as a new development. Hahn describes the classic Reform, Protestant-inspired music as operatic, non-participatory, and characteristic of a spirituality that pays homage to a “transcendent God, cathedral-like, looking up and feeling small, [characterized by a] deep gravitas.” He feels no resentment towards this style, but notes that in the 1960s and ‘70s, with the rise of Debbie Friedman and Shlomo Carlebach, participatory davening without prayer leaders began to gain ground. This flowing style corresponded to the more immanent aspect of the Divine.
Hahn notes, however, that it lost the give-and-take that he is trying to offer. He aims to craft an integrated experience drawing on both the transcendent dimension, with its deep reverence and “awareness of something beyond our ken,” as well as the immanent dimension, with its feeling and understanding that our activity is involved in the very Being of the Divine.
What’s the unique contribution of Kirtan? While definitively not seeking to replace traditional worship, Hahn locates Kirtan in the school of ecstatic Kabbalah, with the goal of “breaking open the heart so the mind can clear, bringing it down the right way [so you] can go right to God.” For some it will feel foreign, but for many Jews who are forced to seek elsewhere for satisfying spirituality, the Kirtan Rabbi offers a sound and a silence that they may finally want to call home.
Watch a short film about the Kirtan Rabbi: