Still Small Voice is a collection of 18 interviews with clergy tackling 18 questions about God, published during the month of Elul, a time of Jewish reflection and accountability. Click here to read the introduction to the series.
Obviously music can move people. But can it make us feel God is in the room?
I’d argue that the role of a synagogue’s cantor or song leader is as crucial as that of its rabbi — sometimes more so. The words of the prayer book, absent melody, can lie flat on the page. A sermon can rouse, but rarely as viscerally. We experience a non-cognitive, often emotional response to a song and can’t always describe why.
I’ve watched people weep in synagogue when “Hashkiveinu” — the prayer that asks God to shelter us — is sung.
I’ve also observed how people enter a different emotional zone during the chanting of Kol Nidre — the traditional, haunting musical phrases repeated on the eve of Yom Kippur.
I approached Elizabeth Sacks, senior cantor of Temple Emanuel Denver, the largest and oldest Reform congregation in the Rocky Mountain region, to ask if she would help me understand how music is intertwined with the divine in our tradition — as part of our series of interviews, Still Small Voice: 18 Questions about God.
Sacks, 39, is the only cantor among my interview subjects because I started out talking mainly to rabbis because they’re so frequently called upon to explain God in a pastoral context.
But the truth is that cantors have switched on the spiritual light for me — and for people I know — more often than I can recount.
I first met Sacks in 2007, when she was associate cantor at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, where I am an involved member. She made an impact then, not just for her ethereal voice, but for her Talmud scholarship.
Sacks, who holds a B.A. in Jewish Studies and Music from Harvard University where she was a student leader at the Hillel, has been a faculty member at Mechon Hadar and a past chair of the alumni association of Hebrew Union College Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.
When I asked her ahead of time which text might illuminate her thinking, she sent me this simple, gorgeous line from Talmud:
“Where there is music, there is prayer.” (B’rachot 6a)
Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and length. To read other interviews with other rabbis in our series, Still Small Voice: 18 questions about God, click here.
‘You could simply say, “God is song.”’
Cantor Elizabeth Sacks: Sometimes in the Talmud, you find these nuggets that just encapsulate pages of conversation in a few words: “Bimkom rinah sham tehay tefilah”: “Where there is song, there is prayer.”
Abigail Pogrebin: My first response to that sentence on its face is, “Amen.” Because a song does so often feel like prayer or makes us feel prayerful.
ES: Look at those first two words, “Bimkom rinah.” “Makom” does mean “place,” so you can translate the phrase: “Where song is placed, there is prayer.”
“Makom” is also another word that we use for God. And so if you just looked at those first two words, you could simply say, “God is song.”
AP: I’m sure many Jews would say that rings true.
ES: This line envisioned the freedom of expression that wherever there is song, there is prayer that gives us the ability to pray at any time, God is always there for us, with us, near us. And music can be that portal at any moment that we need it.
But the context of that statement within the Talmud is actually a conversation about the importance of community prayer. And you can read “bimkom rinah” this way: “In a place of song — i.e. the synagogue — that’s where prayer should be.”
AP: So this lean phrase could endorse both the freedom to pray anywhere you are and also the need to pray in shul with others.
ES: Exactly. You have freedom AND you need community around you in order to have an ultimate prayer experience.
AP: In your experience as a cantor, does the “ultimate prayer experience” usually involve music?
ES: When people tell me how music can affect them, they use words like “warmth,” “light,” or “connection.” There is an opening that allows people to transcend their very rational experience of the world.
‘For everybody else, we need music’
AP: I’ve often assumed that one needs to start with an intellectual grasp of liturgy in order to get to the spiritual response.
ES: That’s interesting because in the past, many people walked away from Judaism because it was so hyper-intellectual. The modern — or postmodern — Jew didn’t understand that there was a non-rational pathway to God within the Jewish faith, or that Judaism had elements that they admired from Buddhism and other religions which divorce your brain from the very rational.
AP: I’ve often heard that stereotype: Christians feel and Jews think.
ES: There is a Kabbalistic text — Avodat HaKodesh — that very explicitly states that Moses and his prophecy was entirely intellectual and rational. Moses connected to God through pure intellect — there was always great connection between them. But the Zohar says Moses was the first and the last person to have that experience. For everybody else, we need music.
AP: So if Moses had a direct line to God, the rest of us require a vehicle.
ES: Avodat HaKodesh asks why the prophets often used music to communicate with God. And comes to the conclusion that rational connection to God is almost impossible and extraordinarily rare.
We have more success reaching into this realm of the divine through music, or non-rational experience.
The tables were turned on Still Small Voice’s Abigail Pogrebin this past week. Listen to Yehuda Kurtzer interview her about the series, her beliefs and more on his podcast here.
AP: What would you say to those who fear that if their spirituality hinges on songs, that might suggest their Judaism is lightweight?
ES: There’s such an apprehension that you need to know all of the answers about God in order to just have a stirring moment. But in reality, you can’t be expected to understand divinity in order to be able to have the transcendent experience. Some of what holds us back from really diving into a powerful musical experience is the fear of it.
AP: What do you think we’re afraid of?
ES: Encounter with God can and should be unpredictable and scary. We may not be able to understand the experience or control it. You don’t know exactly where it’s going to take you — in terms of reflection on your own life, what your body will feel like, what you’re going to be moved to do as a result of it, when it might happen again if you want to repeat it.
AP: Do you see your congregants looking to repeat a feeling by hearing the same song?
ES: People’s expectations of what “Kol Nidre” is going to feel like is very heavy for me. There is a great expectation of what I am going to be able to create in that moment, because in their past, they felt something strong, and they want that feeling again.
That’s my job, for sure — to create a musical experience that transports people into the past, into a vision of a better self. But it’s hard when I know that, no matter what I do, even if I put my entire body and soul into that moment, it won’t necessarily work for everyone.
AP: Do you feel that same pressure when you sing “Avinu Malkeinu”? I’m curious because it feels like it’s supposed to be a peak moment. Does that give you shpilkes?
‘God-as-King is a hurdle’
ES: Not as much. “Avinu Malkeinu” exposes a really fascinating divide, denominationally, because it plays a very different role in the Reform movement than it does in the traditional liturgy, at least in my experience.
AP: How does the Reform movement treat it differently?
ES: There are aspects of both texts — Kol Nidre and Avinu Malkeinu — that are difficult, and that highlight the tension between the thinking and feeling parts of you.
AP: What are the challenging “thinking” aspects of Avinu Malkeinu?
ES: The first two words: “Our Father, our King.” Concepts of God as masculine can be difficult for people — especially in the world that we inhabit right now. It’s a very narrow concept of God.
God-as-King is a hurdle — the fact that power is equated with a male sovereign, the question of omnipotence — if God is the King of this world, what does that say about our God? All of that is wrapped up in those two words.
But like the Kol Nidre (“All vows”), the music of Avinu Malkeinu — the Max Janowski arrangement especially, for the Reform movement — has created such a sense-memory, that people need it. They really want to hear it, and they’ll put whatever meaning they want on top of it.
AP: Are you comfortable with the prayer’s language after the first two words?
‘The power of the way those words feel in our mouths’
ES: Every other sentence moves me: “Hear our prayer. Renew our year. Pardon our misdeeds. Make a good life for our children.” All of the pieces of that prayer cut to the core of the human experience. But getting past the first two words in our relationship with God is difficult.
Hopefully what the music allows us to do is just move past that for a moment. Take away our obsession with the very real problems of, “Our Father, our King,” in terms of our conceptualization of God, and allow yourself to linger on the other side of it.
AP: You told me the Reform movement tried to update the prayer book to accommodate the challenges of this liturgy.
ES: Yes, but the liturgy remains. The power of the way those words feel in our mouths — because we’ve said them for so many years — is alluring. Even when we don’t like it, it’s really hard to change it.
AP: There was an attempt in the Reform movement to grapple with the Kol Nidre text as well, correct?
ES: Yes, the early reformers tried to take out the Kol Nidre from one of the earliest Union Prayer Books because they were offended by the message.
They subsequently put it back into the service, but they could not bring themselves to print the words, so they included a line that just instructs: “The cantor intones the Kol Nidre prayer.” No text.
AP: And the discomfort around Kol Nidre is that it basically says we’re about to make promises we’re sure to break? Or that we are already absolved of sins we haven’t yet committed?
ES: Both. People are uncomfortable that we would want that kind of absolution before sinning — it was an insurance contract that wasn’t in line with the true spirit of Yom Kippur.
In addition, it unfortunately emphasized or confirmed some of the nastier antisemitic accusations that were out there — about the trickery of the Jewish people, that they don’t really mean what they say.
The High Holidays are upon us — and for many, that comes with meaty theological questions. Join us to talk to leading Jewish thinkers about their views on God as part of our Still Small Voice series. Register for the October 1 talk here.
AP: The Jewish liturgy “proved” to antisemites that Jews renege; their word can’t be trusted.
AP: Putting aside problematic songs, what is the music that kind of breaks you emotionally?
‘Just that little crack into our souls is good’
ES: The Great Aleinu carries tremendous power for me. I still chant the version that my cantor, Jack Mendelson, taught me when I was a teenager learning how to lead services. And I still prostrate completely on the floor.
AP: You’re referring to that moment on Yom Kippur when we’re supposed to drop to our knees and then to our bellies in front of the ark.
ES: Yes, there is this unbelievable juxtaposition between the going-up in the melody, which climbs higher, while you are lowering your body to the ground.
That moment of soaring a note into the sky while also bending your knees to fall on the ground — that makes the high holidays for me. It represents so powerfully that we are reaching high — to be our best selves, while also admitting how low we have fallen at the same time.
AP: I’ve always wanted to try prostration, but I’m too shy to get on my stomach in the synagogue.
ES: I think that the ability to give ourselves permission to not be perfect in public is very hard. But even just that little crack into our souls is good. Hopefully there’s a piece of that that can penetrate us on the High Holy days — that it’s OK to be emotional, even if we’re not going to let go completely. The music helps us get there.
‘Find the music that transports you’
AP: I want to circle back to when you talked about fear of losing control. Most of our worship services today — at least in the Reform and Conservative movements — are pretty composed; there’s a sense of formality, and keeping your body still.
ES: Yes, that is absolutely a burden of the more progressive strains of Judaism; there isn’t as much allowance for typical physical movement as part of prayer. We’re getting better at it, but it was not something that was easily allowable for a long time.
AP: Why not?
ES: For early reformers, decorum in worship was so important. There was a major divide between Jews and their Christian neighbors, and a lot of embarrassment on the part of the Jewish community, that their worship spaces were not organized or quiet, they didn’t have an exact start time and end time.
There was a stigma around that. So a lot of the early reforms were in reaction to that idea — that we’re not dignified in prayer, and that what God wanted was decorum.
I think we have moved into a different understanding now. The ability to lose control is often where we feel God most acutely. It’s a sadness that we fenced ourselves off to that for so long because of embarrassment.
AP: So what’s your advice to those of us who hesitate to make fools of ourselves when the music moves us?
ES: I would say, don’t be afraid. Use it. Find the music that transports you and let yourself let go. See what happens.
Abigail Pogrebin, author of My Jewish Year; 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter. @apogrebin. Elizabeth Sacks is senior cantor at Temple Emanuel Denver. Follow her on Twitter @CantorSacks.
Still Small Voice: 18 Questions About God is a special project for the month of Elul, a traditional period of reflection and accountability. Click here to read the next interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.
Abigail Pogrebin has become a rare voice among American Jews, as a journalist and an explorer who shares with refreshing wit and candor her path to finding a meaningful Jewish life.
Is God felt more easily through music?