Monday, October 10, 2011

Searching for Understanding

It always takes me a few days to bounce back from the intensity of the high holy days.  It’s a time of deep reflection, where a lot of things of the past year get mulled around and sorted out.  
I have come to feel quite comfortable with the services, especially with the beautiful music, tunes and words passed down through the centuries, sung year after year around the world.
Even though I appreciate the feelings evoked by singing a particular song, there is often something missing.  The songs are in Hebrew and my knowledge of that ancient language is spotty at best.  I love the way a word like “Hashkiveinu” feels as we sing that beautiful prayer, but I have a hard time remembering that what we are saying to God is “Lie us down and spread over us a blanket of peace.”  
Occasionally there is a prayer/song in English.  At those times I can almost feel a palpable connection as the congregation hears words we all understand.  It happened on Yom Kippur during the afternoon memorial service as our cantor sang “Tribute” (in English) and remembered the recent death of her mother.  Her powerful emotions and the words of the song increased the intensity of the moment as the entire congregation empathized with her and thought about their own losses.
Part of me wishes for a service in the language I speak that would then give words and music equal weight in my experience.  But Judaism is so steeped in tradition, that will probably never happen.  And if it did, it would only serve to distance us from Jews around the world.
So instead my goal for next year is to make the leap of understanding that will enable me to really comprehend what I am singing as I pray the ancient Hebrew prayers.  Perhaps I can organize classes for people like myself who long to have a deeper and even more meaningful experience.  Perhaps I will find a knowledgable person to work with me one-on-one.  Perhaps I will tackle only a small handful of prayers.  But hopefully I will make some effort at understanding.


Blogger Gary said...

I remember a Catholic friend of mine speaking of when their services changed from Latin to English and what a trade off that was. It did make things more accessible but there was a loss of tradition and majesty. Plus, in Latin services all around the world could be attended but now since they are said in the native tongue it is hard to follow a mass in another country.

Sometimes the words are not as important as the spirit. Perhaps? I would still like to know what is being said exactly but I understand both sides of the coin. I always do. That can be a problem sometimes too.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Gary -- Catholics did have the very same issue, the only difference being there was no one on earth still speaking Latin as their official language.

I agree the spirit of the music or the prayer is perhaps the most important component. For me the question is whether to discern that spirit from the way the music makes me feel or from a better idea of the actual meaning.

You know from your own choral experience how powerful music can be when the words and the notes both have an impact on you.

10:44 PM  
Blogger karen said...

Hi Barbara. Great post. I can completely understand your need to understand the the Hebrew words, too.. good luck with the learning process!

7:35 AM  
Blogger Cyndy said...

Doing stuff in the traditional language can help some people to "feel it" more because it moves them into a different place and time. It's possible to get closer to original source of inspiration, even if you don't quite understand all of the words. That sounds like total BS, but the feeling is real, at least for me. And in spiritual things feelings matter more than words, right?

So I am one of those types who likes to sing things in Latin. Or Hebrew - and I don't know Hebrew at all. But I felt I like I was having a deeper experience with some psalms that I was already familiar with when I had a chance to sing them for Bernstein's Chichester Psalms in Hebrew. I know that studying translations is an extremely lazy way to get familiar with a language, but it's one way to start.

So I think it is a great idea to actually study Hebrew especially since it is the original language of your religion.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Cyndy -- I know exactly what you mean. I too sang the Chichester Psalms and things like the "Lama Ragashu" section would not be the same at all if translated into another language.

The same holds for opera. The opera company at Chautauqua has a mandate to perform all the operas in English. The end result is a good performance but a terrible loss of what was originally intended.

I have become so comfortable with singing the prayers in Hebrew that I do have to remind myself about the lack of understanding. I still think that's important as well.

10:53 AM  

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