Engaging the Worshipper Through Music: Walking the Line Between Novelty and Tradition


Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School

Mike Weis

On the surface, my job as a cantor is to use music, both old and new, to draw worshippers into the world of the prayer book. Frankly, that is much easier said than done. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that if you want to get people excited about prayer, you should just "fix" the music. Make it more like B'nai Jeshurun or Romemu . . . more Carlebach-y . . . more Debbie Friedman–like . . . just . . . more. 

But music is very personal. One person's Mozart is another person's nap time. One summer during my student pulpit days, in preparation for the High Holy Days, I planned to introduce a number of new melodies that I had fallen in love with when I heard them at Kehilat Hadar, the flagship of the burgeoning independent minyan movement. These new melodies, I told myself, were it. Once this congregation heard these melodies, it would never be the same. 

Before the first of several sessions during which I had planned to teach these melodies, one elderly congregant came up to me and said, "I'm not interested in new songs. Can't you just leave the old ones alone?" 

"Gotta keep things fresh," I said cheerfully and undaunted. "Just stay for the session and see what you think." She gave me a skeptical look and went to her seat. Inside, I was seething. She hadn't even heard the music and she was already condemning it? How could she not be absolutely sick of the idea of singing B'rosh Hashanah with the same old chant when there are so many other options . . . more spiritual options? I wondered. Satisfying myself that she would eventually come to see things differently, I started the class.

About seven or eight people attended that first session and learned one new song. It sounded beautiful, exactly as I had hoped it would. Boy, I thought, wait until the entire congregation gets a load of this.

After the session, the woman approached me again. "What do you think?" I inquired.

"It was lovely," she said. "But I'm still not interested in new music."

"Why not?" I shot back, trying as hard as I could not to sound defensive or annoyed. How could she not like that?

"Let me tell you something," she confided. "I speak Hebrew, but I don't understand these prayers. All I have is the music I learned when I was young. It's what makes the service meaningful for me. If you change the melodies, then I won't have anything to hold onto."

I nodded, taking it in.

"If you change the melodies, then I won't have anything to hold onto."

What a bombshell! There I was, thinking that I would show the congregants a thing or two about what good davening really is, and this congregant's message was: the music is my davening. Not the siddur, or in this case the mahzor, but the music. And not even my music. Her music . . . the music that, as a student at least, I had dedicated myself to banishing from my services. "My" services indeed.

During this brief conversation, I realized that, in my zeal to create the best service possible, I had forgotten the prime directive of my training as an educator: you must meet your learners where they are. Though our musical tastes lay at opposite poles, she and I were not all that different in what drew us into the world of prayer: it was the music, not the words. It was the song, not the siddur. 

Frankly, that required a bit of a paradigm shift for me. On the one hand, music has always been among the most powerful keys to unlock the chambers of the human heart. That is the primary reason why music and prayer have always been inextricably bound together, not just within the Jewish tradition, but across traditions. We must ask ourselves, though, for what purpose are we seeking to unlock the heart? Just to have a good time? Just to sing some happy, clappy songs and feel good? Sadly, that's what many services have become. Surely, real prayer, avodat halev (service of the heart), must be about more than just singing a catchy tune. A musical service that is divorced from a deep and abiding encounter with the words, meaning, and our Creator is little more than a concert.

And so, though my job as a cantor is primarily concerned with interpreting the text through music, as an educator I see that the music is really just the beginning. The entrée lies in personalizing the words themselves, in making them your own. There are many roads to accomplishing that—meditation, journaling, discussion, even prayer itself—but there's no magic to it other than making a personal commitment to engage with the text. Music can only open the heart. Our task is to capitalize on the opportunity to infuse it with meaning regardless of whether or not we like the song. The responsibility lies with each of us.

Hazzan Mike Weis currently serves as cantor of the Brotherhood Synagogue in Manhattan and is an active member of the Cantors Assembly, serving on its Executive Council and co-chairing its technology task force. He received cantorial investiture and an MA in Sacred Music from the H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music, and an MA in Jewish Education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary in 2010. A native of Chicago, Hazzan Weis earned a BA in Economics at Stanford University in 1986, and has resided in Los Angeles, London, and Jerusalem.