Melody or Discord

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Jul 18, 2014 / 5774 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

There is a parable that speaks of a village that once had a renowned orchestra that played beautiful music at set times in the presence of the king, bringing delight both to the musicians and their ruler, who rewarded the musicians generously for their artistry and commitment. As time passed, the original musicians grew old and their place was taken by others who were not quite so gifted, drawn perhaps by the exalted audience and generous reward.

After several generations, the structure remained in place, but the orchestral instruments were passed into the hands of descendants of the original musicians who lacked any musical training whatsoever. They still came and presented themselves at the set times in the presence of the king, who continued to reward them for the sake of their gifted ancestors. In truth, the sounds they produced were nothing other than cacophony, painful to the ear.

Eventually, some young people in the village found themselves distressed by the discordant sounds offered in the presence of the king, and dedicated themselves to learning about music. They began to play upon the ancient instruments in secret during the night and at other times when the “official” musicians were pursuing other business affairs. The king heard their simple but loving music, and was filled with delight by their devotion, even if it was not at the official set times of the orchestra.

This parable is attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidut, and offered as a defense of the practices of early Hasidim, who were severely criticized by the “orthodox” authorities of their time for departing from the standard customs and practices of classical Jewish prayer. It is perhaps ironic that we now think of Hasidim as a part of the so-called “ultra-Orthodox” sector of Judaism.

I believe that our prayer life hovers between the two extremes of the parable. There are indeed beautiful sounds, beautiful prayers, uplifting experiences, and truly soulful encounters to be found in the synagogues of all the denominations of contemporary Jewish life. And I am sure that we have all encountered situations that strike us as closer to the blind, dutiful cacophony.

The parable invites us to strive for kavanah (meaning or attitude in our prayers and worship), and to find our way to personal engagement and excitement. The Jewish people have recently lost a great guide and teacher, a scholar and sage, a wry and wise guide for many of the perplexed of our generations. Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi departed this life on July 3, and leaves behind a legacy of melodies, teachings, books, and pamphlets directed far more to the arena of the heart and soul than to libraries and tracts of scholarship. Most of all, Reb Zalman as he was known to his many students and disciples—among whom I certainly count myself—leaves behind a diverse and eclectic array of his students and institutions dedicated to his work that are loosely organized within the structures of “Jewish Renewal.”

It may perhaps be that, from certain traditional perspectives, half (or more) of what he introduced might be dismissed as trivial at best and deceptive at worst. But there is the other half, filled with insight and guidance that has rebuilt for so many the eviscerated connections with the flowing waters that emanate from the Living God. Reb Zalman had an extraordinary gift with words and metaphor; he introduced, for example, the term davenology to describe the process of ritual study and exploration.

In many of our synagogues, we hear biblical texts and prayers chanted in English with traditional tropes and nusah, we might see an entire Sefer Torah unwrapped at Simhat Torah, and we look at ethical aspects of food and life in terms of eco-kashrut. All these practices and approaches are innovations of Reb Zalman that have become part of the fabric of Jewish life, to the extent that they are thought of as “traditional.” Reb Zalman taught at JTS in the 1960s, and for a number of summers he was appointed “religious environmentalist” at Camp Ramah in New England, inspiring a generation of young people to explore the boundaries of Judaism.

There will be many essays and books in the future that survey and probe his life and work, both of which are complex. For now, we mourn the death and celebrate the life of a person who was a human bridge between different worlds. Born and raised in Eastern Europe, escaping the Sho’ah, Zalman Schachter was ordained within Chabad (Lubavitch) and earned a doctorate in Psychology of Religion from Hebrew Union College. May his memory be for an abiding blessing among us all, may we find and forge ourselves into musicians and instruments of true beauty in praise of theAtikin Yamin, the Holy Ancient One of Days, and may we be faithful to his approach by learning from some of his teachings and then departing from them.

A good introduction to the teachings of Rabbi Zalman might be his discourse on Psalm 23.

A full bibliography and biography can be found at the Reb Zalman Legacy Project set up by his students and followers.