The Same Music in Every Synagogue?

There are plenty of people who think that every synagogue should have the same music. That way, they would feel at home wherever they find themselves.

I get it. While part of me wants that as well, ultimately, I disagree with that point of view.

I understand the comfort and sense of belonging you get when you travel or visit another synagogue for whatever reason and you know the tunes. The same melody for Ein K’Eloheinu. The same Kedusha. The same everything.

If that were the case, however, do you realize how poor our heritage would be? Do you know to what extent we would be robbing our own culture and spiritual vibrancy?

If no originality were permitted, there would have been no Carlebach.

Shlomo Carlebach, “the Singing Rabbi”, felt a need to find new ways to express the prayers. And he gave us classics. Had people been completely closed to new music, we would have turned our backs to the wealth of music and spirituality Carlebach had to offer.

And what about Sol Zim’s L’dor Vador? Finkelstein’s L’dor Vador? Portnoy’s Etz Chayim Hi? Max Wohlberg’s Mechalkel Chayim (the standard one)? These and so many other melodies were written relatively recently! Our grandparents did not grow up with most these tunes.

A community that seeks universality in the music of the synagogue would never have opened their doors to these composers or their gifts to the Jewish world. They would have robbed themselves and future generations of great musical wealth.

So should everything be new? Should we throw out everything from the past? Of course not. There is room for both.

Nusach (traditional musical modes) is what roots the service in tradition and provides the congregation with familiar sounds; it grants us familiarity but allows for imagination and creativity. This is the framework. It acts as the building blocks.

This is true for Ashkenazi and Sephardic services alike. Step into any Moroccan synagogue on Erev Shabbat and you’ll see that the Kabbalat Shabbat service is virtually identical. The melodies are ancient and utterly beautiful. Then listen to the Hazzan’s melodies for Lecha Dodi, Chatzi Kaddish, or Yigdal, among others, and you will hear huge variations.

Embrace the old AND embrace the new. We have a rich culture and a rich heritage. If we only embrace the old, we become a museum, we stagnate, and we offer a boring service. If we only embrace the new, we lose our footing and deny ourselves of a rich legacy. We need both.