Shabbat for Today
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In the late 1960s and during the 1970s, some progressive people within the American Reform movement, especially some of its younger rabbis, were attracted to the new sounds of electronically synthesized music. They were admittedly in the minority; and at first breaking ranks with the rabbinical establishment, if not inviting its ire, they were willing to entertain the notion of introducing that medium into the synagogue in connection with what they perceived as necessary innovative approaches to worship. And, at least on an experimental basis, a few such adventurous clergymen were also receptive to music influences from the world of “rock operas,” rock and folk-rock media, trendy and often politically-socially motivated “contemporary folk” styles, and the fashionable and sometimes quasi-psychedelic multimedia rage. Some of that attitude might have emanated from attempts to shed traditional synagogue formalities in response to antielitist echoes from the new “counterculture.” But a number of rabbis as well as cantors of that leaning were also seriously concerned about finding new ways to relate to elements of the so-called younger (college-age and immediately postcollege-age) generation, whose apparent disaffection from established synagogue ritual was disturbing, and for whom there seemed to be a diminished sense of connection as much with the musical solemnity and grandeur of classical Reform congregations as with the more Old World–oriented cantorial ambience still prevalent in traditional synagogues.
Part of that maverick search was also tethered to aspirations for acceptance by a youth-driven culture that resonated with the forgettable slogan about never trusting anyone over the age of thirty, whose mantra of “relevance” for a time all but toppled conventional values and standards in academia, literature, and the arts. Rabbis and cantors in that small group might have been trying to demonstrate that they too could transcend the authoritarian image of their clerical robes, lofty oratory, and classically based singing, by transforming the pulpit into a stage.
A revolutionary and almost defiant Sabbath eve service cohosted by two upstate suburban New York Reform congregations in 1967, for example, featured gyrating dancers as well as rock singers, New Age phantasmal electronic sound tracks, accompanying synchronized film projections and intermittent slide shows, flashing strobe lights, taped electronic music improvised by Kingsley, and, in place of a rabbi, the non-Jewish extreme avant-garde composer John Cage on the pulpit—in a new form of sermon based on the words of Buckminster Fuller, which discoursed in confused and cryptic language on the proliferation of energy distribution systems and the political ramifications of private versus public power vis-à-vis the supposed rationale for the invention of communications. Despite the expected mixed reaction, Rabbi Louis Frishman, one of the two hosts, responded with enthusiasm: “I feel that electronic music is something that must be brought into the synagogue,” he remarked afterward. “A service such as this also makes people reinterpret the words of the service.” Similar radical departures followed in other venues. Issachar Miron and Abraham Soltes’s interfaith oratorio, Golden Gates of Joy, was performed by the Ray Charles Singers and Orchestra and was broadcast nationally under auspices that included even the Jewish Theological Seminary, the academic center of the Conservative movement. Another service by Miron was titled Rock ’n’ Rest.
Those events could not fail to incur the wrath not only of traditionally minded rabbis and cantors in all branches of American Judaism, but even of some of its leading proponents of new music—Cantor David Putterman, for example, whose celebrated annual commissions of new synagogue music had, since the 1930s, included overtures to some of the most progressive and forward-looking composers of the day, and who had not vetoed works overtly influenced by jazz and blues. In a scathing article against such attempts to “be with it” through the “decadence” of rock, Putterman warned, “Let those who wish to ‘rock the cradle of the Lord’ beware lest they rock the Lord out of His cradle.”
Similar experiments, generated by analogous clerical concerns, had already occurred in certain Christian churches across the United States—not only among those less-formalized denominations whose grassroots populist and folk traditions had long informed the music of worship, but in some of the so-called mainstream or established churches as well, Protestant and Roman Catholic. A liturgical commission appointed by New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman, for example, encouraged musical experimentation to make the Mass more “relevant” to worshipers. Indeed, the liberal spirit of those Christian experiments sometimes served as a model for similar Jewish ones.
Still, some of that rabbinical and cantorial openness to the popular “sounds of the day,” and to the 1960s-1970s musical language of the postwar generation, did arise out of a genuine, non–agenda-fueled sense of aesthetic imagination on its own grounds. This, in turn, led to some expressions of considerable artistic merit by composers such as Kingsley. Among the first Reform rabbis to put that kind of legitimate imagination into practice was Rabbi Charles Akiva Annes, at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, then in East Orange, New Jersey. Already familiar with some of Kingsley’s music and with his predilection for contemporary sounds, Rabbi Annes invited him to compose a new Friday evening Sabbath eve service specifically geared “to the younger generation.” The result of that invitation was Shabbat for Today (subtitled on the original score Sing a New Song unto the Lord), written for cantor, mixed choir, and rock rhythm ensemble. It was premiered at that synagogue in 1968 by Cantor Theodore L. Aronson and an all-black choir, with electric guitar, double bass, rhythm section, and organ.
A Moog synthesizer was used in that first performance only as a soft background for the spoken parts, but not to accompany any of the singing. Shortly afterward, however, a recording was made that used the Moog for the entire service, replacing the live ensemble; and the work was associated thereafter with the Moog. On the Milken Archive recording, all instrumental parts were synthesized using a Moog and other, more recent sound modules.
Despite its more extreme antecedents on the fringe of the American Jewish mainstream at the time, the aesthetic concept of Shabbat for Today was still more than a little controversial in 1968. Kingsley recalls that although many congregants were fascinated by the new sound, that first performance—together with the publicity it generated—was even denounced by some rabbis and cantors as sacrilegious and irreverently sensational. But that controversy only added to the intrigue. Eventually the work gained wider acceptance for its “current sound” and received more than 150 performances in synagogues and on television—usually using the Moog and sometimes with additional multimedia elements. A telecast from Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, for example, featured dancers on the pulpit. At the beginning of the 21st century there were still requests for its presentation, for which the tape is available for background accompaniment for live performances.
In the classical Reform service format typical of the decades leading up to the late 1960s (and followed in many Conservative synagogues as well), sung or recited Hebrew traditional prayers were often preceded by rabbinical readings that explained them, or by their English translations. (That practice is still observed in many congregations.) The sung texts in Shabbat for Today are also from the established Reform liturgy as it appeared in the Union Prayer Book (the standard prayer book of the American Reform movement at the time), which in turn was drawn from traditional liturgy. The integrated rabbinical narration or speaking part, however, includes—in addition to such bits of summary translation or capsules of explicatory interpretation—some new, fanciful poetic images and supposedly updated references of presumed “contemporary relevance.” In part, this was yet another typical attempt to “be modern”—to “relate” a very old, mostly medieval and ancient liturgy to 1960s and 1970s sensibilities, on the assumption that the established liturgy no longer spoke for itself, as it had been left to do for previous generations, all of whom were once young. Ironically, that theatrical updating—both its content and its mode of delivery—does tend to give the work a slightly dated “period piece” flavor now. But the composer felt that it was a necessary component, since, as he recalls, that was a time when some of the younger Reform rabbis were eager to be in the vanguard and appear “with it” and “cool,” rather than clerically authoritarian, by speaking the language and even adopting the lingo and expressions of the pop culture. Also, in practical terms, that narrative element provided a dramatic role within the work for the rabbi of a congregation—which could be an incentive for him to encourage its performance and facilitate its funding. As an artistic expression, however, the musical parameter of Shabbat for Today is still paramount, and it stands well on its own, with nothing dated about it.
In his post-premiere assessment of Shabbat for Today, Rabbi Annes’s remarks can seem contradictory. He appropriately observed that the originality of the musical substance—not its electronic medium or its mode of realization—constituted the important newness of the work. Invoking an overexposed phrase from Psalm 96, which is frequently expropriated out of its historical-literary context to provide a musical viewpoint or advocacy that it may not originally have intended, he did note that in the long run of musical evolution, the only truly new aspect of this Sabbath service was “gifted talent singing a new song unto the Lord.” Yet, in offering a justification for the progressive perspective that Shabbat for Today represented, he presumed its role as replacing the traditional, rather than simply as adding a new and original liturgical interpretation. “It may well be that we have exhausted this [traditional, older] mode of worship,” Rabbi Annes commented in notes for a subsequent performance, “and should begin a serious study of other forms which express our faith in communal prayer.... I believe that Shabbat for Today comes close to fulfilling this new experience in prayer as emotion.” Here he appears to have missed the point, for art, by its nature, including art with liturgical function, transcends boundaries of time and relevance. Nor does the value of artistic creativity lie in the exhaustion of earlier modes of musical expression or of prayer itself, any more than Romantic 19th-century Mass settings need replace the resonance and relevance of earlier Renaissance polyphony in Christian contexts. On both musical and liturgical planes, appreciation of a work such as Shabbat for Today—or, for that matter, of Kingsley’s other liturgical works in the Milken Archive—does not require discarding classical western Hebrew choral settings, traditional eastern European cantorial styles, genuine centuries-old Sephardic chants, or any other constituent elements of an aggregate Jewish liturgical repertoire. The validity of this work is earned by its musical merit, and it is doubtful that its composer, as an artist, sought to replace anything. To the contrary, it is but one more serious individual expression that further enriches a living, expanding heritage.
The final two tracks of this recording (May the Words of My Mouth and S'u sh'arim) contain a segue from one liturgical text to another, although they are otherwise unrelated in the order of service. May the Words of My Mouth is an English version of the concluding words of the silently recited series of prayers known in traditional worship as the amida (“standing,” since these prayers are thus recited while standing), which occurs toward the end of the service (yih’yu l’ratzon). In Reform as well as in some Conservative congregations it has often been sung in that English version. S’u sh’arim, however, is a Psalm text (24) that is recited in Sabbath and holyday morning services but is not part of the Sabbath eve service (unless the eve of Rosh Hashana falls on the Sabbath). It has been sung nonetheless in many Reform synagogues as an alternative text in the opening section of the Friday evening service, but it has no history as a concluding hymn, which is suggested by the juxtaposition here. Kingsley’s preference for binding these two settings into a single piece represents a purely artistic decision, based both on his own interpretation of the poetry of the two texts and on their musical flow, and constituting a musical version of poetic license. He therefore recorded it this way, as the independent piece he now views it—especially when divorced from a performance of the entire service.