Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 3

Seder T'fillot: Traditional and Contemporary Synagogue Services

by Neil W. Levin

V1THIS VOLUME COMPRISES recorded replications of synagogue services or self-contained sections of services, presented here in their musical totality and flow, but without any of the spoken English interpolations that might occur in the form of commentary, translations, readings, or supplementary prayers—formally or ad libitum—in nonorthodox or not fully traditional formats. The historical as well as contemporary contexts in which these kinds of extramusical additions, amplifications, or substitutions can be found as part of the liturgical progression (i.e., separate from sermons, speeches, or post-worship comments) are not limited to Reform worship. They can also include those services within the diverse embrace of the Conservative movement whose individual policies permit such flexibility in their deviations from custom or tradition and, in certain cases (the cantor’s repetition of the amida, for example), from strict adherence to religious legal provisions applicable to the uninterrupted delivery of the liturgy. Apart from this deliberate omission of the spoken word where it might otherwise apply in actual worship, whether from the pulpit or in responsive readings, each service here proceeds musically and liturgically according to a distinct, established practice in Ashkenazi custom as it has been perpetuated or developed in America. 

The title of this volume, SEDER T’FILLOT, refers to the historically and traditionally fixed order of the liturgy in prescribed Jewish worship services. This order appertains whether a service is prayed communally—viz., together with and in the presence of a congregation of worshippers (which has always been the desiderata, including for weekday services)—or whether, of necessity, it is prayed on one’s own in private. That this designation, seder t’fillot, can extend beyond its specific English equivalent (lit., “order of the prayers”) and beyond its reference to sequential order to denote a worship service per se, reveals something of the importance attached to the prescribed order in which the components of the liturgy are recited. The historical course of the creation and canonization of the Hebrew liturgy included rationales underlying each progression from one prayer text to the next.

The order of prayers for each service on the liturgical calendar has sources both in talmudic and post-talmudic rabbinic deliberations and in the subsequent formats devised by the principal liturgical compilers and editors whose prayerbooks were adopted as authoritative by the adherents of corresponding rites. Even in traditional liturgies, there are some minor points of variation in the order among differing customs—just as there are variant readings of individual prayers texts. But the overall order has remained constant and largely uniform. In the quest for modernization of worship in the early stages of the emerging 19th-century reformist endeavors, as some reformers tried to bypass historical grounding and continuity altogether, there were a number of attempts at radical departures from both the content and the order of traditional liturgies. Ultimately, however, the prayerbooks that came to be adopted as official or quasi-official organs of worship relied transparently on the traditional order as a basis—even when liturgical content was abbreviated, reconsidered, emended, amplified, or replaced.

Prayer in Judaism is perhaps best understood as both a natural and a highly developed mode of communication with God. It is obviously an act of faith, yet at the same time it is a human articulation of one’s inner voice on personal as well as communal planes of spiritual experience. Virtually every period in the recorded history of Judaism—and nearly every well-established Jewish community—has offered fresh contributions to the forms, types, styles, prose, and poetry of prayer, as well as to its musical counterparts and adjuncts.

The Hebrew Bible provides our earliest written framework for formalized Divine worship in ancient Israel and our oldest source for the content of the Hebrew liturgy. Thus, one way of considering Judaic worship in its historical context might be to distinguish between its two biblical manifestations. The first is prayer, which in the Bible involves personal, spontaneous devotion without prescribed formulas, regulations, fixed schedules and procedures, or mandated texts for regular observance. The second is the sacrificial service (avoda), which, by contrast, is spelled out in all its minutiae—and which indeed is governed by order with respect to each act of ritual performance. Vocal Psalm renditions by Levitical choirs surrounded and perhaps accompanied the required sacrificial procedures; and a few specific rituals involved verbal pronouncements. Rather than the specifically enunciated verbal expressions (silent or vocalized) of praise, thanks, love, acknowledgment, commitment, and supplication that we now call prayer, the actual sacrificial performances, which were the domain of the priests (kohanim), represented external, physical worship on behalf of the people as the primary, palpable symbolization of religious communication.

In addition to individual instances of spontaneous prayers and personal communications with God, there are biblical references to the generic importance of prayer that might be seen as a foundation for its later institutionalization as the primary form of Judaic worship that replaced the sacrificial cult. At the dedication of the First Temple, which was first and foremost to be the sanctuary of the sacrificial system, King Solomon nonetheless underscored the internal role of prayer—albeit in the absence yet of any structured format. In his prophetic pronouncements, Isaiah too speaks of “a house of prayer for all people.”

During the Babylonian captivity following the destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C.E., Jews congregated in assemblies to recall the lost spiritual center of Jerusalem and its Temple—engaging in study and expressing the collective hope for return to Jerusalem and rebuilding of the Temple. Those assemblies thus served to keep alive the memories of the Temple and its cult until its eventual restoration. They might also be seen among the precursors of more organized communal prayer and study.

After the return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity, Ezra (Ezra the Scribe) convoked an assembly in which he began a process of national and religious renewal by public readings of the Torah. Tradition—in a continuum based on the orthodoxy of attribution by the Sages and the “Men of the Great Assembly”—assigns to Ezra the credit for an early pilot model of prayers.

Even if the synagogue might have had earlier origins, it was during the Second Temple period that it took firm root and that its function as a place of public gathering for religious experience was reinforced. In this time frame, rank-and-file Israelites (i.e., the laity, or broad third level of the hierarchy, whose priestly and Levitical classes functioned in the Temple) congregated in individual settings outside the Temple—and outside the center of Jerusalem—to engage in study and prayer. These activities were organized to coincide with the Temple sacrifices. The synagogue thus democratized religious life by providing a popular level of open spiritual engagement and participation and a counterweight to the elite, aristocratic mode of Temple ritual. Once the sacrificial procedures could no longer be conducted as a result of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., such congregational prayer—and, eventually, formulaic synagogue services—replaced the role of the Temple as the central vehicle for public worship.

In effect, the two earlier biblical forms of worship—internal, personal prayer and visible, tangible sacrifice—thus became merged into a single form of formulated communal prayer. As a religious institution, prayer—through its adoption of prescribed times; legal provisions, guides, and regulations; and fixed texts—was ultimately the beneficiary of the transferred structural dimensions of the former Temple system. Over a period of many centuries, the composite Hebrew liturgy was developed, with numerous variants according to distinct rites, and the basic structure of the synagogue service became solidified. Apart from some of the experiments and revisions among the most radical wings of reformist movements in the 19th century in Germany and America (many of which were short-lived in the long run, ultimately restoring key features of tradition), by the middle of the 20th century the mainstream American Reform service was also guided by elements of that basic traditional structure—even as it was streamlined and otherwise altered to suit perceived requirements of modernity.

Central to the synagogue service format from its initial post-Temple phases (if not earlier) and throughout its subsequent evolution has been the musical delivery and expression of the liturgy. This may be accomplished either by a knowledgeable lay precentor or prayer leader, which probably remained the norm in the Ashkenazi world until at least the Baroque era in Europe, or by a more musically sophisticated and committed cantor (both of whose distinct roles have been preserved in tandem and without mutual exclusion in even the most formal, traditional Ashkenazi synagogues)—historically and ideally accompanied and supplemented by some form of choral singing, (see the introductions to Volumes 14 and 20). So-called American classical Reform services established in the 19th century often (though not uniformly) eliminated the position of cantor in favor of purely choral renditions as quasi-official policy. (Even prior to the 20th century, curiously, if not ironically, exceptions included some of the most prestigious American Reform congregations: Temple Emanu-El in New York, for example, long considered the East Coast’s if not the country’s flagship Reform synagogue, employed a musically educated cantor from its first days. See the introduction and other notes to the latter part of Volume 1.) In those cases, solo lines in composed cantor-choir settings, as well as single-voice pieces that would otherwise have been sung by a cantor, were usually assigned to a soloist from the choir whose engagement required that ability. With increasing frequency in the post–World War II years, however, and beginning earlier in the century in a number of cases, American Reform synagogues began to restore cantorial roles. By the late 20th century, cantorial positions had become all but the norm, or at least typical, rather than the exception in American Reform services across the country. (With a touch of welcome historical irony, we may observe, for example, that the largest student body among the various American cantorial schools at the end of the first decade of the 21st century is that of the Reform movement’s School of Sacred Music in New York, part of Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion.)

The equal centrality of cantorial roles in the music of the second, 20th-century phase of American classical Reform (post-1930s through roughly the 1960s and into the 1970s) and that of post-1970s contemporary Reform services is readily apparent from the services recorded for the Milken Archive and contained in this volume.

The music presented here is drawn from American repertoire that might typically be—or have been—heard in actual synagogue worship contexts. Some of the composers are, or were, native-born Americans; others immigrated to the United States—in nearly all such cases from Europe—and composed these particular settings specifically for American cantors, choirs, and congregations. Improvised solo cantorial recitative passages and rapid-fire modal liturgical intonations in the orthodox and traditional services, however, do not differ in character or substance from their earlier European models.

By virtue of its principal purpose, synagogue music—like the bulk of ordinary church music other than certain works that have transcended their initial worship function to become serious classical concert works—is essentially Gebrauchsmusik (functional music). This designation in no way diminishes its artistic value; it merely clarifies that its intended function is (or should be) to amplify, beautify, and sometimes even aesthetically to explicate the liturgy. Musical delivery, in improvisations and in well-planned compositions, gives emotional expression to the words and evokes their imagery. Moreover, music assists in preventing prayer from becoming routine—a pitfall against which Judaic teaching has consistently warned. Synagogue music is not necessarily or principally, however, high art for its own sake or on its own merits outside those functions, although it may also transcend these functions (see Volume 7); nor is it primarily a vehicle for a composer’s self-expression extricable from its ability to resonate spiritually with worshippers. 

Apart from certain highly virtuoso or theatrical traditional cantorial and cantorial-choral compositions whose composers may have envisioned dual function (and this applies only to a handful of the pieces heard in the two traditional services in this volume), few functional synagogue compositions are as effective on the concert stage (even in a synagogue venue) or in recordings as they are in the worship context for which they were intended. It is not merely the venue that is at issue here, but, more important, the particular religious occasion whose mood and significance is missing in concert performance, unless the piece also has transcendent, universal dimensions.

Obviously, liturgical occasions cannot be replicated on recordings. Even live recordings of actual services would fall short, because the listeners are hearing the musical-liturgical expressions after the fact. A High Holy Day setting, for example, would not find them experiencing the sense of awe and renewal that attend the worship on those annual Days of Awe. But at least the presentation of synagogue music within the context of the flow of an uninterrupted service goes a long way toward providing a deeper appreciation of that music and its function. It is in that spirit that this volume was conceived.

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