Voice of the Soul

CHAZANUT: THE VOICE OF THE SOUL 

by 

RABBI DR. MORRIS TURETSKY, SH’LITA

obj2239geo1735pg57p9One need not search very deep into the pages of Jewish life and history to discover how inextricably interwoven is the basic Jewish  temperament with music. The Scripture and rabbinic literature abound with examples. Music, as a form of religious worship reached its  zenith in the Temple Service; indeed, one rabbinic authority was bold enough to suggest that the singing by the human voice was the  essential feature of the Temple music which accompanied the slaughter of the daily public sacrifice (Erkin 11a and Succah 50b),  constituting, as it did a positive command of the Torah.

This form of religious worship was eventually transmitted and taken over by the Synagogue. By the Middle Ages, music on a grand scale  was part and parcel of the Synagogue Service, although some throw aspersions on the quality and originality of the Synagogue music  during this period.

Thus, a noted Anglo-Jewish scholar writes:- “The Synagogue music does not seem to have been very ornate or refined; volume of sound  being ascribed to it, rather than delicacy. The singing Precentor (Chazan) was not tolerated without a struggle, though he eventually  became a marked feature of the Synagogue. Much conservatism prevailed regarding Synagogue tunes and each locality possessed its  own melodies. No serious compunction was felt, however, against introducing popular airs into the Synagogue, though there was, no  doubt, some feeling against it. The congregational singing was vigorous and probably general, for we find in later times some resentment  at the introduction of boys’ choirs” (“Jewish Life in the Middle Ages” – p. 31. By I. Abrahams).

Today none would deny that the quality and artistry of the Chazan has developed into a fine art demanding artistry and ingenuity of the  highest order, in the attempt to approximate congregants to the most sacred task of coming closer to their Maker. But have we ever  considered why this is so? How, at any moment, our intellect and emotions and will, establish themselves at our vocal chords and without  the slightest hesitation strike the exact combination they want, and set them vibrating to precisely the required pitch, and how the  complexities of the innermost soul is made into a sound discharging in this fashion its full content into the recesses of another’s sense,  resulting in a feeling of inspiration and ennoblement in the hearer? Put more simply, can we explain why it is that the voice and that realm  of harmony to which it is related, lie to the innermost of man’s moral and spiritual life.

The great Greek philosopher, Plato, touches upon this subject in his “Republic”, when he speaks of rhythm and harmony as entering into  the deepest parts of the soul and declares:- “By the educated sense of harmony we learn to discern between the good and the base, the  ugly and beautiful in all things”. Indeed, in Greek mythology, with their multifarious gods, it is the god of music who is their god of  righteousness.

This profound doctrine of music seems mainly to convey that rhythm and harmony of sound, however produced, have a grand parallel with  man’s inner states; that music, like the soul, can be gay, frivolous, wrathful or solemn, serene and ecstatic; that man’s heights and depths,  his greatness and his littleness can be interpreted for him and realised in him through sound.

But there is more than that. The relation of sound to our deepest life can be gauged by a further phenomenon in speech – an area perhaps  more akin to the Rabbi than Chazan! Even after the quality of voice has been tested by the usual empiric standards; when its powers have  been registered by the singer, the elocutionist, the speaker or the actor, has all been said? The range they cover is immense, but there is  an element of voice possibility which they have never touched or never can. It is the element unique and indefinable that is furnished by  the size and the stirrings of the Soul behind. A person’s voice is the instrument of a new music; his soul is speaking, stirred in its turn by a  deeper soul mightier than itself.

The Prophets and great mystics who spoke of being moved by a Divine and spiritual influence, were probably referring to this  phenomenon; an unfathomable soul saturated with a mystic indefinable essence. Between words sung or spoken by one man and the  same words sung or uttered by another, what a gulf! It is the difference in the size of one man’s soul behind it, as compared with that of  the other!

All this may best be summed in a word: namely, that no-one has discovered the capabilities of his voice till he has discovered the  capabilities of his soul. To cultivate pure Chazanut, we must go deeper than the vocal organs. Its seat is in the Soul.

(The Cantors’ Review, September/October 1979)
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