A musical interlude

Religion makes people feel awkward. It even makes me feel awkward and I’m going to be a Rabbi! Some of that awkwardness is Britishness, a discomfort with talking about feelings, emotion and passions publicly or generally sharing things others feel are private matters. Some of it is an intellectual discomfort, am I really seriously talking about religion and God and stuff as a thinking (scientifically educated!) person in the 21st century? Some of that discomfort is because people worry that perhaps someone else is going to try and convert them, or they think that being religious means being intolerant or backwards in some way. For all those reasons, and many more, those of us working in the world of religious identity now and in the future sure have our work cut out!

Given this environment, I’m fascinated by the things that enable people to unashamedly and happily express themselves. In my community it takes two main forms. Social justice work and music. I work in a synagogue that hosts a local muslim community for Ramadan prayers every night at the moment. We held the first Jewish same-sex marriage. We were the first synagogue to go living wage. Social justice work has enabled our community members to grow in confidence and pride.

The other, more surprising perhaps, outlet for identity is through music. I’d be the first to admit that I’m not the most musically inclined, but music has an undeniable power to engage, inspire, enlighten and energise communities and to help individuals and groups express themselves and connect to others in quite incredible ways. I’ve spent the past few days singing and learning with a group of musicians from the US who are at the forefront of teaching and writing Jewish music* and watching how the group of young people I’ve been working with over the years have found form and voice for their values and identity through the music they’ve been learning and writing.

The first person to really ‘get’ this in the context of modern Jewish community was a woman called Debbie Friedman. Inspired by the music of Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and others, she brought folk singing and liturgy together, creating an entire new vocabulary for Jewish life and practise. At Limmud in 2010 she kept us up singing until 4am on the floor of the bar for several nights in a row and seemed to have an invincible energy. She sadly died two weeks later, but having almost single-handedly re-composed the entirety of Jewish liturgy and beyond her music is still sung everywhere.

Debbie wrote the music she needed to sing, and inspired generations to do the same. It’s a powerful statement about how community builds when people share that which they are passionate about and enable others to find commonality.

So, on that (musical) note, here’s what that community looks and sounds like in practice:

*Its important for me to note that this isn’t necessarily religious music, a lot of it is secular or folk music, contemporary Israeli music or music without words (called a niggun).

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