In three-part harmony, a group of more than 50 people — mostly women, mostly middle-aged and older — began chanting a verse from Leviticus: Aish tamid tukad al hamizbei’ach; lo tichbeh (“Fire always shall be kept burning on the altar; it shall not go out”).
They were led by Rabbi Shefa Gold, who added an overlay of harmony, drumming, and the droning sound of an accordion-like “shruti box.”
As the chant continued, it grew more intensely spiritual, less self-conscious, louder, and more harmonious.
For three hours on May 19, Gold led participants at Bnai Keshet in Montclair in what she called a “circumcision of the heart” — or healing of the spirit based on rituals drawn from the esoteric boundaries of Jewish tradition. Gold, a leader of Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, is the author of a new book, The Magic of Hebrew Chant (Jewish Lights, 2013).
Sponsored by Bnai Keshet with nearby Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, the event attracted members of other area synagogues, representing each of the liberal streams, and a handful of people not affiliated with a congregation.
Some had chanted before, while others were having their first experience.
Among the group were at least two rabbis, a cantor, a cantorial soloist, and a rabbinical student, as well as a handful of graduates from Kol Zimra, the 18-month program for chant leaders run by Gold, now in its sixth year. Her lessons draw on the history of Jewish chant, from the cantillation used in the public recitation of the Torah to the nigunim, or wordless melodies, sung by hasidim, to her own compositions.
Gold, who is originally from Paramus but now lives in New Mexico, writes that her interest in chant was spurred by a meeting with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a proponent of Jewish mysticism, while she was in rabbinical school.
“I felt inundated by the sheer volume of texts and teachings, codes and midrash, Talmud, Mishna, Gemara, commentaries, and then commentaries on those commentaries,” she writes in her new book. “I am drawn toward simplicity in my spiritual practice, and I was struggling each day against what seemed like endless Jewish ramblings, thousands of years of accumulated clutter. I was drowning.”
Responded Kushner: “You only have to deal with one little bit at a time,” a directive that led her on a search for rituals capable, as she writes elsewhere, of “transforming the words of liturgy into doorways.”
Among these was attaching a specific purpose to each chant. Leading a chant based on Psalm 101:2 (“I will walk within my house in the integrity of my heart”), Gold explained that she was working through an experience of feeling wronged by someone who insisted on being right.
When a chant is successful, she said, the practitioner moves from a self-conscious place to another place altogether, which she described as, “I’m chanting, I’m chanting, I’m chanting, I’m chanting…. Who’s that chanting?”
During a break, participant Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu of Teaneck spoke about her own worship practice.
“Sometimes I just want to focus on a few words; I just want to chant for a while,” said Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “Sometimes on Shabbat, chanting is all I want or need, but sometimes, a full worship service is just what I want or need.”