In a small, windowless meeting room at the Marriott Hotel in West Orange, about 13 people gathered for an evening of kabalistic teaching and chanting.
Some people closed their eyes, rocking and chanting along as Rabbi Miriam Maron pumped an accordion-like sruti box and intoned the same talmudic phrase over and over again, while Rabbi Gershon Winkler pounded a large drum. Others simply observed.
When Maron finished, silence embraced the room for a few moments. Later, Winkler offered a teaching on the Sh’ma and the struggle to reach spiritual “heights.”
The May 12 gathering, titled “Kryptic Kabbalah,” is an example of “fringe” ritual styles that have made their way into the center of mainstream Jewish worship.
Chanting is a regular feature of worship at Bnai Keshet in Montclair, where Shefa Gold has trained several members to be chant leaders. Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn holds regular chanting and meditation sessions. Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield holds a “spiritual” Shabbat twice a year.
Ner Tamid’s cantor, Meredith Greenberg, recently started a chanting circle that meets just before Shabbat morning services each week.
And a variety of local synagogues have brought in Rabbi Andrew Hahn to do a Jewish version of a Hindu call-and-response practice known as kirtan. Hahn, aka the Kirtan Rabbi, is often accompanied by drummer Shoshana Jedwab, who is also a Jewish educator and Jewish studies coordinator at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City.
“People think it’s something that comes from another tradition and is goyish, treif. It’s the opposite,” said Len Hausman of Millburn, a member of B’nai Israel and a participant in the Kryptic Kabbalah session. “We’ve been borrowing from religious traditions for millennia. It’s not treif; we kasher it,” he said, using the Hebrew term meaning “to make kosher.”
Hausman said he has been exploring such practices since the 1970s. Now he participates in his synagogue’s meditation sessions and leads drumming circles throughout the community. He cochaired a recent men’s spirituality conference at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in rural Connecticut.
He insists on using Hebrew chants, employing verses mostly from the prayer book and Bible. “It has to be from my cultural framework. It has to speak to me,” he said.
Participants at the May 12 session at the Marriott came from across the spectrum, from members of area Conservative synagogues, to the unaffiliated, to some who have studied with Maron and Winkler in the past. Some attend Chabad-affiliated synagogues. While some were enamored of the whole package, others were more interested in the chanting than the kabalistic teaching.
“Kabala is just not my language at this moment in my life,” said Jill Kimmelman, a member of B’nai Israel and a Jewish educator who said, however, that she loves the chanting.
Kala Paul of Summit, a member of the Summit Jewish Community Center, said that for her, Winkler’s teachings bring a depth to Judaism she rarely finds elsewhere.
She has many of Maron’s CDs, and has participated in conferences in Massachusetts to hear the two teach. Paul participated in a retreat at their Walking Stick Foundation in New Mexico, which combines Jewish and Native American traditions.
“What he says and what he does with the text [is] a way of getting at larger meanings,” she said. “They put ideas in front of you and you have to ask, ‘Is this something I can incorporate, and go deeper with? Does it make sense to me?’”
Most pulpit rabbis don’t explore these non-mainstream approaches, “either because they don’t get into it, they don’t know how, they’re not interested, or they don’t trust their congregations to not think they’re crazy. But that’s the pool Gershon offers,” said Paul.
Into the silence
Much of the recent growth in Jewish chanting can be traced back to Shefa Gold, who was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She runs Kol Zimra, the country’s only formal training program in Jewish chant. Its graduates, like those at Bnai Keshet, have gone on to found chanting groups across the country. More than 100 rabbis, cantors, and lay leaders have completed the 18-month training course.
“With the chant we’re building a mishkan; we’re building a sanctuary, a holy place, with our intention and with all the beauty we can bring to it,” Gold said. “And then in the silence afterward we step into that mishkan that we have built and we receive God’s presence.”
The practice appears to have particular appeal to women and to those already inclined to spiritual pursuits. Participants speak of the healing and meditational qualities of chanting, its ability to open the heart and engage body and mind in ways that more traditional Jewish synagogue practices do not.
As Hausman pointed out, “If you come to shul early, you say lots of prayers, but you can’t take it all in.” By contrast, he said, “when you chant, you’re focusing on just a few words or maybe just on one word and you’re going into the word, under the word, above the word, beyond the word. By doing that, it expands your horizons, it expands your consciousness.”
He brings that consciousness into the prayer service itself.
“When I get to a phrase in the siddur I have chanted, I won’t say the whole paragraph. I just meditate on the phrase,” he said. “Chanting the phrase focuses me on the prayer.”
Ben Harris of JTA contributed to this article.