Being Klei Kodesh for the 21st Century

Apparently this is the year for the national conventions of Conservative Judaism’s agencies to meet in Los Angeles. A month ago we welcomed the Rabbinical Assembly convention. Prior to addressing the plenum of the rabbis, I asked my ten-year-old daughter, Shira, “If you had one thing to say to the Conservative rabbis, what would you tell them?”

“Abba,” she said, “tell them to stop.”

“Stop what?” I asked.

Shira responded, “Just ‘stop’.”

Based on her advice to the rabbis, I decided it was prudent not to ask her what wisdom she might offer the Cantorate.

But I do know what I want to share: I want us to reflect together about what it means to be Klei Kodesh; what it means to be sacred vessels. What that task entails that is abiding and unchanging, and what in that task is new and needs a different face - if not a different content – than what it had before.

In the Talmud, in Massekhet Arakhin, the sages pose a question, noticing that the Torah recounts an obligation to do the work of service[1]. They ask, “What is work that requires service?” The Talmud’s answer is, “it is song.[2]” Song is a kind of work that requires service. And the ancient sages use as their pasuk, their prooftext: “They lifted up their voices and they sang with joy.[3]” The Cantorate is in the business of providing service, in part, through song.

Music – the kind of work you do – has a special ability to reach places where words cannot, where words fail. The Apocryphal book Ben Sira observes, “Where there is music, do not pour out talk.[4]” That insight reflects a recognition that there are truths so profound, moments in life so poignant, that they never can be expressed adequately in words. To confine these truths to a place of consciousness and verbiage is to attempt to master them. But of the really important insights in our lives, we are not the masters. We are participants in these moments, and these lessons come through us, but they are not of us. Especially in such moments, we require a response more primal than speech and less distinct than the kind of analysis that speech involves. At such moments, there has to be the ability to open up our entire person and to present ourselves whole with the wonder of the moment: “There are palaces that open only to music.[5]” The Hazzan is the guardian of that palace.

You are the ones who open the palaces of heaven, and of heart, through song. This opening leads to an important insight about the nature of religion in general, and of Judaism specifically. We live in a paradoxical place because Judaism presents itself as a textual religion, that is to say, a religion which dances with words. (And I am not one to minimize the place of those words and of the content of Judaism in our identity and in our calling.) Yet, at the same time, religion is more than simply analysis of text, it exceeds even the recital of liturgy, it transcends what can be put down on a page. Ultimately, if ours is an Etz Hayim, a Torat Hayim, a living torah, then it must somehow be incapable of reduction into a book. It can be nothing less than a response of our total being.

In every other endeavor in life, we muster one part of our personality or another. We may analyze, we may have a technical skill, we may work with our hands. In all of the professions that people do, and achieve such magnificent results, they summon a focused part of themselves to that service. But the work we do as Klei Kodesh involves integrating every aspect of our being and of presenting that totality all at once – of being fully present to each other, to the tradition, and to the Ribbono Shel Olam. All of which is to say that, for us, religion above all else is an offering of our entire being.

Religion is a way of being – not simply an activity we do. The danger – particularly to those of us whose professional life involves working in religion – is that we begin to confuse the task of our employment with the nature of our work. Woe to those rabbis or cantors who confuse their work with their mission! We are to use our employment as a tool in the service of an encompassing “oa vhvu, being there[6]” – a total presence. But for many of us who are used to standing on the bema, or by the hospital bed, or at the head of a room and teaching, we think of ourselves as the masters of this tradition, as though the tradition is ours, as if we own it. It is so easy to forget that, in actuality, we are to be owned by this tradition, and that only we ourselves can offer that submission, one at a time.

It is we who chose to give ourselves to this Masorah; it is we who chose to place ourselves at the service of the Torah, at the service of the One whom we encounter in the Torah or in the Nusach. The frenetic pace of our schedules, the way that cantors and rabbis are overworked makes it all the more incumbent on us now gathered together to enjoy the luxury of being together to remember that we are ultimately answerable to One greater than the institution in which we work or to our job description.

Toward that ultimate service, I would like to offer three different observations using music as my leitmotif:

Some fashion melodies through music, but for us the fashioning of a melody, ought to involve nothing less than our entire life. The singing that you do is but the tip of the iceberg. Just as with an iceberg in the ocean, the bulk of the ice lies underneath the water and only the tip of it is visible above the surface, so too here – the singing that you do is the very tip of what you and I and all of us together are about. It is only one outward manifestation of our larger mission. The great Yiddish novelist Y.L. Peretz observed, “the whole world is nothing more than the singing and a dancing before the Holy Blessing One. Every Jew is a singer before God, and every letter in the Torah is a musical note.” Let’s take that insight seriously for a moment.

Let’s think about what that means – that every single Jew by his or her life is singing before the Lord. Every single letter in the Torah is a note in a larger composition. To think of the world as a song in process is to cultivate a healthy appreciation for human diversity. A symphony is not made greater if all of the instruments perform exactly the same note at exactly the same moment. In fact it is the deliberate expression of different notes at the same time that constitutes musical greatness. So to it is with the symphony of Jewish life, our lives are not made richer by all of us conforming to the same patterns or the same demands or expressing our responsive being in precisely the same way. To the contrary, Jewish life is made richer and vibrant precisely by the diversity of the ways that we live our heritage and holiness.

Central to this whole enterprise is the shocking reality of human consciousness. Take a moment to reflect on how astonishing it is that collections of organic chemicals are able to sit in this hall and to receive a talk from another compilation of organic elements. The miracle of human consciousness, our ability to think and feel and share together, and our consciousness of consciousness (our awareness that we are doing this remarkable thing) ought to inspire us either to silence or song. And because of that then, consciousness becomes one of our greatest gifts, and one of our greatest tools.

Our job as klei kodesh is to direct human consciousness back to its source. Our claim as Jews, underneath all of the rituals and underlying all of the tradition, is that there is a cosmic consciousness of which we are the material expression. Being able to direct that consciousness within creation, to turn and face its source beyond creation, that turning remains an abiding goal. And this can be accomplished in three primary ways.

The first of them, the one that you as a group embody so magnificently, is the key of music. To be able to allow people to open their hearts is a remarkable thing. I officiated at a bat mitzvah celebration yesterday at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and watched as the girl’s parents – on the verge of tears as their daughter was approaching the bimah, lost it entirely when she started to chant. It is impossible to watch your children standing at the Amud and to hear the melody of Jewish prayer at the same time and to remain stoic. These parents have attended lots of birthdays with their children. In fact, that very evening they had a party at which my daughter tells me the music was quite different, and nobody cried. But on Shabbat morning, gathered in a sanctuary, listening to the words of prayer – that have been hallowed by God and our ancestors and elevated by the musical talents of caring Cantors who brought their skill and their gift to their prayer – that experience pierces the heart like nothing else.

Using music as the way to return to people what they truly feel remains an essential task. I want to plead with you to remain strong in bringing music to the Jewish people. In a Hasidic shteibl, you did not have to sing for people to cry. All you have to do is say, “it is Yom Kippur” and they cry. You say, “we are about to recite Hallel,” and they cry. They get up and dance without needing a justification to dance. For most of us, however, this is not where most of our congregants live. (First of all, for most of our congregations, if our Jews got up to dance, they would bang into a pew!) Spontaneity, emotional excess, these have been largely and regrettably eliminated from the Conservative and Reform synagogue. As a result, we have services that are decorous and that begin on time. The one place where Reform and Conservative Jews are able to feel like a Hasid is when they recognize the melody and the melody touches their heart. You are their link to what a service is supposed to feel like. So giving them the ability to move off the page and into heart, this is a gift that in our day only music can accomplish.

But that piercing of the heart is insufficient if the mind does not follow. If the mind doesn’t itself become a vessel to reflect on that same place, then the dance remains an isolated epiphany, one solitary moment unconnected to the rest of their lives. If we are to bring about the merging of their mind and their hearts in the service of the Holy One, then there also has to be ways in which we bring to them an understanding in words of what the music conveys them to non-verbally. No less important than the musical heritage that you preserve and often place before them, whether they want it or not, as important as that, is demonstrating to them that the content of these magnificent songs also retains the power to plug us into life in a way that if we did not have it, we would remain naked and alone and purposeless. That means that cantors must also be teachers, with the rabbis, with the educators.

You must also be able to show them the meaning of the prayers that they sing and this in two ways. By educating yourself as I know you do as members of the CA as to the depth of the prayers, but also to live it, and to live it in a way that they see the prayers alive in your deeds, when you are not on the bema. Our people, like our children, are very smart. They have learned to discount what comes out of our mouth if it is not of a piece the fabric of our daily behavior. A life of Torah, a life of mitzvot, a life of gemillut hasadim is the essential prerequisite for anyone who would be klei Kodesh. If you don’t walk the walk, got off the bema. Otherwise all that we teach them is pious hypocrisy.

Pious hypocrisy, if anything, will be the death of Conservative Judaism. The thought that it is the kitchen that keeps kosher and not the stomach, that it is the sanctuary which is a place of prayer and a place where Jewish law is followed but in the social hall anything goes is to say that we have successfully imprisoned God inside the Aron Kodesh. We have closed the door so firmly to make sure the Ancient of Days does not get out. But if we don’t manifest Jewish passion and a love of Torah in our deeds, then why should we be surprised if our people stop coming to our congregations? Why should we be surprised if they do not find Judaism compelling in their own life, if they don’t see its sway in our own. It is not enough that we observe mitzvot; they must see us observing. It is not enough that we learn; they must know what we are learning. We need to be as eloquent and as powerful off the bema, as we are on the bema. And in this way, only in this way, can the musical notes that are the letters of the Torah sing not only to through our voices but through our hands, through our lives.

Of course you know better than any that while singing alone has its place ultimately singing is a communal activity. According to Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz, “Alone I cannot lift up my voice in song. Then you come near and sing with me, our prayers fuse and a new voice soars. Our bond is beyond voice and voice, our bond is one of spirit and spirit.”

Let us remember that in this regard singing is like making love. It works through the body but it is the coming together of souls. Singing is ultimately a spiritual activity, a revelation of intimacy and unguardedness that requires the presence of another. In that way, we also need to reach out to our people and give their voices song. Here I mean that in the most elementary of ways they have lost our musical heritage. The diversity of Jewish music has flattened out, just as Jewish celebration has reduced itself to a relentless Purim (so that at any time of the year we have only one mode of celebrating and that is in the mode of Purim). We don’t know how to celebrate Simchat Torah or a bar mitzvah without turning it into Purim. But the question I have is if the only celebrating we can do is Purim, if the only Torah we have is Purim Torah, then what of more subtle modes of joy? Where is our gladness before the Lord? If they are not drinking or tying a bottle to someone’s tzitzit, can our Jews rejoice at all?

We live in a larger culture that aggressively and relentlessly reduces its adults to infancy, and teaches them that the only way to rejoice is to abandon mindfulness. Our response has to be an intensification of mindfulness, an intensification of a consciousness that rejoicing does not mean doping ourselves up, drugging ourselves or distracting ourselves to the point of forgetting who we are. To the contrary, it is by knowing with such intensity who we are, and where we are, and how astonishing a privilege that awareness is - that constitutes the true joy of a Jew. For that consciousness, we need them to teach them how to sing, not merely with their throats, but with their hearts. We need to show them how to be aware of the remarkable privilege that it is to be a part of this people, that it is to be alive, that it is to be on this planet, and to not let these insights go unnoticed.

Cantors are in a sense the alarm clock called to wake up the Jewish people. You are our shofar. That commitment means also that they need to sing with us through their deeds, that we need to help them to live the rhythm of Jewish life. Can we share an understanding of what it means to wake up in the morning and think that it is your job to praise the one who created all of this? Can we help the Jews to know that when we sit down to eat, we are not merely satisfying our bodies, but we are at the same time recognizing that we have been given yet another gift? Our tradition is one that calls for a 100 berakhot a day. Let us call for a thousand a day! A million a day! Let the breath we take be itself a berakhah of thanks.

Ours is a tradition that teaches that the name of God cannot be pronounced. This is not legalism here; this is a matter of simple fact. The three Hebrew letters in the Bible that are simultaneously consonants and vowels are “yud,” “heh,” and “vav.” A word that consists only of consonants, or only of vowels, is a word that cannot be aspirated; it cannot be pronounced. We don’t pronounce the name of God because God’s name is nothing less than the breath we breathe. Teaching people that with every breath they take they are articulating the most sacred force that underlies our lives and our being – this remains our calling, our task. What, after all, is the Cantorate if not conscious breathing, artful breathing, deliberate breathing? Yours is the sacred path of shaping God’s name into a beautiful niggun.

And then finally, this breathed name of God implies as well that the distinctions we make as material creatures are ultimately fraudulent. Merely because we have bodies, we see the world as divided. We see ourselves as separated. We make categories of people and of professions that allow us to pigeonhole and to ignore. But if Torah teaches anything, it is that heaven and earth can touch. Holiness and secularity exist side by side, and the difference is not in the topic you engage, but what we do with it and what we bring to it. The Maggid LeD’varav Yaakov spoke right when he taught: “This is the meaning of Shir Ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs. One who sings a song below can arouse many songs on high.” Can we teach our people to sing in such a way that they cause a song on high? Can we help them to understand their feelings, not merely as a reflection of some biochemical reaction, but as a reflection of something larger and more encompassing? Can we teach them that the unity that brings us together undergirds and links everything that appears distinct in the world? That ultimately unity is far more transcendent and far more present than any apparent division?

Ultimately what Klei Kodesh are called to do to teach our people that those things that divide, those things that make distinct are of lesser significance and do not abide to the same degree as that which unites. Our challenge is to reveal that we are – all of us – united as concrete manifestations of a consciousness that reverberates within and through us and sings in our breath, in our songs, and in our words.

The late poet, Sigfried Sassoon, summed it up best:

Everyone suddenly bursts out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom, 

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark green fields;

On – on – and out of sight. 

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun; 

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away … Oh, but everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless –

   the singing will never be done. 

I bless you that you also should be as birds singing songs – of words and without words, that your singing should never be done, and that through the power of your song and your example you should enable our people to do the work of service to transform and repair the world.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Vice President at American Jewish University, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Questions to Real-Life Answers (Alef Design).