Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Shalom LC

Rabbi Michael Abraham

Michael Abraham was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds an M.A. in Hebrew Letters and an honorary D.D. from the same institution. Rabbi Abraham has a rich background in many rabbinic and communal responsibilities and has received the Hannah G. Solomon Award from the National Council of Jewish Women for outstanding service to youth in the community. Not only has Michael L. Abraham written and published many articles, he is also Rabbi at the Temple Sinai in Wellington, New Zealand, where he resides with his wife Sandra and two sons, Joel and Daniel.

Shabbat Shalom*: Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said, “The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests but rather to praise, to sing, to chant, because the essence of prayer is song, and man cannot live without a song.” Why is song such an intimate part of prayer?

Abraham: Heschel’s point is that prayer is more than just asking God for something. It is the expression of human emotions and needs as well as praising God in terms of the world in which we live. I think the idea that music helps us express our emotions more than just ordinary recitation of words is a very significant idea. Most of the prayers that we have can be recited, chanted, or have elaborate melodies.

The whole idea of the melody is that it should express the mood of the prayer in addition to the intent and feeling of the prayer (the Hebrew word kavanah). Music enhances our ability to relate to the ideas and emotions of our prayers, as well as the intellectual response to the words themselves. Singing gives you a dimension of prayer that you just cannot get from reading words.

Shabbat Shalom: Elie Wiesel says, “Song is crucial. A Jew is he or she whose song cannot be neutered nor can his or her joy be killed by the enemy ever.” Would you like to comment on Wiesel’s strength of purpose? 

Abraham: Wiesel’s point is that no matter how bad the experience, there is still the obligation to try to transcend it in order to enter the mood of prayer. In a sense, it is the idea that you can’t let Hitler win. If prayer is stopped, if singing is stopped, then Hitler wins. Our response to Hitler has to be a reaffirmation of prayer and a reaffirmation of song, because this is what we do. This is who we are. We cannot let that be killed.

Shabbat Shalom: Moses began his forty-year trek through the wilderness with a song of praise for God’s deliverance at the Red Sea, and forty years later, he ended his ministry on the same note in Deuteronomy 32. Is this another example of a song’s immutability?

Abraham: Probably a lot of the early biblical material was in song, or certainly in poetic form. You have the Song of the Sea and the Song at the end of Moses’ career. In all probability, in writing down the Bible over time, some of that song was muted. It became prose instead of poetry. I think that a lot of it originally was poetry, which kept coming through the text. Certainly, on a dramatic occasion, the poetry seems to jump out at you. So, certainly, the redemption at the sea and the point at which the people are about to enter the Promised Land would be linked. The sea occurs on both occasions. Joshua, when he takes over from Moses, has to cross the Jordan in the same way that the people had to cross the sea at the beginning of the Exodus experience. Although Moses obviously feels disappointment that he is not able to enter the land, I still think he’s caught up in the fact that he has completed his mission successfully. He has brought the people through the wilderness. He has brought them into the covenant with God at Sinai. Now he can rest and take great pride in his accomplishments. So there is room for a song of joy, even though he is not going to be able to enter the land. Certainly, the people that he had such a great part in creating are going to be able to enter the land. His successor, Joshua, is going to be able to do that. I think the song just burst forth from them in terms of the accomplishments and the completion of what began forty years before.

Shabbat Shalom: This spontaneity and bursting forth in song seem to be an important part of Hebrew thought.

Abraham: Right.

Shabbat Shalom: So giving thanks in times of hardship as well as in times of joy.

Abraham: Exactly.

Shabbat Shalom: Was memorization of songs part of the “handing down process”? 

Abraham: I think so. I think there is an oral tradition before there’s a written tradition. The oral tradition was a part of Judaism for thousands of years. The written tradition followed and included postbiblical literature, such as the Talmud and Midrash. The Talmud, which is an expansion of the laws of the Bible, was always called the oral law as opposed to the written law. It was to be memorized and passed on from one generation to another. Eventually, it became so voluminous that it had to be written. The oral tradition is very important in the Bible and in postbiblical literature because ideas and stories usually exist orally before they exist in the written word, until we come to more modern cultures where we begin with the written word.

Shabbat Shalom: How important is the oral tradition today?

Abraham: The oral tradition is the way we see the biblical text. In other words, when we look at the Bible, we look at it through the eyes of the oral tradition. It is very significant to us in our understanding of how we approach the biblical text. It is a tradition that was developed about two thousand years ago. When we read the Bible, we are also reading the various comments on the Bible by the rabbis who developed the oral tradition. For example, take a biblical law, such as the well-known concept of “an eye for an eye.” The rabbis interpreted that as meaning monetary compensation, not a literal “eye for an eye.” If you were to ask a Jew today what “an eye for an eye” means, he or she would say that you owe the person compensation for the damage that has been done. We would interpret it that way as the intended meaning of the biblical text. The oral tradition is very important to us in how we read the Bible.

Shabbat Shalom: Moses pens that these words are not just “idle words for you; they are your life; by them you will live.” There seems to be so much implied in this statement. What current-day applications would there be in a statement like this? 

Abraham: Earlier, in Deuteronomy, there is a presentation by Moses reviewing for the people what happened at Sinai. He gives them this rather awesome statement: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you. I set before you good and evil, the blessing and the curse; therefore, choose life that you may live.” The people are reminded that they have free will as human beings. We have the freedom to choose, but the path of life is the path of choosing the good. This thought is picked up in the song, and it’s a constant theme within Judaism. You have a choice, but the choice of life is to do what is good. You can choose whatever you want, but for life, for growth, for development, and for blessing, then choose the good.

Shabbat Shalom: Is the learning of history and tradition through music just as important for the Jewish people today as it was for the Jews of old? 

Abraham: I would say probably not. The songs are there and are appreciated. We teach the songs, but I think people’s approach to history today is more the written word. We read the written word more than we sing. But the song is still of basic importance. For example, on the Passover holiday, we tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. A lot of it is in words, but a lot of it is still in song. By reliving the experience and by singing the songs, it seems to me that it brings the reliving more to life. For modern people within the Jewish tradition, it is the written word that has become more significant, but in terms of bringing the word to life, the song still has a very important role to play.

Shabbat Shalom: Even in the book of Revelation, there is a reference to the Mosaic theme of deliverance. Could the song of deliverance be one of the main instruments used by God to encourage the theme of deliverance?

Abraham: I would say that the song is used for many things, but certainly it is used in terms of the theme of deliverance. In the Jewish service, one of the key points of the service is the singing of the Mi Khamokha, which is taken from the Song of the Sea. It is a standard part of the ritual. Some of these songs, which are in the biblical text, are part of the contemporary liturgy. In singing them, we are reminding ourselves of our identification with our ancestors, who were delivered at sea. I think the theme of deliverance certainly prompts the emotion of song because it prompts the emotion of thanksgiving, which can be expressed in song. It is a theme that you see not only in terms of study but also in the worship service.

Shabbat Shalom: How important is it for the Christian church to maintain its “roots” in Hebrew song? 

Abraham: I really can’t comment too well in terms of the Christian aspect of it. I know that when I go into a church, quite frequently I see the members of the church participating pretty strongly in song, which has always impressed me. In terms of evaluating the nature of the song, I really cannot comment on that. Certainly, some of the great music that has been written in Western culture has been some of the church music, for example, some of the masses that have been produced. But that’s not really for the people to sing. They are more for a professional choir and orchestra. They do not lend themselves to congregational singing. The Protestant songs of the past sixty to seventy years, however, sound very much alike. I think more modern music is trying to tap roots in folk culture, which makes it much richer. Its older forms didn’t have the same richness. It is interesting because I see a lot of cross-culturization in this. Some of the Jewish music of forty to fifty years ago copied Protestant music. We felt it was rather bland. We went back to our roots to try to reproduce music more like biblical music. Our music also comes from the Israeli culture. Jewish music has sort of come to life as a result of these events.

Shabbat Shalom: It has been said that prayer is the means by which Jewish people, both ancient and modern, have stayed attuned to the concept that all of life is sacred. What do you think? 

Abraham: It is interesting that the Bible is considered the book of Judaism. But I think the prayer book reflects Judaism better than the Bible does for one basic reason: the Bible reflects one period of Jewish history, and the material that is in it came to an end over two thousand years ago. But there are two thousand years of Jewish history that are not in the Bible. The prayer book reflects all of it. The prayer book has material from the Bible, material from the Rabbinic period (about the time of Jesus), from the Middle Ages, and from all aspects of Jewish history. I think the prayer book captures the Jewish soul and the Jewish hope and aspirations over a longer period of time than the Bible does. It takes what is in the Bible, the Psalms, and other songs, as well as material from a later period of time. I think if you want to know what the Jewish position is on almost anything, whether it be the nature of God, the nature of human beings, death, life, or whatever, it is all reflected in the prayer book in one way or another. The prayer book, aside from being a liturgical source, is also a good way to study what Judaism is all about.

Shabbat Shalom: Is the prayer book available in English? 

Abraham: All prayer books will contain Hebrew, and then, usually for most forms of Judaism, they will be translated into the language of the land. So here in New Zealand, it would be English; in France, it will be translated into French, and so on. The basic prayers and most of the text will be in Hebrew, but in most congregations, there will also be a translation into the language of the land. When I was an army chaplain in France many years ago with an American military congregation, I also had a number of French civilians in attendance as well. I composed a prayer book that had Hebrew on one page and French and English on the other.

Shabbat Shalom: Is there a reason for Jewish prayers being very short sometimes? 

Abraham: Basically, it depends on the situation. For example, if we were sitting down to eat a meal, the prayer would be one called the motzee, which is basically one line of thanking God for the food that we have. On the other hand, interestingly enough, the prayer after a meal is a much longer prayer because it is a reminder that it is human nature that once you have something, you take it for granted. The prayer after the meal thanking God for food is longer than the one before the meal. You can be inspired by a beautiful sunset to express a brief moment of prayer, or you can come into a prayer service and have that service last for an hour or an hour and a half. It depends on the occasion.

Shabbat Shalom: A rabbi once said that it is forbidden for a man to enjoy anything of this world without a benediction, and if anyone enjoys any of this world without a benediction, he commits sacrilege. What is he trying to express? 

Abraham: I would say it is a hope, not necessarily a reality. In other words, traditionally, any time you see something—something inspirational, something you’ve enjoyed, something for which you should be giving thanks—you should be expressing your thanks in prayer. Some people will do that, some people will do it on rare occasions, and some people do not do it at all. But I hope that you will be moved. We’ve got a beautiful prayer in one of the services that says something to the effect that if the sun rose only once a year, we all would be inspired and moved to prayer. We often take these things for granted, but we should be moved to prayer by them.

Shabbat Shalom: In the film Fiddler on the Roof, many questions are asked involving prayer. “Is there a blessing for the Tzar?” asks a rabbi. While someone else asks, “Is there a blessing for the sewing machine?” Prayer is very much a part, and a natural part, of everyday living.

Abraham: Whenever you come to a joyous occasion in Judaism or any significant occasion, there is a sort of general prayer that we use. It is a relatively short one called the Shehecheyanu, which basically praises God for creating life, for sustaining us, and for bringing us to this particular occasion. It could be a moment of birth or a moment of bar or bat mitzvah. It could also be a holiday, such as Passover. Whatever it is, the Shehehiyanu is a particularly significant prayer because you are thanking God for having given you life, for having kept you alive, and for bringing you to this particular moment in your life when you can enjoy whatever it is that you are celebrating.

Shabbat Shalom: It has been said that prayer should be viewed as “an attitude bound up with all actions” (Abraham Heschel). Why is this so? 

Abraham: One of the things we sometimes forget is that our actions can be prayers. When we meet people and act for the welfare of others, that in itself can be a prayer. Whatever we do is governed by our attitudes, our ideas, and our concepts, which lead us to act in certain ways. If we are meeting somebody for the first time and make an effort to greet them, in a sense, that is a prayer of hospitality to other people. But you’ve got to have that attitude before you are willing to do it. Within Judaism, the focus is on your actions, but all of these are shaped by attitudes.

Shabbat Shalom: Therefore, no aspect of life is devoid of God’s presence? 

Abraham: I think that is a very important idea in Judaism. We do not divide the world into a secular world and a spiritual world. For us, the entire world is the realm of God. That is something we teach at all times. In Leviticus, in the holiness code, where the people are told to be holy just as God is holy, it starts on a very “spiritual” level with respecting your parents and keeping the Sabbath, and then goes on to very mundane things like using honest weights and measures in the marketplace. For us, there is the idea that every aspect of your life is a part of relating to God. The spiritual element is part of the entire world in which we live. We find that we have got to constantly teach that in the modern world. In the biblical world, people sort of took it for granted. In the modern world, you have to remind people that this is the way we operate. We try to do it in a number of ways in terms of teaching people. There are all kinds of ways you can remind yourself of the presence of God in your world. When you are in ordinary business, you need to remind yourself that the person with whom you are dealing is also in the image of God, another human being. It gives a special dimension to what you are doing. You do have to remind yourself that the world in which we live is part of God’s world. By participating in it, by acting in it, and so on, we have to let God into that world of which He is a part but which we sometimes forget.

Shabbat Shalom: And this is where song and prayer play such an important part in keeping in touch with God.

Abraham: Absolutely. The idea that you expressed earlier is that whenever a special occasion comes up in your life, you should remind yourself of it with prayer. That is part of saying that anything we do is tied to prayer and spirituality in our daily lives.

Shabbat Shalom: Prayer and song cannot be separated. Thank you for reminding us of their timelessness and importance in our day-to-day lives. Rabbi Abraham, thank you very much for your answers.

* Interview conducted by Jacob Ormsby, who resides in New Zealand.

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