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Points of View
Note-Worthy II
My Point of View--Jun 10, 2000
© Rabbi Jack Moline

In my last message, I discussed some of the impediments to including instrumental music in worship. However, the practice is not entirely alien to traditional Jewish life, and so the arguments in favor of permitting it are worth acknowledging as well.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards ruled many years ago that the use of an organ in a traditional synagogue on Shabbat was permissible. It debated whether the organist should be a non-Jew (on the theory that non-Jews could perform certain labors) or a Jew (on the theory that, as part of worship, only Jews should participate). Permission was granted to both perspectives. On the basis of that teshuvah, the CJLS also permitted the use of guitars during Shabbat services. However, the ruling applied only to the use of instruments to accompany services, not to provide entertainment at social gatherings on Shabbat.

Did the action of the CJLS in 1958 reflect the desire or the practice of Conservative congregations? While many people see a dividing line between Reform and Conservative worship on this question, it is noteworthy that Adas Israel in Washington and Gomley Chessed in Portsmouth are two Conservative congregations in our region which incorporated organ music before the responsum was issued. I suspect that the phenomenon was more usual than we think.

I am also certain that much contemporary resistance to the use of organ music stems from our inclination to distinguish between church and synagogue practices. If non-Jews use musical instruments in services, then we will not. Indeed, there is much to be said for a capella singing as a vehicle for engagement in prayer; it is hard to overcome the desire to devote some portion of our concentration to the virtuosity (or lack thereof) of the instrumental musician who accompanies worship.

None of the above arguments in favor have the passion of the arguments against. Still, the decision to employ instruments should not rest on passion, but on logic: are you persuaded that there is legitimate reason to disallow? If the answer is “yes,” then, in spite of personal inclinations to the contrary, we should not employ instruments. If the answer is “no,” then, in spite of personal inclinations, we should at the very least hold open the opportunity for those who would find musical accompaniment an enhancement.

We will discuss this question at Shabbat evening services this fall, after the arrival of our new chazzan, the wonderful Elisheva Dienstfrey. Her guidance, as our resident expert in the field of music and Jewish tradition, will be invaluable. Until then, I encourage you to examine the issues with mind and heart.

One compromise is worth highlighting. The medieval authority on the prayer book and worship practice was Rabbi Jacob Molin (no relation). At his synagogue, the practice was to accompany the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat with instruments before the onset of candle-lighting. After thus reciting through the Psalm for Shabbat, the instruments were set aside, the psalm was repeated, and the rest of the service was conducted on the strength of the spirit of the congregation.

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