The next time you go to synagogue on a Friday night, take a moment to consider how many people are there for the davening (the prayer itself) and how many for the communal singing? If queried, most congregants will probably respond with some combination of commandedness and connection to God.
But from a sociological perspective, there’s a strong chance that participating in a religiously framed version of the good old fashioned Israeli shira b’tzibur – singing together in public – is playing a major role, not only on an interpersonal social level but going deep into the very workings of our brain chemistry.
I was mulling over these thoughts at a recent Friday night service of Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community to which my family belongs. Nava Tehila members are as out of the box as they come, ranging from the spiritually seeking secular to more mainstream flexidox. Finding a common denominator isn’t always easy. Music seems to be the key and Nava Tehila is particularly well equipped in this area.
A Nava Tehila Kabbalat Shabbat service overflows with song, lasting up to an hour and a half and featuring all original tunes composed by the community’s talented prayer leaders Yoel Sykes and Daphna Rosenberg, and its rabbi, Ruth Gan Kagan. Services are egalitarian and include up to a dozen musicians playing acoustic instruments.
Micah Hendler is one of several percussionists at Nava Tehila. He says it’s not surprising that shira b’tzibur plays such a prominent role in Shabbat services. “Communities created through a musical bond have something special that is not found in a random group of friends,” he says. “Singing has the power to break down boundaries.”
Hendler should know. A member of the fabled Yale Uniersity Whiffenpoofs a cappella singing group, he majored in international relations and was a teen camper with the Seeds for Peace organization that brings Jews and Palestinians into dialogue. He returned as the group’s music counselor during summers while in college. “Performing together creates a sense of shared identity and a tangible feeling of community,” he says.
Today, Hendler directs the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which brings together some 30 Jewish Israelis and Palestinians under the auspices of the Jerusalem International YMCA. The group performs regularly and even sang back up on David Broza’s new peace-centric CD, “East Jerusalem West Jerusalem.” (Their collaboration on a cover of “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding” hit #3 on the Galgalatz Israeli radio station. Here's the music video.)
Daniel Levitan, in his book “This is Your Brain on Music,” points out that singing together was the main way in which music was appreciated by human societies up until just the last few hundred years when it became a spectator activity and people felt that only professionals had the “right” to make music. Before that, music was more of a group activity, and one that may have had the added cultural evolutionary role of promoting group cohesiveness and synchronicity, Levitan postulates.
That’s undoubtedly because, on a brain chemistry level, music that elicits “the chills” in us releases dopamine, a chemical involved in both motivation and addiction and that, in general, makes us feel happy. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal went so far as to examine people in an fMRI machine while listening to music; certain compositions clearly pumped out more of the happy brain juice.
The brain is so in tune with music, in fact, that it will release dopamine even when it expects something pleasurable. (It’s the same effect that, on the negative side, results in heroin addicts getting a rush when they see blood enter the needle, even before the drug gets into their veins.) With music, it’s more benign, but it explains why you can get excited as you anticipate a melodic surge.
As Israel was becoming a state, shira b’tzibur was a big part of the group bonding process. You can see it in any number of old films and pioneering photos.
It still is. On Monday nights at the renovated First Station complex in Jerusalem, in a corner of the Culinary Bazaar’s market, a projector and screen are set up, and people gather spontaneously – while drinking a beer or just passing by – to sing along to the lyrics writ large.
It’s no wonder that singing is such a big part of prayer: it creates groups out of strangers, lubricates social awkwardness, and makes us happy.
That’s certainly true for me. When it comes to Jewish Law, I am far from commanded yet at the same time very highly committed to community. When I have difficulty with the theology behind a particular passage, I will often tune out the words and turn on to the music. Does that make me a hypocrite, just looking for a non-confrontational way to sway and stomp and clap my way to the next dopamine fix?
I don’t think so. If anything, I am participating in a long tradition of spiritual shira b’tzibur. We all are…even if we won’t admit it.
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