In the portion of Sh’mini, following a tragic accident involving the death of Aaron’s two sons, the Torah instructs us that we should make a separation, a distinction between things that are considered sacred or religious and things that are secular and not spiritual. The commentators suggest this as the reason behind the tragedy of the two nephews of Moses, that the two ambitious young priests were incorporating elements to their sacrifice that were not deemed to be holy. They stepped too far out of the box.
This act of making a distinction between the sacred and the normal is most obvious in Judaism at the beginning and ending of Shabbat. We have a few rituals that mark the start of our day of rest including making Kiddush and lighting candles, and at the witnessing of three stars on Saturday night we reenact the ritual of Havdalah, or the ritual of separation, to liturgically end Shabbat. It’s interesting to note that the wording for part of the Havdalah ritual comes from the portion of Sh’mini making a powerful statement of the possible consequences of getting the spiritual and secular mixed up.
For those who make Shabbat a regular practice, great effort is made during the six days of the week to get everything ready for the seventh day and have Shabbat be like a day that is a taste of the world to come. Shabbat is convenient in that one can focus on their work or studies during Sunday through Friday and then concentrate all their spiritual endeavors on that one day.
But for many of us we would easily accept the idea that holiness or spirituality doesn’t need to be relegated to one day. In fact if one were to ask, I think many of us would admit to having felt holiness at least once in our lives and not have it necessarily associated with Shabbat. I would gamble that for many, moments of holiness and spirituality are not tied in with formal Jewish observance.
So, for those who believe that everyday, including Shabbat, contains a continuum of spirituality and secularism, it is a practice to try to bring some elements of Shabbat holiness into our daily lives and to bring the sparks of divinity that we found during the days of the week into our celebration of Shabbat.
And that is the motivation behind this style of service. We acknowledge a basic human truth, that some of us are more likely to identify as spiritual, rather than religious. And how does our spirituality manifest? In our relationships, in our thoughts, emotions, connections, in our trying to be better than we were yesterday, and in our trying to not ever feel regret. For many, spirituality is found in nature, in music, in art, in poetry and in love.
And so we have adopted and adapted a model of prayer service that incorporates English secular songs that have a meaning connected to the liturgy, that are hopefully familiar, and that add a dimension to the Hebrew prayers that was not there before.
Inspired by the great success of the Beit T’filah Israeli in Tel Aviv whose rabbi and cantor incorporate popular Israeli, non-religious songs and melodies into the flow of the service, we have followed this template however, it has been modified for an English speaking congregation. By carefully selecting secular songs and melodies and pairing them with the Hebrew liturgy we have found that congregants’ participation in the service has greatly increased. And as we closely follow the traditional liturgy, all rubrics are represented.
Because the connection of English songs to the Hebrew prayers is not always obvious, we provide a guide that gives insight into both the prayer and song. For example, the pairing of Y’did Nefesh and ‘Annie’s Song’:
A love song that the soul sings to God, Y’did Nefesh was written in 16th century Tz’fat by Kabbalist R. Eliezer Azkiri and appears in his book, Sefer Charedim. Imagining that the “You” in Annie’s Song is God, the John Denver song, written four hundred years after Y’did Nefesh, can also be interpreted as a song of the soul.
Or, pairing Maariv Aravim with ‘Landslide’:
The evening prayer speaks of opening opportunities, changing seasons, the passing of time, and the putting into order the constellations of our lives while Stevie Nicks asks, “Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides?” and, “Can I handle the seasons of my life?” She assures us, “time makes you bolder, even children get older.”
And, Ahavat Olam with ‘Give Me Love’
The Hebrew relates the eternal love that God has for us by teaching and revealing to us the light of Torah while George Harrison’s song is pleading for God’s love and light and peace on earth. The song echoes the words of the V’ahavta with the singer making the effort to love God with “heart and soul.”
These are just a few examples of liturgical/secular pairings that are changed each time we utilize this model. In any one service, we use English songs sparingly and many times the secular melody is used to support a Hebrew text, for instance ’the Sounds of Silence’ for Hashkiveinu. We also honor all the components of an Erev Shabbat service.
This approach to a Shabbat evening service may be radical and certainly cantorial colleagues have respectfully disagreed with the premise of mixing the sacred with the secular but we believe this is the nature of the 21st century, that we often find spiritual meaning in our every day lives. Why shouldn’t we acknowledge that divinity on our most divine day?
Yes, Aaron’s sons were consumed by fire because of their ‘alien offering’ and the Torah seems to indicate that they were mixing secular elements in with their sacred duties. But, perhaps metaphorically they reached a spiritual end because they saw divinity in everything and could no longer distinguish between that which is deemed spiritual or that which is seen as ordinary. Maybe their final offering is more a statement of non-duality that there is only one reality and these distinctions between the numinous and the normal are but illusion.