Consider these worshipers in modern urban America: rather than having performers act out skits or play instruments on a stage, they want “participatory” worship in which all attendees play a part. Instead of grand auditoriums where the audience gapes at huge Jumbotron screens, they congregate in intimate, even makeshift, spaces where worshipers face only each other. In lieu of constantly rewriting (or discarding completely) the liturgy in favor of newer songs, they stubbornly adhere to the traditional “old songs”—albeit with ever-new interpretations. Rather than play down the text in fear of alienating new or “seeking” members, they increasingly focus on it through word and song. Most amazing of all, they even insist on worshiping in the same tongue their great-great-grandparents did, rather than in English!

Are these members of some austere and bizarre sect, living in the past and slavishly following a rigid set of dead traditions? On the contrary, says Rabbi Jeffrey Summit of Tufts University in Boston: they are members of vibrant Jewish worship communities, and their choices strongly reflect their own tastes. In other words, they are worshiping the way they believe is most faithful, even as it flies in the face of other American worship trends and may even be at odds with what the older generation in their communities wants.

A Stylistic Spectrum
Summit, a lifelong musician with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, deftly toes the line between participant and observer in his fascinating book The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: Music and Identity in Contemporary Jewish Worship (Oxford, 2000). Bringing the reader inside five Jewish worship communities in the Boston area, he explores the range of contemporary Jewish prayer, chant, and song through descriptions, interviews, and recorded music (the book includes a 39-track CD). The examples cover the spectrum from the religious left (a group that meets for festive, informal worship in a Masonic Hall) to the religious right (a largely Hasidic community, in which women and men are separated for prayer, dancing, and eating).

The cultural and stylistic differences across this spectrum are evident in everything from the role of women in worship to the participants’ fluency in Hebrew to community members’ willingness to integrate with American secular culture. But the common thread, Summit says, is music.

“When I spoke to people about worship and music,” says Summit of the research for his book, “within minutes we were talking about core issues in people’s lives: the aspects of community that they deeply valued, their connection to history, the ways that they could most effectively feel joined with other men and women to create a community of transcendent meaning and harmony.

“So while the book is obviously about how music is strategically used in worship, I also came to view this work much more as an exploration of religious values and their relationship to meaningful spiritual expression in twenty-first-century America.”

Words of Melody?
Just as important as the nature of contemporary worship, Summit says, is its evolution and development. “While we often think of worship as a form handed down from generation to generation, bounded by tradition, the reality is that at the same time there’s another very active dynamic as people plan and structure worship. I wanted to explore the strategic choice and use of music to convey certain values and shape a communal experience. That process of strategic choice is sometimes very conscious and sometimes emerges more subconsciously.”

Summit says that in talking with Protestant and Catholic colleagues in Boston he was “struck by how much we seemed to be standing on common ground.” They too struggled with the search for music that is historically authentic but speaks to the contemporary soul; they too were acutely familiar with battles between those who want more participation in services and those who want more performance. These colleagues had also mediated between those who want high-quality performance and those who argue for participation from the congregation, regardless of skill level, and they also sometimes wanted to focus on the words of hymns (“let’s sing all of the verses”) even as they knew many worshipers notice primarily the melody. And they had repeatedly dealt with the perennial question of whether to use the organ, or a piano, or an electric piano with a guitar, bass, and drums—or even just a guitar.

“After I spoke with these Christians,” Summit recalls, “it struck me that the Jews in the worship communities I studied were describing larger issues than music; they were discussing concerns common to middle-class religion in America. The expectation that worshipers can find or create the kind of service they need, the role of the empowered individual in creating new structures and institutions, and the ready tendency to form communal associations—these are all themes common to American religious life.”

Meaningful Experience
The hidden meanings of worship style in various faith communities is a subject of great fascination for Summit. “People sometimes think style is superficial,” he explains. “But it’s not. Style is the way we really understand meaning in culture, because it often symbolizes or represents highly important but less visible issues. Because of this significance, in the realm of worship there’s a tremendous proclivity in the Jewish community for people to find a style that reflects who they are. People vote with their feet and their pocketbooks by shopping for a synagogue where the style feels true to their desired religious/spiritual direction but also meshes with their own cultural style. People for whom it’s important to have fun in community are not going to gravitate toward a worship experience that is tedious and heavy.”

Not that contemporary Jewish worship is about fun and games or repackaging worship to become mere entertainment in order to fill seats. Indeed, readers fatigued with endless talk of contemporary church growth will find refreshing Summit’s minimal discussion of numbers, at least with regard to judging the health or success of the Jewish worship communities he studies. The emphasis is much more on each worship community’s well-being. Summit measures success in terms of how meaningful the worship experience is in the lives of participants rather than how many people can be coaxed through the door.

Pushing and Pulling
Perhaps because of the historical necessity of banding together to survive repeated persecution, or perhaps simply as a reflection of what a healthy community is like, there seems to be a common sense that differences within each faith community can and will eventually be worked out. The nature of worship—particularly in the most liberal communities Summit studied—is constantly evolving through a complex and often very subtle process of pushing and pulling. It’s a process that’s “organic,” and yet always operating with an eye toward keeping in the spirit—and frequently also the letter—of the tradition.

Compromise and resolution within a community may usually be possible, but when two separate communities try to agree with each other, matters get stickier. Speaking from his university office, Summit related the efforts of various Jewish students at Tufts—who studied and socialized together but worshiped in separate Reform and Conservative communities—to negotiate the components of a joint “teaching service.” Representatives of both communities met to find common musical ground, he said, trying to agree on “melodies that would create, even briefly, a shared community in which all the members could belong and participate.” After compromising on matters such as instrumentation (Conservative students said “no guitar” and had th
eir way) and the use of English (Reform students got their wish to sing a prayer in English after it had been chanted in Hebrew) the service finally took place.

The experience, Summit says, “was more successful as an educational exercise than as worship. Members of both communities subsequently related their sense that they had compromised too much to feel comfortable in the joint worship setting.” Both the Reform and Conservative students, Summit observes, “were unable to foresee that music from the ‘other’ service had such strong coded significance that its very inclusion excluded the other group.”

The Right Tunes
“Strong coded significance” is another way of describing the power of music. Through both prominent and subtle choices of text, rhythm, melody, and instrumentation, Summit says, congregations express and define who they are. Much of his book (and the accompanying CD) explores the development of these relationships and choices. In Summit’s experience, when the music was unfamiliar to newcomers at worship, they felt they did not belong. On the other hand, even when surrounded by strangers and in an unfamiliar worship setting, music that was familiar provided instant reassurance.

“The ‘right’ tune grounds one in history,” Summit observes, “[serving] as a portal to the past, a connection with ancestors, real and imagined.” In a phrase that rings true with listeners who treasure Bach cantatas despite ignorance of the German language, Rabbi Summit says, “The tune is a vehicle for transcendence. For many Jews who do not understand much Hebrew, the tune is the prayer.” And every church or synagogue musician can surely relate to Summit’s experience with incoming freshmen at Tufts who tell him “Rabbi, I enjoyed services here but you know, you sing all the wrong tunes.” “What are the right tunes?” Summit recalls responding. Students: “The ones we sing at home!”

Two Audiences
Jeffrey Summit’s research and interpretation is important to at least two significant audiences. The first constitutes those wanting an inside look at Jewish worship music as it is being practiced today. Most studies of Jewish liturgical music are written from the perspective of composers, cantors, and rabbis—worship professionals—who have strong feelings about what worshipers should and shouldn’t do. Rabbi Summit says, however, “I was less interested in what leaders think people ‘should’ do than I was in what people actually do and how worshipers perceive what is happening in worship. In other words, I wanted to understand through worshipers how they understood the symbolic meaning of music and prayer in worship . . . There’s not just ‘one musical spiritual event’ happening at any one time; there are as many events as there are participants in the service.” (Incidentally, the melodies on the CD accompanying Summit’s book are sung by an actual congregation and were recorded in the same physical spaces where they are shared every Friday evening in Shabbat services. They taped, however, on other nights of the week, as the author deemed taping of actual worship both needlessly intrusive and in violation of the proscription against the use of electricity on the Sabbath. “It was instructive,” Summit reflects, “to work within the constraints of Jewish law that underscored the sanctity and singularity of specific ritual performances.”)

The second and perhaps larger audience for Summit’s insights include all those trying to follow trends in contemporary American worship. “What I’ve been excited about is that my research isn’t just about Jewish worship; it’s where we are in our spiritual life in America,” Summit says. Through his research, Summit became familiar with active believers in the college-student through Baby-Boomer age range—worshipers who are no strangers to personally tailored media such as television and computers. How do these people channel their individual tastes into common group worship? (Or, it might be phrased, how do they suppress their individual tastes to accept the choices of the group?) One answer in the most democratic Jewish worship communities is that consensus is found through give and take between worshipers: when the group finds something that works it is incorporated into worship, while variations that are unpopular are quickly discarded. But even in the most liberal context that Summit studied there remains a commitment to the tradition—to history—that wouldn’t be likely to result from focus groups or market surveys trying to lure hesitant suburban seekers to evangelical megachurches. In other words, the striking thing about the Jewish faith communities in Summit’s research is that they appeal to worshipers by going deeper into the tradition rather than sugarcoating or watering down worship and asking as little as possible of worshipers. This is in stark contrast to much of the Christian church growth movement in the country today, in which leaders are encouraged to make the worship environment as entertaining and undemanding as possible “so that no one gets scared away” by threatening rituals like collecting the offering.

Give Me Community
A natural question is whether the approach Summit describes can only work in a Jewish context, where the tradition occupies a minority role and thus adherents are forced to build on what they have in common. Although he doesn’t explicitly discuss the consequences of his research for Christian faith communities, Summit’s findings on what makes these Jewish congregations work suggests some components that would enhance any fledgling faith community’s chances of success: healthy, accommodating leadership; a flexible, active membership; a willingness to look for new expressions of some very solid traditions (including the ability to move on if things don’t work); and perhaps most important, a common commitment and devotion to each other.

“Jews assume community,” Summit explains. Paraphrasing Patrick Henry and citing the Talmudic story of Honi Hameagal, “a Jewish Rip van Winkle” who sleeps for 70 years and is distraught to wake and find he has no friends left alive, Summit says the universal feeling among Jews is, “Give me community or give me death!” While non-Jewish faith communities may not be able to summon that kind of passion, Summit’s experience with believers who accept the need for community as a given provides important lessons for anyone wishing to cultivate healthy worship experiences in twenty-first-century America.