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Music for the Soul: A Rabbi Talks about Sacred Music

Bhakti and Beyond

Bhakti is my favorite form of yoga. The yoga of devotion, Bhakti, is often expressed through mantra meditation, chanting holy names, or singing sacred songs in community (kirtan). A chapter in my book, From the Boxing Ring to the Ashram, reveals how and why Bhakti leads to blissfulness.

Another chapter features wisdom from recently retired USAF chaplain, Rabbi Sarah Schechter. She is the wife of my cousin, Joe Charnes, also a rabbi. The husband and wife team of Jewish scholars routinely share their traditions and prayers with people of all faith backgrounds. They also relish participating in practices, and learning, from other religions. 

Rabbi Joe lectures around the country at interfaith gatherings. A longtime friend of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints (LDS), he enjoys attending the biannual LDS General Conference. The following are Rabbi Joe’s comments on sacred music from the LDS Church News podcast that aired after the last General Conference.

Rabbi Joe's Love for Bhakti, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and All Sacred Music

church choirIf we truly reflect and are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that we often miss the beauty, the power, and the wisdom of sacred music. It is not simply melody to be listened to. Sacred music is there to heal, to inspire, to build, and to redeem. So often, we are missing the deeper message. The melody is powerful, but the words themselves are deep meditations that are meant to guide us into a life of soul —and awareness of soul — that we are so often lacking the awareness of. 

One of the Hebrew words for song is zemer, which is also interestingly related to the word for, “to prune.” The idea is that sacred music is not just an auditory experience. It is also meant to prune us in the most beautiful way; to refine us so that we can bear more beautiful fruit, and sing more beautiful melodies. It is wisdom in song, guiding us how to live in life. But very often, we simply focus on the melody.

[Regarding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square] It is an angelic choir with an angelic community, inspiring the angelic within. We have a Yiddish term kishkes which means innards. So often I feel my kishkes are twisting over the beauty and the power of these sacred meditations, and it is a blessing from on high to be in the presence of such song, and such light, because it is the light.praying through song

One of the Hebrew words for meditation is related to the word for “to build.” There is another one that has to do with isolation and separation. We want to reflect, and ponder, and isolate our awareness within, because that is what helps us build and rebuild.

Often, the reason we do not remember is because we have not fully heard. In Judaism, the first prayer a Jew learns, and in theory, the last prayer a Jew should say on his lips before death, is a prayer called s’hma. We say it at least four times a day. Sometimes five, six, or more. And it means “to hear.”  It is a call to hear, and we cry it out in the loudest of voices in unison. On a broad level, hearing is one of the first and foremost qualities to build and develop a spiritual life— the deep ability to hear and listen. But the Hebrew word for “hear” also means “to understand.” Hearing with understanding allows memory to endure. Another Hebrew word for "listening" has the nuance of attentiveness. And another meaning for s’hma is to observe.

The rabbis teach the ears are the gateway to the mind. We can’t understand without hearing.

Note: Similarly, kirtan, or group chanting of the holy name, is typically sung as call and response. We are encouraged to be silent and listen, hear, or soak up the words. Only then, can we repeat from our own lips and heart. My Chant and Be Happy therapeutic workshop will be available, on demand, shortly. Contact me for more information.

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