Keriyah, the calling out of the Hebrew scriptures is an ancient art form. More than just a means of preserving grammar or a memory aid, it is a musical tradition designed to bring words to life in a living language, with power,artistry and beauty. This website is dedicated to practitioners of the craft, and those who listen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

For the first post in several years, I find myself wondering:

  • Is anyone still reading this?
  • Has anyone noticed that Chanting Torah is the oldest continuous tradition in the West that puts words to music?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Characters in Torah: what does all this have to do with chant?

Chant affects the telling of a story in subtle ways. My description in the last posting of Judah’s dramatic speech before Joseph (Gen 44: 18-34) is illustrative. The simplicity and eloquence of the speech is accentuated by the simplicity and rhythm of the chant. The verses are short, and the trop (chant indicators) simple, basic and rhythmic until the first relatively minor flourish is introduced in verse 25. This verse departs from the “you said/we said” account of the brothers’ first trip to Egypt, to weave in the theme of the attachment of Jacob to Benjamin, first depicting Jacob’s loss of his beloved Joseph. Judah “quotes” his father in words singularly straightforward, the first indication that he has moved beyond jealousy of the favored son to a deep sympathy for a bereft and inconsolable old man.
The holding trop Revi’a on the word “And now…” in verse 30 recalls us and Joseph to the present. It is a common device in Torah chant as well as in modern song to hold an initial “time-word” to emphasize a particular moment in time. Revi’a also takes us into the future on the next verse (And it will be…) as Judah declares that he cannot return to his father without Benjamin and offers himself in his stead.

There is one more chant indication that changes the way one should hear this episode in public recitation, a stage direction missed by virtually all translations. The speech begins (JPS translation): “Then Judah went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to by lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are like Pharaoh.” Chant would have you hear the lines pronounced much like the well known opening of Mark Anthony’s funeral speech. I was ten years old, used to declaiming the lines in a high oratorical fashion until I saw my first production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It was an awakening moment for me. The scene was angry. The people of Rome had sided with Caesar’s assassins, who had saved the Republic from a power hungry tyrant. Anthony, Caesar’s protégé, was allowed to speak only because the conspirators reasoned that he could do little harm. Who would listen? So it was with a sense of urgency that the Anthony blurts out, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” The crowd becomes still and momentarily receptive, and Anthony can gently and slowly turn their worldview upside down.

Chant gives a similar direction to our scene before Joseph. Confronted with Joseph’s decree that Benjamin should stay as his slave, the brothers (out of guilt? inability to face their father?) offer to all remain as slaves. But Joseph rejoins, “Far be it from me to do so. The man with whom the goblet was found – he shall be my slave. And you – return in peace to your father.” I like to picture Joseph turning away, his stratagem having achieved the desired reunion with a long lost brother, when…
“And Judah approached him and said[urgently], ‘Please my lord!’ [pause, a shocked silence]
‘Let your servant please speak to my lord, and let my lord not be angry with his servant, for you are like Pharaoh. My lord asked his servants,’...”
The pause after the words “my lord” is indicated by the trop zarka-segol which imparts a sense of finality/conclusion, and also indicates a strong stop at the end of the phrase. Only occasionally does Torah include the first word of a quote at the strong stop segol, and it is usually with similar effect (Compare, for example, Exodus 14:13, at the shores of the Red Sea).

I chose the example of Judah’s speech to illustrate how chant makes very good text even better in public recitation. Unlike songs, whose verses sound awkward when read without their music, Torah can stand without chant, but it too is enhanced. A simple speech is more eloquent and moving when sung to the rhythm of the chant. An initial word is held, giving emphasis to a change in scene. Finally,trop serves as "stage direction." Here, the speech is given a dramatic urgency which could otherwise be missed. Judah emerges in this account as a heroic figure. As the Sages taught, “Who is heroic? He who conquers his own inclination.”

Friday, January 2, 2009

Characters in Torah: Reuben and Judah

Judah plays a pivotal role in The Joseph Story, and is a central figure in Jewish tradition, leader of the tribes and progenitor of the lineage of King David. He has a handful of speaking lines, and one longish speech. I intend, God willing, to write at more length of the remarkable way in which his character is developed in just a few scenes. Today I want to call attention to just one aspect of the storytelling: the use of Reuben as a foil, highlighting Judah’s qualities. Not counting the story of Judah and Tamar, Judah acts (or really, speaks) on three occasions in the story. In the first two, Reuben’s speech, well-meaning but ineffectual, contrasts with Judah’s decisive and effective utterances.

Reuben is the firstborn, and by rights should be the leader of Jacob’s twelve sons. But story after story – mirrored by the later role of the respective tribes named after the brothers – indicates that the mantle of leadership is worn by Leah’s fourth son, Judah. In the first chapter of the story, Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers at some distance from home. The brothers wish to kill him. Reuben intercedes with the morally dubious proposition that they will be less culpable of his death if they merely throw him into a pit [An aside: the narrative tells us directly that he intends to return and rescue Joseph, an intention he hides from his brothers. It is unusual for Torah to tell a characters motivation and hidden intentions behind speech. The only other instance in the Joseph story is also an example of such deceptive speech. Can you find it?]. While Reuben is apparently absent, Judah proposes a more profitable alternative – let’s sell him into slavery to a passing caravan. Does he want to get rid of him and make some money? Does he know that this is the most realistic means of saving Joseph’s life, given the brothers’ murderous intent? Write your own stage direction. In any case, it is an example of Judah’s effectiveness as a leader, however morally reprehensible the act.

The second episode contrasting the two brothers occurs in the interlude between their two descents to Egypt. One of the brothers, Simon, has been held hostage by Joseph who has told them that they must return with his little brother Benjamin to prove that they are not spies. The problem is that their father Jacob will not part with the lad, who is the new favorite son now that Joseph is gone. When the brothers return from Egypt, Reuben immediately suggests that they go back with Benjamin in order to rescue Simon; as a pledge, he suggests that Jacob can kill his – Reuben’s – two sons if he fails to return with Benjamin. Judah is silent. But some time later, when food is again scarce, and Jacob recognizes the need for another voyage to Egypt, Judah speaks up. He says merely that he will pledge to return with the lad and that if he fails “I will have sinned to you all my days.” He adds that if Jacob had let Benjamin go down earlier, “we could have been there and back twice!” It is a singular example of waiting to say the right thing at the right time. The brothers with Benjamin set out for Egypt.

Judah’s third speech is the climax of the story. All eleven brothers are on their way back to their father, loaded with provisions, when Joseph frames Benjamin of stealing his goblet. Joseph decrees that he shall remain in Egypt as his slave. By rights the story should end with the brothers sans Benjamin returning to a heartbroken father. The history of Israel, the fulfillment of the ancestral prophecy, the very history of the human race stands in peril. And then the extraordinary occurs. Judah steps forward and calls out “Please, my lord!” With plainspoken eloquence he recounts the prior events, vividly representing the feelings of an elderly patriarch about to lose his most beloved son. He caps the speech with an astonishing offer: he himself will remain as Joseph’s slave, if Joseph will let Benjamin return home. Joseph, overcome with emotion, can no longer conceal his identity, and the story moves to its generally positive conclusion.

In the above three short episodes, much is already revealed about decisiveness, judgment, and effective leadership. The dynamic quality of character and moral development is shown in the transformation of Judah in the final speech. It has been a cautionary tale for me. As one prone to talk too much, I like to remember that a few words uttered effectively at the right time outweigh quick and excessively intense speech. And I have come to believe that one of the themes of this story is that it is not enough to be well intentioned. The imperative is to act with effectiveness as well as right. I often remind myself: “Be Judah, not Reuben.”

Characters in the Torah: The Joseph Story

The story of Joseph and his brothers is arguably the first “short story” in Western literature. It is a good yarn, full of plot twists and reversals. At one point for example, the protagonist changes from prisoner in a dungeon to the second most powerful person in the land in an instant. It is complex and tightly woven. It is a gem.

The narrative is believable, with psychologically convincing characters. Transport yourself back to a polygamous time and imagine two wives, one beloved and one not so much. Imagine that the favored wife finally gives birth to a son after many years. The child is bright and attractive, and his father favors him over his ten older brothers. But he is also impossibly annoying – a tattle tale and a dreamer, apparently selected by both his father and destiny. It is not hard to imagine the annoyance of his brothers turning into a murderous hatred. And that is just the prologue.

The story is intricate, and deals with ultimate questions in complex and sophisticated ways. A good example is the interaction between fate and human action. Nearly two thousand years ago, the sage Rabbi Akiva took a stance on the question of predestination versus free will: “All is foreseen, and choice is granted.” He was stating a fundamental paradox, logically irreconcilable. I have long imagined that he was giving voice to the perspective of the Torah on this question. One of the times we reach for stories is when we need to illustrate a point that cannot be reduced to simple general rules. “The Joseph Story” is often read simplistically. Man plans, but the outcome will be that envisioned by God. We forget that this view is not stated in the narrative, but rather is spoken by Joseph to his brothers (Gen 44:5) in order to comfort and reassure them that he means them no harm: “And now don’t be upset that you sent me here….” In the telling, the story is much more complicated. It takes a convoluted series of events to place Joseph in the position of authority over his brothers that had been foreshadowed in his dreams. More significantly, it will take a decisive, courageous, and surprising act by one of the brothers, Judah, to bring about the reconciliation of brothers that will ultimately lead to the fulfillment of the prophecy to their great grandfather Abraham: “Know surely that your seed will be strangers in a land not theirs…” Is it all fated to happen? Or is this a human drama, influenced by outside events, but also by tangled emotions, and by actions both base and transcendent? R. Akiva would answer, “Yes.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Characters in the Torah: Moses

With this I will begin a series looking at character portrayal in the Torah, specific examples of the points made in the September postings.

Moses is an ambiguous character. We are taught that he is our greatest prophet, whose communication with God was unlike any that preceded or followed him – it was “face to face.” He is the figure that dominates our central story –Exodus from Egypt and revelation at Sinai. And yet we cut him out of the story completely when we tell it at Passover. To eliminate the possibility of cultic worship, we are not permitted to know his burial place, so serious is the risk because of his greatness and his pivotal role in our national saga.

So when the Torah tells of his life and times, it is similarly ambivalent about the telling. We do not follow the details of his escapades from youth to old age, as we do with Jacob or King David. Rather, in leading up to the moment of his call at the burning bush, Torah first gives a detailed account of his deliverance as an infant from Pharaoh’s genocidal decree, and his ending up in Pharaoh’s palace, raised by a princess. What we will know of his youthful character is left to two brief vignettes.

“And it was in those days, that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers, and saw their suffering…” When he sees a taskmaster beating a slave, he kills the oppressor and buries him in the sand. The next day he comes across two Hebrews fighting and asks the wicked one why he is beating his countryman. “Will you kill us like you killed the Egyptian?” comes the reply. Moses recognizes that his actions have placed him in peril, and he flees before Pharaoh can harm him. In the second vignette, Moses ends up some time later at a well in the land of Midian. Although a solitary stranger in a foreign land, when he sees shepherds bullying shepherdesses who have come to water their flocks, he is again impelled to action. He saves the shepherdesses and helps them water their flocks. Taken into their home, he marries one of the women, and joins the household of their father Reu’el/Jethro. It is while watching Jethro’s flocks that he will discover the burning bush and reluctantly accept his mission.

This is sparse material, yet it is enough to impart a sense of the young Moses. The aspect of Moses’ character that emerges from these two stories is an exquisite sensitivity to oppression of the weak by the strong. Heedless of his own safety, he is unable to stand by and watch. God’s mercy towards the helpless and powerless will be a major theme of the exodus, and a basis for the expectation that his people will establish a social order that protects the “the stranger, widow, and orphan.” The selection of Moses as the emissary for liberation is understandable. The Torah’s artistry in portraying these qualities, while leaving us guessing as to other aspects of character – what Moses is really like – is not likely accidental, but rather in accord with how our tradition treats him: compassionate, heroic, but also somewhat distant and mysterious. In a story that we want to preserve a sense of gratitude for Divine intervention in our history, we avoid excessive preoccupation with its human agent.

This approach of course leaves many questions unanswered. There is one which has always preoccupied me. How could he refuse the call at the burning bush? “Send anyone else!” from the person who risks his own life to rescue a single slave? It doesn’t make sense. Worried about mumbling? Excessively humble? This is not my sense of the rash and reckless rescuer of shepherdesses in a foreign land. But this will have to wait for another series of postings.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Torah as Script: listening with a literary ear

The British anthropologist Mary Douglas recently wrote a book entitled Leviticus as Literature. It is a striking title, if one pauses to consider it at all. She was unfamiliar with her subject before she began her project, and approached it in a secular spirit of scholarly investigation. She was expecting to discover how the ancient Jewish dietary practices harmonized with the principles of pollution theory, which explains dietary taboos among primitive tribes. Much to her surprise, she had to change direction completely. Although the main subject of Leviticus is the sacrificial ritual in Tabernacle and Temple, she found it to be an expression of a modern religious sensibility, centering on the concept that, as the Psalmist says, “God is just in all his ways, and loving in all his deeds.” Her sense is that Leviticus needs be heard as a work of literature to understand its bold conception for personal and social transformation and to appreciate how different the religion of ancient Israel was from everything around it.

But is it kosher to think of Torah as “literature”? I find that this word can alienate traditional believers and liberal Jews alike. After all, these are sacred scriptures, and need special treatment. Many still hear Torah as the literal word of God, given to Moses word for word in the Sinai Desert. “Literature”, by contrast seems to connote a mixture of truth, untruth, and essays to find truth. In liberal denominations I find many who see Scripture as something very different from that body of work that we call Western Literature, from Aeschylus to the latest best-selling author. Laws mix with stories; genealogies and lists abound; coherence seems lacking. Yet others would see the Hebrew Bible as a relic of an ancient and very different epoch, with either limited relevance to a modern age, or with large amounts of “problematic” material that we may safely ignore.

I am hoping, perhaps unrealistically, that my love of Torah and Tanakh will shine through my words radiantly enough to counter these prejudices. I have sung the verses of Torah thousands of times, and find them always fresh. I say Amen when at the end of an aliya, the honoree thanks God for giving us a Torah of truth, planting eternal life in our midst. There are no parts I would excise. It is helpful to open oneself up to the impressive array of literary devices that Torah uses to impact hearts and minds: beauty of sound – rhythm, alliteration, and assonance; vivid and creative metaphor; stunning universal moral pronouncements, which connect to the stories in complex ways. And the stories are told with verve and liveliness. They feature lifelike characters with convincing psychology, gripping plots, humor, and pathos. They are rich and complicated, with surprising moral ambiguity and sophistication. When we appreciate these aspects of Torah’s artistry, we do not disrespect Torah, but are led to an increased sense of wonder and admiration. Israel has always depended on the occasional thoughtful outsider to appreciate its own tradition. Mary Douglas’ analysis of the dietary laws of Leviticus echoes the words of the blind gentile prophet, “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob…”

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Torah as script: dialogue and the depiction of character

One of the more astounding aspects of the Hebrew Scriptures is their vivid description of characters. In this Torah is millennia before its time. In his book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, the historian Jacques Barzun, attributes the invention of “character” in literature to Montaigne and Shakespeare in the 17th century: “the…fact is that before Shakespeare there are no characters, only types.” Montaigne in an essay “On the Inconsistency of Our Actions” pointed out the difference between a type and a character: “The type may exhibit all kinds of tricks and tastes and gestures that make him different, recognizable, but his ‘stance’ is unchanging, ‘typical’. Not so in the Character. He is, as we say, many-sided, which is why we also speak of seeing someone ‘in the round’.”

Yet Biblical figures emerge as characters in the sense defined above. There are notable examples spanning the life cycle from impetuous youth to bitter old age, such as Jacob and David. We watch Judah’s transformation from the irresponsible ringleader who sells his brother into the hero who offers himself as a slave in place of the new favored son, Benjamin. The Bible goes a step further than Montaigne, recognizing that people change over time, and have the potential for redemption. It lays out expectations for growth and moral choice, and insists on individual responsibility. It recognizes the decline that comes to all with age.

The complexity of the Bible’s depiction of character, and of humans as moral beings possessed of free will is not necessarily obvious. The Torah uses sharply limited narrative conventions. Torah will recount what a character does or says. If it depicts emotions, they are the broad, obvious kind, emotions that can be clearly read in a person’s action or expression – anger, sadness, fear, love, and hatred. It rarely describes motivations. The effect is often to leave the listener guessing about nuances of feelings, or the reasons for a character’s behavior. But even with these strict self-imposed rules, a vivid sense of the character of the major figures – Jacob, Joseph, or Moses, for instance – emerges from these narrative accounts. We know from Shakespeare that dialogue and action can define character, and yet leave room for interpretation. It is thus appropriate to listen to Torah with the same sort of sensibility with which one watches a play, with dialogue as script. I once described to my uncle a take on Joseph’s request that the cupbearer remember him to Pharaoh, as lines blurted out in desperation. “That’s not the stage direction I would give”, he replied.

We do not come to the stories in the Torah without preconceptions. Midrashim and commentaries enable us to see how our ancestors pictured biblical characters and heard their lines, just as one can listen to the voices of critics and of dramaturges on staging and direction of the plays. Archeologists, historians, scholars and theologians all have opinions. But we also have the opportunity and the obligation to listen directly to the words and music of Torah. The next postings will be a series of vignettes illustrating some of the variety of Torah’s narrative art in bringing figures to life. It is a short digression from explicitly dealing with the art of chanting, which I will return to in the last vignette.