New Jersey Jewish News - Johanna Ginsberg
In three-part harmony, a group of more than 50 people — mostly women, mostly middle-aged and older — began chanting a verse from Leviticus: Aish tamid tukad al hamizbei'ach; lo tichbeh ("Fire always shall be kept burning on the altar; it shall not go out").
They were led by Rabbi Shefa Gold, who added an overlay of harmony, drumming, and the droning sound of an accordion-like “shruti box.”
As the chant continued, it grew more intensely spiritual, less self-conscious, louder, and more harmonious.
For three hours on May 19, Gold led participants at Bnai Keshet in Montclair in what she called a “circumcision of the heart” — or healing of the spirit based on rituals drawn from the esoteric boundaries of Jewish tradition. Gold, a leader of Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, is the author of a new book, The Magic of Hebrew Chant (Jewish Lights, 2013).
Sponsored by Bnai Keshet with nearby Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, the event attracted members of other area synagogues, representing each of the liberal streams, and a handful of people not affiliated with a congregation.
Some had chanted before, while others were having their first experience.
Among the group were at least two rabbis, a cantor, a cantorial soloist, and a rabbinical student, as well as a handful of graduates from Kol Zimra, the 18-month program for chant leaders run by Gold, now in its sixth year. Her lessons draw on the history of Jewish chant, from the cantillation used in the public recitation of the Torah to the nigunim, or wordless melodies, sung by hasidim, to her own compositions.
Gold, who is originally from Paramus but now lives in New Mexico, writes that her interest in chant was spurred by a meeting with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a proponent of Jewish mysticism, while she was in rabbinical school.
“I felt inundated by the sheer volume of texts and teachings, codes and midrash, Talmud, Mishna, Gemara, commentaries, and then commentaries on those commentaries,” she writes in her new book. “I am drawn toward simplicity in my spiritual practice, and I was struggling each day against what seemed like endless Jewish ramblings, thousands of years of accumulated clutter. I was drowning.”
Responded Kushner: “You only have to deal with one little bit at a time,” a directive that led her on a search for rituals capable, as she writes elsewhere, of “transforming the words of liturgy into doorways.”
Among these was attaching a specific purpose to each chant. Leading a chant based on Psalm 101:2 (“I will walk within my house in the integrity of my heart”), Gold explained that she was working through an experience of feeling wronged by someone who insisted on being right.
When a chant is successful, she said, the practitioner moves from a self-conscious place to another place altogether, which she described as, “I’m chanting, I’m chanting, I’m chanting, I’m chanting…. Who’s that chanting?”
During a break, participant Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu of Teaneck spoke about her own worship practice.
“Sometimes I just want to focus on a few words; I just want to chant for a while,” said Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “Sometimes on Shabbat, chanting is all I want or need, but sometimes, a full worship service is just what I want or need.”
From the Publisher
"Thorough, honest, and wise.... [It] will appeal to regular practitioners of sacred chant, and those who are intrigued by the possibility of a chant practice.... The book itself is almost a long chant, able to transform the consciousness. All who read it will find a treasure, not only in the book but in themselves."
—Rabbi Jill Hammer, director, Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion; author, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons
"Lots of people chant and few become enchanted.… Rabbi Shefa guides her readers past the sentries of the legal/rational border into the sacred space of the charismatic/ecstatic realm."
—Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, author, Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer and Jewish with Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice
“This is the finest flowering of Rabbi Gold's vast experience and deep dedication to working with and understanding the energies of body, soul, voice, intention and consciousness in relation to sacred Jewish text.”
—Rabbi Nancy Flam, co-director of programs, Institute for Jewish Spirituality; series editor, LifeLights
“A literate, personal, inventive, beautifully written anthology of, and manual for, offering 'musical kavanot.' Gold offers American Jews seeking to rediscover the melody of meditation the perfect primer and inspiration.”
—Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Emanu-El Scholar at The Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco; author, I’m God; You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego
“One of our great teachers shares her secrets of how to enter the heart, open the mind, stir the spirit and awaken nothing less than a transformation in your self-understanding and love for others. The profound wisdom and amazingly beautiful chants are a gift for human flourishing. Be prepared to be touched by a magician of the soul.”
—Rabbi Irwin Kula, coeditor, The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices: Clal’s Guide to Everyday & Holiday Rituals & Blessings
“A treasure of exquisite simplicity, wisdom and love! With mellifluous and stunning beauty ... offers a path of awakening through which outworn habits of heart and mind are discarded, core truths rediscovered and ever more expansive capacity for joy is born.”
—Rabbi Marcia Prager, author, The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine
“There are two ways to enter the gates of heaven: storm them from without or be invited in from within. Chanting is the way of invitation, and this book is the invitation to the invitation. I have chanted daily for decades, and Shefa was my teacher. Let her be yours as well.”
—Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author, Amazing Chesed: Living a Grace-Filled Judaism
“An incredibly clear, valuable, often transcendent transmission of powerful, readily implementable approaches to Jewish spiritual awakening, growth and healing. This is a sacred book to savor and widely gift to family, students and friends.”
—Rabbi Goldie Milgram, author, Meaning & Mitzvah: Daily Practices for Reclaiming Judaism through Prayer, God, Torah, Hebrew, Mitzvot and Peoplehood
“Invites the reader of any spiritual path to enter more deeply into the heart of love. Her contribution to Jewish spirituality in particular is immeasurable. May it endure!”
—The Rev. Robert Corin Morris, DD, founder, Interweave, Inc.
“Allows readers to inhabit the immersive, transformative, gently flowering yet powerful world of chant: an indispensable guide for the spiritual seeker of our time. Highly recommended!”
—Rabbi Nehemia Polen, PhD, professor of Jewish thought, Hebrew College
“For those new to these pathways to the Great Mystery (aka God), here is an invitation to a richer and more profound life; for those seasoned in the disciplines of meditation, chant and prayer, it will frame your experience with insight and wisdom. It will deepen your practice; it has deepened mine.”
—Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW, director of spiritual development, The Academy for Jewish Religion, California; author, Mourning and Mitzvah: Walking the Mourners’ Path from Grief to Healing
“Boldly yet gently beckons you inwardly with prescriptions of stirring sacred words, offering a practice of wisdom, a pathway of self-discovery and a yearning to reach expansively toward God and compassionately toward God’s creation.”
—Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz, author, Does the Soul Survive? A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives & Living with Purpose and Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World
“Shefa has transformed the world of chant, allowing both the chanter and the listener to find personal meaning in Jewish prayer through the mesmerizing repetitions of words and meditative melody.”
—Cantor Linda Hirschhorn
“As it brings text study, song and contemplative practice together—body, heart and mind acting as one—chant is the ultimate, spiritual practice. Shefa Gold is its prophet.”
—Rabbi Mike Comins, author, Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do about It
“A tour de force.... It integrates the extensive research and teaching Rabbi Gold has pioneered and offers a luminous resource for the renewal of Jewish religious life and contemporary spirituality.”
—Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, Institute for Jewish Spirituality
“Wise, warm advice from the foremost expert in this form of Jewish devotional practice. It is encyclopedic, thoughtful, accessible and deep.”
—Jay Michaelson, PhD, author, Evolving Dharma: Buddhism, Meditation and the Next Generation of Enlightenment and God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness & Embodied Spiritual Practice
“A deeply important contribution to all those interested in contemplative practice. At the same time, Rabbi Gold facilitates a profound connection to the sacred texts of the Jewish tradition illustrating their continued relevance to contemporary Judaism.”
—Rabbi Jeff Roth, author, Jewish Meditation Practices for Everyday Life: Awakening Your Heart, Connecting with God
“Combines the insight of a seeker, the textual knowledge of a rabbi, the clarity of a gifted teacher and the voice of a creative composer.... This moving volume provides sufficient guidance for a beginner while taking more advanced practitioners to new heights.”
—Rabbi David Teutsch, Wiener Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization and director, Levin-Lieber Program in Jewish Ethics, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; author, Spiritual Community: The Power to Restore Hope, Commitment and Joy
“Shefa Gold has transcribed the music and meaning of Hebrew chant onto the pages of this book. Yet the experience of these chants flows off the page and connects you to the Jewish past and this very moment.”
—Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, author, A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice