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American Jewish History 91.2 (2003) 195-203

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The Question of Music in American Judaism:

Reflections at 350 Years *

Clamorous debates over music have been a feature of American Judaism since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century. Indeed, questions concerning music in the synagogue have stood second only to questions concerning women in the synagogue as prime sources of disputation, dividing synagogues and sometimes even landing up in court. Like women, music is at once alluring and dangerous; it delights the senses but it may also stir up passionate disagreement, undermine the established order, and distract people from the solemnity of worship. In the eyes of synagogue leaders, therefore, both music and women have demanded careful regulation. Ultimately, issues surrounding music, like the better known issues surrounding women, have helped to define what American Judaism is all about.

Let us examine several of these issues, and the debates that they generated, debates that, by no coincidence, took place at roughly the same time as synagogues were debating women's issues and related concessions to modernity.

The first debate concerned the character of the music. In the Sephardic synagogues of the colonial era (and later, for that matter), music was as tightly regulated as the synagogue ritual. Indeed, the music was inseparable from the ritual. Both were hallowed by tradition, what was called in Hebrew the minhag, the synagogue's ritual or custom as passed down from generation to generation. Shearith Israel, today known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York, and all of the other colonial synagogues closely conformed to the traditional minhag as practiced by Portuguese Jews in Europe and the West Indies. Innovations were prohibited; "Our duty," Sephardic Jews in England once explained, is "to imitate our forefathers."1 On a deeper level, Sephardic Jews believed, as did the Catholics among whom they had so long lived, that [End Page 195] ritual could unite those whom life had dispersed. They wanted a member of their Nation, as they called it, to feel at home in any Sephardic synagogue anywhere in the world: the same liturgy, the same customs, and the same music. As late as 1841 , a president (parnas) of Shearith Israel articulated the synagogue's ideology in response to those who sought to change it: "Let any of us, arriving from almost any part of the world, meet," he declared, "we feel ourselves at home, and join in the service of the synagogue, on any day, at any time, even to the different tunes."2

Fortunately for colonial Jews, many local Protestant churches were equally conservative in their musical traditions. "Established texts and known tunes were essential to the worship" of most colonial churches, "while non-verbal utterance, musical improvisation, individual spontaneity, and liturgical flexibility were generally absent."3 The Congregational church in Weston, Massachusetts, in 1724 reflected local custom when it approved a list of fourteen tunes to be used in its worship, and warned the chorister to use no others "unless he has further order from the Church."4 Churches, like their synagogue counterparts, promoted the virtues of tradition, regularity, and order through their choice of what to sing. Just as men, women, children, and slaves all had a fixed and carefully determined place in God's house, so too did sacred music.

The late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries witnessed a whole series of innovations in American religious life: the great Protestant awakenings, disestablishment, church-state separation, the rapid growth of new denominations, and the like; and unsurprisingly, these produced changes in music as well. The same revolutionary spirit—the so-called contagion of liberty—that affected so many other aspects of life, also unleashed demands for innovation in liturgy and song; parallel developments, of course, were taking place in Europe. Initially, the synagogue resisted such innovations and attempted to impose discipline. "Every member of this congregation shall, previous to the singing [of] any psalm, or prayer, remain silent until the [Hazzan] shall signify the tone or key, in which the same is to...


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