- Experiencing Devekut: The Contemplative Niggun of Habad in Israel by Raffi Ben-Moshe
“A Nigun is not only a melody–it is a melody of yourself,” the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), founder of Habad Hasidism, is reported to have said to his grandson, the Zemach Zedek (1789–1866) (trans. Ellen Koskoff, “The Language of the Heart: Music in Lubavitcher Life” in New World Hasidim: Ethnographic Studies of Hasidic Jews in America, ed. Janet Belcove-Shalin [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995], 99). Both grandfather and grandson were prolific “composers” of Habad nigunim, besides being the leaders of Habad Hasidism in their time. The nigun, a traditional devotional song, holds a central place in Hasidic Judaism, a movement that originated in eighteenth-century eastern Europe in response to what it considered the overly cerebral and legalistic existing forms of Judaism. Although Hasidism drew heavily from mysticism, it reacted against the meritocracy ingrained in traditional Jewish models of mysticism, whereby only select individuals may gain access to the higher realms, the Pardes, and even then at their own peril, emphasizing instead accessibility to the masses, whether educated or uneducated. As Raffi Ben-Moshe observes in his study Experiencing Devekut: The Contemplative Niggun of Habad in Israel, one of the ways Hasidic thought implemented its new pluralistic philosophy was by locating the process of Devekut (literally “cleaving,” the spiritual adherence to God’s word) at the starting point of spiritual worship, rather than as an extreme attainment, available only to few. Devekut was thus the obligation of all worshippers, becoming the path to an ultimate goal, rather than the goal itself. The nigun was an efficient way of implementing such ideas: it could be learned through repetition, did not involve any prior education, and is at its most powerful when sung communally (pp. 36–38).
It is probably safe to say that of all Ultra-Orthodox movements, Habad has the most interface with the non-Ultra-Orthodox world (in particular secular and Modern-Orthodox). Israeli travelers, whether secular or religious, know that they can find warm meals and hospitality in the remotest places, from Cuzco and Prague, to Tibet and Adelaide, courtesy of the local Habad house. Jewish students in American universities know that they may find religious infrastructure and help with obtaining Mezuzot and other Judaica from the local Habad representative. Children in secular and Modern-Orthodox neighborhoods in Israel often enjoy storytelling and presentations given by Habad representatives in local playgrounds (their parents may not always be as happy). And while the majority of Ultra-Orthodox movements still treat media-related technological advances with suspicion, Habad were always quick on the uptake, realizing the potential of new technologies to communicate their ideas to both Habad Hasidim and to Jews at large. Much of this is due to Habad’s advocacy of outreach, an attempt not to convert all Jews, but to increase their awareness of their Judaism and their knowledge of Jewish tradition. The happy result (at least for the ethnomusicologist, or for this reviewer) is that Habad have always made their cultural assets, from scholarly writings to musical traditions, easily available. As early as 1948, Rabbi Samuel Zalmanoff published Sefer Ha-Nigunim, a comprehensive collection of Habad tunes (instigated as a post-Holocaust preservation project), and nowadays, Internet sites from Chabad.org to YouTube expose curious listeners to a variety of recordings of Habad tunes, whether in recordings from live farbrengen [End Page 120] (festive gatherings of Habad Hasidim), or in lively and at times complex and virtuosic arrangements on commercial recordings. Habad Hasidim are proud of their tradition and eager to share it.
The openness and communicativeness of Habad Hasidim is evident in the identity of Ben-Moshe’s informants, one of whom was a chance hitchhiker he picked up on the way back from a wedding, and who eventually would set up...