Judaism - Prayer

Freedom Spoken with a Hebrew Accent: Universalism and Particularism in the Haggadah

Some thoughts on the universalist and particularist philosophies of the Haggadah, from a paper I wrote last year. You can read the entire paper here, with its comparative study of three different Haggadot (Orthodox, Reform and Israeli).

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While Jewish communities and individual Jews have long understood themselves in context of their place in the wider societies in which they have lived (the Talmud recounts, for example, a number of rules regarding how Jews should conduct themselves while under Roman rule), for most of its history Judaism has been a largely particularistic tradition, chiefly concerned with its own ongoing narrative and how Jews should behave qua Jews. As much as the Talmud understands Judaism to exist within a larger universe, it also establishes a hierarchy of values vis à vis internal Jewish responsibility:

A member of one’s household takes precedence over everyone else. The poor of one’s household take precedence over the poor of one’s city. And the poor of one’s own city take precedence over the poor of other cities. [1]

Rabbi David Ellenson comments that this Talmudic passage “bespeaks the primacy our tradition assigns the Jewish covenantal community in the Jewish hierarchy of values.” [2]

It was not until modernity that consciousnesses emerged within Judaism seeking to understand how Jews should behave and understand their heritage with a more universalistic outlook. Of particular note is how these new traditions played themselves out literarily, as Jewish philosophers and religious leaders attempted to articulate a new Jewish religious identity that wasn’t primarily inward-looking. Leopold Zunz – founder of the Wissenschaft des Judentums – argued that this philosophical character of Jewish literature can only be described paradoxically: simultaneously concerned with Jewish identity and Jewish otherness; of “particularism and universalism.” [3]

There is no text that straddles the boundary between particularism and universalism more acutely than the Pesach Haggadah’s retelling of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks posits that “the story of Pesach is intensely particularistic… yet no story has had greater impact on the political development of the West… [it] has been the West’s most influential source-book of liberty.” [4]

Andreas Gotzman and Christian Wiese point to the inevitability of this tension in arguing that it is necessary for a style of literature that simultaneously reflects on its own particularities, as well as its historical and cultural relationship with surrounding peoples.” [5]

Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, in his commentary on the Haggadah, notes that it is sometimes viewed as telling the story of the birth of a specific nation and people, while at other times, viewed as a “universalistic political statement, an affirmation that tyranny will be overcome in all places and at all times.” [6] In this textual interplay, the Haggadah makes use of biblical themes highly amenable to universalistic interpretations: freedom, liberty, justice, equality, and responsibility.

That said, while individual Haggadot are free to interpret and express these themes in their own universalistic ways, the Haggadah’s traditional paradigm remains largely particularistic to a specifically Jewish narrative.

The Haggadah’s role in the textual debate between Jewish universalism and particularism should not be understated. Thanks to the ease of modern publishing, one can find a plethora of Haggadot that emphasize and de-emphasize these ideological poles. To be sure, in 2014, Israeli journalist Mira Sucharov penned an article in Ha’aretz prior to Pesach asking Israelis the pointed question: “Are you a particularist Jew or a universalist one?” [7]

Each Haggadah – in dialogue with its own sitz im leben – puts forth a different paradigm of the Exodus narrative, applying varying degrees of particularism and universalism.

Go ahead and read the rest of the paper here


[1] BT Baba Metzia 71a

[2] Ellenson, David. Universalism and Particularism: Jewish Teachings on Jewish Obligation. Jewish Philanthropy, April, 2014.

[3] Gotzman, Andreas & Wiese, Christian. Modern Judaism and Historical Consciousness: Identities, Encounters, Perspectives. Brill, 2007. Pg. 301

[4] Sacks, Jonathan. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s Haggadah. Continuum International, 2006. Pg. 59

[5] Gotzman & Wiese, 301

[6] Omer-Man, Jonathan. Commentary on the Haggadah. in Conservative Judaism. Vol. XLII, no. 2

[7] Sucharov, Mira. What does your Passover seder say about you? Haaretz: April 7, 2014.

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Israel, Judaism - Pluralism, Judaism - Prayer

There is a Wall in Your Way

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At the Wall, all anyone can do is look at the Wall.
From all her angles.
At the Wall all you can do is close your eyes because there’s nothing to see there.
There is a Wall in your way…

– From “Along the Wall” by Rabbi Joshua Bolton

I had the joy of joining with Women of the Wall this evening to help kick off the group’s 25th anniversary. A few of us from school were asked to songlead during the opening ceremony, and I welcomed the opportunity. Tomorrow, I will join their Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel (from the men’s side of the mechitzah), in support of my peers, colleagues, and friends.

My visit to the Kotel tomorrow will only be my second since arriving in Israel over four months ago (the other being on Tisha b’Av). I have a tenuous relationship with the Kotel, and as of late, I do not find it spiritually conducive to my Jewish practice. As an aside – is it absurd to speak in terms of having a “relationship” with a pile of old stones?

In commemoration of the Women of the Wall’s celebrations, a group of girls from NFTY came to Israel to represent the Movement. Speaking about the history and significance of the Kotel, one particularly wise teen said to me – “but it’s just a retaining wall!” That’s a pretty concise yet accurate statement of where I’m at these days. This statement is indeed true, but there is much more to this truth. Certainly, I recognize the immense historical significance and symbolic relevance of the Kotel, and this is something that I do connect strongly with. But as a symbol of Orthodox hegemony and oppression of the rights of women and Jews, I find it to be an incredibly challenging and emotionally draining place. Which is why I don’t go much these days, even though I live and study steps from its ancient stones.

While discussing the challenges at the Kotel, a friend of mine remarked that she really values the unique roles Judaism ascribes to each gender, and finds deep meaning in what she is empowered to do as a Jewish woman. And that it is precisely for that reason that she, too, finds the Kotel to be a challenging place, since the imbroglio takes away from her ability to pray there as a woman, in a Jewish environment surrounded by women who aren’t trying to silence her.

For me, alongside my deep commitment to a fully egalitarian Judaism, I also identify strongly with the various ways that Judaism welcomes men and women to access their Judaism in different ways, at times using different language. I have no problem referring to the shekhinah any more than I do speaking of Avinu Malkeinu. To be sure – not withstanding the historical bias towards a male-oriented language that Jewish history has had – I relish the different metaphors and allegories we use to talk about God and our relationship with Her/Him.

It is for that reason that the Kotel’s hijacking by the Orthodox disturbs me the most – precisely because it is being done by my fellow Jewish men, in the name of a Judaism to which I – and the majority of both Israelis and Jews around the world – don’t ascribe. When I go to the Kotel and bask in the vastness of the men’s section, I can walk freely up to the ancient and holy stones without having to push my way through a crowd, as the women do. I don’t have raw eggs thrown at me for wearing tallit and tefillin, and I can pray the words of the Shema without fear of being arrested. For me to do these things, while other Jews cannot, requires immense cognitive dissonance; that these offenses are committed by fellow Jewish men towards women because they are not men causes me great distress.

Yet tomorrow, I will join thousands of other people in recognition of the ongoing struggle to make Israel a better place. Surely, I can’t just sit on the sidelines whenever the fight gets dirty. Often, it’s important to get a little closer to the things that make us uncomfortable, to get a better perspective, and to push ourselves to right the wrongs we see in the world. As we sang tonight, overlooking the gates of the Old City: “Open for me the gates of righteousness, I will enter and give thanks to Adonai.”

Judaism - Prayer, Judaism - Reform

Sh’ma: Version 3.0

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Reform Judaism might have been the ultimate Dead White Guy club. While your average Reform Jew probably doesn’t know who Geiger, Holdheim, Zunz, and Jacobson were (a really great law firm?), close to two centuries after their radical notions were introduced into Judaism, we are still dealing with the implications of how Judaism deals with such (originally) non-Jewish concepts of rationality, reason, and logic. We owe many debts of gratitude to these founders of Reform Judaism, but we may also be held captive by some of their ideas.

For the early Reformers, the ultimate authorities on decisions of religious importance were these “immutable” laws of rationality, reason, and logic. The sh’ma was a prime target for attempts at expunging any perceived irrational theology from our liturgy. References to divine reward and punishment? Out! Commandments to distinguish ourselves in dress by wearing tzitzit? Out! Notions of divine control over natural weather patterns? Out!

What was left was a very nice catechism on the oneness of God – a perfect watchword of our faith that might be easier for the wider world to digest.

But as I’ve talked about before, not everything we do is really held up to this standard anymore. And for me, this is a great evolution. When everything is rational; when everything makes sense; when everything is smooth and polished in perfection, we stop thinking. It becomes easier to glide through life without thinking about our actions. When everything is simple and easy and clean, we are robbed of opportunities for kavannah.

In the quest for spirituality, many previously rejected “irrational” aspects of Judaism have been re-embraced in Reform. But one hundred and some fifty odd years later, the sh’ma looks more or less the same in Reform siddurim, not keeping fully apace with our irrational evolution. There is, of course, the notable exception of the passages on the tallit being reintroduced in Mishkan T’filah, reflecting the change in approach to wearing tallitot among Reform Jews.

Will there be a day when Reform Jews revisit the other effaced components of the sh’ma? Can we have a progressive approach to notions of God compelling us to be responsible for our actions? Yes, I believe so! In fact, thinking along the lines of Reuven Hammer’s philosophy, the previously expunged parts of the sh’ma may actually be perfect contenders for a Reform approach to this concept. Check out what Hammer has to say, in Entering Jewish Prayer (bold emphasis is my own):

“One need not believe literally in physical reward and punishment to accept the doctrine of the second paragraph of the Shema. Its importance is not in the specific way in which it was formulated and concretized, but in the very assertion that there is meaning in our actions, that there is responsibility for what we do. The human echo of the existence of that Ultimate Reality is that there also exists ultimate responsibility. If man is not the master of the world but is accountable to a greater power, our actions take on grave importance and must be carefully measured.

Doesn’t this sound like the backbone of the Reform notion of social responsibility? Aren’t there countless other occasions in Jewish texts where we don’t necessarily believe the p’shat of the text, instead using it as a trigger for deeper thinking? I was surprised to discover a supporter of this idea in an unlikely place: 1869 Prussia. It seems that not all of the early Reformers were so wed to rationality’s trump card over spirituality. Consider what Gustav Gottheil had to say in 1869 (again, bold emphasis is my own):

“I fully recognize the rights of the present to change the prayer, but I believe that the religious consciousness of other times also has the right to find expression in our prayers. I do not believe that our time, with its cold rational direction, is especially suitable to create warm, heart-stirring prayers….”

With this idea in mind, might there be a way to reframe the challenging aspects of the sh’ma so that it can be both a declaration of our belief in the oneness of God, as well as our supreme belief in humanity’s need to be responsible for our actions on a cosmic level? Wouldn’t that be quite the watchword?

Judaism - Prayer, Living in Jerusalem

This is a serious prayer. Time to get serious.

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I have a difficult relationship with the prayer, Kaddish Yatom.

When I was younger and learning how to pray Jewishly, I assumed that what I learned about praying Kaddish Yatom was the same for all Jews – that everyone in the congregation stood and recited the words together. As I prayed in communities beyond my own, I learned that this was not the case – that this was a mostly Reform Jewish minhag (custom), and that in most other Ashkenazi communities, only the mourners themselves rose to recite the text. As it happens, the Reform minhag mirrors that of the Sephardi rite, although I imagine this is purely coincidental and that the two practices evolved separately.

Since learning of the difference in methods of praying Kaddish Yatom, my own practice has evolved. Especially since my own Bubby Jeanne passed away, I have come to appreciate the value and personal meaning found in having a specific moment to myself (along with other mourners in the congregation) to honor her memory and pray to God. This was particularly apparent when I was praying at a Conservative shul during shloshim. For three times every morning, for thirty days, during shacharit, I rose to say the words of Kaddish Yatom and praise God in memory of my Bubby. As one of the only people standing in the congregation, I felt as though my words carried a unique gravitas. This wasn’t just something that everyone did because it was the proscribed time in the service, this was a particular responsibility and honor that I had.

The Reform innovation of having the entire congregation rise to say Kaddish along with the mourners evolved out of a desire to have the community unite in support of the bereaved during their difficult time. There is also a minhag that this is an opportunity to say Kaddish for those that have nobody to remember them – particularly those who perished in the shoah. While I appreciate and understand these motivations – and even find myself compelled at certain times to utter the words of Kaddish for these reasons – I find that they ultimately detract from the deeper meaning of this part of our worship.

If one says the Kaddish Yatom every time they pray – even if they are not mourning or observing a yahrtzeit – how is the kavannah of that prayer distinguished from when it is being said specifically in memory of someone who has died? Does this not detract from the gravitas, uniqueness, and separateness (a critical component of the Jewish notion of holiness) of it being used only during times of mourning and memory?

This conception is not foreign to Reform Judaism – elsewhere in our liturgy, there are countless examples of prayers that are used only at specific times to ascribe additional holiness and significance. Yet for some reason, within Reform worship practices, the Kaddish Yatom seems to already hold this level of added import. In virtually every Reform congregation and community I have prayed in, the same scenario plays out upon arriving at the Kaddish Yatom: Faces become somber. The tone of voices change; you can hear the added reverence. This is not a prayer you just say. Elsewhere in the service, distractions may abound, but when it comes to Kaddish, the transformation in attitude among worshipers is palpable. This is a serious prayer. Time to get serious.

Even in so-called creative services in summer camps or youth groups, where there may be a near-complete departure from the more traditional keva of the liturgy, the elevation of the Kaddish Yatom can be observed. Amidst a service abounding with joyous Beatles, Phish, Bob Marley, and Mumford & Sons songs, you can be sure that at some point, the attitude of the prayer leaders will change. A serious look will come over their faces. And the community will be instructed to rise for the Kaddish. You can’t mess with THE Kaddish.

So as I prayed mincha earlier this week at school, I was pleasantly surprised when Ally, our shlicha tzibbur (prayer leader) for the day, instructed the community to remain sitting before Kaddish Yatom. She shared with us that many people in the community had been saying Kaddish particularly for loved ones who had recently died, and that she wanted to give these individuals an opportunity to share their stories and honor their memories aloud before the entire community. One by one, these people rose on their own, told us for whom they were praying Kaddish, shared a person story of their connection, then rejoined the community.

While this was clearly a creative addition to the structure of the mincha service, it was actually very much in keeping with the meaning of Kaddish Yatom. As I saw it, this was an opportunity for individuals to stand and recognize this period of mourning or memory as separate from their ordinary/daily lives, for them to ascribe additional significance and holiness to the prayer at this time of mourning or memory, and afterwards for them to sit down among the community and receive their support.

Sitting, listening to these stories as part of the framing of Kaddish Yatom was incredibly refreshing. For me, it is often challenging to remain sitting during this prayer. Usually I am the only one, or one of a very small minority. I feel different and separate – ironically, the very feelings I look for when I am saying Kaddish for someone in particular.

Ultimately, the kavannah of other worshippers is their own domain, and I’m not making a blanket suggestion that the dominant Reform minhag is wrong. However, I think some significantly meaningful aspects of the prayer for individual worshippers may be lost through the current practice. And while Reform worship styles are generally quite flexible and open to innovation, there is a remarkable level of orthodoxy when it comes to Kaddish Yatom. As a result, most Reform Jews have never been exposed to a different approach to this prayer.

For such a significant part of our life-cycle commemorations, this troubles me. It being a prayer that is held to such serious standards, shouldn’t it merit an equally serious approach in our search for understanding and meaning within our worship?

Postscript: Ironically, as I was searching for some sources for this post, I stumbled across an article with a very similar thesis that was written earlier this year for Reform Judaism Magazine.

Judaism - Prayer

Where’s the Awe?

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From the moment I was first exposed to organizational Jewish life when my family joined a shul in 1991, I was immediately attracted to the phenomenon of Jewish prayer. Even at the age of eight, I found great delight and curiosity in our liturgy – in the meaning of the (at the time) strange Hebrew, the engaging melodies that my rabbi taught with her guitar and voice, and the power of a group of people sitting together and speaking (praying) as one voice.

From that point on, liturgy and the act of praying – both individually and communally – have been key foci of how I experience Jewish life. Whether through religious, spiritual, musical, or academic paradigms, I have continually been engaged in learning more about how Jews pray, and particularly with how Jews lead prayer.

Since that first spark at the age of eight, and now for close to two decades, I have explored many different types of Jewish prayer – Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Sephardi, French, English, Hebrew, egalitarian, non-egalitarian, partnership minyans, musical, silent, creative, and so-on… I love discovering new things about my relationship with prayers and praying, and I know how important it is for me to push myself to be open to new experiences and not be locked into a specific idea of what works for me. To be sure, that first prayer experience at the age of eight was a radically new phenomenon for me. At the same time, I also believe it important to be aware of what forms of prayer are personally meaningful, and for me to be able to pray in a way which is spiritually and religiously fulfilling.

This being the first time I have been in Israel throughout the chagim, I was anticipating with great excitement my being here for the pinnacle events of the Jewish calendar.

Because of this particular building up of anticipation, I am surprised with how I look back upon my experiences during the yamim noraim here in Israel. In retrospect, I didn’t experience much of my anticipated excitement. They just weren’t that awesome. Somewhat ironically, the pinnacle point for me was actually had in a basement classroom (more on that shortly).

Many of the services I was involved with throughout the chagim were ones that didn’t speak to me in a way that addressed my religious, spiritual, and liturgical needs. From my singing in the school’s choir on Rosh Hashana, to leading Yom Kippur services at the new Reform/Progressive community in Be’er Sheva, to attending Progressive services at Kehilat Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer on Simchat Torah, I had ample new opportunities, yet was often left feeling somewhat empty and unfulfilled by each of them. These just weren’t the serious and moving experiences I was looking for and expecting.

At HUC, the melodies and liturgy we prayed with were mostly in the same vein as those we had already been exposed to. In Be’er Sheva, I compromised my own desires for a longer, loftier Yom Kippur service for the sake of reaching out to an un-served community and being a part of a nascent progressive religious experience there. And at Gezer, I was disturbed by the community’s lack of reverence for the Torah during reading and hakafot, and the generally uninspiring rabbinic leadership; what was supposed to be z’man simchateinu seemed to me to be little more than stuff that needed to be said and things that needed to be done.

The most impacting worship experience I had was at Sod Siach – a traditional egalitarian minyan in Katamon. Worshipping in the rented space of a crowded, sweltering, basement classroom; praying with words from an Orthodox Union-embossed machzor, in a service led by tallit-enrobed women; praying entirely in Hebrew that was at times often challenging to me in content and syntax; I felt one of the most profound connections to God and prayer that I have yet had this year.

The Sod Siach experience satisfied me spiritually through the use of engaging and accessible music (yet without the guitar that I myself most often lead services with). It satisfied me intellectually in experiencing a uniquely organic Israeli community worshiping in a style that one often doesn’t associate with traditional Israeli Jewish prayer. And through the reverence of the community and willingness to engage with the machzor’s text, it satisfied me religiously in acknowledging the awesomeness and height of the holy day in a way I didn’t feel elsewhere.

And yet… as much as I was searching for a familiar prayer experience, Sod Siach probably couldn’t have been any further from my communities in New York and Toronto. To be sure, most other members of communities would likely have been utterly lost.

I do believe it’s important to state that I don’t view one style of prayer experience as more authentically Jewish than another style. But I do believe that a sophisticated and complex approach to Jewish liturgy and prayer is more authentic than a simplistic and more basic approach. Just as my relationship with Israel is nuanced and doesn’t avoid grappling with tougher issues facing Israeli society, I want to have an approach to Jewish prayer that is nuanced and doesn’t shy away from the more complex, challenging or difficult aspects of our liturgy.

In that light, I wrestle with finding the balance between having new prayer experiences that are less meaningful to me, and having meaningful prayer that are just more of the same week after week. I don’t want to fall into a comfortable, rote “this is how I pray” approach to worship, but I also can’t just treat prayer as an intellectual exercise. Something this important to me and to God needs to be held to a high standard that – ironically – I don’t always feel I am able to do while in rabbinical school!

This is one of my fears about becoming a rabbi. I know that I have a found an approach to prayer that is meaningful to me, even as I look forward to it growing throughout my schooling and indeed throughout my career. But how will I reconcile my own preferences with the regular need to lead and participate in differing styles of prayer? How do I square my progressive, open approach to Judaism with a particularist approach to prayer? How will I balance the needs of my future congregants with my own spiritual and religious needs? To be sure, this has been a significant factor in my general reluctance towards a congregation-based career.

These are questions and challenges that will most certainly remain unanswered for the foreseeable future. Perhaps that’s not such a terrible thing; I can  look forward to continuing to wrestle with them throughout my schooling.

Judaism - Prayer

Praying on the very tip of a rabbit’s hair

At school, we’re required to lead a number of services for the community throughout the year. The following is from an iyyun tefilah (contemplation/meditation on prayers) that I delivered as part of shacharit services I led at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem this shabbat:

In Sophie’s World, Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder compares the world in which we live to – of all things – a rabbit:

“All mortals are born at the very tip of the rabbit’s fine hairs, where they are in a position to wonder at the impossibility of the trick. But as they grow older they work themselves ever deeper into the fur. And there they stay. They become so comfortable they never risk crawling back up the fragile hairs again. Only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ they yell, ‘we are floating in space!’ But none of the people down there care. ‘What a bunch of troublemakers!’ they say, ‘Would you pass the butter, please? How much have our stocks risen today?'”

There’s a moment when I walk to the bus stop to go home from school, when the buildings part and I have a clear view straight down Rechov Keren HaYesod and Derech Hevron, over the Judaean Hills, and beyond the limits of Jerusalem. From this vantage point, I can see the concrete walls of the Separation Fence rising out of the dusty earth. Here in Israel – particularly in Jerusalem – we exist in a world where there are boundaries all around us. Physical and symbolic. Hard and soft. Between the “us” and the “them”. Between rich and poor. Between Israelis and Palestinians. Between religious and secular. Some boundaries are necessary and exist to help us make sense of our world; others are often obstacles and barriers for us.

This Shabbat, I invite us to think about these boundaries, and our relationship to them. Later, as we read from parashat Noach, we’ll hear about how humanity crossed the ultimate line; overstepping its collective boundaries, and resulting in the ultimate punishment – the end of existence for almost all of humanity.

As we pray together this morning, let us consider what we can learn from Noach about honoring appropriate boundaries. But let us also consider how are we like the mortals in Sophie’s world, held captive by our own boundaries. How should we be like the philosophers? As we pray, how can we arrive at the outermost reaches of language and existence – that place where we find God?

We start the Amidah with the words: Eternal God, open for me my lips (s’fatai) that my mouth may declare Your praise. S’fatai, as we know, means (my) lips. But s’fatai may also be translated as “the banks of a river,” in other words, the limit or defining line of a body of water. A boundary.

But not just any boundary – the banks of a river are a soft boundary – the river can expand beyond its limits, and become more than what it once was.

Perhaps… our opening petition is better read: “Eternal God, expand my own boundaries, so that my mouth may declare Your praise!”

A thought and question to help us focus during the Amidah: How do we limit ourselves from praising God? What do we want to ask for, so that we can arrive at those outermost reaches of language and existence that we rise on our toes three times to reach – that place where we find God!

Judaism - Prayer, Living in Jerusalem, Music

The Beatle and the Havdallah Candle

Bonnaroo. Standing in a field surrounded by 90,000 people in the sweltering Tennessee heat, I counted down the minutes. Only 120 left until I was certain that my life was going to change.

Rewind a year to that same field in Tennessee – no doubt surrounded by many of the same people – and I’ve just seen Radiohead perform a set that quite literally knocked the words out of my mouth and left me silent. Trying to describe the experience as we walked back to our campsites, almost everyone was left searching for words that would do justice to the transcendent musical experience we had all shared. I don’t use the word transcendent lightly. It was – quite literally – an experience that elevated me to new heights. After hours, it seemed that most people had settled on beautiful as the only word that accurately reflected the concert. Turning to a friend, I proclaimed “Well now I’m screwed. No concert will ever be better than that.”

I was wrong.

With 120 minutes left until Paul McCartney was set to take the stage, my body tingled in anticipation. I was going to see and hear a Beatle sing to me.

I grew up with The Beatles constantly in my ears. My parents fed my sister and me a regular dose of classic rock, folk, and classical music, but it was The Beatles who were the staple soundtrack of my childhood, enjoying a weekly set every Sunday out of our old-school, wooden stereo speakers.

So when Macca took the stage and played over three hours worth of thirty-eight songs, I knew nothing would ever be the same. Radiohead’s mind-penetrating experimental music be damned, this was the original stuff. You can search elsewhere if you’d like a musical review of the show; this one’s more spiritual.

Towards the end of Paul’s sonically blistering (he can still wail on “Helter Skelter”) and emotionally moving (I dare any grown man not to shed tears when he sings “Here Today”) set, as fireworks exploded in the sky above me and 90,000 people sang “Naaaah, na na na na na naaaaah, na na na naaaaah…,” I was completely caught off guard. Like a punch to the soul, my body and brain united in a reaction to the experience. While Radiohead left me speechless looking for adjectives to describe the concert, Paul McCartney completely took over my body, soul, and brain.

Before that day, I can’t recall a moment in my life when I physically felt this way. Some people call these sensations hokey, hippy, or crunchy-granola. Fine. Let it be. All I can vouch for is that something for me changed, as my body reacted to the experience:

  • I felt a complete sense of oneness with the 90,000 people around me. Simultaneously and without contradiction, I also felt as though I wasn’t standing in a crowd of strangers, but was the only one who the music was being played for.
  • I felt pure thankfulness for being in that singular moment. For me, that was directed towards God. For others, it may have been to someone or something else. But the moment for me was one of sincere spirituality that was directly tied to my own personal theology.
  • Feeling the experience coursing through my veins and sending shivers up and down my spine, I questioned why anyone would need the help of drugs, when you can experience a full-body-high naturally. As it happens, it turns out there’s some science behind this. But for me, it went far beyond biology.

At the end of the set – recalling our Radiohead experience a year earlier – I turned to my friend with a bittersweet look on my face and said, “Well, shit. Nothing in life will ever be the same. It’s all downhill from here.”

I was wrong.

Last night, exactly a month after seeing McCartney, my body was hit with the same sensations of oneness and thankfulness.

With sweet music ringing in my ears and a leaping flame in front of my eyes, my body was thrown back to that field in Tennessee. Yet I couldn’t have been further from there. Here, in the center of Jerusalem, as my classmates and I marked the end of Shabbat and the beginning of our formal schooling on our paths to becoming Rabbis, Cantors, and Educators, my body and soul reacted again to an experience in a shocking way. I felt at one with the 40 souls surrounding me, united in the journey ahead of us. I felt a supreme sense of thanks to God for bringing me to this moment in time. Blessed to experience that soul-punching sensation again, the two central foci of my life – music and Judaism – were united in a way that I couldn’t have expected.

That this moment occurred during a Havdallah service is particularly serendipitous, as the ceremony is a multi-sensory experience that – much like Radiohead and McCartney – has the power to cut straight to the human soul. The sight of the flame, the smell of the spices, the sweetness of the wine, and the beauty of the melodies give our body a lingering sensation of the neshama  – the soul – of shabbat.

It seems to me that it’s no surprise that music and Jewish spirituality have the power to biologically affect our bodies in similar ways. Reb Nachman of Bratslav said that the most direct way humans can attach ourselves to God is through music and song. Chassidut teaches that every neshama has its own melody before making the descent into the human world.

Lucky that I get to spend an entire year of spiritual and musical growth with this group of people, I only wish I could say the same for my relationship with Paul McCartney…