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Jewish Chanting

By Jacob Kabb

In the Eastern spiritual traditions, chanting is commonly used in formal and informal settings as part of religious ritual and practice. Why not in the West? If reviewed more deeply, one finds a great deal of overlap in Western and Eastern traditions that evolved in the Mideast, which has been a melting pot and meeting ground for East and West for at least 2000 years. With the spread of Christianity, the migration of the Jewish people, and the world acceptance of Islam, many different native groups brought their own traditions into these evolving religions.

So what has happened is that the Western religions do, in fact, have various streams of chanting and sound intoning activity in their roots and in various streams that have become part of the larger water bodies. These are being remembered now as the traditions rediscover their roots and seek renewal.

Gathering and oneness is an important concept because spiritual unfoldment and awareness depends on several factors. In all traditions, the seeker must have the ability to concentrate and stay focused for periods of time. In our society, this is becoming increasingly difficult as the amount of stimuli and impressions mounts to nerve-shattering proportions. This new development and the expansion of the media make this learned skill (focusing) more rare. Gathering is a means of signaling our entire being that our full attention is needed. Gathering helps us to be more present (Hineni in Hebrew).

Gathering is also crucial at this time because the psyche is being isolated, again by contemporary lifestyle and the traumas that modern life presents to us all. Gathering nourishes and supports whatever positive lies dormant and ready to be highlighted by the spirit of the individual. While it is easy to destroy and be negative, it is also just as easy to be productive and positive and manifest goodness (however that might be defined). It's almost as if the authentic self is waiting for opportunities to align with love, harmony, and beauty (or any other combination of wonderful qualities).

We can change our thinking and our behavior but it requires intention (kavanah in Hebrew). Gathering is a means of changing the direction of the energy or redirecting ourselves toward God or toward a spiritual place. Reorienting is a pattern of behavior that is often forgotten as we get older. Not only is it easier to follow momentum, it is often rationalized as a better strategy because it's safer and less of a strain on already overstressed people. However, gathering doesn't deplete - it energizes.

Gathering can do different things for different people depending on their desires and attractions, but it helps no matter where the person is coming from.

Chanting is useful for many people because it changes the way we experience. Our normal interactions in this world are linear. For most people the mind is the central means for operating on the planet. For some activities, using the mind is the best strategy to get the best results, but not in every instance and not in every sphere of activity. New connections are formed, helping to encourage new insights and allowing the mind to rest and learn new ways to operate where it is not the conductor. For those wishing to research this area more deeply, please review Gardner's work with The seven intelligences and other studies linking the study of brain activity and sound. Also read some of the Sufi literature written by the Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Kahn.

In Jewish chanting, we work with pure sound and vibration, applying them in a Jewish context. We use Hebrew phrases, prayers, and scripture, putting them to chant. Drums and percussion instruments can also be used to create an atmosphere in which we can enjoy the moment, release the judging mind, and enter into new modes of awareness. We can help each other by being present and joining with the rest of the groups in creating beautiful sounds together.

At some point during chanting, it is helpful to set aside some quiet time, to be silent, and allow the vibrations to be integrated and assimilated. Some call this meditation. For others it is a means of contemplation. However you define it, the brain is being given a chance to be more passive and engage in "allowing" activity.

If you are familiar with traditional Jewish music and liturgy, it may be confusing to hear traditional phrases with much different melodies. There are times when we attempt to merge new tunes with old tunes and the results have been interesting. At times the sounding may seem repetitive and boring. It is helpful not to fight the boredom, but to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment and allow the boredom to just be. Also, if you have played drums or percussion instruments before, just reframe your thinking about what you are doing and think of it as a focusing activity. Have fun with the drumming, but at some point try to sustain a steady consistent rhythm for a bit. According to many beginners, this builds confidence and satisfaction. If something is not in harmony with one's beliefs, you should honor your own way, but express your feelings, as the intention is to bring people together and to learn and build.