East Meets West: The Shofar in Classical Reform Judaism

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Shofar_BKJews and their loved ones who attend High Holiday services (Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur), regardless of their level of affiliation, undoubtedly experience the sound of the shofar as one of the distinguishing features of the season. This haunting instrument, made of a hollowed-out ram’s horn, is a primitive forerunner of the trumpet and hunting horn. Its piercing, wavering tone quality is meant as a wake-up call to the distinctiveness and singular holiness of the High Holidays, sanctifying the time as well as the worship space. It is a symbol of the primal ancientness of our Faith, and, like the cadences of the Hebrew language itself, connects us across time and space to the infancy of our People, when the shofar was an integral part of Temple worship in Jerusalem. As such, it has some “baggage” and a somewhat ambivalent history with what has come to be known as Classical Reform Judaism.

The “primal” or “earthy” or “primitive” nature of the shofar was thought by some in Western Europe and North America to be out of harmony with the fundamental assumptions and ethos of Reform Judaism. Reform Judaism’s intent was to retain the inner substance and spirit of traditional Judaism while bringing its outer forms up to date with Western Enlightenment sensibilities. Especially in America, the traditional liturgy and imagery of the shofar Service was retained, but the shofar itself was replaced with a trumpet, a French horn, a cornet, or in several very wealthy Reform Temples, a special stop on the organ designed to mimic roughly its sound. In this way, the effect of the shofar as a Divine wake-up call to repentance and obedience could be preserved, but re-contextualized into Western classical musical compositions, with a twelve-tone scale and modern pitch. It could be accompanied by other instruments, rather than needing to stand on its own. This tradition of totally Westernized, symbolic shofar music for services has been abandoned by most, if not all, Reform and Classical Reform congregations. I personally think this is a shame, since this very specialized genre of music is breathtakingly beautiful and could easily coexist with the traditional shofar over the course of the High Holiday season.

Shofar_Large_DL_diningroom_backgroundInterestingly, even when Classical Reform sensibilities and musical aesthetics reigned supreme, they were never monolithic, and the traditional shofar was not entirely absent from the picture. In a few congregations, including the ultra-radical Chicago Sinai Congregation under Rabbi Louis Mann, a large traditional shofar was sounded alongside a generally Westernized music program. Perhaps for a congregation that prided itself (as it still does) on a certain degree of ritual minimalism, the sound of the shofar added a poignant accent that set the High Holidays apart as a uniquely holy time of year.

Some early Reform musicians went a step further, and experimented by including a “hybrid” shofar in their High Holy Day music. When Herman Berlinski became organist and music director of Washington Hebrew Congregation in the sixties, he discovered a large “hybrid” shofar hidden in a storage cabinet. Apparently, one of his predecessors used this new and unusual instrument, which had a metal, trumpet-like mouthpiece and a few holes drilled into its shaft. The mouthpiece and holes enabled the player (especially one already trained as a trumpet player) to produce most of the notes in a typical Western musical scale, and to control the pitch more reliably than would be possible without the extra hardware. In this way, the “rustic” tone of the traditional shofar could be used in a composition for a choir, organ, or even orchestra, without creating any dissonance with the choir or other musical instruments. Berlinski found that a skilled player could integrate this “hybrid” shofar quite easily into his own compositions for the High Holy Days, which were quite daring and innovative.

While not well documented, we know that there were a few other experiments with these “hybrid” instruments that allowed the introduction of the shofar’s unique, viscerally jarring and moving sonic qualities into the Western harmonic music that suffuses a Classical Reform worship service. Today, Classical Reform Temples recognize the beauty and appropriateness of the traditional and “rough” unmodified shofar in the context of a “westernized”, decorum-filled worship Service, and have adopted its use. However, it might well be worthwhile for congregations, rabbis, cantors, music directors, ritual committees, and composers to consider incorporating Western brass instruments, organs with a specialized organ stops that imitate the shofaroth and chazozeroth (long metal trumpets from the old Temple, described in the Mishnah)in their organs, and “hybrid” instruments such as the one discovered by Berlinski into their High Holy Day music. They all have the potential to add beauty to our observance, smoothly bridging any real or perceived “gap” of incongruity between the visceral, primal nod to the past offered by the traditional shofar and our noble legacy of clothing timeless, ancient Judaism in the very best musical forms of our time and place.

 

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