“Please don’t sing.” These words run counter to every cantorial and spiritual goal I have. And since March 2020, they’ve been too often on my lips. At funerals, earliest and most cruelly; at rallies and marches; at weddings; this past spring, at some Shabbat services. This summer, they no longer seemed necessary. We were vaccinated, the sun was shining, the breeze was blowing, and the storm was passing. But people plan and Delta laughs. Here we are again, facing a fall in which we have to ask: Can we sing safely together indoors?
Song is one of our earliest models of prayer – from Miryam to Moshe to Chanah to King David to the prophetess D’vorah, over and over again we read, or chant, instances of intimacy with the Divine that are achieved by music, drumming, or dance. Even more than the Jews have kept music, the adapted Shabbat saying goes, music has kept the Jews. I can’t imagine a service where the liturgy and texts are only spoken, not sung. Singing opens our lungs and our hearts, allows us to hear and be heard in a deeper and more beautiful physicality than speech. It has nothing to do with how trained or tuneful the voice. We sing together for the same reasons that we talk together, eat together, make love – to be more fully with one another. With coronavirus, terribly, the song we make together has the potential to harm our health.
Amos 5:23 says, in context of increasing housing justice, that God doesn’t want songs without the justice (thanks to the Rev. Liza Knapp, pastor of First Church in Deerfield, for her powerful sermon that directed me to this source). Populations of color and poorer populations are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, including in Massachusetts. And, of course, our most vulnerable, across race and socioeconomic status, are children under 12, who are too young to get vaccinated, whose health now depends on the masking and vaccination choices of the adults around them.
When do we make justice by quieting voices? And when do we make justice by raising them? In a recent op-ed, Nasrin Nawa wrote: “With reports circulating about Taliban militants raiding the houses of activists, journalists and others, I called my sister and told her to go home and hide all of our identity cards. Then I told her that she needed to destroy her guitar. She said her hands were unable to do that, but I pleaded with her. I told her the Taliban’s hands are capable of killing you for your art. But I can’t imagine literally shattering such an important part of who you are.” (“My Taliban nightmare came true. I left, but my sister couldn’t,” The Washington Post, Aug. 16, 2021.)
I read this, and my stomach cramped my breath. I thought of all the women in my life who have played guitars and inspired me – cantors and camp counselors and folksingers and sisters and stars. I thought of the guitar my husband gave me on our anniversary, which is one of my most important professional tools. I remembered searching for a guitar two winters ago in Guatemala, on a trip with American Jewish World Services just before the world shut down; how unexpectedly restless I was without it; how when my arms wrapped around one, loaned by a generous Guatemalan, a part of myself slid back into place. Rav Kook writes about “one who sings the song of [her]self.” Guitar and the vocal melodies that twine with it help me find and share myself, and help me encourage my beloved community in that kind of sharing.
The silence of smashed instruments, the silence of song cruelly outlawed, just as surely as the violence and misogyny that wrought them, is a chillul Hashem – a desecration. I condemn it, I mourn it, and I will do everything in my power to fight it.
But the silence we now practice, limiting our live communal song, is a silence shaped by Jewish commitment to pikuach nefesh, preservation of life. This silence is holy. We are taught that pikuach nefesh overrides keeping Shabbat. It overrides even what John Wells, an Ionian preacher, called the “11th commandment: to sing!”
On these High Holy Days, we will celebrate in a world that is so very changed from two years ago. Two years ago, Nawa’s sister played her instrument publicly, proudly. In another two – inshallah, God only knows. Here in Massachusetts this fall, our Jewish communities will gather – outdoors, indoors with various restrictions, online. We will miss the joy and release of full-throated singing with our full communities. But we can do this. We can sing apart, so that we can survive to sing together again.
Cantor Vera Broekhuysen is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El of Haverhill.