The Global Citizen is a joint project of New Voices and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Throughout the year, a group of former AJWS volunteers will offer their take on global justice, Judaism and international development. Opinions expressed by Global Citizen bloggers do not necessarily represent AJWS.
Last week, I began discussing the importance of communal living in confronting problems of social justice. But communities are also important in our individual access to spiritual energy.
What do I mean? It used to be the case that Jewish men in Eastern Europe, my ancestral land of origin, davened (not women – Judaism has seen its fair share of gender inequality). They would go to the synagogue and pray, or they would pray at home, or in a friend’s living room, wherever they could find a minyan, or prayer quorum. These prayers would contain an element of musical and textual spontenaity. Irene Heskes, a historian who specialized in Jewish music, offers this quote about davening: “in its classic sense – spontaneous, highly vocal, motivated by prayer,” including the independence of an individual in a self-established state of privacy, in the midst of a minyan. I would form my own personal connection with G-d, and you, praying beside me, would do the same, and we would each be vocalizing at different paces, and we would each be inspiring the other to achieve a spiritual awareness that we would then carry throughout the day.
In comes Western art. With the growth of Enlightenment philosophy, Jewish musicians in Eastern Europe began applying an aesthetic of art to their music. Over the course of the 1800’s, certain tunes that had been sung for centuries gained connotations of “vulgar” or “unrefined.” Jewish musicians learned to love the way of notating they had learned from their Christian counterparts, and they lost connection with the “oral process,” the mouth-to-ear method of passing sacred music and text that had lasted Judaism thousands of years. The oral process had an element of integral, involving the whole community, shifting from one year to the next in a state of continuous evolution. The written process felt more strongly individual.
I’ve just offered some abstract theory. I hope it was interesting; it may even have been right. But more importantly for us right now, what’s the connection with social justice?
Take a look at this recent New York Times article. It describes an organization dedicated to helping young Jews live in communal housing in cities across the globe, stretching as wide as Beijing, Budapest, and Cape Town. Jews are starting to reconnect with a model of communal living that remains an important, often overlooked, part of our faith.
This is the epitome of social justice. Moishe House Jews are able to tap into collective energy and offer positive contributions to their local neighborhoods and the Jewish communities of their cities. They understand the idea of equality of spiritual energy – each person need bring only themselves to the work. I need not have a large amount of expertise, nor a large amount of money, in order to change the world; I just need a small group of committed people.
When we pray, we share our energy. I davven, and you hear me and feel inspired, and I hear you and feel further inspired. Let’s thank our cantors for their efforts in service of us and G-d, and ask them to step down from the bimah and stand beside us, as we now all share together in our cleaving to G-d.