Friday, February 27, 2009

The Power of a Niggun - II

by Cantor Sherwood Goffin


“One niggun can express more than a thousand words.”

The Tsadik of Kuzmir

“Every locksmith has a master key with which he can open many doors. The niggun is such a key, for it can unlock all doors.”

Sayings of Chabad

“It is said that the Mansion of Song and the Mansion of Penitence are close to each other, and I say that the Mansion of Song IS the Mansion of Penitence.”

Rabbi Yisrael of Modzitz

“The bad traits in man come from the animal instinct within him. Through the power of the niggun it is possible to remove this instinct.”

The Baal Shem Tov

“Speech reveals the thought of the mind, but melody reveals the emotions of longing and delight. These stem from the inner self, from the very soul, and are much higher than reason and intellect.”

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch
(whom I met on a class visit in 1948 or ’49 to Crown Heights as a child.)

Source: “Songs of the Chassidim,” by Velvel Pasternak


Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Three Torahs

Towards the end of Parshat Mishpatim, we have a slightly redundant verse (Ex. 24:12):

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה עֲלֵ֥ה אֵלַ֛י הָהָ֖רָה וֶהְיֵה־שָׁ֑ם וְאֶתְּנָ֨ה לְךָ֜ אֶת־לֻחֹ֣ת הָאֶ֗בֶן וְהַתֹּורָה֙ וְהַמִּצְוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר כָּתַ֖בְתִּי לְהֹורֹתָֽם׃

"And God said to Moshe, 'Ascend to me to the mountain and be there, and I will give to you the tablets of stone and the Teaching and the Command which I have written to teach you.'"

Why does it say "which I have written"? God is giving us the Torah and the Mitzvot, the Ten Statements in which are encoded the 613 mitzvot, which he has composed, why does He add "written"? Further, He doesn't write the Torah, Moshe does, He only supplies the text to Moshe.

The usual reading is that the Torah and the Mitzvah are the Written and Oral Torahs - this implies that there is a Third Torah being given by God. What could that be?

The Meshech Chochmah suggests two possibilities. One, from a Gemara in Brachot ch. 5 (and explained further in Nedarim), is that God is giving the Neviim and Ketuvim, and all the chiddushim yet to be written by all future students of Torah. That is, the Torah and the Mitzvah are the bones, the structure, the form of Torah. But what do the Neviim and Ketuvim add? The substance, the theology, the philosphical underpinnings, the meaning of the Torah and Mitzvot. The chiddushim of all future students continue to refine and shape our relationship to Torah, our relationship to God. As the Chasidim like to say, God Torah and Israel are One. We help out in the creation of that relationship, but all our inspiration ultimately comes from God, Who continues to write His Torah. [Yes, that's continuous revelation, but of course such revelation only comes to the prepared mind, as the Ramchal might have said.]

The other possibility, from the Rashbam, is that the third Torah is the Book of Nature. God created the Torah and gave it to us as an information transfer, but God also created the natural world and gave it to humankind to study and dominate and use, within the limits set by halacha. But we can also learn from biology, the middos, the ethical attributes that we are supposed to follow. As the gemara says, we learn modesty from the cat, we learn about theft from the ant. If animals can follow God's Will, surely we who are a higher order of creation can follow God's will as well? So we are to learn biology, specifically animal behavior, as an integral part of the Torah life. Perhaps this also extends to other fields of scientific endeavour, as we are to also have awe for God? And as we learn more about the universe and its workings, we are more awed by He who spoke and the world was.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Power of a Niggun - I


by Cantor Sherwood Goffin


“How do you pray to God? Is it possible to pray with words alone? Come, I will show you a new way to God – not with words or sayings- but with song. We will sing and the Lord on High will understand us”.

(R’ Nachman of Breslov)

“The tongue is the pen of the heart, but melody is the quill of the soul”.

R’ Shneur Zalman Of Liadi
(1st Chabad Rebbe)

“Through the power of Neginah (music), one may conquer the heart.”

The Maggid of Koznitz

“Through song, the Gates of Heaven can be opened. Sadness closes them. The origin of all songs is Holy, for impurity has no song, and is the root of all sadness”.

R’ Naftali of Ropshitz

Source: “Songs of the Chassidim,” by Velvel Pasternak


Kol Nidre and the Valmadonna Exhibit

The Valmadonna Trust – for a Hebraeo-bibliophile, there are no words. Such a collection, such a variety of early printed Jewish books, manuscripts, and books printed in out-of-the-way places for Jewish printing, such as India and Palestine. All in such beautiful condition, many bound in gorgeously tooled and gilded leather (cloth bindings didn’t really come in until the 19th century). And all in private hands. There are greater institutional collections (Didan Notzach changed the Chabad library from a private to an institutional collection), but this was assembled largely by one man who truly loves the Jewish book, Jack Lunzer, and who has the resources to collect and preserve them. And it was all on display Feb 9-19, 2009, at Sotheby's in New York.

The stories have been told, of how Lunzer acquired one of only two known complete sets of the Bomberg Talmud, the first complete Babylonian Talmud ever printed, whose pagination forms the model for all other Talmud printings since.

But individual books tell their own stories, be they the choices of composition, editing and production, or the historic personages who have owned them, or the uses to which they have been put. Who has not seen wine stains on antique haggadot, just as we have on our own? Salt-water stains? Even burn marks on cookbooks, or books rescued from the flames?

My favorite book exhibited, was the 1711 Machzor Sha’ar Bat Rabbim, printed by Giovanni de Pauli for the Bragadin press, in the Ashkenazi rite. It’s a big, beautiful chazzan’s machzor, with a commentary explaining the prayers. The type is clear and large. A copy was offered (but did not sell) at Virtual Judaica last year, estimated value $6-10,000.

What made it special to me was the displayed page, Kol Nidrei. This page is marked up by an early chazzan (faded ink from a feather pen), with some marks to remind him of the proper phrasing.

Each short phrase gets a hook like a telisha,

and each concluding phrase on each line (as the tune has lines) gets a horizontal stroke over the phrase.

A different hand, perhaps later, has added little T-marks over emphasized syllables, to further refine correct performance. The hook-marks and horizontal marks seem to come from one hand, with a somewhat sloppy pen that leaves a penumbra of ink, but the T-marks are made by a cleaner pen, perhaps a feather or a metal nib instead of a reed or softer nib. Does anyone have experience of different pen types who can shed some light on this? Feather, reed, metal.

Or perhaps the penumbra is an earlier hand marking the hooks, and the black part is a later hand redrawing them. That would indicate the faint marks are pretty early, but the black marks are also not too late, because who would mark up a real antique?

The way the phrases are marked, it seems clear to me, is identical to the phrasing used by our current Kol Nidre Tune.

Professional cantors speak of certain tunes as “Missinai”. Now, this is not meant literally, but what it means is that these are tunes which are universally used throughout the Ashkenazic communities, which trace back to at least the 14th or 15th century, when the Maharil noted the modes to be used for the different prayers.

I noticed, while singing through our Missinai tune for Kol Nidrei, that the annotations on the words in the Machzor matched the phrasing of our tune. There are other ways the prayer could be broken up, but it seems to me that this is evidence that 200-300 years ago (whenever it was marked), the cantor who used this machzor (it was bought generally by communities, who paid subscriptions to acquire it as a series of pamphlets, and then the whole rebound) was probably using the same tune we do. Yes, it’s a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument, so it’s no proof (pace DFB), but it is at least circumstantial evidence.

It’s one thing to take on faith that “everyone uses the same tune.” We do have 18th- and 19th-century cantorial music which uses the same tune. Abraham Baer in c. 1765 has a somewhat different variant, while Lewandowski in 1871 has our tune pretty much. But to find physical evidence that they were using the same tune in the early 18th century? Fascinating, Captain. It gives real emphasis to the idea that these really are important and ancient tunes.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Hava Nagilah

MUSICAL NOTE by Cantor Sherwood Goffin
The Metamorphosis of Hava Nagila

This popular Israeli melody, known throughout the world, began as a mid-18th century niggun of the Sadigora Chassidim of Bukovina, East Europe. When the great Jewish ethnomusicologist Dr. A.Z. Idelsohn, formerly of Leipsig, who had opened the first Jewish Institute of Music in Jerusalem in 1910, was looking for words to put to this niggun, he asked his class for assistance. It was already 1918, and 12 year-old Moshe Nathanson volunteered the words "Hava Nagila Hava," which Idelsohn put together with the melody to create a new choral piece.

It eventually spread like wildfire throughout the Yishuv, and when it became popular among the Zionists, the chassidim of Sadigora disowned it! To this day it is popular in Jewish and non-Jewish circles, but because it has taken on a very secular nature it is unfortunately no longer appropriate for use in shul. Little Moshe grew up to become the first Chazzan of the SAJ on 86th St. and a West Side neighbor when LSS first began in 1964!


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tzedakah and Katrina - R' Bleich

a Guest Post by Mar Gavriel

Rabbi Bleich's sermon after Hurricane Katrina:


R. Bleich spoke about the contradiction between the verses אפס כי לא יהיה בך אביון and גי לא יחדל האביון מקרב הארץ. He cited the RAMBA"N's solution to the contradiction, which is that there will always be poor people among the gentiles outside of Eretz Yisrael, but among the Israelites, in Eretz Yisrael, there will not be poor people.

Then, R. Bleich said: When the gentiles encounter their poor people, they will be moved by the sense that they need to do good, and therefore, they will give tzedhŏqŏ. You Jews, when you see the gentiles give tzedhŏqŏ, must emulate them. Every reason that they have to do tzedhŏqŏ-- because it's the morally right thing to do-- you have, as well; plus, you also have another reason, namely that the Torah has commanded you to give tzedhŏqŏ.

When we see how much wonderful good many righteous people among the אומות העולם have done in helping the New Orleanians, we must learn from them, and copy their example. The gentiles are obligated to help the New Orleanians because it's the morally right thing to do; you must do it because it's the right thing to do, and because the Torah commanded it.

Chesed towards Whom?

R' Daniel Z. Feldman's new book, "Divine Footsteps: Chesed and the Jewish Soul", on the various mitzvot that constitute the general requirement of "gemilut chasadim", distribution of lovingkindness, which is one of the "three things on which the world stands" (Avot 1:2; the others being Torah learning and Divine Service).

He includes chapters on:
  • Visiting the sick
  • Comforting the bereaved
  • Escorting the decease
  • Hosting guests
  • Helping a bride to marry
  • Lending
  • Collecting tzedakah
  • Giving tzedakah
R' Feldman interweaves halachic sources with the ethical and philosophical imperatives and goals that give meaning to the bare requirements of "doing good for others." For example,
The Talmud records that Friday night kiddush was recited in the synagogue when guests were eating there. In modern times, it is no longer common for guests to be hosted at the synagogue, and yet many contemporary synagogues have a custom to recite kiddush in the context of the Friday night prayers anyway. Many questioned or objected to this practice,[145] and a number of theories are suggested to explain why the practice should continue.[146] It may be suggested that the modern synagogue kiddush is a testament to the history of the original kiddush, which was a service to the needy being hosted. As such, it is a reminder that the communal center, the synagogue, is required to be concerned for both the spiritual and physical needs of the community at large. (p, 155)
145. See Rosh, Pesachim 10:5, and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 269.
146. See Responsa Rashba I, 37 and 323; Magen Avraham 269:3; Responsa Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot 1, 255; R Yechiel Ya'akov Weinberg, Responsa Seridei Eish I, 28.
That last is a sentiment that I'm sure my great-grandfather Louis Cohen and his brother Joseph H. Cohen, founders of the first two Jewish Centers, would have supported.

The one place where it falls short, in my opinion, is in relations with non-Jews. My mother runs a series of clothing and food drives, and organizes a fleet of volunteers through Lincoln Square Synagogue to staff them, give local yeshiva kids chesed-work credit, and twice a week redistribute 25-50 lbs of day-old bread from a local bakery to the poor, mostly non-Jews. In short, she's "the chesed lady".

But she gets a lot of flack from donors over the fact that she mostly sends the donations to non-Jewish charities. For the most part, this is out of necessity. There are very few Jewish soup kitchens and food pantries, especially in Manhattan; Jewish clothing-redistribution outlets can get factory-seconds from the still-present-in-NY garment business, and don't want used clothing; her volunteers aren't about to make multiple two-hour round trips to charities in Brooklyn. But she still gets flack for it, and I was hoping to find something to support the idea of giving to non-Jews.

American Jewish charities often give to non-Jews as well, following natural disasters or terror attacks. American Jewish World Service, various Jewish Federations, even the students and congregation of KJ/Ramaz, sent goods and supplies to New Orleans after Katrina, or to the Indian Ocean after the Boxing Day Tsunami.

The Rambam has a few choice words on the subject, in Hil. Matanot L'Aniyyim 7:7, "We support and clothe the non-Jewish poor along with the Jewish poor, because of the paths of peace," quoting the Gemara in the end of the fifth chapter of Gittin), which Ridvaz explains as "we support both Jewish and non-Jewish poor for the same reason." Other poskim discuss the parameters of darchei shalom. R' Dovid Zvi Hoffman explains that it's a different reason than "out of fear [of retribution if we don't]", rather, it's meant to promote real good-feeling between Jews and non-Jews. It's brought down in the Shulchan Aruch by the Rema at Yoreh Deah 251:1 - why not by the Mechaber? Various commentators and poskim discuss the duty towards non-Jews.

But I had to read through R' Feldman's section on Priorities between Causes twice to find the one brief passage that mentions non-Jews. He writes,

The needs of the larger world population, outside of the Jewish community, also merit a place on the list of causes supported by Jews. While the Talmud mandates assisting the poor of the world "together with the poor of Israel,"[99] authorities have ruled, following the Ran, that this language is not meant to exclude situations in which no Jews are involved.[100] (pp. 233-4)

99. Gittin 61a.
100. Shakh, Yoreh De'ah 251:2, and Biur Ha-Gra. See also Responsa Avnei Yoshefeh I, 193, and Emet Le-Ya'akov, Yoreh De'ah 251, fn. 137.
That's it. At least it does faithfully represent the halacha, if barely. But where is the larger discussion of goals? of underlying ethical imperatives? of fear vs. love? Where are they placed on the priority list? Where is the discussion of the Rema vs. the Mechaber? R' Feldman devotes pages and pages to the back-and-forth over prioritizing the poor of one's city vs. one's poor relatives vs. the greater community of Jewish poor, the more needy vs. the less, etc. Here was an opportunity to broaden our horizons beyond the narrow confines of the Jewish community, but tzedakah to non-Jews is only given a backhanded approval.

Note that I use tzedakah not charity - charity is the Christian word, which derives from karitas, or love - the giving of charity is subjective, depending on one's love for the other. One is supposed to have such love, of course, but it's not quantified. Our tzedakah, on the other hand, works the other way - we are mandated to give to the poor, in specific ways, and doing so sensitizes us to the needs of others.

Overall, the book is very well done, and covers a lot of material that one doesn't often see presented, in a clear, sensitive and well-organized fashion. It should have a place on the bookshelf of every Jew who considers gemilut chasadim part of his or her duty to the world.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Beethoven's Jewish Side

MUSICAL NOTE by Cantor Sherwood Goffin

When the first Reform temple in Vienna, the Seitstettengasse Synagogue, was about to be dedicated, the trustees in 1824 asked Beethoven to write a cantata for the dedication. Ludwig eventually declined to do so, but it seems that he did spend some time studying Jewish traditional music. Added to the fact that he was dating a Jewish woman at that time (which was eventually stopped by her parents), Beethoven must have absorbed a goodly amount of Jewish music. So much so, that shortly afterwards, his String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor. no.XIV, op. 131, was written and performed in Berlin. In its Adagio Movement there are the unmistakable strains of Kol Nidre! I have listened to it many times and I am convinced - as was the great music expert, Emil Breslaur- that this was a direct result (in part) of his dual association with the young lady, and primarily because of the original invitation proffered to him by the Jewish Community of Berlin.


© 2008 Sherwood Goffin and LSS

Updated: city and year. 20F08

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Talking in Davening (this means YOU)

MUSICAL NOTE by Cantor Sherwood Goffin

(Excerpted from “Praying With Fire,” Rabbi H. Kleinman)

There is a concept that those who do not demonstrate the proper esteem for items from which they derive benefit will at some point lose access to that benefit (Brachot 62b). The same concept applies to one who talks during Chazarat HaShatz – one loses the benefit of that which he fails to honor. His act displays a great disrespect for prayer and disregard for its efficacy, and thus, loses his ability to reach Hashem through prayer. It is for this reason that “the sin is too great to bear.” (Shulchan Aruch, 124:7).

In truth, once one understands the implications of conversation during Chazarat HaShatz, there can be no choice other than maintaining a respectful silence. By choosing our prayer, above whatever distractions present themselves around us, we preserve the most valuable asset we have – our personal connection with our Creator.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

My Elter Zeide and Lubavitch

As told by R’ Aaron Rakeffet, 4 Jan 2009.

An example of transplanting the Alter Heim to the USA, rather than the translation of European Jewry for America which was the method of YU

The Rebbe was running away, the State Dept pulled him out of Poland, in 1940. Ads went out in the four Jewish dailies at the time, religious, secular, socialist, communist - “those of you that remember Lubavitch, the Rebbe is coming to America on this boat on this day, please greet him.” R’ Rakeffet’s cousin was there. A crowd came out about this. There’s video of this from Lubavitch. Maybe 5000 people came out, mostly not religious, they still knew what Lubavitch was, they had been raised Lubavitch, they remembered the cholent from Lubavitch.

The Rebbe came down, he couldn’t speak, he had had a stroke, his wife spoke for him in Yiddish, her translator was Rose Lieberman, Sharon Mintz’s (Mrs. R’ Adam) grandmother. As they wheeled the Rebbe in, someone strikes up a niggun from the Alter Heim. The Rebbe joins in. People started to cry, even distant from Yiddishkeit. And people swore they wouldn’t be mechallel shabbos then. The women would go to the beauty parlor on Saturday to do their hair for the movie palace Saturday night, the women became shomer shabbos when their kids went to yeshiva. Big thing, suddenly the husbands are going to be home on Saturday!

They brought him to the Greystone Hotel on the Upper West Side. Some of the older Chasidim came in to the Rebbe, told him “we have good news for you, in Lakewood there’s a nice community, warmer than NY, some wealthy Chasidim there, you can retire there, they’ll set you up nicely, and we’ll come farbreng with you once a month. At least you’re away from the Nazis, but New York is a waste of time.” I heard the Seventh Rebbe tell this story with my own ears (says R’ARR). This was shocking! Chasidim daring to tell the Rebbe to retire?

The next morning, they all come in to have breakfast with him, everyone is up & happy. The Rebbe tells them, “Chasidim don’t tell a rebbe what to do, the Rebbe tells the Chasidim what to do. “This is what I’m going to do. I’ll go to Lakewood, rest up for a month, and then we’re starting all over, and we’re going to prove that America can be exactly like the Alter Heim!” They thought he was nuts, but a Rebbe redt, speaks, you don’t say a word.

At the end of the month, he calls in the Chasidim, including Rose Lieberman, and her father R’ Cunin, the grandfather of the head shaliach in California today, and says to them, I want to open a shtibl in the finest neighborhood in New York City. So the Chasidim ask each other – how do we know what the finest neighborhood is? Where the biggest Conservative temple is! So that’s how Lubavitch came to Eastern Parkway, because the Brooklyn Jewish Center was right across the street, the biggest Conservative synagogue in the world.

* * *

And this is where I come in, because my great-grandfather, Louis Cohen a”h, Yitchak Eliezer b. Yaakov haKohen, in the pre-WWI era a wealthy coat manufacturer, moved to Crown Heights, built the biggest house on President St. (today an empty brick shell r”l, but 20 years ago still a beautiful home. And for wealthy Jews in this beautiful neighborhood of fine homes and boulevards, there should be a beautiful upper-class Orthodox Synagogue, huge Tiffany skylight, limited to 500 families (although by 1923 it had 1000), no families accepted from beyond Utica Avenue in the middle-class neighborhood of Brownsville (where my father’s parents lived in the 1920s). And that synagogue, the Brooklyn Jewish Center, would follow in the idea formulated by Louis Cohen’s older brother Joseph H. Cohen, founder of The Jewish Center on 86th St. in New York.

Unfortunately, 18 months later, another person on the Board decided to affiliate with the fledgling Conservative movement, but as there was little practical difference between Orthodox and Conservative in those days, my great-grandfather remained part of the synagogue.

My grandmother taught dance classes there, directed plays, etc. as a young woman. She was married in the synagogue on Lag Ba’omer in 1926. As the second Jewish Center in the world, it was a “shul with a pool” and a gym, adult ed, Hebrew school, social groups, etc. Today, the building belongs to Lubavitch, and is used as a yeshiva. They hacked out the beautiful main shul, and replaced the space with a huge beis medrash and a library. The things they learn in that beis midrash, well, the school has a loyalty oath that children of non-Meschichst families are not allowed to make fun of children of Meshichist families. But at least it’s a Jewish institution still, not a church or a tile store or a used furniture store.

So why is Lubavitch in Crown Heights? Why is there still a Jewish presence in Crown Heights? Because in 1918, my great-grandfather decided to set up a big, beautiful Modern Orthodox synagogue.

* * *

R’ Rakeffet’s story was part of a larger point, that while YU was about translating Judaism for America, R’ Aharon Kotler and the Chasidim wanted to transplant Europe to America. It’s rather ironic how the various groups have shifted: the Yeshivish have adopted the trappings of Chassidus – the focus on externals in dress and behavior, the elevation of the Rosh Yeshiva to a Rebbe, a channel to God; meanwhile the Lubavitchers who received this order from their Rebbe that “America is no different!” – they have become the biggest translators of Chassidus for the American scene, accommodating all kinds of laxity, theological, behavioral, etc., in their drive to bring Judaism to American Jews. The influence flows both ways – the Chasidim have become modernized, almost Agudist (yes, in theory, Lubavitch is as anti-Zionist as Satmar, but in practice, they use political influence in Israel as in America or Russia, basically the same position taken by Agudah).