Passover: Our Season of Love and Liberation

This weekend my dear friend, colleague, author, composer and pioneer in Jewish spirituality Rabbi Shefa Gold will be leading a workshop under the auspices of the Lev Shalem Institute of the WJC entitled “Exploring the Landscape of Love Through the Song of Songs.” Registration for the weekend is now closed, but I wanted to make sure everyone knew that if you would like a taste of Rabbi Shefa’s teachings she will be leading our Friday evening service, and the service is open to all. The service begins at 7:30pm. (I’ll be there too.) On Saturday morning I will be leading our regular service in our sanctuary while our workshop participants continue with Rabbi Shefa in their own meeting space in the classroom wing.

Violet Snow interviewed both me and Rabbi Shefa and composed a fine article in the April 21 edition of the Woodstock Times describing Rabbi Shefa’s work and the place of the Song of Songs in Jewish tradition and the Song’s connection to Passover. I share the article with you here, and send you my continuing good wishes during this Passover season.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler


Song of Songs: Lev Shalem Institute workshop takes up chants from the text

            Violet Snow, Woodstock Times 4/21/16

“He kisses me with the kisses of his mouth,” begins the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, the Bible’s erotic love poem that has been interpreted by religious sages for centuries as a metaphor for “cosmic love between the Creator and human beings,” said Rabbi Jonathan Kligler of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation (WJC). The synagogue’s Lev Shalem Institute will be hosting a weekend workshop on chants from the Song of Songs, led by Rabbi Shefa Gold, from Friday evening, April 29 through Sunday afternoon, May 1, open to participants regardless of their spiritual tradition.

“That opening line sets the tone for the whole Song of Songs,” said Gold in a phone interview. “We’re being called to engage with life in an intimate way, not like a peck on the cheek, not standing back, but being present in all our passion for life. We’re taking all that erotic energy and integrating it so we can become more alive and awake.”

The workshop, “Exploring the Landscape of Love Through the Song of Songs,” emphasizes the chanting practice developed by Gold as a means of entering into Hebrew liturgy and scripture to transform consciousness. Meditation, contemplation, and discussion will also help participants explore the text of which Rabbi Akiva said in the second century, “All the Torah is holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”

Gold is a leader in ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal and received her ordination both from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. She travels and teaches widely, writes books on spiritual practice, and composes and performs spiritual music, having produced ten albums, several recorded at Nevessa Studios in Woodstock. Kligler sings on some of her early CDs, but when he first met her, Gold was a singer-songwriter, just beginning to delve into Jewish traditions. “We were at the first Jewish Renewal convention in 1985,” he recalled. “We were singing together in a stairwell that had a good echo in it. She has always been deeply attuned to the spiritual level of things, a sensitive and mystical person. And she’s a fountain of music – so prolific, it’s amazing.”

When I was a singer-songwriter,” said Gold, “even as a teenager playing clubs in Greenwich Village, I always felt I was creating sacred space with music. It was limited because people were drinking and not necessarily paying attention, but I always felt the potential and saw the power of music to open peiople’s hearts and allow them to completely relax and tune in to the joy of being alive.”

Later she brought this sense of music’s potential into her rabbinate. “Being a rabbi is teaching people how to use the traditions of Judaism to live a life that’s open-hearted and loving, questioning, seeking,” she remarked. “At the synagogue, there were so many words that had to be said, it felt frustrating to me. But if I could tune into one phrase at a time and make the music bring that phrase alive, the liturgy would be invigorated.” Thus she began to set individual lines to music and chant them with her congregation.

While chanting is not a common practice in modern synagogues, except perhaps where Hasidic niggunim, often wordless melodies, are sung repeatedly, Gold finds evidence of Jews using music to alter consciousness, going back to ancient times. “In the book of 2 Samuel, prophets would sing and dance and come into a state of prophecy,” she said. “The Psalms were central to the development of Judaism and worship, and they were meant to be sung.”

Although Gold has been exposed to other kinds of spiritual chant, and she often accompanies her chanting with a harmonium-like shruti box that produces a background drone, she has never studied the kirtan that is so prevalent in the yogic tradition. “This practice came organically out of my experience with the Hebrew text,” she explained. “When you take a phrase of text, it already has a rhythm and music to it. To bring it alive, I use what I know about melody, harmony, rhythm, and breath, to activate its medicine. We chant mostly in Hebrew but occasionally in English to remind us of what we’re saying. We set an intention to direct the energy. At the end, we go into silence and allow the power of the chant to be received in that silence, which is as important as the chant itself.”

The workshop has been scheduled to fall at the end of Passover, the holiday of liberation, which has a traditional relationship with the Song of Songs. With lines like “Come with me down to the nut garden,” the text evokes images of nature and springtime. “The two are tied together with the idea that the Creator liberated us from slavery so that we could be devoted to love,” said Kligler, “so our spirits wouldn’t be bound by oppression, internal or external. It’s like flowers and sprouts being liberated from winter to burst forth in their glory.”

Gold sees the Song of Songs also functioning as a guide to incorporating love in daily life. “When we place love and relationship at the center, everything on the periphery looks very different,” she said. “It’s a measure of our spiritual practice – is our practice making us more loving? Is it working? Each day, how do I get inspiration from these holy texts in order to walk the path of love?”