Shiru l’Adonai Shir Chadash–Sing unto Adonai a new song. As worship leaders and worshipers, how many times have we heard this charge from psalm 96? It is a wonderful reminder of the interplay between scripture and liturgy, and their fundamental difference. Scripture does not change. Indeed, even the would-be “mistakes” of the Torah are not corrected. Rather, alongside them in our chumashim we see how certain words really should be spelled and/or vocalized. Liturgy on the other hand has long been fluid–ever changing to match the new hopes, desires, frustrations, and morals of humankind’s maturation. Singing to God a new song is to constantly find new ways to express our evolving expression to God. As a result, change in liturgy and the music therein has been constant not only in our movement, but also in other Jewish movements and in other religions generally. As we pray together each week, we attempt to transform ourselves so that we can meet the moral and spiritual challenges each changing day brings.
One exception to this constant, gradual change is the liturgy and music of our High Holy Day worship. Like a massive ship, the services for the Days of Awe carry many more of our congregants, and meet far less frequently than our Shabbat services. While the liturgy and music of the High Holy Days we know today is quite different from that of even 50 years ago, they are still progressing at a much slower pace. Therefore, change to this grand liturgy is more jarring and difficult when it comes, even when that change is long overdue. But as the High Holy Day liturgy helps us make cheshbon nefesh–accounting for our souls–it is of utmost importance to keep these prayers and their musical expression up to date with humanity’s ever changing moral, spiritual and aesthetic requirements.
What could fill cantors and synagogue musicians with more purpose and joy than to literally follow the psalmist’s urge to sing a new song unto God? Shirei Mishkan Hanefesh, the musical companion to our new machzor, Mishkan Hanefesh, attempts to fulfill the monumental task of creating new melodies to express our liturgy during the yamim noraim. Indeed, the beauty of this new music is that it will make more of our liturgy accessible to our congregations. The goal of introducing these new settings, however, is not to replace the older ones, but to live alongside them so that they add to the richness of our prayer. While liturgy changes, scripture’s grounding constancy reminds us that we must walk a careful path between change and tradition. Carefully updated liturgy and music for our High Holy Days bring our penitential prayers fuller expression, but they cannot effectively do so without the same attentiveness to the established prayers and music that have carried us thus far.
Cantor Daniel Mutlu serves Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas. Cantor Mutlu was also on the editorial committee for Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh.