Harmony – Irrelevant or Divine Praise?
Updated: Apr 21
Two recent guests on my podcast, Oliver Bradley, who is Jewish, and Julie Kinscheck, who is Christian, both spoke of pleasing music and song during services. While their religions are an obvious difference, I noticed some other divergent elements worth exploring – their intentions, the role of harmony, and the role of women.
“how can [we pray] together if my form of communication is going to be a little bit different from the needs of the person who's next to me?”
Oliver strives for a private conversation with God, and therefore appreciates the focus on the individual in the Orthodox services he attends. He notes, “how can [we pray] together if my form of communication is going to be a little bit different from the needs of the person who's next to me?” He feels that he is talking to God to improve himself, not speaking with his neighbor. Therefore, he accepts the unmusical out-of-sync drone of chants as the sign of each person’s individual focus in prayer.
Julie’s central intention grows naturally from her role as a band leader and singer. For her, singing in tune and harmoniously with others inspires congregants into Divine praise and leads to a spiritual experience.
“As a singer for the Lord, you want to be excellent. You want people to enjoy what you're doing and to be moved by it. But the ultimate goal is not to draw them to me, [but] to draw them to God.”
Role of Harmony
Does harmony in services bring you closer to God or distract you? Oliver, an amateur violinist, values musical beauty and harmony, but feels that prayer demands something else.
“I love beauty, I love the arts, I love all of these things, and I even love a beautiful synagogue with beautiful sounds and beautiful images. But…within prayer, I find when there's too much focus on the beauty...I'm not within prayer then. I'm within something beautiful but I'm not communicating with God.”
Besides wanting to remain within prayer, Oliver uses the terms “argument” and “wrestling” to describe how he connects with God. For him, wrestling “is not necessarily a beautiful thing. It's oftentimes a very difficult thing, void of spectacular colors and beautiful things.” In a way, the auditory jumble typical of Orthodox Jewish synagogue services, is part of the experience.
In contrast, praising God in song harmoniously with others is central for Julie.
“I feel like being able to share [music] in a faith context makes it doubly powerful because we're recognizing our love for the Lord and our community within those songs, and it's just extremely powerful. It transcends what you can just describe, and I can help people do that better. You can have a fabulous heart, but then if you sing and you’re off-pitch it can be very distracting.”
As a voice teacher, this is of particular concern to Julie. She notes that singers sometimes continue to use poor technique because they get a positive audience response. However, this can lead to damaged vocal cords and injured careers. Unlike Oliver, Julie is concerned not just with her own experience, but also with that of other congregants and her voice students.
Role of women
While neither guest spoke explicitly about gender with regard to praying or singing, I thought about the differences between the two situations. In Orthodox Judaism, women are not allowed to sing in public. Part of tzniut (modesty laws), kol isha (literally ‘a woman’s voice’) identifies a woman’s voice as sensual, potentially distracting a husband from his undivided love for and attention on his wife. In this community, a female singer’s options are restricted to women-only public events and immediate family gatherings where male relatives can be present. So, far from a woman using song to praise God, as Julie noted, this restriction sees a woman’s voice as problematic, something to control. If Julie was in an Orthodox synagogue, she would not be able to sing because male congregants would be present.
“Everything I do is to share my gift, and I know where it comes from. The gift is from God,"
Whereas the Orthodox Jewish community defers to the biblical precepts, Julie, as a Christian, sees any environment as an opportunity to share her gift from God.
“Everything I do is to share my gift, and I know where it comes from. The gift is from God, and whether I'm sharing it to help lead people to God, or whether I'm sharing it just to move people's hearts and have them enjoy what I'm producing in a secular context, that part is the same.”
As a Conservative Jew with choral experience, I enjoy singing in services, and add harmony when possible. Listening to and singing near those with skill is a treat. I don’t share Julie’s belief that my singing ability is a gift from God, nor do I consider my voice as a temptation to be controlled. That said, understanding more about how each of us perceives and uses music and vocal harmony in service of God reveals aspects of our religious beliefs, which is valuable knowledge and central to my explorations.
Click here to listen to Oliver’s episode (#30).
Click here to listen to Julie’s episode (#35).
The ‘Living Our Beliefs’ podcast is available on Apple podcasts, other major podcast platforms, and through my Talking with God Project website.
Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or write a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you! Méli