The Transformational Power of Piyutim
On Friday nights, there is nowhere I would rather be than the 88th Street sanctuary. The room buzzes with excitement, and the service releases me from my week’s stress. The familiar words and music unite, and I feel uplifted—a part of something bigger than myself. During the week, I strive to be in control of life’s details. But then the Kabbalat Shabbat service moves me; it enables me to step aside and to make room for those important parts of my life over which I have far less control. We cannot manage our relationships with God and our community the same way we monitor our inboxes. Prayer is open-ended and unpredictable.
At the November Invitation to Piyut North America retreat, 1 I was able to access this “Friday night” feeling during the week. I found myself asking: What about these spiritual practices opens me to a greater possibility of religious experience? I was already familiar with many of the texts of the piyutim, and I had only just met the other participants. I quickly identified the melodies as the thread of meaning woven through the text; these tunes string the texts together, yet they leave room for moments that can be articulated best in the absence of words.
The words of the prayers provide the foundation—they are filled with a unique power that is framed and contextualized by their musical settings. The melodies we learned on the retreat create a rich space for spirituality. These tunes evoke emotion. They serve as vehicles for complete presence, and they beg us to bring our complete selves to the music—to demand that we include our thoughts and feelings.
These piyutim are not the next new, exciting musical phenomenon in prayer. Rather, they connect us with our creative liturgical past and help us revitalize that to which we are already deeply devoted. Piyutim can be a window to asking important questions about the meaning of prayer in our lives.
Piyut is an adventurous undertaking for any community. The cacophony of voices, rhythmic variances, ornamentations, and accents placed on unexpected syllables can seem more complex and hectic than our typical Friday-night melodies. It was for this reason that we participants often found ourselves asking the question, “What is the best or most authentic way to sing and use this material?” Both Yair Harel and Ebn Leader2 reminded us that in prayer and piyut, the critical question is not about what is right—it is about deciding what is right in the moment, for a specific goal. New tunes can seem intimidating or alienating at first, yet the piyut project can open us up to the kind of transformation that only transpires amidst the unfamiliar and unexpected.
Through prayer and education, we seek to transform both ourselves and others; in this process, creativity is crucial. We ought to reflect on the creative elements of our own tradition to inform and inspire today’s innovations in Jewish education and tefilah. This creativity emerges from the blurring of boundaries between Jews and their communities—from Ashkenazi and Sefardi, to religious and secular, and to old and new. I believe that piyutim can empower us to reclaim and to transform the “hows” of prayer as well as the “whys”—in synagogue and in our classrooms.
I feel blessed to be a part of the community at BJ, and I am looking forward to many more prayer and learning experiences here, continuing to ask important questions about spiritual practice and exploring the ways in which we can continue this conversation in our community.
- For more information about the retreat itself, read Rabbi Matalon’s article. ↩
- Yair Harel is the director of Hazmanah LePiyut in Israel and co-director, with Rabbi Matalon, of Invitation to Piyut NA. Rabbi Ebn Leader is director at Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School and its beit midrash, and an Instructor in Rabbinics. ↩