Friday, May 14, 2010

An atheist, chanting the Torah?

Last night I went to Torah chanting class. This is something I'm rather fond of, even though I don't believe (much) of what it says in the Bible. That is to say that I don't treat it as probably true. I treat it as a collection of stories, which say more about the authors' conceptions of human nature and the world than anything else. If some bits turn out to have some basis in reality, so much the better! It must be said, though, that I am capable of adopting a more traditional view from a "what-if" perspective for the sake of services and Torah study.

But going back to the chanting, the second time I went to a Jewish service (the first being a friend's bat mitzvah, which I don't remember very well) I was very impressed that they chanted the Torah. So when I heard about a free, once-a-week class, no Hebrew knowledge necessary, I decided to go.

As it turns out, the entire Hebrew Bible is full of cantillation marks (or trop(e) marks), as seen on the right in Genesis 3:17-19 (from the JPS Tanakh) which indicate the placement of the emphasis in the word, the tune to which each word should be sung, and the way the sentence is broken up. There is at least one such mark per word, but occasionally there are two. There is no widespread agreement on the set of tunes to use - it isn't like musical notation - and there are different sets for different texts and certain holidays. The class I'm in focuses on the Torah set for everyday (non-holiday) use, because of course that's the one that gets the most use.

I've been at this for a while, on and off, and I've studied Hebrew to the point where I can almost, but not quite, keep up with the Hebrew chanting in class, and am thus no longer forced to study in English (it is very unusual to chant in English, but at this synagogue some people do). The teacher, who is not officially a synagogue employee but plays an active role in many services and makes money tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students, has been suggesting for a few sessions now that I should chant a short portion of three to five verses in a few weeks. This time I told him I was a little uncomfortable with chanting something I don't believe, even if it is in Hebrew, but it turns out that my classmate, the Israeli atheist, isn't the only person who's involved with this group without believing, and of course a lot of them believe in unconventional versions of the religion, so it's a bit of an oddball group. I'm still on the fence about chanting, but apparently I'm Jewish enough for them. I just might do it, but the idea of chanting from the Torah, which not only lacks cantillation marks but also vowels, and which would involve several other things I haven't done before, such as putting on a tallit and possibly saying my own blessing, makes me nervous.

Why do I like it? There's a certain solemnity to the whole procedure, which really makes it feel special. It's oddly musical, even haunting, especially once you get to know it, and chanting can be a very meditative practice. It's also very intellectually demanding, especially because of the Hebrew, unless you take a pure memorization route. That, and I'm all for any excuse to sing. I also like the teacher and many of the people who come to class. It's drop-in, so you never know what to expect, although the more advanced students who come in are almost always there to practice a specific portion that they're going to chant within the next few weeks. It's nice to hear them work on it, and some weeks I feel up for the class, with its academic air, but not for Saturday morning services.

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