Music Speaks Louder Than Words

by Cantor Alane Katzew, URJ Music & Worship Specialist

“Music speaks louder than words. It’s the only thing that the whole world listens to. When you sing, people understand.” These lyrics to the Peter, Paul and Mary song may iterate what we all know in our hearts: music is a great equalizer. Its styles vary and its interpretations may differ from place to place, but ultimately all who are endowed with the blessing of hearing can be drawn together by the power of music.

Music can function as a fantastic tool for outreach and keruv, drawing people into the synagogue and the Jewish and inter-religious global communities.

Any singing ensemble can function as a community within a community. Whether we are speaking about young students, teens, adults or senior adults, all can become a part of a musical activity. At Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, Pennsylvania, the entire synagogue became involved in a visionary music activity. (In fact, there is a documentary film about their experiences called Yahdahv. If you are interested in a copy of the film, contact The end product was an intergenerational choir performance. The process, however, was transformative. Three choirs, the Beth Or Junior and Adult choirs combined with the Glee Club of Senior Citizens at the nearby Abramson Senior Center learned the same music and performed it together. As important as the process of learning the music for the performance were the mutually respectful relationships that developed between and amongst all of the choristers. The youngest participants learned kvod z’keinim – to honor the elderly – by experiencing them as vital participants in a shared endeavor. The adults all came away with new insight into this generation of Jewish youngsters. All of this was made possible by the power of music.

Inter-religious mutual understanding can often be fostered through music. Several years ago, Peri Smilow, a contemporary Jewish musician, developed a program that brought teenagers from the Boston Jewish community together with African American teens. They sang together, they broke bread together and they created a CD of music called “Freedom Music Project.” On this CD, one can find original music composed by Smilow; but notably to be found are musical styles that emanate from the faith traditions of the participants. (Visit to hear samples and to purchase the album. In particular, contrast the “Gospelized” version of “Wade in the Water” with a contemporary version of the traditional folk tune for Passover, “Avadim Hayinu.”)

Through shared musical expression about their parallel ancestral experiences of enslavement, teens from divergent cultural and religious corners of society found common ground. We can expand upon this same principle by bringing together members of other faith communities through music in our community celebrations for Thanksgiving, our commemorations of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or as part of an ongoing Muslim dialogue. Music is an obvious point of entry.

This summer NFTY Israel Programs, the World Union for Progressive Judaism and I are embarking on a new shared venture: A vocal ensemble of teens that we are calling “JewGlee” ( They will spend an intense week in rehearsal together before departing on a journey to Europe and Israel. Along the way, they will be performing for Liberal Jewish Communities in the cities they visit and bring the message “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh baZeh” – all of the people Israel are responsible for one another and interconnected. Our hope for these teens is that they emerge from the experience with a strengthened Jewish Identity and an enduring connection to world Jewry.

Torah, avodah and g’milut Chasadim are the three principles articulated in the Mishnah and in the URJ Bylaws as foundational to living Jewishly. Torah has long been made more accessible through systematic cantillation that provides a melody for guiding one through the nuances of text and grammar when reading from the Torah scroll. In addition, musical settings that incorporate texts from the Torah can often elucidate the meaning of the text, such as “L’chi Lach,” written by Debbie Friedman, where the text teaches a Midrashic lesson while the melody simultaneously penetrates our soul. In this same way music can be a motivator to move us from thinking about acting righteously to engaging in doing acts of social justice, as exemplified in the newly released music compilation of songs, Tzedek Tirdof: The Social Action Songbook. (Visit to order your copy!)

Music to some may seem to be an enhancement; the icing on the cake that although sweet and delicious, is not a part of the diet that human beings require for specific nutritional value. For me, it is the stuff of sustenance without which the rest would lack full definition. Very recently I had the privilege of serving as a witness in the conversion ceremony of a friend and musical colleague whose entry into the world of Judaism came directly through his association with music. Those choosing Judaism may find this essential gateway to a Jewish life the most compelling. With his permission and in conclusion, I share this excerpt from his essay offered as explanation for his choice to join the Jewish people as a proof text and reminder that music is indeed the great equalizer.

“Liturgical music is, in many ways, the most demanding of musics, and consequently more rewarding. It’s no accident that so many of history’s great musical works have been created in a religious context. Beautiful music is not enough (and can actually be a liability). Sacred texts with lesser music end up diminished. But when all the ingredients come together – when you find the work of a master who can balance text, music and intricate form, all with an appropriate sense of humility and authenticity in the presence of the Divine Mystery – that’s music you must acknowledge, music with impact, music you just cannot ignore!”

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3 Responses to “Music Speaks Louder Than Words”

  1. avatar

    That quote from your friend’s essay really resonates with me. My passion for music is inexorably tied to my passion for Judaism, precisely because music fosters contemplation of the “Divine Mystery” in a very special and unique way, which is different for every person. Some people feel God’s loving embrace in the melodic simplicity of a niggun, the ancient and haunting cantillation tropes, or the folksy warmth of a Debbie Friedman song. Others feel the majesty of God’s presence in the booming, soul-shaking music of Lewandowski and Sulzer or in the sublime, otherworldly complexity of Salamone Rossi’s interweaving polyphonic lines. Whatever the case, music seems to be the true “lashon hakodesh”. As such, it would be a shame and a tragedy to lose the diverse multiplicity of musical styles that currently exist in Jewish music. In our passion to be ever more modern and progressive, we should try not to let the timeless and holy voice of the Classical liturgical music be drowned out by loudspeakers and flashing lights, or even by guitars and bongo drums. These styles can and should co-exist so that there will always be something for everybody. There will be some in every generation who the older music will speak to more than the new. I hope that the Reform Movement and the wider Jewish community never stop respecting that.

  2. avatar

    This is awesome and Impressive. Music has filled my life from early childhood and has been my life’s passion. Your articulationa nd penetrating into the heart with your skills of writing is amazing.
    I would like to use some of your words in an upcoming interfaith program I am planning on April 10th 2011 with the performance of Ernest Bloch Sacred Service but with 5 Church and Community choirs. I called it “A COMMUITY UNDER ONE GOD”. Your article is the essence of what I would like to say.
    Your fan

  3. avatar
    Cantor Alane S. Katzew Reply February 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Thank you both for reminding that music can be the unifying vehicle – but diversity of musical experience is inherently requisite as well!

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