Jewish Music as Midrash

Jewish Music as Midrash: What Makes Music Jewish? Michael Isaacson, Encino, CA: ECM Books and Music, 2007. 246 pp. 2 CDs. 

Reviewed by Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Although the subject of synagogue music has been explored in numerous books, the composer’s voice is conspicuously scarce. When this insider’s perspective does appear in a bound volume, it almost always comes in the form of an anthology, such as the collected writings of Abraham W. Binder (1971), Herbert Fromm (1978) and William Sharlin (2008). Especially rare—and especially valuable—is the composer’s book that follows a logical sequence of chapters, tackles a central theme and develops a sustained argument. Perhaps the only publication of this kind is Michael Isaacson’s Jewish Music as Midrash: What Makes Music Jewish? Isaacson, whose credits include hundreds of compositions and fifty recorded albums, is among the most renowned contemporary creators of Jewish sacred song. His thoughtful and inventive treatment of texts, which he calls “musical midrash,” is outlined in fifteen lucid chapters combining music theory, personal anecdotes, professional observations and various sources of wisdom.

Before delving into some of the book’s recommending features, a word should be said about its subtitle: What Makes Music Jewish? The answer to this question is relatively simple: Jewish music is that music which accompanies a Jewish text, is written for a Jewish setting and/or contains Jewish subject matter. Isaacson acknowledges this functional definition as a basis of music’s Jewish identity. However, his real topic is “What makes good Jewish music?” This is where the interpretive—midrashic—power of a given selection comes to the fore. Furthermore, the question as phrased might suggest that the book is about Jewish music in general or involves an ethnomusicological or some other academic approach. But Isaacson’s focus is liturgical and his method, while well informed and intellectually sophisticated, is idiosyncratic. For this reason, borrowing the subtitle from Fromm’s book, A Composer’s View, or a similar formulation would have been more accurate.

That being said, the ground Isaacson covers is sufficiently broad and his style suitably pedagogic to make the volume useful for students, cantors, rabbis, composers, synagogue musicians and interested laypeople alike. The first few chapters offer a cogent argument for music education and appreciation in American synagogues. Such awareness is especially needed, Isaacson contends, as the synagogue has become a bastion of “now” sounds and “sing-along” tunes, which often lack the depth and musical interest one would expect from a genre deemed “sacred.” As he puts it in a later chapter, “Active listening [has been] replaced with passive participation” (p. 186).

Among other things, Isaacson lists four qualifications he uses to identify significant pieces of Jewish sacred music: their cognizance of simultaneous time (past, present and future), interpretative quality, elevation of consciousness and implication of holiness. He also recommends assessing the fundamental traits of music—pitch, rhythm, harmony, dynamics, tempo, style and timbre—as characters in a stage play with the purpose of making prayers come to life. The more successfully these traits/characters are employed, the richer the experience.

These discussions set the stage for the remainder of the book, which explores a variety of ways music can add midrashic layers to the worship service. Beyond connecting with the explicit mood of a text, music can, in Isaacson’s assessment, act as a sort of homily, bringing out fresh insights and uncovering hidden emotional content. He demonstrates this possibility using the midrash of a single tone, time, space, separation and drama, as well as the broader categories of liturgical, life cycle and wisdom music. Accompanying these expositions are examples from Isaacson’s recorded output, found on two CDs included with the book.

Though there is not room here to recount the nuances of each type of midrash, Isaacson’s general philosophy can be summed up in a few eloquent quotations. Concerning the contemporary preference for immediate, participatory synagogue music, Isaacson argues: “We need not turn off our brains to turn on our hearts. Like every other example of elevated music that we cherish, worship music needs to be crafted with skill, knowingness, and sensitivity to language” (p. 188). Regarding the place of wisdom in synagogue song, he notes: “Wisdom music, though simple, need not be simplistic. It should at once attract us, touch us, and make us think” (p. 226). And on music’s role in creating a separation from ordinary experience, he writes: “I strive to elevate my sacred music and make it different in some way than the music I compose outside of the synagogue. This is becoming an increasingly unpopular strategy for those who believe that pious devotion is on an equal scale with ‘hipness’” (p. 243).

These brief remarks capture the seriousness with which Isaacson engages in his craft—an attitude he hopes to instill in others. Whether or not one agrees with all of his assessments, accepts all of his ideas or is as passionate as he is, Jewish Music as Midrash is an enjoyable and thought-provoking book. Readers are sure to come away with a better understanding of what synagogue music can and should be.

See more from Jonathan Friedmann here

About the author

Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann
Jonathan L. Friedmann is Cantor of Bet Knesset Bamidbar and Congregation P'nai Tikvah, both in Las Vegas, Nevada. He received Cantorial Ordination and a Masters in Jewish Sacred Music from the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, where he is currently Professor of Jewish Music History. He also holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in Religious Studies from California State University, Long Beach, and a Ph.D. in Theology (Old Testament) from the joint program of North-West University and Greenwich School of Theology. An active composer, arranger, and string player, Jonathan is co-founder of the Jewish world music ensemble, Elijah's Chair, and a recipient of the Shalshelet Award for New Jewish Liturgical Music. Jonathan has published over 300 popular and peer-reviewed articles on music and religion, and is the author or editor of several books on sacred music. You can read more about Cantor Friedmann on his website:

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