Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Why Debbie Friedman still matters

Debbie Friedman (1951-2011)

The poet-laureate of the Jewish people, Hayim Nahman Bialik, once wrote a poem in which he extolled someone who died “before his time and before anyone’s time. He had one more song to sing, but now that song is stilled forever.”

Seven years have passed, and it is still difficult to believe that Debbie Friedman, the contemporary Jewish composer and singer, is no longer in our midst.

Debbie Friedman was a genuine and authentic American Jewish artist. She was the Amelia Earhart of our movement – a woman who flew solo, and touched the sky, and caressed the clouds. Like the chord that resounds at the end of a musical piece, the echo of her soul will last far beyond the moment and far beyond our time.

Debbie Friedman pursued her vocation with style and with a fantastic sense of humor, never taking herself or her audience too seriously. She treated her fellow musicians and composers with utter love and care. It is impossible to count the number of composers she encouraged and nurtured. She knew, wisely, that she had helped midwife an entirely new musical expression, and that the tent that she had helped create was very large and welcoming.

And in so doing, Debbie created a revolution in Jewish music. She created an authentically American Jewish nusach, an authentically American mode of synagogue music.

It was not to be the minor-key melodies of Eastern Europe, and it was not to be the large organ sound of Central Europe.

Debbie Friedman took Reform Jewish music out of the choir lofts, and she gave it back to the people, where it rightly belonged. She changed the aesthetic of Reform Judaism, and with it, all American non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

Debbie knew that when Jews sing in synagogue, they don’t simply sing words. They sing theology.

Consider the traditional hymn Yigdal. It is the musical restatement of Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith. In fact, those principles were so controversial in the Middle Ages that the only way that they could get a hearing, so to speak, in synagogue was not to give them a hearing at all – but to give them a singing.

There are some who will say that Debbie was a radical.

I would view it differently. Debbie was actually a conservative – in its true sense.

Debbie wanted to conserve.

Debbie conserved – she saved – the voices of Jewish women. In “Miriam’s Song,” Debbie took the Torah verse that refers to Miriam leading the women of Israel in song and dance, and she constructed a story about an ancient Jewish woman of wisdom and dignity becoming part of the process of liberation.

She gave courage to women’s voices, and women’s voices to courage. That courage gave courage to countless Jewish women – and it caused them to say that we, too, are part of this tribe.

Debbie conserved – she saved — the feminine side of God. Debbie reminded us of the mystical teaching: God has both masculine and feminine elements. The masculine aspect of God is ha-kadosh baruch hu, and the feminine aspect is the Shechinah.

At the time of the destruction of the second Temple, the Shechina and the Kadosh Baruch Hu became ripped apart – and when we do mitzvot, as part of the process of tikkun olam, we can restore the feminine part of God to the masculine part of God.

Debbie conserved – Debbie saved – our faith in what the late, lamented sociologist Peter Berger called “the rumor of angels.”

Debbie wrote a song called “The Angels’ Blessing” – in which she re-claimed the notion that when we go to sleep, angels surround and protect us — Michael, Gabriel, Raphael – and at the head of the bed, the Shechina herself.

Some years ago, a poll of Americans reported the following data:

  • 69 percent of Americans believe in angels
  • 46 percent say they have their own guardian angels
  • 32 percent of Americans says that they have felt an angelic presence
  • 18 percent of Americans say that angels are merely religious symbols
  • Only 7 percent of Americans say that angels are nonsense.

Debbie Friedman went back into our sacred literature, and she found those elements that gave comfort, and for so many, continue to give comfort.

Especially to the 7 percent.

And finally, but perhaps most important, Debbie conserved – she saved — our faith in the possibility of healing prayer.

Debbie Friedman’s best-known song is “Mi Shebeirach,” the musical prayer for healing that has now become standard in the non-Orthodox synagogue.

In his book, Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, Dr. Larry Dossey taught:

The evidence is simply overwhelming that prayer changes physical processes in a variety of organisms, from bacteria to humans. These data are so impressive that I have come to regard them as among the best-kept secrets in medical science.

Prayer doesn’t always work.

But neither again, neither does penicillin.

As Larry Dossey says, just because penicillin works for strep throat, and not for tuberculosis, doesn’t mean that penicillin is worthless. If prayer always worked, then our holy words would be incantations, and our sanctuary would become a sorcerer’s cave.

George Bernard Shaw once visited Lourdes, the French healing shrine. There he saw mountains of crutches that former cripples had left there.

But he did not see one hairpiece.

Prayer healed some people of their paralysis.

But prayer does nothing for the bald. Some things even a very powerful God cannot do.

According to scientific research, what kind of prayer is the most effective?

When a person knows that he or she is being prayed for, that knowledge is very powerful. You are not alone. You are not shipwrecked in a nonsensical universe. We are with you, and God is with you.” To cure sometimes; to relieve often; to comfort always.

When Debbie Friedman sang, her voice and her words had a way of reminding us all: we are not alone. We are not cast off. We are not abandoned. God was with us.

Debbie is in the olam haba, the world to come. She is jamming with Miriam, Deborah, Hannah Senesh, Ofra Haza, Naomi Shemer and every anonymous Jewish woman who ever sang to a child, or to a student, or to a lover, or, certainly, to God.

May her memory be a blessing.

 

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

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