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Debbie Friedman is still singing

No one changed modern worship like Debbie. May her memory be a blessing.

(RNS) — As the prophet Amos said: “I am neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet.”

Me, neither.

Except, once.

In 1978, while I was still a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I wrote an article for Reform Judaism magazine called “The New Trend in Synagogue Music.”

I looked at what was going on with worship in our movement. Synagogue music was changing — and far too quickly for many people. The music of Reform Jewish summer camps had been seeping into sanctuaries, and I predicted that what some people disparagingly called “camp music” would eventually become the accepted music of our movement.

I was right. A liturgical and aesthetic revolution was happening. It came on the heels of such composers as Michael Isaacson and the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. It came about because of an entire generation of youngish composers and performers, most of them equipped with guitars and new compositions that owed more to James Taylor and Joni Mitchell than to Sulzer and Lewandowski.

Quite simply: we were changing the way that American Reform Jews sang. We were liberating ourselves from both the minor key melodies of eastern Europe and the large organ sound of central Europe. We were taking Reform Jewish music out of the choir lofts and giving it back to the people, where it rightly belonged.

This musical revolution started in Reform summer camps and in its youth movement. But, it did not stop there. It moved into the highest echelons of Reform Jewish living, to its largest synagogues and to its national Biennial conventions.

Think of it this way. You ever hear of praise music in Protestant churches? The whole Christian music scene, which has millions of fans?

This is the Jewish version. It went beyond Reform Judaism. That musical revolution would surge into other movements — the Conservative movement (witness B’nai Jeshurun in New York); Jewish renewal, Reconstructionism.

That soft revolution even made it as far as Israel. Consider the phenomenon of summer Friday evening musical worship on the port in Tel Aviv.

Who made it happen?

A woefully incomplete alphabetical listing of artists. I am looking at my Iphone here; if I omitted your favorite artist, that person is not chopped liver:

But, the mother of them all was Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, whose tenth yarhzeit we observe this week.

Debbie was perhaps the foremost composer of synagogue music of our generation. No: that hardly begins to express it. Rarely can we say of anyone that he or she actually invented a musical genre. But that was Debbie Friedman’s gift to American Judaism — a deep, profound, and now eternal gift. In American Jewish musical history, we will always be living in that era which is AD — After Debbie.

So great was her influence that her name lives on in the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which trains Reform cantors.

But, more than that: Debbie was actively involved in a conscious act of retrieval and renewal.

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.

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.

Healing. Debbie Friedman’s best-known song is “Mi She-berach,” the prayer for healing that has now become virtually canonical in the non-Orthodox synagogue.

The custom of uttering that prayer for those who are ill is not new. It is quite traditional. But by giving it music, Debbie gave it new life. In so doing, she breathed new life into the theological possibility — once deemed heretical in its non-rationalism — that communal prayer could actually have a healing effect on the individual.

As her heroic namesake Deborah Lipstadt has written:

Friedman developed the concept of a healing service. Today such services are routinely held in Reform and Conservative congregations. An equally revolutionary act, one that has had a profound impact on liberal Jews, was her writing of songs that allowed one to turn to God for help.

Debbie died at the beginning of the week that Jews mark as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of song — and that is the Torah reading for this Shabbat. We read — no, we sing — of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and how Miriam led the women in joyous singing. In the haftarah, Miriam’s song morphs into the song of Deborah, a song of military victory that might be the oldest song in the world.

Those women were Debbie’s musical great-great-great grandmothers.

If you could but enter a sanctuary (may the time not be distant), you would hear her voice still reverberating off the walls.

Commemorate Debbie Friedman’s Legacy on Her 10th Yahrzeit with Hebrew Union College 

Celebrate Debbie with an evening of song and memory on Thursday, January 28, 2021 at 8:00 pm ET. We will gather to raise our voices, rejoicing in the incredible canon of Jewish music that Debbie lovingly created.