Jewish hymnals should make a comeback

Just a week after my uncle’s funeral in Pittsburgh, I attended another here in Dallas: this one of a Christian friend. She was memorialized with “A Celebration of Life” at Northaven United Methodist Church. But that church has struck the “United” from its name; it was one of the dissenters when the United Methodist Church, at its recent major meeting, decided against some of today’s challenging changes, such as accepting gays and lesbians as members and solemnizing same-sex marriages.
Northaven has been fully accepting of everyone for a long time, and “It’s too late to put the cork back into the bottle,” it says. And it wouldn’t ever have wanted to, anyway. It has now covered up the “United” on its front-lawn name sign with a cloth of many colors — gay pride colors!
(If you don’t know already: This is the church that has given Beth El Binah a home! When Dallas’ Reform congregation, founded by lesbians and gays but long since attracting others to membership, outgrew its first home in Oak Lawn, Northaven offered it the very large room that has now become both its full-time headquarters and sanctuary.)
An old friend of mine, a retired English teacher and Northaven church member, for years has been leading a poetry study group there, and I am part of it, attending the every-two-weeks Tuesday morning meetings. And it was one of this group’s members who passed away, very unexpectedly. Her Friday morning memorial service was quite simple: a few words from a few of Ann’s relatives and friends — including some from members of the poetry group, readings of two short Biblical passages, several prayers and music. I liked that last the best: Everyone joined in singing two hymns, and we all had all the words in front of us, because there’s a hymnal, along with a prayer book, on every one of the 333 seats in the sanctuary.
Holding a book of sacred music in my hands made me long for those “olden days” when Jews in many synagogues also had hymnals, when hymn-singing was part of every service. Many of our beloved Hanukkah songs came out of those books, but there was also both original and traditional music in them for other holidays, songs that have mostly disappeared from our worship today. How many of you can remember “Father, See Thy Suppliant Children,” a vanished staple for Confirmation? How many can sing more than one verse of “Rock of Ages”? With hymnal in hand, so much more singing is possible.
At Ann’s funeral, a song chosen for communal singing was “Hymn of Promise,” a United Methodist Hymnal suggestion for memorial services and funerals because its theme is eternal life. These are the words of its first two verses: “In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed an apple tree…in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free…In the cold and snow of winter, there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody…there’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me…From the past will come the future, what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”
There’s nothing to offend Judaism or any other faith in these simple words, which sound quite wonderful when sung aloud by a group of individuals, all of whom have all the words in front of them, with a simple single piano accompaniment to keep everyone in tune.
This hymnal, published in 1989, offers 896 different songs on almost a thousand pages! I wish all streams of today’s Judaism would “resurrect” that old singing tradition for us. Our book could be much shorter, with no instrumental accompaniment necessary. But what a welcome way for us to raise our voices in praise of God, and we might even surprise ourselves with how good we sound!

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