SING A NEW SONG
“Shiru l’Hashem shir chadash” sing unto the Lord a new song. This is the opening verse of several of the psalms. They include two of the psalms recited before “L’cha Dodi” on Friday evening during the Kabbalat Shabbat service and one psalm which is recited every morning as part of the p’sukei d’zimrah- verses of song, the introductory portion of the daily and sabbath services. The psalms are not Torah miSinai, revealed law, but tradition ascribes them to King David and the rabbis chose to canonize them in the Tanach so their words clearly are to be understood to carry some weight and influence in what we believe and how we worship. But what does this oft-repeated phrase mean.
To me, and understand, please, that this is a personal reflection, it means that we must find new ways to express our spirituality and our religious feelings. For religion to stagnate would be its death knell. Of course, we can’t simply abandon the traditions and the “old ways” and we absolutely must not abandon the framework of halacha. However, we can modify traditions and update them and create new elements or even our own new traditions. Likewise, and I think this is one of the keys to Conservative Judaism, we can, with great care and thoroughly thought out logic, modify the halacha in practice by understanding it in it sociological and scientific context.
Were we not able to “sing a new song” that is change the way we worship, Judaism, by force of factual impossibility, would have had to die with the destruction of the first temple 2,600 years ago. But rather than surrender to the fact that worship by sacrifice in the Temple was no longer possible we created an elaborate prayer service. Actually it was originally a very simple prayer service which expanded over the years with the addition of “new songs.” These new songs were prayers, many of which reflected the socio-political facts and the needs of the times in which they were composed and added to the service. Even in temple times those Israelites who could not get to Jerusalem had to improvise and substitute prayer for animal sacrifices.
The very existence and universal acceptance (almost) of the Talmud, which by the way, is studied in a “sing-song” mode, reflects an understanding of the importance of this verse. The rabbis of 2000 years ago recognized the need for new interpretations and understandings of the Law. The tone and substance of many of their discussions and arguments clearly reflected the mores and customs of their time. Surely their rulings and debates constituted an understanding of the need to “sing a new song.” That this little verse was made part of the liturgy helps justify the establishment of holidays like Purim and Chanukah, which are not mandated in the Torah.
“Shiru l’Hashem Shir Chadash” is the imperative that motivated and licensed the authors of all the piutim that appear in the High Holiday Prayer Book and all the other additional readings we have available in the liturgy. It is why there will soon, and appropriately, be an “official” addition to the service on the celebration of Israel’s independence (Yom Ha’atzmaot.)
Certainly the chazzanim of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries were influenced by the lure of this verse. How many wonderful and inspiring melodies have been composed in just the last hundred years or so? These new melodies, reflective of their times and the spiritual state of the communities their authors served, have enhanced, and continue to enhance, our appreciation of the prayers we say (or rather, sing.) How in keeping with the command to beautify the mitzvot it is to compose new and evocative melodies to accompany our prayers.
“Shiru l’Hashem Shir Chadash” then, means respect tradition but be flexible. Respect halacha, but be open to reasoned changes in the interpretation of the Law. Be receptive to and participate in the beautifying of religious practice. Most of all, I think, it means to worship our Creator openly and joyously, with songs of praise and thanks, both traditional and very personal, rather than tears of despair.