Experiencing Devekut: The Contemplative Niggun of Habad in Israel . By Raffi Ben-Moshe. Yuval Music Series 11. Jerusalem: Jewish Music Research Centre, 2015. ISBN-10 96592000021; ISBN-13 978-9659200023.

Reviewed by Gordon Dale

51nvdz7NcoL._SX415_BO1,204,203,200_One of the most important contributions that ethnomusicology has made to the broader study of music is an insistence that music analysis be conducted from a culturally-informed perspective. Through gaining a deep understanding of a music-culture (“a group’s total involvement with music: ideas, actions, institutions, material objects—everything that has to do with music” [Titon et al. 2009:3]) ethnomusicologists frequently think critically about how to best use the tools of music analysis to identify the ways that sound expresses and shapes the beliefs, values, and social dynamics of a group of people. An intriguing example of this approach to music analysis can be found in Experiencing Devekut: The Contemplative Niggun of Habad in Israel by Raffi Ben-Moshe.

Raffi Ben-Moshe, born in 1928, has spent his life as a musician, composer, and arranger in Israel, most notably working with the entertainment troupes of the Israel Defense Forces. As the “About this book” section explains, upon his formal retirement, Ben-Moshe enrolled in the Department of Musicology at Tel Aviv University, where Professor Edwin Seroussi oversaw the research that led to Ben-Moshe’s Master’s thesis. An extension of that research project, Experiencing Devekut is a bilingual text (Hebrew and English) with transcriptions and analysis of twenty-four pieces in the Habad repertoire, and an accompanying audio CD includes seventeen tracks, fourteen of which are analyzed in the book.

Ben-Moshe focuses on “contemplative niggunim,” a particular repertoire within the musical canon of the Habad-Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty. These pieces, generally performed as unaccompanied vocal music, are believed to be particularly adept at enabling the experience of devekut, that is, spiritual cleaving to God. The author structures the book systematically into three main sections, each composed of short chapters, in order to build toward an analysis of the ways in which each niggun accomplishes the spiritual goal of devekut. Following a rich and compact introduction to the Habad sect of Hasidism and the esteemed place of music within it, part one, “The Hasidic Concept of Niggun,” uses both ethnographic data and a close reading of Habad texts to explain the contexts and conventions of niggun performance, the spiritual potency that Habad Hasidim ascribe to music, and the importance of devekut in Hasidic philosophy. This background information, rich on its own, is directed toward Ben-Moshe’s study of “ratzo vashov,” a concept in Kabbalistic writings that has origins in the Biblical book of Ezekiel. Translated here as “ebb and flow,” Ben-Moshe explains that the spiritual aspirations of Hasidim are characterized by the movement of “spiritual energy” (49) between the lowly world of human life and the lofty realm of God’s “hidden place” (48). As Ben-Moshe explains:

…the two-directional way of the Divine light as a dialectical process derives from the longing of the hasid to ascend, during the stage of ratzo-flow, to the heights of devekut by means of his self-abnegation and nullification, and to touch—if only for a moment—the hidden Divine light. This longing, which is impossible to satisfy, takes him back to the stage of shov, ebb. The ebb signifies man’s unavoidable return to the reality of the material world (48).

Niggunim, too, have within them “the dialectical energy of ratzo vashov” (54). The musical phrases that make up a piece are representative of the spiritual ascents and descents of the hasid, and the performance of niggunim facilitate this experience. Ben-Moshe explains that ratzo vashov motion is characterized by a process of steady spiritual growth, as each experience facilitates a higher level of ratzo, “indicating his ascent in the levels of dekevut” (58), and also opens up space for Godliness in the mundane world with the ebb of the spiritual movement. In the brief second section of the book, “Spirit and Matter in Contemplative Niggunim,” Ben-Moshe constructs a taxonomy of contemplative niggunim, and attempts to demonstrate the melodic motions that signify ratzo vashov. In part three, “Dual Analysis of Contemplative Niggunim,” he selects 24 pieces in this canon and analyzes the melodies in two ways, looking at their “musical material,” and their “spiritual mood” (in the Hebrew portion, Ben-Moshe uses the words chomer [substance] and ruach [spirit]). In the former, he uses the language of music theory to examine the piece’s form, its modal elements, and moments of melodic tension or resolution. In the latter, he identifies representations of ratzo vashov in the melodies. The volume includes transcriptions of each of these melodies, and color-coded lines that mark four different types of melodic phrases: (1) Flow (ratzo) motions, (2) Ebb (shov) motions, (3) Flow motion influenced by ebb, and (4) Ebb motion influenced by flow.

Ben-Moshe’s analytical approach here, in sum, aims to examine whether melodic phrases create movement toward a resting place or away from one, determined primarily by melodic direction and resting notes. The taxonomy becomes a bit overwhelming, with its use of many categories, some of which must accommodate ambiguous or overly diverse aspects of the music. Similarly, the criteria used to determine if a musical phrase is a ratzo or shov phrase can be a bit broad. For example, a shov/ebb melodic unit may contain any of the following characteristics: “lengthy stepwise progressions combined with small leaps no larger than a fifth, and relaxed rhythms,” though “sometimes, the ebb motions are deceptive” and could end on a scale degree other than the tonic, “usually the fifth, the fourth, the sub-tonic or the tonic of the relative major” (68). Furthermore, a shov motion could be of a second type that is be expressed through “short, calm, descending melodic lines, usually moving slowly stepwise or in small leaps, and ending in full, half, or deceptive cadences” (ibid). Ratzo and shov motions are not always pure in their categorization; some might be primarily one, but “influenced” by the other, a feature that Ben-Moshe proposes but does not describe in depth. These motion types are subdivided further to include symmetrical and asymmetrical phrases, resulting in types such as “Incomplete motion-ebb influenced by flow.” Ben-Moshe’s approach here could be critiqued for the overly broad criteria used to characterize musical phrases and the use of somewhat ambiguous musical categories, making the color-coded transcriptions challenging to parse. However, a close reading shows that there is an overarching logic here, even if the details can seem imprecise. Any ambiguity in this ambitious analytical approach is likely the result of a devoted student of the music attempting to fully make sense of a music system that may, at times, evade neat categories.

This critique notwithstanding, the text offers an important look at Hasidic niggunim by looking closely at elements of musical contrast, which are at the core of the ratzo vashov discourse and do indeed support the author’s general argument. Furthermore, the author’s use of interviews, participant-observation, and text study to understand Habad’s philosophy of music, and his subsequent search for those elements in the composition of the piece, represent an important methodological contribution to the field. This alone makes Experiencing Devekut a valuable read for anyone interested in creative analytical methods in music studies.

Jonathan Chipman’s nearly word-for-word translation from the original Hebrew into English, opens the book up to a wide audience, and those who are unfamiliar with Hebrew can feel confident that they are reading an accurate rendering of the author’s intent. However, the Hebrew side of the book does contain an extra benefit in its retention of the language used by the hasidim themselves. Furthermore, the Hebrew portion also includes several passages of Yiddish, along with their Hebrew translation, which enables readers who are acquainted with the community to benefit from seeing the terminology that is used in internal Habad discourse. Similarly, those who know a bit of Hebrew will have an advantage when listening to the CD, which includes short comments made by those who sang the pieces. Any listener, though, will be able to appreciate the beautiful renditions of the niggunim that were shared by Ben-Moshe’s interlocutors.

This book is a welcome addition to the scholarship on Hasidic music. Because of its narrow scope, readers seeking a broader understanding of the community and its music culture should read this work in conjunction with other texts, such as Ellen Koskoff’s work on Lubavitcher music (Koskoff 1995, 2000, and others). Issues of social structure, gender, and niggun compositional practices are not discussed in depth here, and Ben-Moshe’s choice of interlocutors limits the perspectives that the reader can access. Nonetheless, Experiencing Devekut is an important contribution to the field that takes a close look at the Lubavitcher hasid’s desire for devekut, and the manner in which music helps to achieve this goal.

Bibliography

Koskoff, Ellen. 1995. “Miriam Sings Her Song: The Self and the Other in Anthropological Discourse.” In Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, edited by Ruth A. Solie. University of California Press.

—. 2000. Music in Lubavitcher Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2009. “The Music-Culture as a World of Music.” In Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples, edited by Jeff Todd Titon. California: Belmont Cengage Learning.

 

Gordon Dale, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, NYC