Singing God’s Words: The Performance of Biblical Chant in Contemporary Judaism. Jeffrey Summit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. ISBN 9780199844081.

Reviewed by Lauren E. Osborne

9780199844081In Singing God’s Words, Jeffrey Summit considers the meanings of Torah chanting in Jewish tradition, most specifically in the context of twenty-first century America. As Summit notes, an increasing number of Jewish American laypeople are choosing to study and chant Torah, and he provides a diverse portrait of the meanings and feelings that his interlocutors ascribe to their study and practice. The work is particularly significant in that it serves double-duty: it simultaneously provides an overview of Torah chant (some of its history as well as its technical specifics and associated terminology) that is accessible to non-specialists, and also provides a portrait of meaning and experience in relation to the practice of chanting Torah with particular reference to Jewish American communities.

In the introduction and Part One, Summit combines historical and ethnomusicological perspectives in order to situate Torah chant—and his study of it—diachronically. In this section, he moves between description of the practice of chanting Torah as evidenced in Jewish history and quotations and description from his interlocutors, placing the practice of the contemporary moment within the timeline of Jewish history and Jewish religious practice. This section also provides a descriptive portrait of the ritual structure of the Torah service: what is done, how, and why. This section thereby depicts a contemporary practice that may be seen as being shaped by tradition while introducing non-specialist readers to “the basics” of chanting Torah. Summit’s study includes consideration of some of the denomination-specific distinctions (in terms of specifics of practice but also broader considerations of meanings) of institutional Judaisms across the work. This background serves as further clarification and context for any readers who are not specialists. And while Summit writes as an ethnomusicologist, the work is accessible to non-music scholars as well, particularly through the explanation of the specifics of ritual practices found in this section.

The second part of the text considers why twenty-first century Jewish Americans chant the Torah. The focus on laypeople in the work is notable. As Summit states at the outset, recent years have seen a marked increase in lay engagement with Torah chant (2), which opens up further possibilities for considering how chanting Torah may interface with modern studies of religious authority in American Judaism, or religious life and experience in the everyday. Summit cites Kristina Nelson’s The Art of Reciting the Qur’an, a comparable work in that it provides a portrait of recitation in a non-Christian religious context (164). Nelson’s text focuses on Qur’an recitation through the lens of specialists—the extremely popular reciters of mid-twentieth-century Egypt—and as such, presents the details of practices of Quranic recitation as efforts to achieve an ideal. Summit’s work, by contrast, through its focus on laypeople, considers not just the technical specifics of the practice, but also possibilities for imperfect practice, such as when Torah is chanted with imprecise pronunciation of Hebrew or inappropriate accentuation (179-83), or when congregants simply are not paying attention (205-6).

Part three considers the intersection of chant and music, in so far as the Torah is typically chanted with some use of “musical elements—dynamics, ornamentation, [and] vocal quality—”(211). As Summit explores, the relationships between those musical or sonic elements and the discursive meanings of the text are varied, with sonic features often aligning with discursive meanings, although the reasons behind specific details of accentuation in relation to meaning may also be unclear (194). The fourth section then concludes the work by considering modern technology in relation to the study of Torah chant, and here, Summit explores the varying reactions to technology in relation to religious authority and traditional modes of learning. However, he wisely notes that the impact of media and technology on Jewish religious practice is not new. Rather, he considers the role of media historically as an issue of access and engagement with traditional sources (224-25).

The invocation of “experience” in relation to both religion and music does raise questions about the analytical categories operating within the work, and it likely could be considered more fully by pushing on the issues of nation and American-ness that appear in the work as well. Summit notes that his interlocutors felt that the terminology of “religion” had been co-opted by American Evangelical Christians, and that they, by contrast, spoke of their Jewish engagement in terms of community and belonging, placing Torah chanting in that framework (14). Summit also mentions the work of William James, whose conceptualization of religious experience looms large in the academic study of religion, and has been critiqued by Ann Taves and others (Taves also being cited in Summit’s work, pages 13-15) as having popularized an implicitly Protestant Christian notion of experience as an inner emotional experience private to an autonomous individual subject. And indeed, Summit provides ample evidence that for many of his interlocutors chanting Torah is about their connection to Jewish community and history, as well as demonstrating ritual or religious competence—these conceptualizations of “experience” provide an important contrast to James. However, James could be useful here in further considering the “American-ness” of Summit’s interlocutors and how they frame chanting Torah in relation to a specifically American Judaism. The brief discussion on page 175 of Orthodox American students learning Ashkenazi accents identified with Haredi practice when studying abroad in Israel offers one intriguing possibility for thinking about Americanness in relation to Singing God’s Words. Similarly, the persistent themes of individual personal engagement and authenticity that recur in the discussions of experience may provide further opportunity for relating to the themes of Americanness in James’ work.

This point notwithstanding, Singing God’s Words constitutes a significant contribution to the study of Torah chant in the fields of both Ethnomusicology (and the study of music more broadly) and Religious Studies. Summit presents a portrait of Torah chanting that places contemporary practice in conversation with tradition, and does so in a way that is accessible to non-specialists of music and Judaism alike. As such, it could be of particular use for any further comparative work on oral engagements with religious texts in different traditions and contexts.


Lauren E. Osborne, Whitman College