The author of The Magic of Hebrew Chant, Rabbi Shefa Gold is also a recording artist and the director of the Center for Devotional, Energy and Ecstatic Practice in New Mexico. She spoke with Rabbi Rami Shapiro about combining her background in Judaism with Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, and Native American spiritual traditions.
I’ve been told by many spiritual teachers, especially within the Hindu tradition, that the most powerful spiritual practice for our time is chanting. Would you agree with that?
I’m not going to speak for everyone, but for me, chanting—the musical and rhythmic repetition of a sacred phrase from a holy text—has been the doorway into the depths of my own heart and into the heart of my inheritance, Judaism. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the sounds of Hebrew prayer, not just for what they meant but for where they could take me. I found that if I focused in on one phrase, repeating it with a compelling melody, then that phrase could transport me to expansive heights and fathomless depths.
The phrase you inherit from Judaism, but the melodies are your own.
Besides becoming a spiritual seeker, I knew myself as an artist, and I found my voice through poetry and song. Though I’m argumentative by nature, I learned that my arguments only led me toward grief and separation. In contrast, my poems and songs connected me to others, opened my heart, and opened doors of exploration and adventure.
Is it the words or the melody that matters most to you?
Rather than juxtapose words and melody, I prefer to speak of sound and silence. When I first began chanting, I was in love with sound. I experimented with melody, rhythm, harmony, tone, and pitch. But after a while I began to appreciate the silence as well. It was as if the chant opened a door, and through the silence I could walk through the door and receive the true blessing of my efforts. I fell in love with the silence.
What is the true blessing?
The true blessing is the capacity to listen ever more deeply. To listen to the sound and the silence. And in this listening I am opened to the truth of essential unity that embraces all diversity.
How does that happen for you?
When I find words that speak to me, I seek through melody to step into the state of consciousness from which these words emerged. When I embody the truth of this sacred phrase, my world is transformed.
Is chanting your only spiritual practice?
Chanting is central to what I do and perhaps even to who I am, but it is not all of me. I have practiced astral travel and shamanic journeying. I’ve explored the mystical traditions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and I went through a rigorous training with a Native American Lakota teacher in order to lead sweat lodge. It was in the sweat lodge that I learned how to pray as if my life depended on it. All of this requires good teachers, of course, but there is also the path of dreams, and I have a deep respect for my dreams and the power of imagination.
Can you share one dream that shaped your life?
One night I had a dream in which I was told explicitly by a booming authoritative voice, “You will create bhakti Judaism!” I woke up startled and asked, “What is bhakti?” I didn’t even know the word, but soon found out that it refers to the devotional path within Hinduism: the path of love and complete surrender to the mystery of the divine.
Do you feel this has been your calling? To create a bhakti Judaism?
The core of my inheritance can be summed up in three challenges: to love God with all my heart, all my soul, and all my might; to love the other as myself; and to love the stranger. I want to return to those core challenges and find a practice that will help me meet them. Chanting is the most powerful vehicle I have found as I open to the centrality of love.
Given that most Jews seem disinclined to believe in God, let alone worship God, how has your devotional Judaism been received?
At first I was met with a great deal of resistance and cynicism, but that has changed over time. Everywhere I travel, I meet someone whose heart is stirred by chant. I see in her eyes that a longing that she didn’t know she had has been awakened. And that longing is setting her on a path of love, illuminated by the words of the ancestors. I see on his face an expression of such surprise. He has glimpsed the face of the great mystery. He is shaken. The veneer of his cool cynicism has been shattered. Everywhere I travel, I meet someone who begins to chant, and his hidden sorrow is released; her joy is unbound; his curiosity is sparked; her passion is revealed.
Speaking to spiritual seekers from any path and no path, how would you direct them to the experience of the power of chant?
Come to a sacred text with a vulnerable heart, acknowledging your own place of longing. Then, let yourself play with the sound of those words. Imagine that they are incantations whose power will be unlocked through your loving intention, through melody, harmony, rhythm, and breath. And then pay careful attention in the silence to what door has been opened by the chant. Resolve to enter. Let the beauty of chant move you through that door, and take pleasure in every step of the journey