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 is interviewed here by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, a member of ALEPH’s Advisory Council:
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…
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.
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.
Abbreviated from a longer interview published in Spirituality & Health magazine; reprinted with permission.
This interview is part of Faces of Renewal, an ongoing series of profiles of people who are renewing Judaism in our day.