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Reforming the Chant

October 22, 2009 By:
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Rabbi Ethan Franzel busy doing what comes naturally. Photos by Alex Lowy

With a tallit draped over his shoulders and a guitar resting on his lap, Rabbi Ethan Franzel sat, eyes closed and completely still, in the dimly lit chapel at Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim in Wynnewood.

At 6:15 a.m. on Tuesday morning, darkness still enveloped the sky; the lights in the rest of the building hadn't even been turned on yet. Four people eventually entered the chapel for Franzel's weekly chanting and meditation session. (Attendance is closer to 10 or 15, noted the rabbi, but perhaps the late-night Phillies game caused this week's decrease.)

Nobody exchanged a word -- not even so much as a good morning. Franzel began to strum the guitar and to chant the biblical phrase that God uttered to Moses at the burning bush, ehyeh asher ehyeh (traditionally translated as "I am that I am"). The five voices blended together and filled the room, repeating the same three words for nearly five minutes.

The group then chanted through a segment of the morning prayers in unison, without music. After about 15 minutes of silent meditation, the rabbi folded up his tallit and said, "Boker tov," indicating it was time to get on with the business of the day.

Needless to say, this is not your standard Reform Judaism.

"It's transformative in the most dramatic fashion," said Alicia Felton, a Lower Merion resident and a Main Line Reform member. "Having searched for a long time, in many different directions, it's very satisfying, on a very deep and primordial level, to come back to my roots."

He's Got a Following

For eight years now, Franzel, 42, has been teaching ideas and practices that might seem more at home in the Bay Area than on the Main Line, at one of the area's largest Reform temples. He's developed something of a following, leading chanting and meditation sessions, a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service infused with chanting, and a study group on Chasidic tales.

"I believe that wherever you are, there are always going to be people who are open to the divine. It doesn't matter if you're in the Main Line or Mount Airy or the West Coast or wherever," said Franzel, who added that he hopes to expand, rather than upend, the options available to Reform Jews. "I'm not making any global efforts. I'm just presenting powerful practices."

Franzel, whose father was also a rabbi, said that he was drawn to the rabbinate only after he learned that Judaism contained a rich tradition of mysticism and meditation that goes at least as far back as the 13th-century kabbalists, if not farther.

He'd been studying to be a clinical psychologist in the mode of Carl Jung before switching careers. He started a chanting and meditation circle as a first-year rabbinical student in 1996 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.

Franzel explained that while more traditional prayer is about a series of ideas and beliefs, chanting -- while not negating the importance of the words themselves -- is about evoking a more ethereal encounter with words and sounds.

"You dive deep, deep into the chant. It's not about saying something different, it's not about getting to some place new, it's about deepening the place where you are at," said Franzel.

Meditation and other practices more closely associated with Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism have, over the past several decades, moved from the fringes of Jewish life into the mainstream. That has happened as the liberal streams of Judaism have both embraced the practices, thought and stories of the 18th-century Chasidic movement and its founder, the Baal Shemtov, and have also realized that such "Eastern" touches have roots in Judaism as well.

Still, while Torah Yoga may be a staple at many synagogues, there aren't many in the Philadelphia area teaching the kind of chanting that Franzel touts.

Perhaps one teacher who comes the closest is Rabbi Marcia Prager, a leader in the mysticism-infused Jewish Renewal movement. Prager, who heads P'nai Or Religious Fellowship of Philadelphia -- a congregation based in Mount Airy -- appeared with Franzel at a summer weekend retreat in Media.

"Meditation and song and story have always been woven into the fabric of Jewish learning and prayer," said Prager. "It is deeply grounded in the tradition of liturgy."

That event was sponsored by a California-based nonprofit called Beit Ayin, which promotes Hebrew chant and meditation. It featured both guitarists and percussionists.

According to Marsha Bryan Edelman, professor of music and education at Gratz College, while chanting clearly infusing Eastern influences into Jewish practice, it also follows ongoing trends in Jewish music and synagogue services.

Synagogues across the denominational spectrum have adopted more musical, participatory styles of worship as the notion of singing has taken on an increasingly spiritual element, according to Edelman.

"The other thing that chanting does is that it uses very little text, which makes it very accessible," she said. "People who don't know Hebrew, people who can't read it, you've only got a few syllables. It means that everybody can participate."

At the session at Main Line Reform this week, Sherrill Neff, Felton's husband, said that he long considered himself a spiritual seeker, and that Franzel has demonstrated to him that what he sought in other traditions exists within Judaism after all.

"It is a very peaceful and powerful way to open the morning," said Neff, a founding partner in a Philadelphia venture-capital firm. "You gently allow your rational brain to take a rest and leave the room for a while."

Another participant, Robbie Russock, a 64-year-old Wayne resident who spent more than 20 years in Jewish education, said that he has also studied Eastern religions. What drew him to this, he said, was the difference from other services, where "the cantor does it for you; there is very little participation.

"If I chant just a little bit softer, my voice becomes part of the bigger whole and it brings me closer to the divine," said Russock. "I have been looking for this for about 60 years, to really find a way to link my own spirituality with Judaism. It's a godsend."

Franzel travels a few times a year to teach in other communities. Beit Ayin, he said, was begun to help facilitate such endeavors. The June retreat was the first time that Beit Ayin had organized anything locally.

In many ways, Franzel's message is an age-old one in Judaism. It's not just about thinking; it's about doing. "You can't be spiritual unless you are specifically engaged in spiritual practices," he said. "What I want is that people who are engaged in this kind of work are engaged in a path, a set of practices."

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