The ‘Kirtan’ RabbiRabbi Andrew Hahn will hold a Havdala Kirtan on Saturday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Shalom in Succasunna. Admission to the event and Havdala service costs $18 for adults, $5 for students. Patrons are invited to a wine and cheese reception that begins at 6:30. A patron donation is $25 per person. Advance reservations are required. To RSVP or for more information, call 973-584-5666.
March 20, 2008
From the Age of Aquarius to the New Age movement of the ’80s and beyond, many Jews have sought to enhance their spirituality by borrowing from Eastern religions — cribbing a chant from the Buddhists here, a meditation practice from the Hindus there. But for some, a nagging, uncomfortable question remains: Is this kosher?
Purim is here, but Andrew Hahn, aka the Kirtan Rabbi, is the real megilla.
Hahn, 49, is part of a small cadre of pioneers who incorporate Hebrew names of God and snatches of sacred texts into musical forms associated with Eastern traditions.
In his case, it is usually done in kirtan, also known as bhajan, an ancient form of call-and-response chanting that originated in India, in the Hindu and Sikh traditions. It often involves calling out the name of the divine. Performers like Krishna Das, a Long Island-born singer Hahn calls “the Jimi Hendrix of kirtan,” have popularized the style in the United States.
A resident scholar at CLAL-The Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Hahn serves as cochair of the ritual committee for Kehilat Romemu, an independent congregation in Manhattan. He holds a regular kirtan once each month at the Integral Yoga Institute in Manhattan.
Although he teaches Jewish studies at the 92nd Street Y, the Manhattan JCC, Me’ah, JLearn on Long Island, and other venues, he said, “Kirtan is becoming my day job.” Hahn brings the practice to far-flung synagogues, either running a program of just chanting, or weaving kirtan into a more traditional service. On March 22 he’ll lead a Havdala kirtan at Temple Shalom in Succasunna.
He calls his efforts “insta-BJ,” referring to Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the Manhattan synagogue known for its soulful, musical worship services.
Hahn is careful in describing what he does. On the one hand, he acknowledges that he considers chanting a kind of prayer. However, when he brings it to others, he said, he stresses that “I am not trying to change Judaism. This is not meant to be a replacement for the liturgy, but rather a complementary practice.” In between chants, he often teaches.
“I hand out a text and I set the kavana, or intention, of the chant through studying the text,” he said.
Hahn, who was first exposed to kirtan in 2004, is the only ordained rabbi currently leading Hebrew kirtan.
“I am on the furthest fringe of outreach,” he said. “What I do is for Jews and non-Jews, but there are Jewish people who are coming who would never do anything Jewish. They are doing yoga, and they feel their chants in Sanskrit are not to their gods; they hear I’m doing it in Hebrew, and they come.”
His status puts him in a unique position with practitioners.
“Because I’m a rabbi, they learn with me, and I can be a gateway to the synagogue for them. It’s very gratifying to get an e-mail from someone who says for 30 years they haven’t touched Judaism, but now they are moved,” he said.
His grasp of Jewish texts, he said, enriches the kirtan he leads. “I deeply know the language,” he said. “If I use a phrase, I know the various places it appears in the Bible, the Talmud, the Kabala. Knowing where it is used informs the way I sing. What’s behind my voice is all the learning — it informs my practice.”
The learning includes a PhD in philosophy and Jewish thought, earned at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in 2001, and rabbinical ordination at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 2003.
His excitement about kirtan grows palpable as he describes how it works: “It’s very participatory and only happens in relationship. It’s call and response — I sing, they listen; they sing, I listen. Listening to yourself singing is different from singing and listening back and forth. When you split the duty, in a way, there is more unity,” he said. “It’s deeply contemplative and deeply ecstatic.”
In conversation, he draws on his academic self, likening the relationship that results from kirtan to the I-Thou philosophy of Martin Buber. (In fact, Hahn is so enthralled by Buber that he named his dog for him; they have, he said, an “I-Bow-wow” relationship.)
“What is more I-You than this practice? It can only happen in a relationship where you obliterate any sense of ‘me-ness’ and give yourself over to ‘I-You-ness.’ That’s the goal: to become a community.”
Hahn grew up in a large classical Reform synagogue in Pittsburgh. His connection to Judaism, however, was forged in the mid-1980s when he was in his 20s, living in Germany. When he returned to the States, he began studying Judaism in earnest. The chanting that is so integral to kirtan brings out his longstanding passion for music — he not only sang opera as a child, he went on to play and study classical guitar at Carnegie Mellon University.
He discovered kirtan purely by accident after graduating from rabbinical school. He had envisioned himself a pulpit rabbi, moonlighting with some academic work on the side. He headed out to Boulder, Colo., to find work and had joined a group of rabbis studying with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, perhaps the leading figure in the Jewish Renewal movement.
One day, he and some friends listened to a recording of Krishna Das chanting in Sanskrit. “I thought, ‘Wow, I could do this in Hebrew,’” he said.
He realized quickly, as he put it, “I had found my rabbinate.”
He learned to play the harmonium and incorporates it and the guitar into his kirtan. He often performs with Jewish educator Shoshana Jedwab on the drums.
On March 15, he appeared for the first time with Susan Deikman, another Jewish kirtan artist who performs under the name Yofiyah, at the Integral Yoga Institute, where they held a Saturday night Havdala kirtan. Deikman is credited with founding what is now known as Hebrew or kabalistic kirtan in 1999.
Hahn acknowledged that his blend of tradition and outside influences can be a challenge.
“The rabbi’s main function is to be a teacher of the Jewish Torah. That’s a hard path to navigate. If I say this is a form of worship or prayer, more normative Jews would say, ‘You are changing Judaism.’ So I say, let them decide what they are doing. If people feel they’re praying, okay. If people feel they are having fun, okay. I’m not going to define it for other people.
“But for myself, it is a form of prayer. This is my Torah,” he said. “That’s really what’s it’s about — it’s Torah. I’m finding a way to teach Torah, expanding where Torah can go.”
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