The rambling thoughts of a Modern Orthodox Chassid (whatever that means). Contact me at emansouth @

Monday, May 03, 2004

On Nusach Carlebach

The Holy Lawyer of Maiden Lane has been hocking me to continue my discussions of Nusach Carlebach. In particular, he is interested on my thoughts on replacing traditional nusach with Shlomo's. I have been too busy writing about more important things, like my bicycle training, but then, this morning, I saw JewishFringe's post on the issue and decided to finally engage the issue.

Jewish Fringe is not a fan of nusach Carlebach for a number of reasons. One is that many of the ba'alei tefilah don't know what they are doing. In particular, he is driven crazy by people who use a major key when a minor is called for. I have no idea what that means on a technical level but I do understand, and it also drives me nuts, that people sing his niggunim differently from the way he wrote them. Even major bands mess up Shlomo's music in this way (V'niskav is a prime example; they go up on "bayom ha'hu" when they should go down).

(On a separate but related point: whether you use Shlomo's nusach or anything else, the first part of Lecha Dodi is supposed to be a slow, deep niggun. The niggun should change to a more up tempo, optimistic tune with Lo Seivoshi. It is appalling how many ba'alei tefilah don't do this properly. But we digress).

Jewish Fringe also writes the following:

"I dislike [nusach Carlebach] because its generally just not done well. Modes aside, it never tends to be as spirited as its billing. Is Nusach Shlomo having trouble living up to its hype, or is it like the 7th generation photocopy that becomes more faded, fuzzy and stodgy each degree of separation from the original?

My thought is that it needs to be done is a small room where everyone's pushed together and cozy."

I agree that there are not that many people who really know the Carlebach nusach. (On the other hand, there are also a limited number of people who know traditional nusach and that doesn't stop those who don't from davening for the amud).

I also agree that it works much better in an appropriate venue. I have written earlier on this issue. With very few exceptions nusach Carlebach works best in small, self-selected minyanim (often the teen minyan) where only those people who want to be there attend. Carlebach nusach works worst in large cavernous shuls whose mispalilm are wondering (or worse, discussing) how much longer they will be tortured before they can go home, fly through the Friday night seudah and get to bed.

JewishFringe also suggests that:

"Most people dislike Carlebach nusach because its not traditional enough."

I don't agree that that is the main reason for most of the people who don't enjoy Carlebach. Many people just are into quick davening, many are not into singing, alot are really not into doing a rikkud (dance) during davening. I think a minority really care about traditional nusach.

Having said that, the HLML does care about tradition. As he writes:

"The way I see it, part of the Jewish religious experience is maintaining the practices of the previous dorot (generations). Obviously that clal (general rule) is subject to exceptions but it does not seem to me that nussach hatefilah should be one of them. Elokei Avi v'aromimenhu may mean that I will glorify the god of my father the way my father did it. I am not saying this as a matter of halacha, more of what fits with my own personal view of the Jewsih religious experience. BTW, I seem to recall that the Maharil prohibits taking nussach from one part of davening and using it elsewhere. It would seem to me that replacing the nussach altogether with a brand spanking new nussach invented by some talented fellow ten years ago is arguably a matter of kal v'chomer (loosely, how much more so)."

"This is not to say that I don't like singing. Even in the Litvish world, there is some singing in davening. I happen to be a huge fan of old shteibel niggunim and some modern stuff as well. All of those niggunim are added to [the] context of the standard nussach that has been used for years."

As much as I personally love the Carlebach nusach and look forward to the day (may it be soon) that I will be living in Eretz Yisrael and davening nusach Carlebach at the Kotel every Friday night, I actually agree with most of what the HLML has to say. Let me add a few thoughts.

I agree that mesorah (tradition) in davening is important. (I also think that the break with mesorah in the MO world is one of the sources of many of its problems. This is a huge topic that is not for now).

On the other hand, it is clear that in the MO world (and even in much of the Litvish Chareidi world (other than in the Yeshivas)) davening is in terrible shape with lateness, talking and kiddush clubs the norm. Something isn't working (again, a subject much too big for now). To the extent that a nusach can wake people up and excite them about davening it should not be dismissed just because it is new. That's why I think there is a place for nusach Carlebach, particularly among high school and college age kids.

I think the way my shul handles this issue is ideal. On the overwhelming majority of Shabbosos, we daven the traditional nusach. We incorporate singing (usually Shlomo's tunes) in L'cha Dodi and V'shamru on Friday nights and and during Kail Adon, kedusha and Ain Kailokeinu on Shabbos mornings.
The singing, especially, in my view, when we stick to Shlomo's niggunim that people recognize, enhances the spirit of the davening tremendously.

On certain occasions, like when Elli Kranzler, Chaim Dovid, Shlomo and Eitan Katz, Aron Razel or Ben Zion Solomon have visited, our Rebbe has agreed to full blown nusach Carlebach. The Rebbe feels that once in a while, as long as the ba'al tefilah is someone who is really connected to the nusach and can inspire the kehilah, it is a very positive thing. But we wouldn't institute a monthly Carlebach minyan as I've seen other places do because of the importance of retaining the mesorah.

The HLML is also troubled by the dancing that often accompanies a Carlebach davening. I think that if the dancing is spontaneous and not part of some 'show', there is nothing wrong with it in moderation. Lighten up, HLML, you kalta Litvak.