10. Practices of Niggunim: Contemporary Jewish Song in a Vernacular Religion Perspective
Ruth Illman [+]
The Donner Institute for Research in Religion and Culture
Gershom Scholem argued in his momentous book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941, 34) that as the traditional Hasidic way of life was extinguished by the Holocaust, the last ‘authentic’ form of Jewish mysticism came to a close: “it has become again what it was in the beginning: the esoteric wisdom of small groups of men out of touch with life and without any influence in it”. Nevertheless, practices stemming from Kabbalah and Jewish mystical sources have since the turn of the millennium become more popular than ever inside as well as outside Jewish communities in Europe and North America, relocating and reframing traditional practices for a late-modern, urban, liberal and inclusive spiritual milieu. But are such vernacular practices to be seen as ‘authentic’ continuations of the tradition, or merely as vulgar commodification? Here, the views of contemporary researchers differ significantly. This chapter’s point of departure is this controversy over ‘authenticity’ in research on Jewish mysticism. A vernacular religion perspective is applied as a means of untying the knot that has formed through the unfruitful juxtaposing of classic and contemporary Jewish mysticism. Discourses of authenticity are exemplified by a case study dealing with contemporary practices of niggunim singing: (mainly) wordless melodies sung as a means of elevating the soul to God, repairing the world and strengthening the divine presence in the world. Niggunim is a practice with roots in Hasidic Judaism, which is currently experiencing a renaissance within contemporary Jewish spirituality. Ethnographic material has been gathered among Jews from progressive milieus in London to shed light on the practice in general, and this chapter analyses how the practitioners reflect upon authenticity.