Discourses of Authenticity in Contemporary Jewish Practices of Niggunim Singing
Ruth Illman [+]
The Donner Institute for Research in Religious and Cultural History
As the traditional Hasidic way of life was extinguished by the Holocaust, the last “authentic” form of Jewish mysticism came to a close, Gershom Scholem argued in his momentous book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941, p. 34): ”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 liquid spiritual milieu. But are such vernacular practices to be seen as “authentic” continuations of the tradition, or merely as vulgar commodifications? Here, the views of contemporary researchers differ significantly. This article focuses on the contemporary practice of nigunim – the wordless melodies that Hasidic Jews have been dancing and chanting for ages as an embodied prayer practice. The nigunim practice is currently experiencing a renaissance as part of an experience-based, un-dogmatic, emotionally saturated and border-crossing form of Jewish spirituality. For this article, ethnographic material has been gathered among Jews from progressive milieus in London to shed light on the practice. The focus on music, body, experience and emotions in contrast to dogmas, institutions, hierarchies and words form the nexus of the analysis, and the article suggests that the dichotomy between “authentic” and “vulgarised” practice can be overcome by applying a vernacular religious perspective.