Prayer and Jewish Liturgy – A Havurah Interview with Crystal Buchhalter

Crystal Buchhalter is a Jewish believer who served as cantorial soloist at a synagogue for several years. She and her husband Shaun currently serve with Jews for Jesus’ music team, The Liberated Wailing Wall.

Havurah: Sometime people ask, if we can pray spontaneously, what is the value of liturgy?

Crystal: Liturgy is more than just prayers that people memorize or pray every week. In the first place, liturgy serves as a guide when we can’t think what to pray. The Holy Spirit knows our hearts, of course, but we don’t always. So liturgy helps draw out of us what we are unable to put into our own words.

Liturgy also keeps us grounded in our relationships with God and with each other. Thank God, Jesus made a way for us to communicate directly to God through the Spirit. Spontaneous prayers often feel good. But as flawed people we can get overly wrapped up in our own emotions and feelings even in our prayer lives. I can’t believe I’m saying this, because as a musician, I am huge on individual expression! But there has to be a balance. Following Messiah is really about relationships.

Another value to liturgy is that it brings people together in worship, which spontaneous prayer often cannot. One of my favorite things about growing up in synagogue was hearing hundreds of people pray the same prayer together. Jews and Christians alike recite the verse, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength.” Liturgical prayer can help us do exactly that, uniting us in heart, mind and purpose.

And finally, liturgy reveals a person’s heart by allowing the Word to pierce it in worship. Some people don’t like to recite liturgy because they feel it is a dead form of worship. They couldn’t be more wrong; most Jewish liturgy is simply praying Scripture back to God. This is huge! We study the word of God because we know it is living. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” When a heart is pierced it is closer to God. I’ve experienced great revelation and conviction during liturgical worship. When we pray the Word, we pray him. Talk about “God with us”!

Havurah: So tell us how you became a cantorial soloist at your synagogue and how you came to faith in Y’shua.

CB: I’ve always had a passion for my Jewish people and a love of Bible stories. As a child, I would read about the power God displayed through the people he used, and I wanted that for myself. I didn’t really know what I was looking for but I figured the best place to get it was in the synagogue. So I started going to Hebrew school—and a whole new world was opened to me. I began singing in the children’s choir every Saturday morning and was soon given solos, because of my passion as much as my voice.

By ten years old my cantor had me singing liturgical solos at Shabbat services and opening concerts for him around the Detroit Jewish community. I loved singing in shul more than anything. To this day I can’t explain it any other way than to say that God was with me, in my voice, when I sang the liturgy.

By thirteen I was on staff as a madrich, an apprentice. I started conducting the children’s choir, I was singing in the professional choir, I “subbed” for my cantor and taught others the liturgy. All this was in addition to concerts I was doing with other cantors and synagogues. Once I was in the Detroit Jewish News as an “up-and-comer.” My nana really kvelled over that one!

Eventually, through the witness of faithful Christians, my father, brother, mother, came to faith, and—as the last holdout—myself. I remained on staff at my synagogue for seven years as a believer. It was a big enough place at about 10,000 members that this was possible. Those who knew me best didn’t mind my faith and were even intrigued by it.

But eventually some people had a problem with it and I was asked to leave the synagogue. I still consider it home and appreciate how sensitively my rabbi handled my leaving, even meeting with the Messianic rabbi to make sure I would be okay, that I would continue to have a community. I still keep in touch with people there and love to worship there when I get the chance to go home. They may not know Messiah, but I do and he is not just in the liturgy, for me he is the liturgy, at least the liturgy that is the Word. He is the Word. To this day I feel most alive in worship in a synagogue context. I worship with fellow believers in a church, but Jewish liturgy will always be home for me.

Havurah: Is there a piece of Jewish liturgy that is a favorite for you?

CB: That would be the Kaddish, which is best known for being a “prayer for the dead.” Actually, we don’t say it so much for the person who has died but for those of us who are left behind. It reminds us who God is, that he’s in control, that he is so much greater than us and yet remains so near to us.  It is my favorite because it is about who God is and because it reminds me of the Lord’s Prayer, which I venture it may have foreshadowed. Both are similar in content, and Messiah would have known it because in its earliest form it predates his life on earth. The disciples would have been able to relate to the Lord’s Prayer because of it. And it’s in Aramaic, his native language, the common language of Jews during the Babylonian exile when the earliest parts of it may have been written.

When my grandfather died last year, a man who had a huge hand in my upbringing, I had to say Kaddish for him.  A dear friend of mine was consoling me that if my grandfather had truly seen Messiah as we have reason to believe he did on his deathbed, then when I chant that prayer for him, we might as well be side by side, because worshipping is exactly what he will be doing at that moment. For me the Kaddish is a prayer of strength because though I know God is always with me, it brings me more into his greatness.

Havurah: What role has liturgical prayer played in the history of our people?

The Kaddish was written in Aramaic during a time when our people were in exile and were not allowed to pray in Hebrew. Prayers like the Kaddish gave our people hope in God, in who he is, and in his promises to us. It kept them together. Perhaps it even helped them survive. This is a prayer that is said during every synagogue service, a prayer that is said when people die, a prayer that Holocaust victims clung to and requested of those who may survive to say for them if they should perish. Sometimes I wonder if this prayer may have even been a forerunner for the Lord’s Prayer—which is also liturgy. Both prayers are really more about God’s will and who he is, than they are about us. It’s that focus on who God is that keeps us grounded, especially in times of trouble.

Havurah: If Jewish believers forget the heritage of Jewish liturgy, do you feel that is a loss to our community? Does it really matter or not?

CB: Most Jews don’t remember anything the rabbi said in his sermons, but even the most secular ones remember the Kol Nidre, the Kaddish, the Shema and many more whose names they may not recall but with which they associate their Jewishness. If we who are now believers forget our liturgical heritage, we become irrelevant. Other Jews can no longer relate to our idea of worship.

I think this is something that many Messianic congregations have neglected in reaching the Jewish community. In many of those I have attended, the worship has not been in a truly Jewish context. That is okay if it is intentional. However, I think too many congregations haven’t thought through their worship as much as they could. Even the gentiles who come to these congregations want an authentically Jewish form of worship. We’re only gaining as a body by giving it to them.

I believe Jewish liturgy is a resource for the church at large and it is my passion to make that resource available. Jewish culture is not just about matzah ball soup and Torah, it is much deeper that that. It is about a form of worship that is good, a form which we should utilize.

Havurah: Let’s talk about the musical component of worship. How does music enhance liturgy?

CB: As much as I appreciate spoken liturgy, I appreciate it even more when it is musical. I believe music is important in worship, and especially in liturgy, for the same reasons that people enjoy listening to music in general. Music is the language of the emotions. I think most people have heard a song which communicated something that was is in their heart, something that they couldn’t have put into words—even if that song didn’t have words, especially if that song didn’t have words.

Take movies, for example. A movie can have a wonderful script, nomination-worthy acting and effects. But it’s when you add the music that it really gets under your skin. Music enters deeply into a person, just like the Ruach Hakodesh divides soul and spirit. When you pair something that powerful with the word of God you get an intense experience. Unlike preaching, music can get to people even when they’re not receptive to it.

Moishe Rosen once said to me, and I paraphrase, “How many people remember what the preacher preached on last week? But a good song, they remember for a lifetime!” I think that sums it up. Music brings God even to people who don’t want him. I know many people who came to faith primarily through music. I’m one of them!

Havurah: Does Jewish liturgy conflict on any level with our understanding of God? If it does, how do you reconcile that to using synagogue liturgy?

There is some liturgy that is based on the Talmud that I do not condone. And unfortunately—but understandably—there are certain pieces of liturgy that were written to stand against Christian belief. Of course I do not condone those either, but I understand that they were written because people were misled by their great suffering that came at the hands of a “manipulated” Christianity; they believed these liturgical pieces were necessary to ensure the survival of the Jewish people, the Jewish soul. But as we know, both can coexist even more beautifully together than apart.

That being said, the amount of liturgy in the Jewish tradition that is unacceptable is by far in the minority. The vast majority of the written prayers, including the prayers not directly quoting Scripture, are acceptable, beautiful, and passionate. I went through the entirety of the Erev Rosh Hashanah service in my Reform prayer book and didn’t find anything unacceptable.

Havurah: Can you recommend any learning resources for individuals or congregations that want to do more liturgically? Is there something to explain how to learn to chant the liturgy and so on?

CB: There’s a great resource from the Reform movement called Transcontinental Music Publications. They also have a bookstore and they’re online, though the site is not always easy to use. They are helpful on the phone if you know what you’re looking for.

If your congregation is looking to expand musically in the area of liturgy, you don’t need a cantor. Put together a choir, and don’t go with the melodies that everyone already knows. There is an ocean of beautifully and brilliantly set liturgical pieces for choirs or choirs with soloists. Find those; they’re the best anyway. Composers I recommend would include Gershon Kingsley, Shlomo Carlebach, Simon Sargon, Stephen Richards, Michael Isaacson, A.W. Binder, Marshall Portnoy, Samuel Adler, Max Janowski, and Ben Steinberg. Janowski is my favorite; he’s old school.

Marshall Portnoy also has two books out, with CD, on how to chant Torah, Haftarah and Megillah. It’s called The Art of Cantillation. Transcontinental Music Publications, mentioned above, also offers resources on how to chant Torah portions and how to find what Torah portion your child will have at their bar or bat mitzvah. There is also the Judaica Sound Archives, which archives classic cantorial albums and works done by famous and influential cantors. You can listen online.

The Kehot Publication Society is a great resource for Hasidic things, books, home items and especially Jewish art. My favorite Jewish artist happens to be Hasidic, Michoel Muchnik. He’s big into mosaics and produces some very interesting work.


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