Listening to Soul

As with any devotion, many out-of-the-way paths must be trod before we arrive at a destination we could not have known until we arrived there. Before I found the Arabic oud, I had fallen into the depths of musical bewilderment at the spells of Chet Atkin’s finger-style guitar, classical Indian raga, Jerry Garcia and the Dead, and the one and only Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

When it comes to death and dying, burials and funeral, folks have so much trouble believing in soul. But when Aretha Franklin sings, how can you do anything but testify to the majestic power of soul that all human beings are endowed with. The rare bird, Aretha, makes a temple of her life, her heart, her lungs, and her chords, for soul to resound in the world – revelation.

Aretha earns her place as the greatest of the generation for her work pioneering the genre we call “soul” music. But if you do not know it, learn swiftly now, that Aretha’s mighty power was brought up in houses of God. Her father was a preacher, and Aretha joined his choir as they caravanned, practicing, learning, mastering the art of listening and singing – soul.

In 1972 she recorded the most successful gospel album of all time, Amazing Grace, with Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. Words can do no justice to the magic in these recordings, but you can listen here.

These recordings were foundational to my musical soul, and they are a deep influence on our services at The New Shul.

How is it that a rabbi could be so profoundly influenced by a gospel record, Jesus and all? Soul music transcends boundaries. When we pour out soul, the barriers around us dissolve. When Aretha sings, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” you can’t help but fly alongside the harmonies of her band of angels, and open your soul to the beauty of her spirit, which she gives to the world – free.

What is soul music?

Soul music is beyond genre. It rises at the meeting point of rehearsed and free, at the balance of brokenness and joy. It sounds like silence erupting from melody, fire, and groove. These are the rules of soul music, as I have come to learn them. Thank you dearest Aretha for being our teacher of soul. We will miss you dearly, and we will honor your being by our music.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

Joy HaimsComment
A Potent Moon (Elul)

Dear Friends,

Tomorrow evening the new moon of Elul rises in the sky, heralding a lunar cycle of preparation before the arrival of the new year, Rosh Hashana. These days overflow with potency. The actions, practices and intentions that we perform these days are met with great receptivity, and more than in any other season, we are able to taste the fruits of our labor, like berries in high season, like manna.

The first practice of the new year, is listening to the sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn, which we begin to sound daily in the month of Elul. Why is listening the first practice of the year?

The rabbis of the Talmud imagine bizarre scenarios of folks hearing or overhearing shofar sounds and they ask in each case — has this person fulfilled the imperative of the ram’s horn, that is, has this person truly listened?  They imagine someone walking the roaming hills of the Catskills, corn fields, barns, cows and all; that person hears what they think is a shofar, and she gives her heart, but it’s really just a braying donkey. Does this count? Has she listened? They imagine another soul, passing by west tenth street, overhearing the sound of the shofar, but without any intention to do so. Did he listen?

Listening is the first practice of the year, encapsulated in the metaphor of the shofar, because intention is exactly the marker which distinguishes conscious from unconscious action. Listening is the basis for all of our work in the year to come. It’s easy to hear the shofar — but did you really listen? You can perform most any action lazily, unintentionally; but to make your pancakes, prune your garden, be in a relationship with radical aliveness necessitates constant (regenerating) intention. 

This is the month of potent, constant intention. Every time you perform an action, you teach yourself to perform the next action in the same way. That’s why we can’t allow ourselves to do anything unintentionally. The garbage, the bills, the monotony that accompanies every devotion — did you really listen? Our ears, our heart — they’re changed with every deed. 

Sow the seeds of your practice with vigor. Diet, learning, creativity, attention, devotion to whatever calls to your single-minted soul. Make it happen. 

Shabbat Shalom my friends. See you in a moon. 

Rabbi Zach Fredman

Joy HaimsComment
Who Taught You How To Listen?

Dear Friends,

Who taught you how to listen?

As a babe fresh from the womb, the faces of your mother and father responding to your cries, did they teach you how to listen? Or you had a teacher in your youth who heard you, and whether you knew it or not, she taught you? Maybe as an adult, someone taught you how to find your stillness, so that even hearing stories of pain and hardship you refuse the inclination to turn your heart away and stay, listening to whatever greets your ears? Or maybe, no one ever taught you to listen?

I am amazed that our culture assumes that the most fundamental spiritual tasks can be acquired without consciousness. Did anyone ever teach you how to breathe? Of course you can breathe. But did anyone ever teach you how to draw a mighty quiet breath from the depths of your belly and your toes, to let it rest and permeate after you take it in, how to release air like a flautist does, every breathe music, and how to be in the emptiness at the end of every cycle as a lesson in contentment?  Why didn’t you learn that in school, alongside the alphabet and Dr. Seuss?

One day The New Shul will pioneer spiritual education 101, and I imagine our course will begin with breathing and listening. Why? Because these arts are the doorways between the individualized bodies of the cosmos – listening and breathing - they are the current of blood of the one world. They are all that is between us.

To prepare for the High Holy Days I have ordered many books about listening; the New Age books and the Ted talk videos, they are a decent place to start but they do not touch the difficulty, nor the poetry, of real listening. Last night before me sat John Cage, the father of post-modern sound, his book Silence, and I introduced him to my great-grandfather, Menachem Mendel Kasher, who wrote an entire encyclopedia of commentary on the Shma and listening. By way of devotion, we arrive at profound questions. Can we hear silence? What are the preconditions for listening?

The language of “Listen Israel,” appears one other time in the Torah, preceded by a word, hasket – be silent!  Silence first, then listening.

The real work of preparation has been my focused attention on how I listen. Am I always capable of listening? No!  What brings me to listening? And if someone is talking to me, and I am not in a place of listening, how can I get there quickly?

Maybe listening is something we have to teach ourselves, and teach each other in community? To a year of listening, and learning how to listen.

Shabbat Shalom my friends,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

Joy HaimsComment
Listen Up!

Dear Friends,

As our attention turns to questions of listening, I hope to seed your consciousness with thoughts and meditations that will begin readying the mental soil for all that lies before us. The great Jewish wisdom lineage to which we belong recognized that good questions are far more fruitful than good answers, and it’s in that vein that we begin. 

Why does the most essential Jewish practice, the Shma, appeal to our sense of hearing?  Why isn’t the prayer: See O’ Israel?  Or Feel this you wrestling soul?  Or smell the trail of divine spirit?

As we delve into ancient sources alongside modern ones, I attune us to the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing, in the English language, denotes the basic physics of aurality. Listening, is the far more complex practice of bringing consciousness to all that we hear, and all that we are not yet capable of hearing. Because Hebrew is ancient and primitive in some ways, the old sources don’t always distinguish between hearing and listening and we are left to decipher which meaning the old authors intended. 

What is the essential Jewish teaching on listening? If, by our work this year, we are able to arrive at one distilled truth or practice to give to the world, Jews, non-Jews, spiritual and non-spiritual types, what will it be?

Here, at the very beginning, this is my sense of the Shma. It is an intention, invoked daily and at the most profound moments in our lives, meant to attune us to the interconnectedness of all the universe ... the divine is One. And that intention should actively shift our behavior, we should always be in the service of others, because we are profoundly connected in ways that we cannot know. 

But isn’t that strange?! The most essential prayer of our tradition asks us to listen for something that we believe we are incapable of hearing. We are fragile little beings, incapable of feeling an embodied connection to all the world’s creatures and our divine source. Go and listen everyday, for something you can’t hear!  Now that’s a great practice!

It’s the essential teaching of Judaism because it lays sound upon the chasm between who we are and who we are becoming, what we are capable of listening to, and what we might be able to hear one day. It’s a Jewish riff on the famous zen koan - What is the sound of one god clapping?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

Joy HaimsComment
A Year of Listening

Dear Friends,


In the introduction of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, he tells the story of the young poet trapped in the throes of depression and writer’s block.  In 1912, Rilke is invited to Duino Castle, on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, as a guest of the Princess Marie Von Thum und Taxis. During his stay, a mighty storm brews at the edge of the sea, and an angel of wind and rain calls Rilke from solitude to meet the storm. The tempest speaks and Rilke listens. After the encounter, he takes up his pen and feverishly lays down the first of the ten elegies, the rest of them to be composed in the years that follow, likewise by a process of deep listening and inspiration.


Each year at The New Shul our services and study center on a theme investigated over the High Holy Days, and elaborated throughout the year. Last year we studied Healing. I don’t choose our theme lightly. I hold our work together in the highest regard, and believe we are engaged in practices that have the power to heal and transform our lives, and light up the world we inhabit. Though I saw no angel, I came to our theme not by choice, but by some kind of inspiration.


The coming year will be a year of listening. Someone whose face I cannot recall said that listening feels connected to healing. I think that’s true -- maybe listening is one of the ways that we enact healing.


Why listening? What are we listening for? How to listen? I don’t want to answer any of the questions yet. I’d like you to ask them with me, and find your own questions as we engage in a few months of study in preparation for our High Holy Days. Let’s begin thinking about listening – talk to me, I am all ears.


I’m reading a lot! I’d never spent much time with Rilke, and his Duino Elegies, so far, are by far of the highest literary value. I’m looking at John Cage’s notebook called Silence. I read Michael Pollan’s new book on psychedelics, How to Change Your MindThe Lean Startup, has me thinking about listening in the context of organizational structure and development. Mark Nepo has a title, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen that is asking many of the right questions. Next up for me are Gabor Mate’s, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby.


At the same time I’m digging into all the ancient Jewish wisdom sources on listening. Send me anything pertinent to the investigation!


We’re in store for a mighty year. I’ll say more about all the changes happening at The New Shul in my annual first letter, that will go out with membership renewals in the coming weeks.


In the meantime, all my heart is wishing you a Shabbat of peace.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

Joy HaimsComment
Keepers of a Way

Dear Friends,

As a vision of God came to Ezekiel on the banks of the Kebar river, 622 BCE, ‘and the living beasts came and went as a shimmer of lightning,’ so one came to me this week, on the banks of the Hudson, in the year 2018. A scorpion’s tale rose from the hollow of my back, it’s stinger bit into my body, and her poison offered these prophecies …

The gods live. We go about our lives running to and fro as witless chickens assured that the gods are not real. The gods live.

Every human ego is a wondrous expression of spirit. Our struggles, the pain and hardship that we experience when we don’t get what we want, when small and mighty deaths greet our being – the gods smile and laugh at our little egos. How funny, how cute, are these little personalities making their way on the path toward enlightenment. We are welcome to take their perspective any time – hehe, what a funny little ego you are, I am! Perfect just as we are.

Judaism, this ancient mode of service, a way of turning our hearts, minds, spirits to the loci of the divine. Since the times of Abraham, Isaiah and Ezekiel, since the days of the prophetesses that have been erased by misogyny, has our people used this language and these customs to serve. We are keepers of a way. Judaism is not our tradition to use as it suits the marketplace of our lives; we are responsible for endowing this mode of service with renewed life-force, stewarding the way into its future. We are keepers of a way.

And we have no control, and neither do the gods. Our sense of autonomy, directive, the ability to change the world; we are not in control. As time unfolds before us, the gods too watch as spirit becomes. Control is a profound illusion, a mistake, egos struggling for substantiation. This is not to say that intention and service are not the most profound modes of being, but when we can arrive at the understanding that it is not our personal power that creates what is to be, then spirit can more fully realize that which she aspires to. The great pain of the political charade that plays out before us, the torment that a government and its evil henchman carry out, they will suffer greatly in the fires of hell for their sins; spirit will have her way with them. And those who suffer on their account will know peace. But you and I, release your sense of control – let loose your grasping hold on reality, it is causing you suffering. She is working her magic always, hidden from our eyes, and in time, all will be well. Step back into the dance of life when your chariot begins to lift from the ground.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman


PS – The Epichorus is playing and recording this summer, and some of the material inspired by our High Holy Day services is on the setlist.

July 22nd – We’ll be at Racebrook Lodge in the Berkshires, with a big band. Come join us for the evening, or for the whole weekend. It’s magical up there. (I will also appear as a special guest at the concert on July 21st).

July 24th – We’ll be at Sisters in Brooklyn, as part of the Brooklyn Maqam Hang. An instrumental ensemble will perform original pieces alongside repertoire from the Jewish communities of Syria and Iraq.

August 24th/25th – We’ll be recording at Dreamland, a beautiful wooden church studio near Woodstock. If enough folks are interested in coming through, we’ll barbecue, and maybe even get you on the record as The New Shul choir. Let me know if you’d like to join us!

Joy HaimsComment
Off Cocooning

Dear Friends,

As our hemisphere spins into summer, another school year comes to a close and our community ventures off to the watering holes that surround new york city, I am yearning for the quiet of summer hibernation, turning down the rabbinic output a bit, to pursue silence, darkness, creativity, and the little ecstasies that make a summer. I hope your summer will be filled with all of these!

But as I perused the wisdom library this week, I realized upon a major blunder that I enacted!

Two years ago we studied language, our centerpiece - wilderness is nothing but language. We studied cries and screams and words, poems songs and prophecies, all the vocal utterances that can emerge from a human mouth. We saw ourselves as wildernesses that have mouths capable of giving expression to the deep mystery within us, for the sake of communion and beauty.

It turns out I mistranslated the entire theme! In the language of our ancestors, dibur, yes it means language, but it's language of the highest expression, language that's true and good, spoken in kindness, received by mighty ears. That kind of language is called prayer. It should have been ... wilderness is nothing but prayer. The generation of the wilderness didn't even have to build their tabernacle, they spoke-prayed it into existence.

Summer should be filled with devotions that we understand as prayers. To define the old word, a prayer is any activity marked by the following characteristics: 1) It tunes your being like a cello, to greater balance. 2) It situates you within the wide context of humanity and the stars. 3) It's creative, mirroring the creation acts of Genesis, let there be ... 4) There are words of conversation and learning that lift and rise and steal you away from what you think you are like a butterfly entering exiting a cocoon, only your transformation will be less visually apparent. In the language of Rumi, there are ten thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Bon Voyage butterflies. Enjoy the wilderness cocoons.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

Joy HaimsComment