Cantors and “performativity”

In the kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) mystical adepts are described as having theurgic powers; prayers function in a way that has an external impact in the non-earthly spiritual dimension. In Luria’s mystical reinterpretation of Jewish ritual life, prayer is imagined as a system of powerfully efficacious formulas that enact change in the divine realm. Luria’s doctrine concerning tikun olam (healing the world) teaches that mystical adepts can effect change in the divine realm through concentration on the secret meaning of prayer texts. These meditations are referred to as kavana (intention; plural kavanos). Kavanos work as healing devices that aid in the reestablishment of a cosmological harmony that had been ruptured at the beginning of time. Luria mapped his ideas concerning the theurgic efficacy of prayer onto other aspects of quotidian existence, teaching that all aspects of life can be performed with kavana. According to Lurianic teachings all actions when accompanied by the correct patterns of thought can be implemented as interventions in the cosmic drama. Luria and his disciples initiated the doctrine of kavana as a system of Jewish thought that would imbue all acts with a double meaning. Lurianic kavanos speak about the possibility of actions to contain more than only their immediately accessible meaning or justification. This approach to self-conception of the purpose and meaning of action was supplemented by the development of a body of literature. Eventually kavanos were codified in a mystically oriented version of the prayer book that contained supplementary texts that one is instructed to keep in mind while saying another set of words. Lurianic prayer books circulated throughout the Jewish Diaspora. The kavana texts were usually formalized preambles to the prayers that explained the alternative meaning of the prayer according to Lurianic theurgic interpretation. Eventually, in the 18th century, the Lurianic prayer book was adopted by the Chassidic movement and became a normative aspect of Eastern European Jewish intellectual life.

As we can see, “performative speech” has a highly specific meaning in the Jewish cultural context that parallels and contrasts with the notion of “performative speech” first asserted by J.L. Austin. It is my contention that the Lurianic system of kavana resonates sympathetically with the theoretical construct of the Austinian performative. Consciousness of kavana, the hidden intentions of speech, gives the speaking body an opportunity to create an alternate sphere of citations related to the experiences of daily life. The vocabulary of kavana as an interpretive frame allowed Jews to invest heavily scripted daily ritual endeavors with a parallel set of conceptions and meanings. As in Austinian “speech acts,” the doctrine of kavana constructs a theoretical lens that imagines speech as a form of action. Kavana is a form of performance of identity that specifically denies social contextualization in favor of an imaginative repositioning that foregrounds inward emotional pursuits and an imagined self that is empowered in its dialogue with the outside world.

To illustrate a deeper line of connection between performance and kavana, I would like to draw attention to another use of the term kavana. In contemporary synagogue usage, kavana has a humbler connotation, something that might be translated, as “feeling it” or “getting into it.” For example, when a cantor performs effectively he is said to daven (pray) with kavana. This use of the term kavana draws our attention to the retention of Lurianic kabbalistic ideas about prayer in folk culture. In the modern cantorial context, the performance of ritual music has come to take the place of the abstract system of meditations initiated by kabbalistic rabbis. Cantors offer their hearers an experience of intention and transformation. For Jews in the modern era, the experience of prayer as an efficacious act was repositioned and mapped onto the experience of the aesthetic. The efficacy of prayer is embodied in the hearer’s response to cantorial music: uncontrollable tears; a feeling of the enactment of one’s identity in musical form; visualized communion with ancestors. These markers of interior experience are essential legitimating feature of the music of cantors. By their openness to the musical experience, the listeners have collaborated with the cantor and created a new kind of “efficacious” prayer.

In this new dynamic, listeners give over some of the responsibility for their inner performance of the prayer experience to a third party. The cantor’s work “performs” an identity of spokesperson, creating a musical experience that resolves some of the tensions inherent in the experience of the modern body at prayer. By positioning prayer in the sphere of aesthetic experience, the Jewish community experiencing the transition to modernity was able to maintain traditional beliefs related to the theurgic efficacy of prayer. This was achieved through a partial displacement of those beliefs into the newly accessed realm of participation in art music culture.

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