This past week, I thought a lot about sound. My aural consciousness was aroused, in part, by what’s currently going on in Israel and Gaza. As sirens wailed and missiles hit their targets, it was hard to concentrate on much of anything apart from the sounds of war.
But then, that wasn’t the only thing that got me thinking about soundscapes. The recent publication by Yale University Press of Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Religion, a handsomely produced volume of essays edited by the redoubtable Sally Promey of Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music, also put me in mind of the centrality of sound in our lives, especially when it comes to the practice of faith.
This book, much like A History of Religion in 5 1⁄2 Objects, which I reviewed for The New Republic a few months ago, makes the claim, convincingly, that religion is as grounded in the sensory — in sound and smell, visuality and tactility — as it is in grand abstractions about sin, heaven and the prospect of deliverance.
Its tantalizingly brief section on what Promey smartly calls “audible religion” suggests the plasticity of the approach she and the other contributors to this volume roundly endorse. Religious pluralism, it turns out, isn’t just a matter of making room for others at the table. It also takes the form of exploring how some American municipalities accommodated the Muslim summons to prayer and how one Christian seminary reckoned with an art installation, whose use of Hindu ritual bells intruded on the rhythms of the day.
The week drew to a close harmoniously, and soothingly, with a ceremony honoring Laura Cohen Apelbaum for her 20 years of service as director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. The program was held within the intimate precincts of its late 19th century red brick building, formerly a synagogue, now located at 3rd and G in downtown D.C. Although I’ve had the good fortune to visit any number of times, its pews were usually empty of people. This time around, they were filled to capacity.
The presence of people and the sounds they projected, especially when, at the ceremony’s conclusion, everyone enthusiastically joined together to offer a prayer of thanksgiving — in Hebrew — gave shape, texture and meaning to the Society’s efforts at historical reconstruction and preservation. Enlivened by sound, an historic space that once housed a congregation was no longer a mute witness to the past. It had come alive.
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