The Musical Midrash Project

Musical Midrash
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Using music as a vehicle for learning is a natural combination. From the time children are very little we use songs to impart lessons in the ABCs, naming body parts, and even cleaning up a room after playing. As children progress through school the use of music starts to be relegated to holiday celebrations or as its own subject to be. But what if music were integrated back into the learning process in order to introduce more complex ideas? Mark Sherman is doing just that through his innovative Musical Midrash Project. A singer-songwriter and lay leader at Portland’s largest Conservative synagogue, Congregation Neveh Shalom, Sherman believed he -- and others -- would gain the most depth and Torah learning from words set to music.

Midrash is a form of commentary used by the Rabbis to help reveal the meaning in biblical texts. When something unusual or unclear appears in the text, midrash steps in with careful imagination and thought to fill in the gaps and provide inspiration. Sherman launched the Musical Midrash Project as a way to use music to gain a greater sense of connection to a text that is both meaningful and essential, yet hard to understand. With melody, and interpretive English lyrics to match the cadence of each text, the songs of the Musical Midrash Project join a living tradition that continues to find new ways of interpreting Torah.

The unique project is a compilation of 54 original songs, corresponding to the traditional 54 divisions of weekly Torah readings, in Hebrew and in English for which Sherman wrote the lyrics and music. He began with the Book of Genesis in fall 2019, and he has been steadily developing all 54 songs. Each musical piece draws on a brief, lyrical Hebrew verse from the five Books of Moses. “The songs use music to explore the emotional meaning of each passage,” Sherman says. “An English d’rash set to the same melody interprets the Hebrew to speak to the heart.”

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sherman transitioned his in-person listening sessions to Zoom, where his audience has grown from a local-only group of listeners and learners to those farther afield, including California, Montana, and Israel. As Shawn Fields-Meyer, school rabbi at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, CA explains, “with Musical Midrash, listening leads to learning and to a greater love of Torah.”

To learn more and to download the songs and lyrics, visit musicalmidrash.com.

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