Tonight I depart from the Torah portion in order to focus on the arrival of our new Student Cantor Daniel Geigerman. Daniel, like his predecessor Nancy Dubin, is on his journey beginning his studies at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Daniel completed his first year of study in Jerusalem along with Rabbinic and Education students. It feels like an appropriate opportunity to remind ourselves not only about the history of cantors in Judaism but also the challenges for today’s cantors in the progressive movement.
Let’s begin with a little bit of Jewish history. First, the hebrew term for the cantor is hazan. Some may call the cantor shillalah tzibor meaning the representative of the community in prayer to god. Up until modern times there was no ordination of cantors. The code of Jewish law (Orach Hayyim 53), edited in the 16th century, set out some criterion for someone to be called hazan or cantor. The cantor should be without sin, He should be modest. He should have a pleasant voice. He should be at least 13 years old.
It is important to understand that Judaism has a great tradition going back to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem of instrumental music and choirs. As I mentioned at the start of the service, the Levites provided the music including great choirs. Yet all of that changed when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70CE. At that point musical instruments were forbidden in synagogue worship as a symbol of national mourning. This applies to this very day in Orthodox services on Shabbat or the Yom Tovim. The Levitical choir was gone. So in order to preserve the ancient melodies and chants the role of the cantor became more prominent and important.
The sages knew that since all that was left were prayers it was critical to have the shalichah tzibor be able to reach the congregants with music even without instruments. In addition Judaism had a tradition of piyyutim or poems that also required singing as well. The cantors were the only ones left to preserve this literature with their singing and chanting to touch the souls of synagogue worshippers.
The cantors then led the way in developing cantillations for chanting the Torah, responsive singing of the psalms, and the rest of the liturgy.Back then as today, the Cantor not only simply sang these melodies, but, they interpreted them and adapted music from secular music in the regions they lived for their congregations. We call that body of chanted traditional music nusach.
As we approach the centuries leading up to the modern era, Jewish composers arose and composed music that integrated the traditional music with new compositions for the synagogue liturgy.
It was not until the 19th century that we see, with the rise of Reform and Conservative Judaism, a much greater emphasis on composed synagogue music and cantors who were trained by secular and Jewish experts in liturgy. These synagogues instituted major changes in the synagogue service including an organ and a shabbat choir in which the Cantor worked with to beautify the services with hebrew and the vernacular. This was unheard of until recent times.
Composers like Lewandowski in those days provided the template for reform cantors to this very day. By the time we are well into the 20th century we have full time cantors sharing the duties with the rabbis in terms of education in the religious school. I remember in my home congregation years ago the cantor was the director of the religious school. That was not an uncommon model for cantors during this time period.
In the latter part of the 20th century as the music trends continued to change and synagogue music adapted to the times, the seminaries began to admit women into the cantorial programs first in the Reform movement and then later on in the Conservative seminary. We moved away from the traditional nusach music and blended the classical composers of earlier generations with contemporary composers and folk music introducing the guitar. Today the reform movement requires every student to exhibit proficiency in playing guitar.
In earlier times we listened to the cantor and expected to sit down and simply listen to an operatic voice that would engulf the entire congregation. Yet, that trend changed too from listening to participation. Engagement has now become the credo of today’s cantors because congregations want their cantors not just to mesmerize them with the beauty of their voices but to engage their worshippers to sing along with them. That stylistic change marks a major development in today’s liturgical scene.
We all know of the trend of bringing music composed at the URJ Camps into our liturgical music portfolio. This is how someone like Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, became such a major influence on progressive Judaism and conservative Judaism as well. So today’s cantor has to balance between preserving the traditional chanting, the classic composed music and the more informal and participatory folk style music in the synagogue. It is not an easy task.
Cantors also have expanded not only their repertoire of music but also their duties in the Temple. They are working side by side with rabbis providing pastoral care as well as special music concerts and programs. They teach classes and work with b’nai mitzvah students, both adults and children. There is much more that cantors do in the life of the synagogue.
Cantors are just as aware of the issue of time for their music as are rabbis with their sermons. The code of law says that if the cantor lengthens the service because it is from his sincere desire to bring the congregation closer to god then it is acceptable. If it is so only so that the congregation should simply hear his beautiful voice then it is a transgression.
In his article The Vocation of the Cantor Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The cantor who faces the holiness in the Ark rather then the curiosity of a worshipper will realize that her or his audience is God. The cantor will realize that his task is not entertain but to represent the people Israel. He will be carried away into moments in which he will forget the world, even at times ignore the congregation and be overcome by the awareness of God whose presence he stands. The cantor will hear and sense that the Cantor is not giving a recital but worshipping God, that to pray does not mean to listen to a singer but to identify oneself with what is being proclaimed in their name.”
It is, therefore, an engagement of mind and body that begins with the cantor’s spirit in music and causes us to sing with the Cantor with all our emotions and spirit. That is the challenge for the cantor and the blessing for us if we attune our hearts and souls to his.