Recently, I traveled with our synagogue’s Confirmation Class to Washington D.C. for our annual trip to the Religious Action Center (R.A.C.). During the trip, there were three interesting experiences I had:

The first came during a welcome speech given by one of the leadership of the RAC. The Rabbi addressing our group and groups from all over the United States was explaining what the RAC was and its relationship to the Reform Movement. He said that the RAC is the lobbying arm of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is the primary religious governing body guiding the RAC in its stance on social issues.

The second experience was during the T’fillah. Using a home-made prayerbook, some teenagers got up to read some of the various readings on social justice littered throughout the book, and a songleader at the head of the room lead a musically uninspired service.

The last of my experiences was looking around that room filled with congregations from around the country, examining the attendance roster, and realizing that out of the forty some odd Jewish professionals that accompanied their students to the RAC, I was the sole cantor in the room.

These three experiences got me thinking about the role of the Cantorate today and perhaps what the American Reform Cantorate should be about such that any discussion about title or experience would be rendered irrelevant.

For starters, my initial reaction to hearing the whole, “Rabbis and the Reform Movement,” is usually, “what about the Cantors?” However, upon further reflection, I backed away from that position of asking where we as cantors are, understanding that the role the Rabbis have made for themselves has been a role of religious authority where no such authority truly holds sway. We are a movement of religious autonomy despite what any one individual in our movement may think, but the CCAR, even with a full understanding that Reform Judaism is not a movement built on the concept of “Torah mi-Sinai” or halakha, still publishes authoritative responsa, still speaks with an authority on all sorts of issues, and, through our RAC, takes sides and positions on political issues with which our RAC then lobbies our government.

Why is this so? I think it is due to how our Rabbinic counterparts see their roles in a religious role and in our movement. They have laid claim to religious authority in our movement in the absence of the commanding presence of God from Torah and Rabbinic Judaism. That is to say that in the absence of halakha to which we are bound because it comes, in essence, directly through the mouth of God via Moshe Rabbeinu and the rabbis who followed him, the Reform Rabbbinate has evolved its own Sanheidrin to which the rest of the movement turns when it is in need of spiritual leadership, guidance, and advice.

As long as the Reform Rabbinate sees itself (either wholly or in part) in this light, I feel that as the new, evolved American Reform Cantorate, we too should be able to exact a certain authority. However, it is the nature and dominion of this authority of which I want to speak at length so as not to be confused with Reform Rabbinic authority.

I would argue that the authority I would seek for the Reform Cantorate is not an authority that is either a second Sanheidrin nor something in which we are folded into the Reform Rabbinate with equal say on equal issues. For years many years ago, we knew and understood what the difference was between a Rabbi and a Cantor. With the advent of the A.C.C. and the progress which it has made jointly with the Hebrew Union College, the lines of our responsibilities and the importance of both of our roles has merged greatly. This has had a great impact on the modern Cantorate, but also a rather negative impact.

While we as cantors were fighting for parity in role and salary on and off the pulpit, we took on the mantle of “para-Rabbi,” becoming pastors, darshanim, teachers… we became clergy chameleons, sometimes even diminishing our roles as “Sweet Singer of Israel” and music director as if to prove that we could do it all and then some. We gave up our vacation times and rationalizing that by saying to ourselves how invaluable we are to our congregations. We never missed a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service, despite the occasional one missed by our Rabbis. We studied meditation, Talmud Torah, pastoral counseling… anything and everything we could to perhaps “prove” to our rabbinical counterparts and our congregations that we were every bit as good as a Rabbi, and then some. But to what end?

Our voices, ironically, are still heard only as “the cantor”.

Which leads me to the remaining observations of my recent RAC trip. The Rabbi who addressed our group, just having spoken of his lobbying group and talking about the authority of the CCAR, then handed over the bima to a songleader with a mediocre voice, leading songs with poor Hebrew pronunciation, Hebrew accents that would make our teacher, Ezri Uval (of blessed memory), cringe in disgust, and using trite melodies with which to pray. This is what prayer has become in our movement! Of course, I am making a sweeping generalization, but after having worked at four of our movement’s summer camps for many years, as well as attending many youth group events, I am not speaking from inexperience.

This poor excuse for a prayer service, coupled with the glaring absence of cantors at the RAC got me thinking: What we need to do, as the American Reform Cantorate, is to “take back the music,” as is our charge as Hazzanim. It was our Calling at the inception of our Cantorate. It is what spoke to us to enter the profession. And we, ourselves, have allowed the deplorable state of Jewish music to become what it has today. It is we who must do something about it.

How have we done this? Why is it our fault? Because we have lost our sight. Our vision has dimmed. We have thought that our spiritual leadership would only be validated if we would assert ourselves on the pulpit, off the pulpit, around the pulpit, becoming Cantor, Rabbi, Shamus, President of the Sisterhood, Religious School Principal, and Youth Group Director. Yes, in these uneasy economic times congregations appreciate the Kol Bo in both the Rabbi and the Cantor. But by becoming homogenized, we are no longer specialized.

How many of us are taking voice lessons weekly? How many of us are coaching? How many of us are honing our craft? Learning new music? Writing new music? Listening to new music? Caring for our vocal health? I would contend, based on many of the workshops I have seen offered at ACC conventions, that these concerns are far outweighed by the concerns of being the best Kol Bo we can be, versus being the best Cantors we can be.

Allow me a slight diversion: I find that when talking either to colleagues or congregants, there seems to be a disdain for the use of the organ during Jewish worship, despite its historical and profound use for over 150 years and despite the fact that the organ was and remains the quintessential congregational instrument, sustaining sound like no piano or guitar can. I have argued and continue to argue that the reason so many find a dislike of the instrument is not inherent in the name of the instrument, but in the quality of the instrument that has been played or the person at the keyboard. I cannot stand listening to a poor quality instrument, nor to a fine instrument with a novice playing. Were one participating in a service at which a fine instrument was played by a competent player, I would suggest that the experience would be very enlightening and positive.

The same is true of ourselves as Cantors. Congregations have turned away from the beauty of the Cantorate and the rich musical heritage we can provide because we have not done enough ourselves as singers and music directors. We might bemoan the fact that the congregation does not “allow” us to sing Helfman, Lewandowski, Weiner, etc., but why is it? It is in part because for some of us, we have a flute as a voice and we are using it to sing music written for the French Horn. It is in part because the instrument we are using is not in tune or needs work. It is in part because we, ourselves, have become part of the problem.

But that’s not all.

It is also in a great part because we have not taken the leadership in our movement–not articulated the vision of what Jewish music’s role can, and perhaps should be, in worship. In the early part of the ACC’s history we separated ourselves by and large from the youth. We removed ourselves from them and in the musical vacuum that grew between generations, the children wrote, created, and sang for themselves, creating their own nusakh. Some of us still keep this gulf by not volunteering to work with our youth groups, by not working at our movement’s summer camps, by not teaching and reaching out enough to the youth of our movement, save Bar and Bat Mitzvah tutoring.

We have been and continue to make strides as the ACC in this area, but I feel it is a great deal of catch-up. Even when we make strong connections with our children, we do not impose our authority, do not share our wide array of knowledge and experience, nor do we try to teach them what is “best” musically. This is, in part, due to pre-existing constraints: We are told by the URJ that our presence at our summer camps are needed and encouraged, but we should have practically no input whatsoever as professional Cantors. We should not lead a service, nor a songsession. We should be role models only as Kley Kodesh and make human connections with the campers, not musical connections. At youth group events, we are not invited in our role or capacity as Cantor, save as spiritual advisor or organizer. At leadership training sessions for our youth, we are musical afterthoughts rather than musical resources or, God forbid, musical experts.

But what led to this?

While our rabbinical counterparts took the reigns and became leaders over the years, we as cantors became followers. As trends were blazed over the years, we would try to follow the trends.

It is now time for us to be the leaders when it comes to Jewish music in worship.

I say this in light of a present discussion which is not new amongst us cantors. The discussion talks of the title, “cantor” and how we can get the word out about what it means to be a member of the ACC. My contention would be that it is not and cannot be about solely being a member of the ACC. It must be about what that means and what direction we are willing to lead our congregations and the movement in the area of Jewish music. It is the one thing that we are masters of and experts in more so than (most of) our Rabbinical counterparts. It is the one area that called us ultimately to the Cantorate and not to the Rabbinate.

This direction I would call for demands a great deal of us as individuals and as an organization. As an organization, it demands that we perhaps create a new statement of purpose. That purpose should be, in part, to provide resources certainly, but moreover direction and leadership to our movement and every part of it when it comes to Jewish music in worship. As individuals, it requires us to not only study Jewish music, study music, study voice, study artistry, but to advocate for the best of Jewish music across all genres contained in that somewhat ambiguous term. It requires us to be masters of that material. It means for us out in the field, whether for one year or forty, we need to work on our musical selves in a disciplined and rigorous manner. It means for those wishing to become a cantor, that they must become masters of this material.

By “masters,” I really do mean they must receive a “Masters Degree” in this subject material. The recollection of yesteryear when cantors studied with other cantors to become one is just a recollection. It cannot suffice in order to attain a level of mastery that can only be achieved, I would contend, in an academic setting. This does mean that not everyone who wants to become a cantor gets to become one. The Cantorate is a Calling. It is a service occupation and it demands personal sacrifice. It is by and large understood that if one wishes to become a Rabbi, the only way to achieve the expertise to become one requires attendance at a seminary. The singular experience that a seminary training provides cannot be reproduced elsewhere. Why would we, as cantors, demand anything less than what our Rabbinic counterparts demand? This is the age in which we live and the demands on us as clergy are great. If we are to be an invaluable resource to our individual congregations, we must prove to be so. If we are going to be musical leaders, we need the knowledge base, the expertise, the artistry that can best be provided by a Cantorial School.

This also means that we will have to demand much more from our cantorial seminaries, whichever ones they may be: HUC-JIR SSM, JTS, AJR, Jews College, etc. I feel that we can be broad in whose degrees can be accepted by the ACC, but that we must understand what those earned degrees mean if one has some sort of degree being trained as a Cantor. We must demand musical excellence. We must demand a complete understanding of Nusakh haT’fillah, cantillation, MiSinai tunes. We must demand a complete survey of hazzanuth, for without this, we are dismissing a large and great part of our cantorial inheritance. We must demand a complete survey of Jewish music for worship, from the earliest works of Rossi to the latest music of Rick Recht and whatever comes next. We must demand musical competence, performance competence, demonstration of artistry.

If we are going to be relevant and remain relevant as Cantors in the 21st century, then we must tzimtzum and remember what our original calling once was and echoes today. We are called to be the guardians and stewards of Jewish music. We cannot and should not stand on the sidelines any longer. We should steer the vision of Jewish worship music for our movement and if we do, we will also be doing so for the greater Jewish community. Otherwise, we should all go back to Rabbinical school, become Rabbis, and say goodbye to a rich and treasured musical past. If we are not the guardians of Jewish music, who will be. As members of the ACC, it is on our shoulders that Jewish music stands. No one else in the world is more passionate about it than we. Let us not be frustrated, but empowered! Let us not stand idle, but raise our voices! Let us blaze a new trail that others will follow because they see how great the music of worship can be, how it can be transformative, how it can inspire, and how it can move us to be better human beings.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav wrote: “Every science, every religion, every philosophy has its own pattern of song. The higher the religion or science, the more exalted its music.” Let us not lose sight of our role as cantors and remember that it is we who must preserve and create anew the music which remains static on the page until we give it voice.


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