Traditional traditions

This post is dedicated in memory of my grandfather, Rabbi Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus z”l, who died last week. As I gradually return to blogging, I’m also going to write more serious posts in his memory, but I’m not ready to do that yet. My grandfather’s funeral included musical contributions from a choir composed of cantors who had served at Union Temple while he was there and/or had been his students at HUC-JIR, and it was a deeply moving tribute. There is no doubt in my mind that he would disagree vocally and vehemently with most of this post (yet would still be proud of his grandson) if he could read it. I only wish he were still alive so that we could be having this argument in person. So if you write strongly worded comments arguing with this post, even though you won’t be able to do it as eloquently and passionately as my grandfather could, you too will be honoring his memory.
Last fortnight, Reb Yudel posted an article about tensions facing cantors today, and I said I’d write a longer response later. So here it is.
The problem with the article, as I see it, is that even though it appears to present two views/values in tension, it presents them within a single frame, and accepts this frame (promoted by the cantorial profession) uncritically. The frame goes something like this: the ideal form of Jewish congregational prayer includes cantorial music, in a cantorial style, led by cantors. If all of us were wise and all of us were learned in Torah, then all of us would prefer this style of prayer. But because the present generation is so removed from Judaism and Jewish tradition, they prefer different styles (God have pity on their souls – they don’t know any better). And therefore, out of self-preservation, it’s sometimes necessary to adapt. But this adaptation is a necessary evil, it’s a concession to harsh reality, it’s bedi’avad, it’s kiruv for the tinokot shenishbu, it’s eit la’asot lashem, it’s “engag[ing] more unaffiliated Jews”, it’s marketing to get “more people in the door”. So the tension described in the article is between how much you stand up for the ideals and how much you adapt to our less-than-ideal world.
This frame is reinforced by the quote from the sole (anonymous) non-cantor quoted in the article, who says (regarding Friday Nite Live) “I just love that service. I don’t know any Hebrew, I don’t know the prayers, but I love the music.”
But this frame simply isn’t accurate. There are Jewishly educated and Jewishly uneducated people who prefer a cantorial style in their prayer, and there are Jewishly educated and Jewishly uneducated people who prefer a non-cantorial style in their prayer. And I’m not just saying that the way I would say that there are educated and uneducated Reform Jews and educated and uneducated Orthodox Jews (which is 100% true, but everyone knows which way the correlation goes). In the case at hand, the preferences cut perpendicular to denominational lines, and there isn’t even a conventional-wisdom stereotype (let alone more solid data) about which preference is correlated with more education. I don’t know whether there’s a correlation one way or the other, but the article presents no evidence that there is, beyond cantors’ assertions.

Second, as I noted in the comments to Reb Yudel’s post, the article conflates nusach and chazzanut, continually mentioning them in the same breath. Just so everyone is on the same page: Nusach is the system(s) of musical modes (major, minor, Ahavah Rabbah, etc.) that are associated with each prayer service, so the weekday morning service is in one mode, the High Holiday evening service in another mode, etc. Nusach can be incorporated into any service, regardless of whether the rest of the service is characterized by cantorial solos, congregational singing, Hebrew mumbling, English responsive readings, or any other style of prayer. The presence or absence of nusach is entirely independent of the presence or absence of other elements that might be associated with “chazzanut” — an operatic vocal style, the use of composed pieces from the “golden age” or variations upon them, a solo leader who is the center of attention, a congregation whose function is to listen, etc. (And yes, I recognize that not all cantors incorporate these elements either.)
When prayers are chanted (rather than mumbled, sung, or spoken) and nusach is disregarded, it is generally out of ignorance, and would be corrected by more education. (I get as annoyed as anyone when the minor Chatzi Kaddish melody is used right before musaf.) In contrast, the abandonment of chazzanut for other styles of prayer is a conscious choice (either against chazzanut, in favor of the other styles, or both) made for aesthetic, spiritual, and/or ideological reasons.
I’ll be charitable and assume that the reporter was confused about the difference between nusach and chazzanut, rather than that the cantors interviewed for the article were intentionally obfuscating. (There is no possibility that the cantors themselves don’t understand the difference.)
Third, the aspect of Jewish prayer that unifies Jewish communities around the world and across the generations is the words. Yes, there are many variations in the specific words when comparing different times and places, but the basic structure and core texts of Jewish liturgy are the same in every community, dating back to the Mishnah. The music, on the other hand, varies subtantially from one community to another, and there is no one musical tradition that has the sole claim to being “traditional” Jewish music. If there were, then Ashkenazi and Sephardi melodies would be much more similar than they are. (Are the cantors in the article committing the common error of equating “traditional” with Ashkenazi?)
Douglas Adams wrote that music “is the most abstract of the arts–it has no meaning or purpose other than to be itself.” But music in prayer isn’t a pure abstract art — its purpose is to enhance the prayer, by accenting the joy, grief, wonder, and all the other emotions expressed through prayer. But because music is so abstract, the relationship between music and the ideas that we perceive it to be expressing is highly dependent on cultural context and on individual aesthetic taste. A sheliach tzibbur (prayer leader) is effective if s/he harnesses music in a way that enhances the prayer experience for his/her particular community. The specifics depend on the community’s aesthetics. The music exists to serve the prayer, and the sheliach tzibbur exists to serve the community, and not the other way around. If a cantor uses music in a way that does not resonate with his/her community, it means that s/he is being an ineffective shaliach for his/her tzibbur, not that there is something wrong with the tzibbur. (This is why I turn down requests to lead services in unfamiliar communities.) There are people and communities for whom chazzanut is the most effective at enhancing prayer, and people and communities for whom other styles are more effective (and the article seems to suggest that the latter is growing in number). This doesn’t imply more or less education, but simply different aesthetics of prayer.
Some other reactions to the article:

“This is the issue confronting the Conservative movement right now,” said Cantor Henry Rosenblum, dean of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “In the last 20 years, there has been an anticlerical move. You see this in the increase in the minyanim with no cantors and no rabbis. People say, ‘As long as we have tunes we can sing, we’ll be fine,’” Rosenblum said.

It seems that the Conservative movement machers need to work on their message discipline. I thought the standard talking point about what’s wrong with lay-led minyanim is that they’re composed only of highly educated Jews who are being elitist by forming separate communities. Now we’re hearing thet opposite charge: by rejecting cantors, lay-led minyanim represent (as it says earlier in the article) the “profound illiteracy of the American-Jewish community.” So which is it?

He pointed out that historically, “the traditional cantor is the keeper of the tradition who leads services based on traditional prayer modes.”

Traditional tradition traditional buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Malkovich Malkovich!
But seriously, chazzanut is part of the long story of Jewish civilization, and I am sympathetic to the argument that there should be people preserving this aspect of our history, and perhaps cantors are the ones to do it. But, as Indiana Jones said, “it belongs in a museum”. Let cantors continue preserving these traditions, somewhere far away from communities who don’t see them as a route to meaningful prayer today. In the words of the Pittsburgh Platform, “[t]hey fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

Orthodox and Reform Judaism both jettisoned traditional nusah and hazanut during the last century.

And here we encounter the problem of conflating nusah and hazanut. Most large Reform congregations have a cantor, even if s/he is more likely (particularly if s/he is from an older generation) to use composed pieces than nusach. And most Orthodox services incorporate nusach, even if they are not led by a cantor.

Today, Orthodox congregations rarely engage a cantor to lead services, relying on rabbis or skilled lay people to lead what is essentially individualized prayer punctuated by congregational singing. (Among Orthodox audiences hazanut is gaining popularity, although strictly in a concert forum).

Clearly this is evidence of the “profound illiteracy of the American [Orthodox] Jewish community.”

Traditional hazanut enjoyed its golden age from the late 19th century through the 1930s and 1940s, when figures like Yossele Rosenblatt loomed large not only in synagogues but also in concert halls.
Since the 1960s and ’70s — particularly under the influence of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary — the sounds of contemporary American music began to be heard in the synagogue service.

In the grand scheme of Jewish history, there really isn’t such a large gap between the 1940s and the 1960s. Perhaps this is why the cantors quoted in the article have to keep hammering home the point that the traditional tradition of traditional chazzanut is a traditional tradition — because they know that they’re on shaky ground. The “golden age” was well into the modern era, and was itself strongly influenced by modern Western music; it’s not how Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi prayed.
Of course, the 1960s weren’t the first time that Jewish prayer incorporated the sounds of contemporary music; it’s just that contemporary music keeps changing.

“It’s hard. I was trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the long tradition of great teachers in a service based on nusah hat’fila [traditional chanting] and solo singing. People say, ‘I don’t want to listen; I want to participate.’ That’s great, but what about active listening? You can be moved by what you hear. The hope is that something the hazan offers will inspire you.”

That may be the hope, but it sounds like it’s not working out so well, and telling people that they can/should be moved by what they hear isn’t going to make it so. I think people are generally familiar with the idea of active listening — most people like listening to music of some sort. However, the style of music that people want to listen to isn’t necessarily the style of music that the cantors want to sing, and even if it is (as for the people mentioned above who go to hear hazanut in concert), listening isn’t necessarily the experience that people want to have while praying.

Cantors interviewed for this article expressed the desire to have the music they hear in synagogue reflect the meaning of the prayers. For example, Rosenblum of the JTS cantorial school pointed out, “The prayer ‘V’shamru’ used to be a cantorial solo; now it’s a congregation tune that does not reflect the feeling of ‘Keep the Sabbath.’ Instead it’s snappy and upbeat.”

If we acknowledge that the history of Jewish prayer doesn’t begin with the “golden age” and we go back far enough, then (if we’re talking about the Friday night service) the prayer “V’shamru” used to be … nothing. This insertion before the Amidah is a relatively late addition to the service, and to this day, many liturgies don’t include it.
But if we’re thinking of the same “snappy and upbeat” melody (and that description certainly doesn’t fit the Carlebach V’shamru or the Friedman one), then I think the cantors and I (and, indeed, all Jews of conscience) can find common ground and agree that it should be banned. (During services, anyway. MAYBE it can be occasionally allowed back in for kiddush if it behaves itself.)
But in this case, the JTS crowd has no one to blame but themselves. This popular melody was written by Moshe Rothblum, a JTS-ordained rabbi.
(In Rabbi Rothblum’s defense, I have heard a mesorah from Debbie Friedman that the original setting of this melody was very different from the way it has come down to us, and was neither snappy nor upbeat.)

He led about 50 cantors through the beginning of the familiar “Shalom Rav” melody composed in the ’70s by Jeff Klepper and Dan Freelander. The cantors looked at the music and, under Mendelson’s direction, began to sing.
But right in the middle, Mendelson had inserted a riff he had written that came straight from the golden age of hazanut. It segued perfectly back to the Klepper/Freelander melody.

Mendelson must be older than we thought if he actually wrote this riff during the golden age of hazanut. Or, if we understand that figuratively and if he wrote it recently, then the Klepper/Freelander melody is over 30 years older than this riff, and thus has a greater claim to being “traditional”. If this riff can’t even claim the moral superiority that comes with being “traditional” (the primary advantage of cantorial music mentioned in the article), then what is its value, and how is singing the Klepper/Freelander melody with this riff better than simply singing the Klepper/Freelander melody straight? From the fact that the cantors used the Klepper/Freelander style at all, we can assume that the target is people who generally prefer the Klepper/Freelander style to the cantorial style (and yes, I know that Klepper is a cantor, so when I say “cantorial style”, I don’t just mean “the style of cantors”), so these people are unlikely to see this riff as an aesthetic improvement on the original. One could make the argument that it is an improvement because innovation is a value, but that would undermine all the arguments about traditional traditions throughout the rest of the article. So are cantors simply trying to prove their own relevance and indispensability?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.