Thoughts to Ponder Number 52
9 Tamuz, 5760; July 12, 2000

Prayer, Chazanuth and the Cantor

Contemporary religious life is challenged by many obstacles. In a highly secular society it is really difficult to stay religious in the authentic sense of the word. This becomes clear, for example, when one enters a synagogue hoping for an uplifting religious experience. Very often one gets the impression that one has entered a kind of concert hall in which a musical performance is being conducted including songs of prayer in which decorum plays the main role. It is most telling when people leaving a synagogue service remark that it was a "charming service." Such an observation is a tragedy. It reflects a crisis in tens of thousands of synagogues throughout the world. In such cases, it is the secular weltanschauung which has entered the world of the synagogue. Since the secular world is not able to cope with matters such as "inner silence," it can do nothing but turn real spirituality into an external performance, and transform a deeply religious service into a showcase. Indifference to the holy is the result.

Most tragic is the role that many cantors play in all this. Instead of realizing that the whole purpose of their chazzanuth is to fight the secularization of the prayers, they have joined the ranks of the secularists. Instead of realizing that God is their audience they seem to believe that it is the community they need to satisfy.

The task of the cantor, however, is to pierce the armor of spiritual indifference. His purpose is to protest this indifference through genuine prayer. His goal is to fight for a communal response, for elevation of souls and for the revelation of the divine. But what often happens is that the cantor degrades the prayers by transforming his task into a skill, a technical performance. As a result his words only enter into ears but not into the contrite of hearts.

Genuine chazanuth is the art of prayer exegesis. Through the cantor's intonation and inner performance, the community should hear a new meaning of the otherwise all too familiar prayers. Cantorial skill is to resurrect old words and infuse them with new meaning. In a play on words, the Baal Shem Tov once remarked that when Noach was told to enter into the teva (ark) before the Flood started, God told him also to go into the deeper meaning of the "word" (also teva in Hebrew). In prayer, a man must enter the word with all that he has and is. It is the task and goal of the cantor to guide the worshipper in this endeavor.

It is here that music enters. The difference between a spoken word and a word set to music is that music is the refutation of human finality. Music is an antidote to words becoming slogans. It reaches out to that which lies beyond the capacity of verbal propositions. As such, listening to music is a shattering experience. It throws the listener into an aspect of reality, which the mind cannot grasp and a word on its own cannot reach. When listening to chazanuth one should become smitten and never recover from the spiritual blow. This is the purpose of chazanuth. It is a protest to the allowing of words of prayer to become stale.

Tradition has it that when a Jew would come to the Temple to bring a sacrifice for the atonement of a transgression, the priest would look at him and read his thoughts. If he found that the man had not fully repented, the priest would ask the Levites to chant a melody in order to bring the sinner to full teshuva. This should be the task of the cantor.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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