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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
Who else has authority in the community?
by Howard Greenstein

Rabbis are not the only individuals who exercise influence of any kind in the Jewish community. They share their authority with other Jewish professionals and lay leaders. The most notable of these in the synagogue domain is the cantor. The cantor, or in Hebrew the chazzan, is a Jewish musician trained in the vocal arts who helps lead the synagogue in chanting and musical prayer.

The idea of a cantor as a paid professional does not exist in classical rabbinic sources, but is a development of relatively recent vintage. Judaism permits any person to lead the congregation in public worship, which is why such an individual is called the shaliach tzibur, or “emissary of the congregation. In more observant circles, Jewish law requires the shaliach tzibur to be a male over the age of 13. In non-Orthodox practice, women over the age of 12 are also eligible.

The term chazzan may have been borrowed from the Assyrian word “hazanu,” which in the Talmud is used to denote the “overseer” either of a city, a court of justice, the Temple or the synagogue. It also comes from the word chazzon or “visionary.” The earliest chazzanim (the plural of chazzan) were most likely prophets.

In regard to a chazzan’s duties in the synagogue, the Talmud notes that 2000 years ago, he brought out the scrolls of the Torah, opened them at the appointed readings for the week and put them away again. With trumpet blasts he announced the beginnings of the Sabbath and holy days from the roof of the synagogue, attended to the lamps of the synagogue, and accompanied pilgrims to the sanctuary of Jerusalem. He would often stand on the wooden bimah (platform) in the middle of the synagogue and sometimes chant aloud from the Torah. A passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ber. 9:12d) implies the chazzan also led the prayers in the synagogue.

During the Middle Ages, the duties of reading from the Torah and of reciting the prayers were usually included as standard duties of the chazzan. He was also recruited to sound the shofar (the ram’s horn). He even acted sometimes as secretary to the congregation. He was often assisted, especially on festival days, by a chorus, which later developed into a custom in Poland and Germany wherein a singer stood on each side of the cantor and accompanied him.

In the modern synagogue, the cantor leads the worship service and therefore must be fluent in all aspects of the liturgy. This includes, of course, knowledge of the meaning of the Hebrew words he/she is chanting and complete familiarity with the musical modes for various occasions, as well as the laws and customs of the liturgical calendar.

During the last half-century, cantorial duties have expanded even further to include the teaching of Bar/Bat Mitzvah classes, Hebrew school teaching, adult education programs, leading or working with a choir and concertizing in his/her own community and beyond.

The role of the cantor as a respected full-time profession became a reality only in recent centuries. A number of European communities, especially Germany and England, considered professionally trained cantors as clergy. After the Enlightenment, when Jews gained full citizenship and civil rights, many secular governments granted cantors the same clergy status as rabbis.

The United States, in fact, recognized cantors as the first Jewish clergy, even before any rabbis had arrived in America.

Today in this country three major schools exist for the professional training of cantors. Each major movement in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform supports its own institution for this purpose.

Since there is no ecclesiastical authority in Judaism, leadership is a shared responsibility between clergy and lay people. Synagogue and communal organizations are governed entirely by lay leaders almost always as volunteers. Synagogues, for example, are usually founded by lay people and administered by them, including the recruitment and supervision of professional personnel. The rabbi’s authority in religious matters rests only upon the presumption of his greater knowledge of Judaism, not upon any priestly or ecclesiastical status. The modern synagogue is emphatically a democratic institution in which all major decisions are made by a governing board of directors or by the membership of the congregation itself.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism: An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism (1981).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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