Who else has authority in the community?
by Howard Greenstein
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
United States, in fact, recognized cantors as the first Jewish clergy,
even before any rabbis had arrived in America.
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.
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.
©2006 Howard Greenstein
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).
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.