Contemporary religious life is replete with challenges. In a highly secular society it is difficult to remain religious in its authentic sense. This often becomes especially clear when one enters a synagogue hoping for an uplifting religious experience. Sometimes, one gets the impression that one has entered a concert hall in which a musical performance is being conducted including songs of prayer dictated by decorum. Other times, the prayer service lacks any music and is, in fact, downright depressing.
It is most telling when people leave the synagogue remarking that it was a “charming service.” Such an observation is a tragedy. It reflects a crisis suffered by thousands of synagogues, and one of its major causes is the infiltration of unfortunate dimensions of secularity into the halls of spirituality. Since the secular world is often not able to experience inner silence, it can do nothing but turn real spirituality into an external performance. This transforms a deeply religious service into a showcase, and the result is indifference to the holy.
On the other hand, sometimes worshippers are so busy making sure that every halacha concerning prayer is meticulously observed that there is no time any more to focus on the One to Whom they are speaking. Combined with the belief that serving God is an obligation that is so serious it must thwart any joy, the service becomes thoroughly depressing.
Most tragic is the role that many cantors play in all this. Sometimes they seem to forget that an important purpose of their chazanuth is to fight the secularization of prayers. Instead, they have joined the ranks of those secularists who seem to believe that it is not God Who is their audience but rather the community. On other occasions, cantors actually destroy any uplifting religious experience.
The task of the cantor is to pierce the armor of spiritual indifference. His purpose is to protest this indifference through genuine and joyful prayer. His goal is to evoke a communal response, an elevation of souls and the revelation of the divine. The cantor must beware not to degrade the prayers by transforming his task into a skill, a technical performance, or habitual halachic behavior. For this would result in his words reaching only ears but not penitent human hearts.
Genuine chazanuth is the art of prayer exegesis. Through the cantor’s intonation and inner performance, the community should hear a new meaning to the otherwise all-too-familiar prayers. Surely a cantor should have a pleasant voice, and sometimes a choir can be most helpful in giving the prayer a facelift. But it should never become a performance or display. Cantorial skill should serve 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 the teyva (ark) before the flood began, God was telling him, in addition, to go into the deeper meaning of the ‘word’ (also teyva in Hebrew). In prayer, a man must enter the word with all that he is and has. It is the task of the cantor to guide the worshipper in this endeavor.
Here is where music comes in. The difference between a word that is spoken and a word set to music is in the fact that music is the refutation of human finality. Music is an antidote to the sloganizing of words. It reaches out to that which lies beyond the capacity of verbal propositions. As such, listening to music is an earth-shattering experience. It throws the listener into an aspect of reality that the mind cannot grasp and that words alone cannot reach. When listening to chazanuth one should be smitten and unable to recover from the spiritual blow. This is the purpose of chazanuth. It is a protest against allowing words of prayer to become stale.
Tradition has it that when a Jew would come to the Temple to bring a sacrifice in atonement for 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, indeed, is the task of the cantor.
May we be blessed with the merit to experience this.
(1) Inspired by remarks made by Abraham Joshua Heschel z.l.