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The Forward website reports today:

The Jewish Theological Seminary is eliminating the position of dean of its cantorial school as part of a major reorganization and consolidation at Conservative Judaism’s flagship seminary. Chancellor Arnold Eisen said that the restructuring would take place in lieu of closing the cantorial school — the course of action recommended by an outside consultant.

Cantorial preparation, the school thinks, simply isn’t as important as it used to be.
The job of cantor has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, those in the field say, and therefore cantorial candidates’ training needs to change as a result. “Emphasis in the past was on cantor as pulpit artist and his vocal skills,” said Cantor Stephen Stein, executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly, which has 525 members.

“Now the cantor is an educator and community leader, doing many of the same things the rabbi does,” including teaching children and adults and visiting the sick, he said. “Every profession undergoes changes, and ours is no different. It doesn’t make any sense to train cantors as perhaps they’ve been trained for 25 or more years.”

Eisen told the Forward, “It shocked me when I became chancellor that cantorial and rabbinical students rarely studied together. Cantors need to get a lot more of the education rabbis are getting — pastoral, educational skills and Judaica training. Now there will be greater integration of the two programs. The students have been clamoring for this, actually.”

At the same time, everyone connected with the cantorial school who spoke with the Forward said that students there need to be supervised and led by someone in their own field.

“There’s just no way someone who’s not a cantor can have any idea of how to impart those skills and guide people in learning them,” one cantorial school student said.

“These are artists, and it takes one to know one,” another source said.

Traditional chazzanut , or Jewish cantorial art, plays a crucial role in Orthodox liturgy, particularly in the Eastern European (Ashkenazic) tradition. It is perfectly acceptable to pray without the leadership of a cantor, or chazzan , but a skilled cantor adds a dimension to prayer. Conservative congregations are important more popular music into liturgy: Israeli folk music, pseudo-Hasidic melodies, and material derived from Hollywood. This suits the “lightly affiliated” Jews who make up the bulk of the membership at Conservative synagogues. To contemporary ears, traditional synagogue chant sounds jarring and anachronistic.

It is a dreadful loss, in my opinion.

How is it possible to repeat the same prayers every day and every Sabbath, and yet hear them in a fresh way? Yet that is what the rabbinical authorities require. The great eleventh-century Torah commentator Rashi derives this injunction from Exodus 19:1; in in that chapter the Israelites gather below Mt. Sinai and hear the voice of God declare the Ten Commandments. The verse reads, “ In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai.”

Rashi asks, “On the New Moon (Mechilta, Shab. 86b). It could have said only, ‘on that day.’ What is the meaning of ‘on this day’? That the words of the Torah shall be new to you, as if they were given just today.”

Judaism above all else is the recreation of the moment of revelation at Sinai in all of time, such that time itself dissolves into a single eternal moment. The reading of the Torah in its annual cycle and the study of Torah, which the rabbis called the most important of all obligations, is sacramental rather than scholarly: all Israel continues to stand before God at Sinai.

In practice, to hear the Torah each time as if it were given just today, and to pray with all the devotion and concentration that the prayers require, is quite difficult. That is why chazzanut is of such signal importance: the cantor’s melismatic improvisation during the repetition of the Eighteen Benedictions, the central prayer of Judaism, does in fact make the prayers new.

There is a great deal to be said about how Ashkenazic chant so beautifully enhances the Hebrew liturgy, which I hope to have time to say before long. In the meantime, suffice it to say that the downsizing of the cantorial program at JTS is bad news for Judaism.

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