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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776
Clergy Roles

  1. Larry's question [from Digest 921, about the distinctive roles of rabbis and cantors merging/blurring] is extremely relevant. This has been true for my synagogue for several years (and in fact through the past fifteen years and two cantors).

    First, the creation of "Sermons in Song" and "Friday Night Live" makes it obvious that the cantor can--and should--be a member of the clergy. In fact they take many of the same classes through HUC that the rabbis do. (A close friend audited several cantorial classes in Jerusalem last year.) This is an ideal first step for the cantors to become more than "the voice of the congregation."

    Also, our chazan is the sh'liach for the services on Shabbat. She leads the congregation especially during the morning services, when we have b'nei mitzvah almost every week.

    For the past several years, I have had our cantor write monthly articles in the bulletin (I'm the editor), precisely for that reason. She is now seen very much as a teacher and a member of the clergy by most of our congregants, who appreciate her all the more for it.

    And finally, as rabbis can't always be in more than three places at once, the cantors frequently do hospital visits and do other tasks that many people don't see. While they don't have the full training of rabbis, they do much more than sing and train the b'nei mitzvah kids.


  2. Oct 2006 Digest 151

    Our major innovation [this year]…was a sermon by the cantor. We all knew she can sing, but who knew she can preach? As a prelude to the Yizkor service, she riffed on Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, as a takeoff point for discussing the fragility of life and the need to come to terms with bereavement. Leaving aside the content of her talk, I thought it was interesting, in light of the [listserv’s] recent discussion on who is a rabbi/cantor, that this sermon emphasized the idea that invested cantors ARE clergy.

  3. Oct 2006 Digest 152

    Our cantor did not do a sermon [for this year's HHD]. But she is widely considered one of our favorite teachers. She does one or two Sermons in Song every year, and contributes a column to the bulletin. For several years she did a teaching column every month, opposite the rabbis' column. These were almost always serious teaching pieces, talking about our traditions. As the bulletin editor, I actively encouraged it. Our cantors are too frequently thought of as "voices," and not everyone recognizes them as the thoroughly trained HUC professionals they are. The more time and exposure they get, the more they (and our communities) can shine.

  4. Oct 2006 Digest 151

    I am both an invested cantor…and an ordained rabbi...The answer as to who should serve a congregation as its spiritual leader is probably dependent on what the needs of the Temple are. If a congregation's needs are primarily educational, rational, pastoral, adult education, etc. their needs are obviously best served by a rabbi. If, however, a congregation's needs are primarily aesthetic, musical worship, cultural programming, etc...their spiritual leadership might best be handled by employing a cantor as its spiritual leader…The real issue is still how do rabbis and cantors co-exist, especially when a cantor is somewhat “rabbinic" in temperament and the rabbi very "musical" and "cantorial." That's when all hell can break out...and usually does.

  5. Oct 2006 Digest 151

    Magnets have two poles. When two magnets are aligned properly, they can attract, and reinforce each other. Misaligned, however, they repel.

    I've been fortunate enough to see at least one rabbi/cantor pair that reinforces each other, even with similar interests. The rabbi reinforces the cantor's position (even singing harmony!). Likewise, the cantor approaches his teaching moments in the same way as the rabbi, dovetailing the two messages.

    I have also been unfortunate enough to see what happens when the rabbi and cantor are misaligned. At best things can seem disjointed, as the rabbinic message doesn't mesh with the music, even when neither strays into the other "territory." At worst, it can look like open warfare—and of course the congregation is the real loser.

    In the end, I'd say that it boils down to the approach/viewpoint of the two clergy. If they're on the same page, I would think the partnership can be greater than the sum of the parts.


  6. Oct 2006 Digest 151

    In the best of all possible worlds, a congregation fortunate enough to employ both a rabbi and a cantor can reap the benefits of two clergy whose roles can often interchange, and who enjoy not only mutual respect and admiration, but a healthy partnership as well. Although cantors are most noted for their musical and liturgical expertise, I must say honestly that I spend only about three to four hours per week chanting prayers, and yet I am at the temple seven days a week. Therefore, the rest of my week is filled with teaching, hospital visitations, pastoral counseling, text study, meetings with wedding couples and conversion candidates, administrative work and fund-raising efforts. My rabbi, with whom I have shared a pulpit for over

    nineteen years, has never been threatened by my role here. Rather, he welcomes the partnership, and because of our shared responsibilities to the congregation, we both have the opportunity occasionally to take some well-deserved time with our families, knowing that our members are in good hands.

    I know that this kind of relationship between rabbi and cantor does not exist in every synagogue. However, from my discussions with colleagues, it exists more often than many would think. The real question should not be "Whose pulpit is it?" but rather, "How can our rabbis and cantors use their extensive education and their God-given talents to work together to best serve the needs of our congregants?"

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