Bring back the chazzan

By Tzvee Zahavy | Published 09/14/2006 | Opinion |

I was happy to read about the new film "A Cantor’s Tale," which your reviewer called "a love song to the art of chazzanut."

Perhaps this film will help us bring back that lost art of cantorial singing.

Alas, today, in many of our Orthodox synagogues, instead, we have DIY (do-it-yourself) davening.

That’s what I call it when a non-professional leads the services at the synagogue.

In this area, that’s about all you can ever expect in an Orthodox shul. It’s a rare occasion when a professional chazzan, a cantor, leads the prayers.

I don’t like DIY davening. First of all I don’t favor it because I grew up in Manhattan where nearly all the shuls had chazzanim. Hence I do know how formal davening sounds. I know how formal davening changes the character of the sanctuary. A good chazzan can create a palpable focus, a presence, a numinous, holy quality in the house of prayer.

Consequently I don’t like DIY davening because of its informality. When a layperson leads the prayers, it contributes to a sense of casualness that is conducive to talking. It engenders a lack of focus that frequently leads to congregants daydreaming and engaging in idle chatter.

Worse, sometimes this background hum of conversation in the shul leads to problems for the synagogue staff. The rabbi, who should maintain his dignified leadership and stature at all times as the spiritual model for the synagogue, sometimes finds it necessary to rise up at the pulpit and berate the murmuring congregants — as if they were schoolchildren talking during quiet time in a classroom.

Here are some examples: One local rabbi has gotten up in front of his flock and announced, "We welcome you all to our shul, except for the four of you who were talking during the davening."

Another rabbi once canceled the concluding Shabbat Musaf hymn, Ayn Keloheynu — because there was too much talking — and he told everyone to go home. Another time he simply told people who talk in synagogue to "stay home."

A third rabbi usually stands in the middle of his shul’s pews as if he were a monitor in the hall, waiting to catch children misbehaving.

I feel bad for those rabbis who berate or monitor their members and are forced to take leave of their assigned roles to add dignity and awe to our holy rituals of prayer.

In the old days, that monitoring, when needed, was the role of the shammos. Nowadays in our DIY synagogues, that professional also seems to be absent.

Accordingly, I propose that we bring back these two professionals of the American synagogues of yore. We should bring back the chazzan to ensure that a consistency of quality and a sense of holiness permeate our services.

I further propose that we bring back the shammos, who will patrol the aisles of our shul. Then, on that rare occasion, when a congregant leans over to speak with his neighbor, the shammos will politely and privately ask him for respectful silence.

Rabbi Dr.Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has published extensively on the history and meaning of Jewish prayer.