Cantors, Rabbis Still Out of Tune, A Parley Shows

By Jennifer Siegel

Published April 15, 2005, issue of April 15, 2005.
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HOUSTON — When Reform rabbis recently gathered here for their annual convention, it was hard not to see traces of the 1960s in the sandals, the guitars and the progressive political agenda. But when addressing their own power relations with cantors, the rabbis seemed to see some virtue in the status quo.

They passed overwhelmingly a resolution aimed at improving relations with cantors, but only after the removal of a clause stating that two groups would study together “on an equal footing” at retreats. After a lengthy floor debate and then a motion to reconsider the vote, language was added describing the retreats as opportunities for rabbis and cantors to “learn with and from each other.”

The wrangling, which took place last month at the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, reflects what some movement insiders describe as a larger debate about the nature of synagogue leadership. While the rabbi has historically been viewed as the chief clergyman in most Reform congregations, many cantors have fought to establish themselves as the key voice on musical issues. This struggle has taken on heightened importance during the past decade, as the Reform movement and many of its congregations have sought to develop a more participatory style of worship music.

“It’s scary for some rabbis,” said Cantor Michael Shochet, who chairs the cantor-rabbinical relationship task force of the Reform movement’s American Conference of Cantors. “As soon as you say ‘equal footing,’ it takes away that difference of hierarchy.”

A major controversy erupted several years ago when some cantors affiliated with Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Region, which includes the movement’s main training schools for both groups of clergymen, began to refer to rabbis and cantors as “co-clergy.”

Although rabbis have traditionally been the undisputed authority figures in synagogues, the nature of the cantorate has changed dramatically in recent decades.

“When I was student at Hebrew Union College — I entered in 1969 — you could go to cantorial school immediately after high school,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the movement’s congregational arm, the Union for Reform Judaism. “[Now] it’s people who not only know musaf [the Sabbath morning additional service], but have training that is, not identical to, but generally comparable to, in some ways, rabbinical training.”

Today’s Reform cantorial students learn alongside their rabbinical counterparts in a five-year graduate program that includes advanced training in Jewish texts, pastoral counseling and life-cycle officiation. The result, Yoffie said, is greater resources for congregations, but also an “underlying question of who’s in charge.”

At the same time, the rabbinate has changed. Musical rabbis have become an increasing phenomenon, with many playing the guitar and having a greater interest in music-related issues.

In an effort to address some of the mounting tensions, the rabbinical and cantorial unions decided to approve similar resolutions outlining several steps to be taken.

Rather than work together in a joint committee to formulate the resolution, each union set up its own task force on the cantor-rabbinical relationship. The task forces then passed drafts of a resolution back and forth until they agreed on a final version.

The cantors approved the resolution at their annual meeting in early March. The rabbis did so a few weeks later, but only after removing the “equal footing” language.

For their part, cantorial leaders seemed nonplussed by the wording change adopted by rabbis.

“It’s really a minor issue,” said Cantor Richard Cohn, president of the cantors conference. According to Cohn, cantors had their own concerns about the phrase “equal footing.”

“Cantors also feel that they have special training and therefore a greater degree of responsibility for certain aspects of synagogue life,” Cohn said.

While the cantors conference approved the “equal footing” language, it may amend its resolution to adopt the rabbinical conference’s version.

The bigger picture, according to Cohn, is that the two organizations are fostering greater cooperation between rabbis and cantors.

Both resolutions call for periodic joint board meetings, a mentorship program for struggling clergy teams and the creation of opportunities for joint study. Each resolution also calls on the movement to begin certifying cantors to serve as military chaplains. Until now, the movement only tapped rabbis for such positions.

At the congregational level, Cohn said, rabbis are the accepted leaders of the entire team of clergy and professional staff, but no amount of authority can obviate the need for sensitive and respectful communication. “People have had to learn to find the subtle boundaries that make for successful relationships,” Cohn said, “but that’s no different, you know, than any relationship you want to build with somebody.”

Several rabbis at the rabbinical convention in Houston spoke up, in the name of sensitivity, against deleting the words “on an equal footing.” Among those at the conference calling for more understanding was Rabbi Eric Wisnia, who serves Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, N.J., along with his brother-in-law, Cantor Stuart Binder.

“Certainly, I don’t think any of the rabbis are going to say the cantors are their equals in terms of authority in a synagogue,” Wisnia said in a subsequent interview. “But, you know, I don’t think we have to beat them down.”

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