“Investing” or “Ordaining” Cantors: What Does it Really Mean?

Posted on: May 6th, 2012 by Hayim Herring

A few days ago, the JTA carried an article about Hebrew Union College’s decision to change the title of cantors from “invested” to “ordained.” Based on some interviews that it conducted with rabbis and cantors, HUC explained that one of the reasons for the change was to reflect the reality that cantors and rabbis studied for the same length of time and that cantors had multi-faceted roles and were not just “singers.”

Having just spent some time learning with a group of Conservative cantors, the article peaked my interest because of what it didn’t say. What I heard from the group of cantors I was with was a desire to re-conceptualize their roles so that congregations would understand the true value that they added. Their concern seemed to stem as much from a need to appropriately acknowledge a lengthy course of study as it did from anxiety over a profession that is contracting.

I wonder what this change by HUC from “invested” to “ordained” cantors – a changed being considered by the Jewish Theological Seminary as well – really signifies. While I did not focus on the role of the cantor in my recent book, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today, I’d like to pose a few questions and share a few observations here:

Does this change suggest that:

  • Despite assurances to the contrary, the friction that sometimes arises between rabbis and cantors may increase, as the lines of authority between cantors and rabbis become fuzzier?
  • If cantors are perceived as full clergy members, will congregations decide on whether to have a cantor or a rabbi based on cost?
  • Today, when people can bypass cantors to become skilled and educated in Jewish music and liturgy, will the title change make a significant difference in the status and perceived importance of cantors?

Clearly, Jewish liturgical and popular music are an indispensable part of Jewish civilization. Jewish music will continue to have a significant role in prayer – of that I am certain. What is less certain is the kind of individual who will be best suited to develop, promote, present and engage people with Jewish music.  It is worthwhile following how this title change unfolds, because it may foreshadow the likely success of rabbis in the 21st century, who are also experiencing a role redefinition.

Shavua Tov,

Rabbi Hayim Herring

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