Leap of faith: singing to God in a Progressive key

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Leap of faith: singing to God in a Progressive key

What defines the way we use music in a service?

Cantor Zoe Jacobs
Cantor Zoe Jacobs

The seventh day of Pesach allows us the opportunity to hear again the words of Shirat HaYam, the song of the sea, which we sang as we crossed the sea from slavery to freedom.

Moses begins by saying that he will sing to God, grammatically using the first-person, singular. Miriam, in contrast, responds to the community, inviting them all (plural) to sing to God. Two forms of leadership; both ways to connect to the Divine and to the community. In these styles, we see echoes of the leadership roles of the rabbi and the cantor in Progressive Judaism. We each respond to and lead the community, but in unique ways.

While religious singers have existed for centuries, the role of the traditional cantor as musical leader of the service alongside a rabbi really reached its pinnacle in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Notable cantor-composers such as Sulzer and Lewandowski understood their role in beautifying liturgical music and welcoming more than one voice. Just as a good film score helps us to feel what is going on in the script, a cantor makes musical selections to help the community understand the liturgy. Yet the role of the cantor as it currently exists in Progressive Judaism – as an equal member of the clergy team alongside rabbis, perhaps leading it, or as the sole spiritual leader of a congregation – has only existed for the last 15 years in the UK.

A cantor in a Progressive congregation, just like our rabbinic counterparts, receives ordination after a five-year post-graduate programme, and can officiate at weddings, funerals, b’nei mitzvah, and all other services, events and classes. But we do try to utilise our trained expertise in Jewish music and liturgy where we can.

Those who haven’t been into a Progressive community might ask what defines the way we use music in a service today? We sing much of the same music used throughout the Jewish world – or at least, the European Ashkenazi world. We use melodies that all communities might refer to as ‘Mi Sinai’ melodies; those deemed so traditional that they might as well have come down from Sinai with Torah. These melodies, whether for Shabbat or Festivals, help us place ourselves emotionally within the Jewish calendar.

We use many of the choral melodies found in the ‘Blue Book’ – a collection of Anglo-Jewish choral music first published by the United Synagogue in 1899 – as well as a wide array of more modern compositions, which connect us to the sounds of communities around us. We also use instruments, as Jews have done since the time of the Babylonian exile (see Psalm 137, for example).

My mission as a cantor is to respond to the needs of my community, just as Miriam does when we cross the sea. Grammatically, Miriam commands the Israelites to sing to God. Personally, I’d rather invite and encourage the community to join with me in prayer, but my community are far less stubborn than our ancient ancestors.

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