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The Hazon of a Hazzan

I handed my credit card to the cashier at the nail salon a few months ago. “Cantor Audrey M. Kessler,” she read out loud. There was silence. “Cantor?” she questioned. “I thought your name was Penny.” “Um, no,” I responded, “Penny is who I am [ed. note: "Audrey" is my legal name], Cantor is what I do.” She politely nodded, an unmistakable visual sign that she had NO idea what “cantor” meant. She’s not alone.

When I am asked “what I do,” I often find myself tongue-tied, Moses-like, tripping over my words as I explain the difference between my work and that of a rabbi’s. I have tried humor, as in, “the synagogue clergy equivalent of Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did but in heels and backwards.” I have explained carefully that I am the Jewish clergy who specializes in Jewish music and prayer. I have read dictionary definitions Periodically I am told of the many virtues of someone’s church cantor, a musician – not a clergy person – who leads a church choir. And every so often, a well-meaning church-goer will ask, “Where do you cant?” And I smile inside and refrain from responding that indeed I am highly allergic to horses and heights.

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hazon, named for the haftarah that accompanies parashat Devarim and is always chanted on the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha b’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning as it were. Isaiah’s is a frightening vision of the destruction of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem. It foreshadows the bloodcurdling eye-witness description of that event in Eicha, Lamentations, traditionally read during the fast on the 9th of Av. Because Isaiah’s vision concludes with as positive and comforting an outcome as possible, I want to take a few moments to speak of my own role as a hazzan.

From sublime to absurd, while some may regard some of my musical choices as equally terrifying to Isaiah’s prophecy, the truth is that the root of the word hazon, (meaning “vision” chet – zayin – nun, is the same as the root of the word hazzan – chet – zayin – nun – which is the Hebrew version of “cantor.”

Over the years, the visionary role of the hazzan has shifted from someone with a pleasant voice – the paradigm of King David, the sweet singer of Israel – who could be counted on to intone prayer melodies to the role that I envision for myself today as adapted from the mission statement of the American Conference of Cantors: the hazzan, the cantor, is Jewish clergy committed to strengthening Judaism by acting in my sacred calling as an emissary for Judaism and Jewish music. A hazzan, a cantor, tries to provide a compelling experience of text, music, learning, relationship to one another and connectedness to God.

Let me approach the subject through the words of this morning’s parashah. In Deut. 1:5, we read:

“On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching. He said:”

The Hebrew verb is “bei-eir,” meaning “to explain.” Rashi comments, “He explained it to them in seventy languages. [from Midrash Tanchuma 2; Gen. Rabbah 49; see Sotah 32a). Hakethav Vehakabbalah explains this to mean that Moses gave them seventy interpretations to every passage.”

This parallels the teaching that Torah as given at Sinai was also delivered in 70 languages so that no one could say that she did not understand. Translation and understanding, from most sophisticated to most simplistic.

Additionally, in our first verse, we read,

“These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.”

Rashi comments about, “to all Israel: If he had rebuked only some of them, those who were in the marketplace [i.e., absent] might have said, “You heard from [Moses] the son of Amram, and did not answer a single word regarding this and that; had we been there, we would have answered him!” Therefore, he assembled all of them, and said to them, “See, you are all here; if anyone has an answer, let him answer!” - [from Sifrei]”

In other words, everyone has a share in our history, our ritual, our practice, our heritage and our future. Indeed, we all stand at Sinai.

My vision – my hazon – as a hazzan is that Judaism must be accessible to everyone at whatever understanding of Judaism he brings to the table. To narrow it into prayer terms, some of us find prayer through the music of traditional prayer chant – but others find this modality irritating. Similarly, some of us are deeply moved spiritually by instrumental music – a jazz riff, for example – while others find this a distraction. My vision is that Jews should be able to experience a blend of all these genres so that no person can say, “Oy – that service was too (pick an adjective) … I didn’t ‘get it.’” And my work is to encourage every Jew – no matter where on the observance, education or musical taste spectrum he or she finds him or herself – to reach beyond the familiar to find God.

My hazon – my vision – of my cantorate extends to my philosophy on hospital visits, counseling sessions, teaching and learning and encouraging as much participation in Jewish life as possible.

As I studied Moses’ words in the parashah, I understood that he is an angry old man, furious with his people – and himself – because they have spent 40 years arguing, disbelieving, testing and disobeying God. In other words, they have been human. His final discourse is full of rage and rebuke, paralleling Jacob’s final words to his sons in the Book of Genesis. At one point, in fact, Moses says, “it is because of YOU that God is angry with me;” most of us have heard and said this before, the old-fashioned “you got me in trouble.” But rather than view Moses harshly, I have tremendous sympathy for him. While he has surrounded himself with a system of judges, he – and God – have set up Moses as a lone ruler; he has no one other than God to take wisdom from, and he does not understand what he could have said differently to make his people “get it.” I understand his frustration.

When I was a youngster, I looked on Hebrew school with a combination of joy, frustration and dread. I loved being in the shul, hearing the hazzan (even though his voice was – well, shall we say, a bit “wobbly”), feeling the melodies and the texts pull me towards God. But I was frustrated because the approach to teaching was so rote, so boring, so lacking in human connection that I dreaded my classes. Even at a young age I knew that Bible stories had something to teach me, but that personal connection was never attempted. Abraham may have chopped down the idols in his daddy’s idol store, but I sensed that this was a lesson I needed in my life – yet I was never encouraged to consider what that connection might be. I sensed I was a disappointment to my morah because I did not keep kosher, but it was never made clear to my why I might even consider such a thing beyond the obvious “Jewish” connection.

Similarly, some prayers are “fixed” and appropriate for most occasions, no one prayer can fit every situation. Reciting a fixed line like, “ha-makom y’nachem …” or “baruch dayan ha-emet” on hearing of a death is very much a first step in the way Jews mourn, but I believe that it is my job to move beyond that simple line to teach why a Jew in mourning might want to be comforted in the tradition of our ancestors.

Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t, but all these attempts have to be done by example: spending time with patients in hospital rooms, praising even the most seemingly tiniest of praiseworthy attempts at taking leadership roles, encouraging all Jews to take a dip and try something new. And, just like Moses, I am sometimes frustrated by the unwillingness of Jews to let go of their rigid notions of what should be right, what is “traditional,” what is wrong, what Judaism – and prayer and Torah and study – really means. One of my visions is to guide Jews – from the most secular to the most observant among us – away from a black-and-white rigidity to a workable flexibility. My role as a hazzan, a Jewish visionary, is to help Jews move beyond the obvious to a deeper understanding of why being Jewish is so important. I try so hard to make members of my flock see Judaism as more than a chore, a thing to get through before saying, “whew, thank God that’s over, now I can get out of here.” Equally important is to guide my Jews away from the idea that this or that practice is “right” (as opposed to wrong) to a sense of “normative” and “workable.” Going back to the idea of 70 approaches to God, I say again that appreciating or disdaining musaf – or guitar or keyboard prayer accompaniment – isn’t a matter of right or wrong, but rather they are among the multiple – and very Jewish – approaches to the Divine, all of which have intrinsic value.

We each have a vision – a hazon – that we must follow. Each of us approaches God and Judaism in our own unique fashion, yet we do well to understand that those roads are connected by God, Torah and our common heritage.


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