Thursday, December 01, 2005

Guest Posting From Chabakuk Elisha - Giving Chazzanus A Second Chance

There are many shuls where I live, and this past Shabbos I finally went to a big old shul with a silver dome on top to hear the famous cantor, Chazzan Ben-Tzion Miller. This was a big attraction in my community since it was a Shabbos Mevorchim and the chazzan says the special tefila for the new month.

While I have never listened to much chazzanus and find it to be very foreign, I was almost moved to tears by listening to this world-class chazzan recite the prayers. As a chassid who is accustomed to shteibelach and Chassidishe shuls, it was strange for me to find myself in a very large old building with a carpeted floor, old wooden pews, a domed ceiling, three huge doors from which to enter atop numerous stone steps, stained glass windows, balconies for the women, a stage with seats for the chazzan, rabbi and president (but no Rebbe).

I never thought I would find this type of atmosphere to be inspiring, but surprisingly I did. I also thought about the numerous chazzonim and shuls of this kind that once existed, and how few are left today. Will chazzanus continue, or is this a dying gasp of a no longer relevant relic?

Prayer should not be a spectator sport; prayer is about serving G-d. Prayer is personal, and should be intensely so - and it is argued that for this reason Chazzanus may be antithetical to the true intent of prayer. Nevertheless, I left the shul wondering if I was disloyal to my Chassidic allegiances - as Chassidism traditionally opposed this type of Judaism, and yet, I found it to be inspiring.

I don't know; technically Chazzanus is music, and it's purpose was to inspire the congregation. Could it be that appreciating Chazzanus today may indeed be Chassidic? As R' Hillel of Paritch taught: "He who does not appreciate and understand song, can really never understand Chassidus."


At December 1, 2005 at 6:44:00 AM EST, Blogger Pragmatician said...

I really don't enjoy Chazanus. The most important prayers are said silently, it's just too much spectacle in my opinion.

At December 1, 2005 at 10:13:00 AM EST, Blogger Hirshel Tzig - הירשל ציג said...


Chazonus is nice to listen to while working or driving, but that's it. Not for nothing did Chassidim abolish the practice of Chazzonim as well as the grandeur of domed Synagogues. Especially if it's done at the done at the expense of a true personal experience in a shtiebel where you have true friends. Synagogues are spectacles, like the pragmatic one says. Come back friend.

At December 1, 2005 at 10:29:00 AM EST, Blogger yitz said...

In my youth, having attended a synagogue where the Chazan was the reason that many people came, it kind of left me feeling that my own prayers didn't count too much. With not much to go on, I gradually drifted away from attending the synagogue altogether.

BUT - music is such a significant part of my life, that without song, as the quote CE ends with indicates, what are we? So my reconnection with my Creator and Judaism was certainly connected with authentic Jewish Negina.

Having matured, I came to the realization that Modzitz was the cream of the crop of authentic Jewish music...with Carlebach and Twerski, at least for me, following closely thereafter.

I still find Chazanus in Shul too much of a performance and too "draggy" [schleppy]...gimme a Modzitz or Carlebach minyan any time!

That said, I've gradually began to appreciate the artistry in compositions of a Chazzanus nature. For me, the best way to appreciate Chazanus is at a concert - which, BTW, here in Israel [& probably elsewhere as well] is GAINING in popularity.

I was especially enthralled by two recent concerts held here - where the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra played, together with some six Chazanim, an evening of Modzitz negina! Ahhh, that was heavenly!

Included were Ben Zion Miller, Yaakov Motzen [who has ties to Modzitz & often appears at the Tishes in Bnei Brak] and Chaim Adler. I found these three very soulful and genuine in the delivery of niggunim. I can't say that about some others, though.

Finally, both BZ Miller & Yaakov Motzen were once together at a Modzitz Tish when the Rebbe Shlita was in NYC. The Rebbe asked them to sing, but Motzen told him that Miller doesn't know too many Modzitz melodies. The Rebbe then asked them just to sing whatever they want - and they sang a beautiful Chazanus piece!!!

At December 1, 2005 at 10:33:00 AM EST, Blogger yitz said...

PS - Besides Miller & Motzen, other Chazanim have visited Modzitz and the Rebbe Shlita has asked them to sing. In fact, Zisha Barmatz, a Modzitzer Chassid, has performed Chazanus pieces at Modzitzer simchos!

At December 1, 2005 at 2:56:00 PM EST, Blogger yitz said...

Eliyahu - I agree with you, and your distinction is a very apt one, thanks!

We're still waiting for ASJ and/or Chabakuk Elisha to weigh in here!!! Where are you guys?

At December 1, 2005 at 10:35:00 PM EST, Blogger Judith said...

From a Conservative viewpoint: I agree with the distinction. I couldn't figure out how to pray in big synagogues with cantorial arias from the bima. Especially since I don't like florid operatic singing anyway.

I learned how to pray with kavvana in a polished suburban syagogue, but with a cantor who really led davening and wove his melodic improvisations into the flow of davening, which highlighted some verses in the liturgy in a way which improved my understanding of them. He taught us about how understanding the nusach can enhance awareness of the structure of the service. It changed my mind about cantors. Although there are still too many of the old kind.

At December 2, 2005 at 4:08:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have created a false dichotomy. Chazzonus and kavonno/inspired davening are not necessarily antithetical.

Some chazzonim gave chazzonus a bad name - by making it into a performance - but it needn't necessarily be so. The greats like Yossele Rosenblatt z"l rose high above that. Chazzonus isn't necessarily bad and Chassidic shtiebel davening isn't necessarily or always spiritual. Keep your mind open and don't judge the davening by the size of the building it's in, no matter what your shtiebel friends may think. Each case should be judged individually.

At December 3, 2005 at 10:07:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it quite amusing to see you questioning your chazonus experience with Chazan Miller and his choir, as perhaps being antithetical to Hassidism, when actually he is a Bobover Hassid, who wears a shtreimel on Shabbos. Also, most (if not all) of his choir is composed of Hassidim of various sects.

Additionally, there is a significant Hassidic presence in chazonus in general (as there was in the past), both in terms of performers, as well as audience.

It's time for you to revise or discard your old outdated stereotypes about chazonus and also the one that claims that only Hassidic prayer is spiritual and not any other type. You can go into many Hassidic prayer houses and see quite unspiritual goings-on - whether it be talking about business or other extraneous things during davening or other nonsense. You can also find uplifting and holy davening in non-Hassidic places, whether they are Yeshiva-type minyonim, or Shuls. Time to face-up to reality and discard the stereotypes and Hassidic propaganda.

Actually, I suspect that the fact that you went to see Chazan Miller's services at all indicates that the Hassidic services you attended previous to that didn't totally satisfy you, and you had, at least inside, a hunch, that there might be something that you were missing.

I am not saying that all Chazonus is great, just that it should not be rejected out of hand, in knee-jerk fashion, without being given a fair trial.

At December 4, 2005 at 1:55:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pragmatician, HT, Yitz, Eliyahu, Mirty, Judith, Anon & Anon,

Thanks for all of your input (Information, experiences, etc.)! I think everyone made valid points here. I also think that everyone here has reflected the various thoughts that I had -- and you've all brought out the many messages I was trying to express in the post.

Let me just clarify somewhat -- mostly to Anon:

I pretty much agree with you. If I opposed Chazzanus I never would have gone, or written this posting; my mind is very open on the issue. I was very inspired by the chazzanus, I went specifically because of it, and I plan to go again next Shabbos Mevorchim... but there is something about it that makes me a little uncomfortable with this newfound affinity.

Although I agree that is no longer an issue for a number of reasons (including that it represents a creative artistic element of Yiddishkeit sorely missing, and that there are no longer many non-religious chazzonim, and I am always looking for inspiration...), to my knowledge, this type of chazzanus for the most part was frowned upon (albeit with exceptions) by the Chassidic world. I do think that there were valid reasons for this, I'm just not sure if they are still applicable today.

I know Chazzan Miller, and his son Shimmy (who leads the choir). I know they are Bobover chassidim, and I probably wouldn't have gone otherwise. But let me tell you, that is not the way they daven in Bobov. I also must admit that I do look askance at a poster who refers to "Hassidic propaganda." Let's have a productive dialogue without stooping to attacks, can we? The Chassidic point of view has its reasons, and just because you don't subscribe to them doesn't make them invalid.

I recognized that many of my co-mispallelim were there for the show, and I guess I was too. As it turns out, I was greatly moved and inspired, and I'd say my davening benefited as a result -- but looking around the room, I saw plenty of people who were sitting back for a day at the opera. I can see legitimate reasons why shteibel yiddishkeit was considered the more Chassidic, and more G-dly path, as opposed to the Great Synagogue and Cantorial experience. Again, I am here to say that my experience was profound -- but I understand why some would not share that view.

I encourage everyone to share their experiences!

At December 4, 2005 at 1:58:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to hear that you enjoyed hearing Chazan Miller's Rosh Chodesh
Bentchen at Beth El. The proof of the legitimacy of chazzonus is in the
hearts of the listeners.

Although in general it seems that you are right about the Chassidic
movement and the emphasis on tefiloh as personal avodah, and the
playing down of chazonus in shul -- like most generalizations, there
are many exceptions to this rule. Almost every Chassidic group
nevertheless had chazzonim:

Lubavitch: the Charitonow brothers in the days of the RaSHaB, and
several fine chazzonim in our day, including Chazan Teleshevsky

Breslev: the Rebbe established his follower Reb Chaikel as the chazan
in his shul. And there were always wonderful chazzonim at the Rosh
Hashanah kibbutz in Uman.

Modzitz: Rabbi Ben Zion Shenker has served as an extraordinary chazzan
for nearly 50 years (try his Rosh Chodesh Bentchen sometime in the
Modzitzer Shtibel on Coney Island Ave.).

Boston: The Bostoner Rebbe of New York, Reb Chaim Avrohom Horowitz, was
a superb chazan before he became Rebe, and still is known to bring
people to tears when he leads the davening.

The list is long, and includes Belz, Satmar, Vizhnitz, and many other
communities. And, of course, we can't leave out the famous Chernobyler
(I think) Chazzan Extraordinaire, Reb Yossele Rosenblatt. So you need
not deel that you have betrayed for Chassidic heritage, Chavakuk!

At December 4, 2005 at 2:21:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks A.K.V.,
I feel more comfortable with Chazzunus by the day -- and your first point is really the bottom line!
The list of Chassidic Chazzonim does lend us support, but, my understanding has been that historically, if a chossid became a chazzon it was generally not well received.
I also wonder what kind of "Chazzonim" we're talking about - Was the chazzanus of R' Chaikel, or Isser the Chazzan by the Maharash, or R' Charitoniv, etc., the same style as the chazzanus of Yossele Rosenblatt or Kosovitzky ?

At December 4, 2005 at 4:16:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I know Chazzan Miller, and his son Shimmy ........ But let me tell you, that is not the way they daven in Bobov."

Do they actually lead the services at Bobov ever ?

"Hirshel Tzig said... ....Not for nothing did Chassidim abolish the practice of Chazzonim as well as the grandeur of domed Synagogues."

1) Were such things ever officially 'abolished' by Hassidim ? We know that some Hassidim prayed otherwise - but the word 'abolished' seems too strong and questionable to describe their attitude here.

2) About an alleged abolishing of beautiful Shuls - Firstly, the fact is that some Hassidim, going way back, had great synagogues. Perhaps not your group, but still, they were Hassidim and Hassidic leaders too. What about the great Shuls of the Belzer Hassidim, Ruzhin, etc. ? Also quite interesting is the fact that recently Hassidim have gotten back into building great synagogues of their own again - e.g. the great Belzer synagogue in Eretz Yisroel, the great Bobov synagogue in NY, and various other examples. So how can it be said that such was abolished, which makes it sound like the founders of Hassidism issued an official decree against such practice ?

P.S. I don't think Yossele was a Chernobler - I think rather he had some roots from Ruzhin.

At December 4, 2005 at 4:26:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another thought - Chazan Miller is a well-known chazan. However, you cannot judge all chazonus from him. Different chazonim are different - just like different Rabbonim and Rebbes are. You may like one more than another. You should not limit your exposure to just one chazan and style. Other leading chazonim now are Chazan Malovany and Chazan Helfgott (a Gerrer Hassid) (who will be performing soon, im yirtzeh Hashem, at Lincoln center). See for some background on the renaissance of chazonus today.

At December 4, 2005 at 4:41:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Especially if it's done at the done at the expense of a true personal experience in a shtiebel where you have true friends."

You think that all the people in a Shul are enemies of each other ? And all those in a shtiebel are 'true friends' ? I think that is another stereotype that needs to be examined and reconsidered.

Also, it's not always desirable to be surrounded by friends during prayer. There could be too much of a temptation to talk about extraneous things in such cases, as happens often.

"Synagogues are spectacles, like the pragmatic one says."

I guess the Beis Hamikdosh was a 'spectacle' too. Would you want to discard it (chas vesholom) and replace it with a shtiebel ? Sometimes you need spectacles to overcome myopia.

At May 29, 2006 at 1:31:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the record, Yossele Rosenblatt's father was a chosid of the Sadigura Rebbe. He sang for the Rebbe as a child and the Rebbe encouraged him to become a chazz'n.

At September 8, 2006 at 2:06:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reb Nachman of Breslov had a follower named Reb Chaikel, who happened to be a skilled chazan and baal menagen. Once they were traveling together and came to a certain shul, where Reb Chaikel was invited to lead the davenning.

"Should I daven like a shaliach tzibbur or like a chazan?" he asked the Rebbe.

Surprisingly (at least to me), the Rebbe told him, "Like a chazan!"

At September 8, 2006 at 10:49:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I remember hearing that the Lubavitcher Rebbe once asked Chazzan Teleshevsky to sing the niggun "Shamil" (I think) - afterwards the Rebbe said:

'Ach, eihr zingt es vi a Chazzan"

(Ugh, you sang it like a chazzan...)


Post a Comment

<< Home