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A response to "Why Do We Mumble Our Prayers?"

ECA responds to this question posed by David Aaronovitch in the Jewish Chronicle on December 15th 2022

Read and hear what the United Synagogue leaders have said, and also ECA’s helpful suggestions in the document ‘From our Lips’.

To the editor/editorial, Jewish Chronicle

I am writing to you in response to David Aaronovitch’s article of 15 December – ‘why do we mumble our prayers’. Rather than a ‘letter’ this could be an opinion piece – or taken up by one of your writers – to open a discussion. Happy to talk to anyone.

David Aaronovitch in his article on 15 December asks ‘why do we mumble our prayers?’

It takes a newcomer to Jewish celebrations and prayers, as David says he is, to point out what is, or should be, glaringly obvious to all who attend synagogue. That is that there is a disastrous decline in the standard of prayer leading in our orthodox synagogues.

Although the leaders of the United Synagogue have repeatedly said that they expect the person who stands on the Bimah to know what he is doing, to have a beautiful voice and to lead his congregation to an emotional place. The sad fact is that they have put nothing in place to ensure that.

There has been no recognised or endorsed training for an orthodox prayer leader in this country for decades. Not only that, there is no agreed standard within the movement which one should attain. And even if there was a standard, and even if young men went abroad to be trained, there is virtually no hope of employment as a prayer-leader when they come home.

Whereas every synagogue up and down the country prided itself on a fine cantor thirty or years ago, today there is not one full time properly trained cantor within the United Synagogue. And those, even poorly trained ones, that are employed part-time have to eke out a living for their families by taking on other work during the week.

Ties move on and tastes change – but so do cantors. The cantor is after all acknowledged as the person who runs the service leads the congregation in melodies that stir the soul, and carries the prayers of the congregants to the Almighty.

So why has he been jettisoned in favour of employing yet more rabbis who sit on their chairs and give a sermon and are unable to move their congregations emotionally in the way that a well-trained cantor can. In these post-pandemic days what is there in our synagogues to bring us back, if not the voice of the cantor carrying the sacred words to heaven.

Our Chief Rabbi, now elevated by King Charles, has said: ‘The Chazzan represents the Jew in the Pew. We must never compromise on Nusach!’  The President of the United Synagogue Michael Goldstein has said ‘It is very important to me that the person who leads the services, understands and appreciates t’filah and can interpret the prayers using our wonderful nusach and knows what they are doing’. 

Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of the London School of Jewish Studies said ‘We need to sing in shul to reach God’. He said: ‘The Psalms weren’t said, they weren’t recited, they weren’t mumbled – they were sung by Priests and Levites in the Temple in Jerusalem. They are meant to be sung. Imagine having somebody reading you a Beatles song without the music – it’s not the same experience. You need the full music to appreciate what it is all about.  And that is why mizmorim (songs or psalms) are so fundamental to the way we get involved. When the chazan begins to sing it transforms us – and we can move even higher.’
Yet nothing has been prepared, to ensure their wishes are carried out.

The European Cantors Association has suggested a simple four-step plan of action to the powers that be to achieve this. But it will involve a change of heart to accomplish it.

The demise and denigration of the cantor is a fundamental problem. But unless it is addressed with alacrity, by those with the power to effect a change, the very essence of our traditional prayer music will disappear on their watch.

David Aaronovitch, thank you for voicing what many have thought and for hopefully opening the conversation. You have every right to be disappointed. You are not the only one that wants our Jewish ‘prayers to raise the roof’.

See the document ‘From Our Lips …’ It quotes what our orthodox leaders have said and how to listen to them saying it – and the steps that the European Cantors Association (ECA) has set out for them to reverse the negative trend.

Geraldine Auerbach MBE 5th January 2023

Updated 5th January 2023