The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Rabbis Enraged: Musical Transgression in the Early Modern Ashkenazi Synagogue

The history of the cantor often manifests as a tug-of-war between rabbinic ideals of piety and the expressive (or transgressive) spirit of the Jewish people who choose their own representative before God, for better or for worse. One of the most colorful conflicts in this struggle occurred in the early modern period, when Ashkenazi cantors (led by Polish immigrants) introduced foreign melodies, expansive music, and additional singers (meshorerim) into their synagogues all over Europe. This infuriated many rabbis, who left colorful and scathing critiques of their cantorial contemporaries. This timeless tension illuminates both the theological changes and social transformations of this era, as cantors manifested a popular desire for musical expressive culture that negotiated both new spiritual longings and reforming cultural matrices. In this context, cantors also achieved a level of musical expertise and differentiation, leading to professional organization and self-awareness. This lecture will thus explore rabbinic polemics and cantorial apologia for insights into the cantorial innovations and nascent musical professionalism that characterized the Ashkenazi cantorate in early modern Europe.