Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir

The Jewish Tradition
Maxine Handy

'THE desire to furnish some interesting specimens from ancient and not generally known treasures, the produce of Jewish mental cultivation in remote ages, which were intended to be, and have proved efficient aids in elevating and sustaining the public and individual worship of Him who is "enthroned amidst the praises of Israel."'
The Ancient Melodies, D A Sola, the learned Hazzan of Bevis Marks (1857)

The Jewish Orthodox musical tradition of male-only choirs in the Synagogue, is ancient, ordained by the Torah and Talmud, and has survived both the dramatic upheavals of almost four-thousand-years and much more recent notions of inclusion and equality. The struggling and besieged tradition of the Choir of men and boys' unbroken voices within the Christian Church can feel inspired by this much older Hebrew example of cradling the unique sacred and aesthetic characteristics of their liturgical practice, and protecting it from extinction.

The music of Judaism is fundamental to our understanding of the sacred and secular traditions of Europe and the Near East, first having influenced, and then having been influenced by, the music of Christian and Islamic cultures. However, despite these parallels, in 3700 years of history, Jewish worship and prayer have mostly been ascribed outsider status, or ruthlessly persecuted. Deep and resilient, the Jews have responded by subtle adaption without change, by showing an amazing ability to embrace conflict, argument and dialogue without the loss of identity, even in their dispersion and prolonged exile. It is not surprising that Orthodox Judaism has retained its single-sex choir as integral to its religious service and spiritual essence. The division by gender reflects the creation of man and God's universe. The Jewish tradition loves opposites and conflict: light and dark, day and night, man and woman, song and silence.

In a fascinating, typically Jewish contradiction, Prayer and Song are largely female, as in the song of Devorah, Chana and Miriam. Even King Solomon's Song of Songs is set in two voices for a man and a woman - with the woman's voice predominant. Prayer is feminine but the temple or Synagogue is masculine and chiefly the domain of men. The man is commanded by God to fulfil his religious obligations within strictly controlled time, space and words. Through this process the male role is to connect with the celestial light of heaven and bring it within the earthly world. The woman is not commanded to participate in this yearning invocation because she already inhabits the heaven within time and space, and possesses celestial light. Most significantly, it is the women who light the holy Shabbat candles, watched in reverence by the men.

It is true that only men can constitute a minyan so that a service can take place, and that within the Synagogue, women do not have a dominant role. In an Orthodox Synagogue they are seated separately from the men, in a screened gallery (the Mechitzah). God and the women gaze down on the males, thus ensuring that the men carry out their religious obligations in prayer, song and readings from the Torah. For the women, the most important arena of spiritual influence and religious observance is the home. Orthodox Judaism argues that if women take over in the Synagogue, then the men will leave it to them, forget the struggle and depart. Men are supposed to make their heart the Holy of Holies, a sanctuary for spiritual energy and light. As women bring life into being, and already have the light within them, they do not need to learn to pray, or pray at a specific time.

However, like the Anglican traditional choir of men and boys, which also excludes women from singing in divine service, the Orthodox Jews also pose a vast question. If woman is the essence of prayer and song, why is she silent? The reasons for this 'exile' may, at first, appear to be completely different, but in fact there are many parallels. Both traditions acknowledge that singing can be one of the most spiritual aspects of earthly existence, and yet in the Orthodox Jewish Synagogue, A Woman's Voice Should Not Be Heard! Traditional Jewish law embedded in the Torah and Talmud, says that men should not hear the voice of a woman singing, except in the home. There are two reasons given for this viewpoint. Firstly, a woman's singing is an expression of her beauty and should be guarded with modesty. Secondly, a woman's voice (kol isha) could lead a man to have sexual thoughts, which would interfere with his praying. Orthodox Judaism believes that listening to a woman's singing voice is to participate in intimate behaviour, as intimate as physical touch. A woman's beauty and the pleasure it gives, are not for sharing in a public Synagogue intended for serious prayer and worship. Imposing these limits, say the Orthodox Jews, actually enhances God-given beauty and pleasure. And this certainly mirrors the effect on the listener of a choir of men and boys within the Christian tradition of performing sacred music.

The Conservative and Reform movements within Judaism all sanction women singing (citing the time of the first Temple and the Choir of Levites), and reading from the Torah, but the Orthodox option to avoid hearing a woman singing, except in the domestic sphere (which is the prime focus of Jewish spirituality) is accepted and respected by these other branches of Judaism.

Many Cantors wherever possible, continued to train boy sopranos and altos at least for solo passages and duets to give the authentic patina of boys' voices and adult counter-tenors. This occurred even when the TTBB structure began to threaten and replace SATB, and all-male choirs were losing their boys' voices to metamorphose into adult only male choirs. The SATB formula remained the aesthetic ideal. A socially driven adjustment in which existing repertoire had to be re-voiced, thankfully never conquered: 'the desiderata in Europe always remained the boys and men combination.'

Recent recordings attest to the Jewish acceptance that the combination of boys' and men's voices produces the quintessential choral sound required for elegiac lamentation, joy, penitence, and pleading by erring males. My personal favourite is A Sephardi Celebration - The Choir of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation, London. This truly came alive after an unforgettable visit to Bevis Marks, the oldest Synagogue in Britain, founded in 1701 by refugees escaping from the Roman Catholic Inquisition. I was accompanied by friends from the Jewish community in Golders Green. Sephardic liturgical music is restrained, dignified, and unique 'in that it follows many of the ancient melodies oif the East that have been beautifully adapted under the influence of Western culture.' (Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy OBE, Spiritual Head of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation, London). The liturgy of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews is almost entirely musical, every portion being either intoned, chanted or sung. The music was not written down until the middle-ages but it is thought that despite subsequent influences, Sephardi chanting is the closest approximation to the chant of Temple times. Gregorian Chant is thought to have come from the music of ancient Talmudic times.

The Jewish musical tradition was supported by apprentice systems that were the equivalent of Choir Schools in Western Christianity. Itinerant Cantors vied for the services of especially talented boys and travelled with their choirs of boys and men. 'In those Eastern European cantorial apprenticeships, the boys provided the needed voices for the Synagogue choirs and in return they received musical and vocal tuition form their cantors and choirmasters.' (Prof Neil W Levin)

The Milken Archive recording of the First S'lihot, The Entire Midnight Service According to Orthodox and Traditional Ritual, preserves the Orthodox perspective in its use of the exclusively male voice choir - and the idiomatic timbre of that particular vocal blend. The Cantor performs elaborate improvisations and ornamentations and is often accompanied by a boy soprano or voice trained in falsetto. Interestingly, one of the most impressive recordings of Jewish music is by the Vienna Boys Choir - A Jewish Celebration in Song. How very intriguing that a choir with Catholic origins is now performing this repertoire - such are the clear parallels with their own tradition. It would be most rewarding to further explore these ancient connections with Judaism, especially during the turbulent and formative time of the Roman occupation of Palestine. Grayston Burgess has said that he would love to see Judaism active within the Anglican Church. A recent book by the Jewish traditionalist scholar, Dr Harry Freedman, is an expression of growing Jewish interest in the origins of Christianity. The Gospels' Veiled Agenda argues that the true mission of Jesus was to replace the Temple's corrupt officers with a new priesthood more worthy of the leadership of ancient Israel. In 2010 the late liberal Rabbi, Sidney Brichto, published his translation of the New Testament into English - the first by a Rabbi. But this curiosity about Christianity through a Jewish lens is largely confined to a small circle of academics. Few Jews see a need to engage with Christian texts. Looking at Christianity from a Jewish perspective has not caught fire. Says Dr Gorsky, an Orthodox scholar who teaches at a Catholic institution, 'There seems to be a gulf of understanding between academics and people in Synagogues. The old images of Christianity are still present.' It can also be difficult for a non-Jew on first entering a thriving Orthodox Synagogue to find an immediate point of reference, before surrendering to the history, beauty and intensity of the light-filled interior - its silver oil Ner Tamid (perpetual lamp) hanging over the Ark containing the Torah scrolls. A cultural and religious journey into Judaism is not without difficulty, but as Howard Jacobson says in The Finkler Question, 'Who among us is so certain of our identity?'

Nineteenth century Jewish concerns with assimilation into mainstream society were largely confined to Germany, where they led to the rejection of the authority and legal conclusions of the Talmud. 'Synagogues became patterned on Churches - the first such Synagogue opened in Seesen in 1810. An organ and mixed choir (both alien to 'synagogue ritual) were introduced.' (Rabbi YY Rubinstein, 2009). In contrast, Anglo-Jewry has remained almost wholly Orthodox, but seeks a full role within general society, thus sharing Judaism's highest ideals.

The Chief Rabbi has condemned the use of a mixed choir at an Orthodox Synagogue, and he has received overwhelming support from other Rabbis. Laurence Goldman, senior warden at the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation, said in 2008, 'We're in a situation where a mixed choir is not really acceptable to Orthodox Rabbis…One Rabbi said he wouldn't be prepared to come for an interview unless we agreed not to have a mixed choir.'

We are very lucky in the UK that our Orthodox Synagogues have not become museums, as they have in most of post World War II Eastern Europe. Also we have the Jewish Music Institute in London, which informs us of services and concerts. In theory, anyone can attend but it is advisable to ask permission from the Rabbi. It is also essential to conform to the required dress code. Orthodox services are conducted in Hebrew, Yiddish, and occasional Aramaic, but a parallel English text is available to worshipers. Thus British Orthodox Jews connect unapologetically with their beliefs and practices, whilst also engaging with their present day circumstances.

The Jewish Orthodox tradition of boys' and men's choirs is respected and does not have to contend with a constant feminist assault from within Judaism. There is an overall acceptance, even by liberal Jews in mixed choir Synagogues that 'Women's voices have always been excluded from synagogue choirs in Orthodox worship, where Jewish legal prohibitions are held to apply.' The established Orthodox format of soprano/alto/tenor/bass with un-matured boys' voices on the soprano and alto parts, reminds me very much of James Bowman's account of his natural progression to singing as a boy alto at Ely Cathedral under Michael Howard. James also insightfully said, 'The counter-tenor voice has at last come out of the ghetto.'

The type of worship which took place in the Jewish Temple and Synagogue, and which came into the early Christian Church was one of commitment to its origins in God's revelation. The Orthodox Jewish musical heritage of interaction with God, formed the basis of Christian liturgical development. To protect and nurture the sanctity of ancient Hebrew tradition, Sholom Kalib, a former choirboy and cantor, founded the Jewish Music Heritage Project, which includes the JMHP Boys' and Men's Choir. His choir has 20 soprano and 14 alto boys, eight tenors and ten baritone basses: 'The Music represents the cultural history of the Jewish people...When it flourished, it gave expression to Jews' innermost feelings in prayer to God. It was uplifting'.

Choir-boy at Bevis Marks Synagogue (Lebrecht Images)
Choir-boy at Bevis Marks Synagogue (Lebrecht Images)

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