A cantor is not just a guy who sings. Synagogues around America are eliminating cantorial positions, as is Temple Beth Sholom. So what? There are educated people who can lead services, and there are good musicians who can sing. There are good teachers who can explain the services, and rabbis who know the liturgy. There are numerous b'nei mitzvah who have read the Torah and can read it on any given week.
Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel said the following: "The right Hebrew word for Cantor is ba'al tefillah, master of prayer. The mission of the Cantor is to lead in prayer. He does not stand before the Ark as an artist in isolation, trying to demonstrate his skill or to display vocal feats. He stands before the Ark not as an individual but with a Congregation. He must identify himself with the Congregation. His task is to represent as well as to inspire a community. Within the synagogue, music is not an end in itself but a means of religious experience."
A cantor today, in the Conservative movement, studies for the same length of time as a rabbi. Aside from the Masters degree in music, the cantor must know the Tanakh and the liturgy intimately such that he is conscious of every word. There is a reason for every pause in the reading of the Torah, and there is a reason for every note that is sung in a service. The cantor must know that certain motifs will link us to Yom Kippur while others will bring us to Shavuot. When the cantor chants the Keil Malei, it is unique and it is not perfunctory.
And yet the cantor brings the Congregation to prayer, to spirituality, through much more than music. Through teaching, through the simple acknowledgement of every child in the preschool or the religious school or "active seniors", and by giving every person his attention. The cantor speaks and listens as well as sings. Sometimes with a rabbi, sometimes alone, the cantor joins families in funerals, weddings, in times of pain and times of joy. The cantor must be present.
The cantor is charged with the essence of the Conservative movement, to maintain tradition while recognizing the evolution of Judaism. The tradition of the services is a combination of liturgy and nusach and without a deep knowledge of why and how, that tradition will fade away. The tradition of the Torah is that combination of the exact pronunciation and ta'am, sense, of the text. Without the cantor, that tradition will fade away and the kamatz katan will go the way of the dodo, and with it, the meaning of the words. The cantor must also find a way to engage people and infuse new music into the service. Working within the text and the tradition, the cantor must find the hook that will span generations.
No cantor is successful in every task. But congregations, looking for that one extra thing that will bring more families to services, risk losing the many other parts of our tradition which have sustained us for thousands of years. They risk losing the heart which opens with every word sung and taught, as though it might welcome something holy, as though it might hear something in return.
Thank you, Temple Beth Sholom, for three good years of prayer, song, and study. May we continue on our separate paths to wrestle with God and search for ways to repair the world.