Writings from the Rabbis

Teshuvah: Non-Jews in Synagogue Choirs
Nov 30th 2015

Nisan 5775 / April 2015

Sheelah: May non-Jews be members of a professional choir for synagogue prayer?

Teshuvah: A Hazzan is a specially trained shaliah tzibbur, who leads a congregation in rinah utefillah, melody and prayer. In addition to knowledge of Torah and personal piety, a Hazzan is expected to have expertise in liturgy and prayer motifs and to possess a pleasant voice and artistic presentation.1 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described the spiritual task of a Hazzan to be “to convert a plurality of praying individuals into a unity of worship. The Cantor is called to pierce the armor of indifference...to fight for a response... [to be the] one who awakens those who slumber.”2

According to Heschel, the Cantor “does not stand before the Ark as an artist in isolation, trying to demonstrate his skill or to display vocal feats. ... 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”. The Cantor is one who “knows the secret of the resurrection of the words”of the prayer book, using song to interpret the siddur and to open the heart.

Ben Steinberg wrote about the value of a choir to synagogue life as an instrument of prayer.3 Sacred choral singing traces its origins to the people of Israel at the Sea of Reeds led in song by Miriam and Moses, of the House of Levi. The Levites were later appointed to sing joyful songs and play musical instruments “for the service of God”.4 We refer to them during the Musaf service for Festivals when we call for the restoration of the “levites to their songs and melodies.”

Natan Habavli describes a boys’ choir from the period of the 10th century in Babylonia. It was assembled “with beautiful voices, experts in the melodies, proficient in all matters of the prayers” to respond antiphonally to the Hazzan in a Shabbat service for the inauguration of the Exilarch.5

In the Middle Ages there was opposition to extending the services by cantorial singing, but it is in this period that we begin to hear about choirs for special occasions, such as weddings. Choral synagogue music began in earnest in Italy in the 1600s. Despite criticism of the practice, in 1603 Leon de Modena introduced choral music to the synagogue service in Ferrara. He subsequently defended choral music involving “six or eight of our people knowledgeable in song”.6 In 1624, Salomone DeRossi, a leading composer of the Renaissance, wrote a collection of synagogue choral compositions, notable as the first Hebrew book to be printed with musical notations.

With the European Emancipation, choirs became a regular feature of Western European synagogue prayer. The first synagogue choir in Britain was introduced in the 1830s in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and soon thereafter to the Ashkenazic Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place, eventually spreading to North America.7

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Israel, 1920-2013) summarizes the extensive discussion about choirs and the use of melodies of non-Jewish origin. He notes the extensive opposition to the use of “external” music, but finds grounds to permit such music.8Rabbi Yaakov Epstein (Israel, 2015) reviews this conclusion, but highlights on the opposition of Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer, Israel 1915-2006) to the use of popular music and Church melodies. He is particularly concerned about their use for kaddish and kedushah. Rabbi Epstein concludes that melodies of non-Jewish origin which have already entered synagogue life may be continued, but that with the increase in the number of Jewish composers, their music should be used for all new synagogue compositions.9

Once the presentation of synagogue music extended beyond the Hazzan, other halakhic issues arose. Among them was the role of women singing liturgical music. Although British Orthodox congregations allowed this practice in the early part of the 20th century, this is no longer common in the Orthodox community.10 In recent years, a number of Orthodox authorities have argued that female voices may be part of community prayer and some congregations permit women to lead 11 Within the Conservative movement, women have been part of choirs for many years, are now trained as hazzaniyyot and accepted in many communities as the leaders of prayer.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, along with the introduction of organ music, Reform congregations began to include non-Jews in choirs. The Jewish Encyclopedia entry on choirs notes the following: “A far more important question than that raised by the employment of female choristers, is whether non-Jewish choristers of either sex should be engaged in a Jewish synagogue; whether the most sacred parts of the service should thus be sung by persons unable to enter into the spirit of the religious community which they represent.”12 The comment from 1906 is indicative that some choirs in the early part of the 20th century included non-Jewish choristers and that their inclusion was problematic.

It is notable that during the period of the Bet Hamiqdash, non-Jews were permitted to enter a limited area of the Temple (Courtyard of the Gentiles) and were allowed to provide some animals for sacrifices. Nonetheless, only members of the Israelite community could actively participate in the service. “Rav Huna taught: שלמי העובדי כוכבים עולות. The sacrifices of well-being brought by non-Jews are considered like whole-offerings [and accepted].”The Talmud differs on the source for this practice, citing both reason and a Biblical verse:

איבעית אימא: קרא, ואיבעית אימא: סברא. איבעית אימא סברא, עובד כוכבים לבו לשמים;ואיבעית אימא  קרא, אשר יקריבו לה' לעולה - כל דמקרבי עולה ליהוי.

This I can prove either by reasoning or by a verse from Scripture. By reasoning: because a gentile intends [the offering entirely] to Heaven. Or by a verse from Scripture: ‘Which they will offer unto the Eternal as a burnt-offering’(Levit. 22.18). [That is,] whatever they offer shall be [considered] a whole-offering.13

Maimonides codifies this, integrating both rationales.14

In the later Middle Ages, there was respect for the religiosity of non-Jews, but strong disagreement with specific beliefs15Jews and other religious communities were quite distinct in practice. I can find no indication of a role for non-Jews in the synagogue service.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Reform movement marginalized the role of hazzan and introduced women as well as non-Jewish soloists and choristers to its worship. Notwithstanding the question of the author of the entry on choirs in the Jewish Encyclopedia, the active presence of women in public worship was so out of the question in a traditional community that there was no halakhic discussion about its permissibility.

Even in the Reform movement, there is a growing recognition that the involvement of non-Jewish choristers contributes to congregational passivity; such a choir is seen as dissociated from the depth and intensity of actual prayer. Writing in 1985, Rabbi Walter Jacobs stated that while non-Jews may join synagogue choirs in the Reform movement, there is a clear preference for Jews to be choristers, even if the quality of the music is diminished.16

More striking is an opinion by Rabbi Joan Friedman for the CCAR Responsa Committee: 

[T]he employment of Gentile singers cannot and should not be a Reform precedent for us. There may have been historical reasons for their introduction—such as the absence of equivalent musical personnel who were Jewish—but those reasons have disappeared. Even when their presence was commonplace, they were always seen as apart from the congregation. Their voices provided lovely music—but they, as persons, were never considered representatives of those present. They enhanced the aesthetic environment, but they were not part of the congregation who prayed and, most important, they were not expected to pray with it. They were there to sing, and nothing else. It is no accident that while in their Christian churches they led the congregation in singing, they did not so in our temples. We listened to them; and many is the rabbi or cantor who has testified to the difficulty of turning a listening congregation toward active participation in the service. We repeat: the phenomenon of non-Jewish choristers is on its way out. It represents a phase of Reform history which no longer can serve as precedent for our teshuvah. The shelichei tsibbur must be members of the covenant community and they cannot yield this responsibility to outsiders.17

It is noteworthy that this Reform perspective sees choristers as shelihei tzibbur and is clear that non-Jews may not function in that role.

This is the position that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has long held for Conservative Jewish practice. In 1954, the Law Committee ruled that non-Jews may not be part of a synagogue choir. In 1961, the Committee confirmed that earlier position:

Unanimous opinion of the Committee that the practice of having non-Jews in synagogue choirs is not in keeping with Jewish standards (1954). Gentile choir leaders at services are deemed contrary to the spirit of Jewish tradition and practice, although there would be no objection to using them in training a choir (1958).18

That opinion was reaffirmed in 1970.19 Reviewing the question in 1978, the Chair of the Committee explained: 

A choir is an extension of the shaliah tzibbur, and therefore, a non-Jew should not participate in or serve as leader for a synagogue choir.  There is no objection, however, to employing a non-Jew to train the choir.20

Remarkably, for a Committee that prizes diversity and often exhibits disagreement, this decision has been reviewed four times with the same conclusion: choristers must be Jews.

In medieval halakhic discourse, the issue of whether Jews-by-Choice could recite certain particularistic phrases from the liturgy was in question. There was a substantive disagreement between Rabbenu Tam and Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel ha-Zaḳen (RI) of Dampierre about this subject.21This issue was raised about converts to Judaism; how much more so would it apply to non-Jews.  It would be inappropriate for choristers to offer prayers that articulate beliefs to which they do not subscribe and, equally  inappropriate for them to offer those prayers for us.

In the famous letter of Maimonides to Ovadiah the Proselyte, Rambam responds to the question of whether Ovadiah, a Jew-by-Choice, may recite certain phrases of the liturgy:

You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer alone or in the congregation: “Our God”and “God of our ancestors,” “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments,” “You who have separated us,” “You who have chosen us,” “You who have inherited us,” “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt,” “You who have worked miracles to our ancestors,” and more of this kind. Yes, you may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in the congregation....22

While the position of Maimonides regarding converts prevailed,23 the clear inference is that a distinction should be maintained regarding the public articulation by non-Jews of basic covenantal affirmations. 

While it is true that the Hazzan is the primary officiant, it is clear that the choir verbalizes central affirmations of Judaism and sings in order to lead the congregation. Those who serve as choristers should be part of the covenantal community. In the most basic sense, this is the role of a shaliah tzibbur and what the prayer leader does. Even if one were to contend that choral singers are not the formal leaders of prayer, they certainly augment the Cantor and partially lead the community. This is particularly the case in congregations where the choir not only assists the community to sing, but is essential to the public presentation of the service.

As noted above by Rabbi Friedman, the melodious voices of non-Jewish choristers are not the same as prayer lishma, with intent and meaning. When they sing the words of our prayers, it is reasonable to say that they are not doing so because they share the meaning with our faith community. It may be meaningless sounds sung with beauty.<24 Even if it does come with personal religious meaning, it is fair to say that it is not our covenantal religious meaning.

Moreover, if in practice, the singing of a choir also results in congregational passivity, then it is reasonable to conclude that those in attendance will fulfill their prayer obligations (to be “yotzei”) by listening to the Hazzan and choir rather than by reciting the words themselves. This actually reinforces the role of the choir as leaders of prayer.

For all the above reasons, I concur with the earlier decisions of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that choristers must be Jews. 25

However, keeping in mind the promise, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people”(Isaiah 56:7), we should rejoice that there are many Gentiles who share basic monotheistic beliefs. Recognizing this, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein permits non-Jews to recite personal blessings of gratitude without use of the four-letter sacred name of God and at times of individual need.26  We can extend this to say that, in addition to their own personal prayers, non-Jewish choristers may sing Psalms that are universal expressions of praise of and faith in God.

Those prayers that specifically reference Jewish identity and heritage; refer to the observance of Shabbat, Festivals, or Days of Awe; or which require a minyan to be recited in public (devarim shebeqedushah) must be sung by Jews. The determination of the theological status of specific prayers is in the province of the Mara Datra.

Regarding Jewish identity, the Conservative and Orthodox movements are consistent in defining a person as a Jew who is born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism. We differ from the Reform and Reconstructionist communities because of our classical commitment to matrilineal descent. While we may differ from the Orthodox community regarding some details for conversion, we are at one in the essential idea that matrilineality or conversion is the determining factor of Jewish identity.

These criteria are used to determine eligibility for membership in our congregation, marriage in our community, and burial in our cemetery. Within the Conservative Movement, we generally accept the personal statements of individuals regarding their Jewish identity as honourable, unless there is a reason to question the claim. When there are doubts, the Rabbi, as Mara Datra, is the arbiter of questions related to Jewish identity. This common practice was recently reviewed and reaffirmed in a teshuvah by Rabbi Reuven Hammer which was accepted by the CJLS (a decision with which I concurred).27

If non-Jewish choristers are involved to sing Psalms and general prayers of thanksgiving, certain procedures would still be appropriate for public appearance and awareness. Gentile choristers should not wear a tallit which gives the appearance that they are Jews. Also, out of respect for the community, the congregation should be informed, in a discrete manner, that some of the singers are not Jews.

Pesaq halakhah:

1.  Choristers for elements of synagogue prayer that reference Jewish identity, heritage, and sacred times, or that require a minyan to be recited in public (devarim shebeqedushah) must be Jews.

2.  Non-Jews may publicly sing Psalms and other prayers that recognize God and are faith affirmations not specific to Jews.

3.  Non-Jewish choristers should not wear a tallit which gives the appearance that they are Jews; the congregation should be informed, in a discrete manner, that some of the singers are not Jews.

4.  We accept the personal statements of individuals regarding their Jewish identity, unless there is a reason to question the claim. Any questions should be clarified by the Mara Datra.

1  Shulhan Arukh: Orah Hayyim 53
2  "The Vocation of the Cantor”, The Insecurity of Freedom, 1963
4  1 Chronicles 15:16. 25.6
5  A. Neubauer, Medieval Jewish Chronicles and Chronological Notes (1895), v. 2, p. 84
6  Franz Kobler,Letters of Jews through the Ages: From the Renaissance to Emancipation, Jewish Publication Society of America (1952), p. 420
7  Joshua Jacobson, “Choirs”, Encyclopedia Judaica, 2008
Yabi’a Omer 6, Orah Hayyim 7.3
9  Yaakov Epstein, Hevel Nahalato, v.9, sec 5 

10  http://www.oztorah.com/2012/07/mixed-choirs-in-jewish-worship
11  http://www.jewishideas.org/rabbi-david-bigman/new-analysis-kol-bisha-erva and http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/new-hearing-kol-ishah
12  http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4348-choir
13  TB Menahot 73
14  Mishneh Torah: Laws of Sacrifice 3:2-3
15  Eric Lawee, “Changing Jewish Attitudes Towards Christian Society: The Case of Spain in the Late Middle Ages.” In Facing In and Facing Out:Gentiles in the Eyes of Jewish Traditionalists,York University, 2001 
16  Walter Jacob, Contemporary American Reform Responsa, 1987. Note particularly, p. 195
17  5754/1994.  http://www.ccarnet.org/responsa/tfn-no-5754-5-55-76
18  Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, 1955 and 1961
19  Minutes of CJLS, Sept 10, 1970
20  Minutes of CJLS, July 6, 1978
21  See Responsa and Decisions of the Sages of Germany and France, Jerusalem 1973, ed. Efraim Kupfer, no. 60 pp. 101-105; Tosafot to TB Bava Batra 81a למעוטי; Rosh, TY Bikkurim 1:4 section 1; Or Zarua 1:107, and Sefer Raavyah, Jerusalem 1964, ed. V. Aptowitzer, no. 549, vol. 2, pp. 253-256. See the discussion in Levi Cooper, “From the Classics: ‘God of our Ancestors’ - Biological Ancestry and Spiritual Roots in the Prayers of Converts”, http://www.lookstein.org/online_journal.php?id=257
22  Teshuvot Ha-Rambam (5720), ed., Joseph Blau, no. 293, p. 549. Translated in A Maimonides Reader (1972), p. 475, ed. Isadore Twersky
23  Mishneh Torah: Laws of Prayer 8:20, as well as Beit Yosef Orah Hayyim 53:19 and Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 53.19 and 199.4
24  This may also be a problem for Jews choristers who do not understand Hebrew. Here, however, one might say that they have the potential to bring Jewish religious intent and meaning to the prayers they sing. Public prayer should be in Hebrew. See Orah Hayyim 101.4. This was one of the basic principles that differentiated early Conservative Judaism from Reform. See http://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/363_Transp/05_Conservative_Judaism.html
25  It should be noted that this has been my position for years. This teshuvah simply presents in written form what I previously have said to kley kodesh and lay leaders.
26  See Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim 2:25. Also see Remah, Orah Hayyim 215:2  http://eretzhemdah.org/newsletterArticle.asp?lang=he&pageid=4&cat=7&newsletter=1067&article=4038
27  http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/2011-2020/JewishIdentity6.2011.pdf