Thursday, December 29, 2005

Responsa: May a Cantor Appear in Major Roles at an Opera House?

o o o o o
| | | || | | | | Happy 4th day
\ \ \ \|/ / / / of Chanukkah
\ | | ||| | | / and my last full day in NYC

I stumbled on this quite randomly at This is Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, of blessed memory, responding (in the form of Responsa) to the following: (my favorite stuff is bolded)
May a Cantor Appear in Major Roles at an Opera House?

No. 1 ? (OH 53:25)
Source: General Files, File 13 (1944)

October 16, 1944

Dear Doctor Levinthal:1
I am in receipt of your letter of October 12, in which you ask my advice whether it would be proper for your Congregation to have its Cantor appear in important roles at the Metropolitan Opera House.

There is, of course, no special law incumbent upon a cantor.2 He is to be a good Jew, but so also are his Congregants. Yet, while there is no specific prohibition in Jewish law which would prevent a cantor from serving in the synagogue while at the same time appearing in the opera, I do not think that the combination of a cantor and an opera singer is a very healthy one. There is no law prohibiting a rabbi from appearing in a cabaret, but do you think that any congregation would seriously consider having a cabaret singer as a rabbi? Of course, I am quite aware of the fact that certain music may serve very high cultural purposes. Yet, I am, at the same time, sure that people would find it quite strange to see their cantor one day recite the Neilah prayer and the following day sing a love duet with some lady. My advice is therefore that you try your utmost to prevent your Cantor from accepting the offer made to him by the Metropolitan.3

With kindest regards to you, Mrs. Levinthal, and to the children in which Mrs. Ginzberg joins me, I am

Very sincerely yours,

Louis Ginzberg

1Doctor Israel Levinthal
Brooklyn Jewish Center
667 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, New York

Rabbi Israel Levinthal (1888-1982) was ordained by the Seminary in 1910 and served the Brooklyn Jewish Center from its founding in 1919 for over sixty years. See EJ, XI, col. 121; Nadell, pp. 174-176; and Elliot Gertel, PRA 45 (1983), pp. 119-137. He appears in a photo with LG in Keeper, on the seventh page of photos after p. 214.

2This is not entirely accurate. See OH 53:4ff. and Leo Landman, The Cantor: an Historic Perspective, New York 1972, pp. 58-64, 110-113, for the attributes sought in a cantor.

3The cantor in question was Cantor Richard Tucker (1913-75), who served as cantor at the Brooklyn Jewish Center between 1943 and 1945. In 1945 he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera House. Tucker wanted to remain as cantor at the Brooklyn Jewish Center. But, on the recommendation of a panel of five rabbis (by a vote of three to two), he resigned his post there (Darryl Lyman, Great Jews in Music, New York 1986, pp. 229-230). LG was apparently one of the five rabbis asked.

Source: The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg edited by David Golinkin.

Chag Urim Sameach,