Can Jewish sacred music sung in a Roman Catholic basilica help relations between Christians and Jews?
For the Reform movement’s American Conference of Cantors, the answer is a resounding yes.
Twenty Reform cantors from across the United States traveled to Rome this month for just that purpose, performing a unique concert of Jewish prayers and sacred texts at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, a cavernous church adapted by Michelangelo from the ancient Baths of Diocletian. Among them was Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro of Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia.
“We are here as spiritual emissaries, not political emissaries,” said the president of the cantors’ conference, Susan Caro of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. “We recognize the power of music to transform as well as reach across cultural and religious lines.”
The concert, titled “To God’s Ears,” was organized by the New York-based Interreligious Information Center in cooperation with Cardinal William Keeler, the emeritus archbishop of Baltimore, who is the basilica’s cardinal priest.
“Presenting music of the synagogue in churches in order to reach the laity could develop into something very, very worthwhile in interfaith relations,” said the Interreligious Information Center’s executive director, Gunther Lawrence.
Lawrence said several cathedrals in the United States and Britain already had expressed interest in similar concerts.
The Nov. 16 performance featured a range of prayers and texts set to both traditional melodies and music by composers dating from the Renaissance to the present day.
In welcoming remarks, Monsignor Renzo Giuliano, the regular priest of the basilica, introduced the 90-minute concert as a journey into the “profundity of the liturgy,” saying it was “very important to be here together and praising our God.”
The cantors, about half of them women, hailed from California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and Texas.
“Our goal was to educate people in Jewish culture and Jewish synagogue culture,” said Cantor Roslyn Barak of Temple Emanu-el in San Francisco, who helped coordinate the event. “We feel that through music you can heal, make friends, touch people, reach out.”
U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Miguel Humberto Diaz called the initiative “a wonderful opportunity.”
“Any kind of art, especially music, is a way to bring people together for the sake of the common good,” he told JTA.
Diaz and the Rev. Norbert Hoffman, the secretary of the Vatican’s commission on religious relations with the Jews, were among the few dignitaries in attendance.
Highlights of the concert included an arrangement of the “Adon Olam” prayer by the Renaissance Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi and a rendition of “Sim Shalom” by the 20th century-composer Max Janowski.
The concert also included the world premiere of “Mah Ashiv Ladonai-Quid Retribuam Domino,” a setting of Psalm 116, with words in Hebrew and in Latin, by Cantor Erik Contzius of Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y. Contzius, a member of the American Conference of Cantors, did not take part in the concert. Longtime observers of Jewish-Catholic relations said it was likely that the concert marked the first time that a cantorial group had performed such a concert in a Roman Catholic church.
“Italian traditional cantors would not, as far as I know, perform in a church, and I know of no instance when this ever happened in the past,” Francesco Spagnolo, the curator of collections at the Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif., told JTA.
To watch a video of the cantor’s concert, visit http://www.youtube.com/user/realimaginary#p/a/u/0/4yK1O-noY0o.
JTA Wire Service