A debate in the Heavenly Court
Rabbi Avraham Feder, Z”L, who was outstanding both as rabbi and chazzan, passed away at age 87 on February 8 in Jerusalem.
In his sermons, Rabbi Feder occasionally quoted imaginative Midrashic or Talmudic passages, many well-known, that described goings on in what was called the “Heavenly Court.” Taking the liberty of his example, I imagine that a debate about Avraham Feder was raging in that court between those who said, “his greatness was his soaring Chazzanut,” and those who asserted, “his greatness was his stirring teaching and rabbinic leadership.” After the debate continued for a good while, a voice might have been heard saying, “You’re right and you’re right.”
I first encountered Rabbi Chazzan Avraham Feder when I wandered into Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto, Ontario, in the early months of 1972. I didn’t know then what I would find.
Blessed with a deeply rooted Jewish soul, learning from his father who served as a chazzan, and having a strong and professionally trained melodic voice and extensive training in chazzanut, Avraham became an inspiring leader of prayer. The siddur cites numerous sentences, many from the Psalms, that urge us to sing to the Lord, and that Avraham did, so superbly.
As Chazzan, he made it a high priority to cultivate active congregational participation in the prayer services, and he very much succeeded in this. However, in his solo chazzanic passages he often soared to sublime heights, opening the hearts and elevating the souls of those present in the congregation. In doing so, he conveyed through music and heart-felt davening meanings that words alone fail to capture. Special mention should be made of the High Holidays, truly Days of Awe, when Avraham’s chazzanut was exceptionally rich in meaning, soul-stirring beauty, and Yirat Shamayim.
At Beth Tikvah, Avraham had a highly creative partnership with Srul Irving Glick, a Canadian composer with a strong interest in Jewish spirituality, who became the conductor of and composer for the Beth Tikvah choir. Their joint efforts much enriched the aesthetic dimension of services.
As Rabbi, Avraham filled two main roles: teacher and spiritual leader. Every Shabbat morning, Avraham combined these through two activities. First, he provided seven or eight linked comments about the week’s Torah reading, a comment delivered before each Aliyah. Together, they were a serious teaching effort, rich in insight. Then, he delivered a sermon, usually focusing on one or another of four central Jewish subjects: the God of Israel, the Torah of Israel, the people of Israel and the land of Israel. As someone who had been quite remote from Jewish thought and practice during my university years and as a young adult, when I started to participate regularly in services at Beth Tikvah in 1972 it was exhilarating to discover so much to think about and appreciate in Jewish texts and Jewish thought.
Rabbi Feder’s sermons were intellectually stimulating and often personally challenging. For example, one of his favorite commentaries on parshat Bereshith was about “Ayeka”, the one word question that God addressed to Adam in the Garden of Eden.” Rabbi Feder framed “Ayeka” as a question addressed to each of us, ”where are you, where are you in your life.” As Rabbi, he frequently exhorted the congregation, often with dramatic intensity, with the goal of disturbing his listeners’ complacency. Whether about one’s level of observance, the education of one’s children, adult education, community issues, personal and social ethics, or the State of Israel, his message was to do more, to do better.
Avraham Feder was an unusually ardent advocate of Aliyah, a “fabrenta Zionist” as some of my Yiddish-speaking friends would say. First, this was because Aliyah is a clear imperative in the Humash and the Halacha, starting with the command of Lech Lecha. Second, Avraham felt strongly that the return of the Jewish People to sovereignty in its ancient homeland was such a profound development in the arc of Jewish history that it was a challenge to a committed Jew alive in this era to take part by living in Israel. This he did personally in 1981.
Usually 1+1 =2, but not always. Sometimes it’s more. By serving as both Rabbi and Chazzan, Avraham achieved a coherent unity in the services by creating a mood in the davening that suited the subject of his commentary or sermon or fit with the Jewish calendar. Such a unity is often beyond reach when chazzan and rabbi are different persons. One of the most important reasons for Avraham’s great impact was that he was bound up, heart and soul, with the fate of the Jewish People.
In his dual professional roles, Avraham had a profound impact on many individuals, both at Beth Tikvah and beyond. To give a personal example, there is no doubt that in 1975, when my first sabbatical from York University was looming, the decision that my wife, Meredith, and I made to spend seven months of the sabbatical in Jerusalem owed much to Avraham Feder’s influence. It was a bold decision for two people who had not previously traveled outside of North America. Seven years later we came to Jerusalem for my second sabbatical and ultimately decided to stay.
Beyond having served as my Rabbi and Chazzan at Beth Tikvah, in Israel Avraham became a close friend. In recent years we met regularly for lunch and we discussed current events, both in Israel and beyond, talked about books and articles we were reading, inquired after one another’s families, and shared personal reminiscences. For me, these were precious outings.
These days, there is a much sadness and sense of loss, especially for Avraham’s family but also for many others whose lives were enriched by him. But, as well, there should be deep gratitude and admiration for such a richly accomplished and meaningful life.
As to the Heavenly court and its verdict on the life of Avraham Feder: I think that Avraham, who grew up on the lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1930s, might have said, “We’ll just leave that to the Riboynah shel olam.”