Rabbi I Have a Problem

Is it more important for a chazan to have a good voice than be observant?


Question: Our synagogue services are often led by one of our most respected members, but he no longer has much of a voice. Some of us would prefer someone who can sing better, even if he is less observant. Are we right to want a change?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

All things being equal, you should choose the one who can sing better. But from your question, it is apparent that all things are not equal. You describe your current chazan as one of the most respected members of your congregation, while the one with the better voice is less observant. If this is so, it would be improper to replace the original chazan.

A chazan is more than a performer. His role originates from a period before prayer books and his function was to offer up prayers on behalf of the congregation, which they would associate with by answering “Amen”.

Although this has changed with the advent of prayer books and individual prayer, the chazan is still seen as a representative, leading the congregation’s prayers to God. Hence, it is incongruous to entrust this important religious responsibility to one who is not religiously observant.

The role of chazan as representative of the congregation before God is compounded on the High Holy Days when we stand in judgment before God. The Rema, in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch (581.1), is very specific when outlining the personal spec for this job: “He should be the most appropriate and outstanding in terms of commitment to Torah and mitzvot”. He also adds other criteria that reflect on his emotional maturity and sense of empathy with, and responsibility to, those he represents.

So if your current chazan really can’t satisfy the congregation musically, then you are free to find an appropriate replacement but before doing so, you need to consider carefully who it is you would like to represent your congregation before God.

One can always compensate musically by minimising the traditional “set pieces” a chazan sings and instead encouraging greater participation from the congregation. There is a growing trend in this direction, particularly among younger worshippers, who prefer to participate than to be spectators. It is much more difficult to find a prayer leader who is deeply respected as a human being and an exemplar of Jewish behaviour.

It’s worth bearing in mind that on Rosh Hashanah we sound a ram’s horn, not a trumpet. The former might not have the clarity and consistency of the latter but what it lacks in polished presentation, it makes up for in unaffected authenticity. Perhaps it’s not all that different from a “deeply respected” chazan “who doesn’t have much of a voice.” p>

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

There is an unfortunate disjunction between theory and reality here.

What is the object of the person leading the prayers? Is it to be a role model of piety, in which case go for a person of integrity; or is it to be a great performer, in which case go for the voice. In theory, the answer has to be the role model.

In reality, however, if the latter’s efforts put people off, then he becomes a distraction rather than an inspiration, and, however wonderful an individual, hampers communal prayers.

Some might argue that God has a reason for everything. So if God chooses not to provide your shul with a singing saint, then maybe it is a lesson to overcome your irritation at the external sound and instead work hard at concentrating on the prayers and on your own personal communication with the Deity.

In the meantime, there is no reason why you cannot operate a rota system, so that both individuals are given time at the bimah. A problem faced by many a community is that one person dominates — be it running a committee or leading a particular activity — and stifles all creativity. Break the blockage, but also ensure that the transition is handled tactfully, so that the current incumbent does not feel devalued and continues to play a role.

I am assuming, though, that the “less observant” person is still a worthy person. It would be wrong to have someone who was known to be, for instance, an adulterer or business fraudster or malicious character lead the prayers. Conversely, being less observant than someone else should not be an automatic disqualification for taking services; the desire to do so can be taken as evidence of their Jewish commitment and should be welcomed.

Sometimes the most obvious candidate is not best, while selfish motivation can lead to noble deeds. It is told that a synagogue advertised for a shofar-blower and three people applied. When asked what they would be thinking while blowing, one person replied “The glory of God”. The second person spoke of the sacred responsibility he would have for the congregation.

The third person declared he would be imploring God’s help in supporting his wife and two children in the coming year. They opted for him, reckoning that his blasts would have greater impact piercing the heavens above and the souls below.

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