During the third and final session of our Jewish Worship seminar, I asked the participants: What are the qualities you look for in someone who leads a service? People responded by saying a worship leader should be knowledgeable about how to lead a service and he or she should be well organized in order to ensure the smooth flow of prayers. One person expressed the opinion that a service leader should evince gravitas. Someone else suggested that a leader of a service should have a sense of humor.
The Shulchan Aruch, an authoritative code of Jewish law written 450 years ago, is very specific about who is worthy to lead a service. It should be “one who is sinless, whose puberty was unblemished, that is, he did not have a tarnished reputation even as a youth. He must have a pleasant, melodious voice which appeals to the worshipers. He must be conversant with the Torah, Prophets, and the Writings….If, however, one possessing all these qualifications is unavailable, the best among them, with respect to wisdom and good deeds, should be chosen.”
The Shulchan Aruch, not surprisingly, specifies that the service leader must be male. Furthermore, he must have a beard. “None shall be appointed as a permanent service leader whose beard is not fully grown.” Yet this requirement can be waived when the service leader is becoming a Bar Mitzvah. However, there is no leniency when it comes to the High Holy Days. Only men with beards are qualified to lead the service!
A worship leader must not only be a man with a beard with an unblemished character who also possesses knowledge of scripture. He also must be modest. A service leader who inspires the congregation with “his sweet voice joyously giving thanks to God will be blessed, for he prays with humility and stands before God with awe. However, when his intention is only to let himself be heard, his joy being pride in his voice, this is disgraceful. He who unduly prolongs the service acts wrongfully and puts an excessive burden on the congregation.”
Obviously, as a Reform congregation, we are not as restrictive as the Shulchan Aruch about who is qualified to lead a service. Men, with or without beards, as well as women, are permitted. Knowledge of scripture, good character, and organizational know-how are all valuable qualities in a service leader. I would add that a sense of humor can be very beneficial and a touch of gravitas doesn’t hurt when the occasion calls for it. One last note: nowhere is it specified that a worship leader must be a rabbi. Any knowledgeable Jew is qualified to lead a service. Jewish worship is a highly egalitarian enterprise that invites the participation of a wide spectrum of people.