A Service Without a Rabbi?: Introducing the Shlihei Tzibbur (Worship Leaders) Corps

Sermon given May 16, 2003, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


About six months before each Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I meet with the student and his or her parents. Toward the end of the session, I ask the student: “In what ways will you become an adult on that special day?” If the student gets stuck, I’ll turn the question around: “In what ways will you not become an adult that day?” The number one answer: “I won’t get to drive!”

Driving is a surprisingly excellent example of the matter I want to discuss with the student. I pursue the line of questioning: “Is having a driver’s license a privilege or a responsibility?” The answer, is “both.” We are privileged to drive only to the extent that we discharge that right responsibly.

Next, I ask: “What about leading the worship service? Is that a privilege or a responsibility.” The answer is the same: “both.” Leading the service places the young person in a unique position to be respected by both peers and elders. Before arriving at that moment, though, a significant amount of work is required.

In fact, the privilege and responsibility of serving as worship leader are linked at a deeper level in Judaism. Therefore, I ask the student: “Who is required to attend Jewish worship services?” The answer is that all Jewish adults are required to observe the mitzvah, or commandment, to worship. Therefore, when young people become B’nai Mitzvah, they take on the obligation to attend services. With that responsibility comes the opportunity for the privilege to lead the service where the Jewish adult is required to appear for worship.

Jewish law mandates that, in order for any of us to discharge our obligations, we must be led by a person who shares our duty. For example, Jewish adults are required to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Certainly, there is no prohibition against a child’s sounding the shofar, and we encourage our children to hear those calls. And yet, as a Jewish adult, I can not discharge my requirement if a ten year old is the ba’al tekiah, the one who sounds the shofar. Just as the President of the United States must be an American citizen, with all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, Jewish adults must be led by those who share our duties. The privilege of leadership is intimately linked to the obligation.

As I explain these matters to Bar and Bat Mitzvah candidates, I occasionally worry that they will ask me: “Well, then, Rabbi, why is it that, other than at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah services, and on other rare occasions, the Rabbi always leads the services, reads the Torah and delivers the sermon at our Temple? If all Jewish adults have that privilege, based on our shared responsibility, why don’t we all do it?”

To be honest, no Bar or Bat Mitzvah candidate has yet challenged me with the question, though I have frequently asked it of myself. Several answers seem possible. For one thing, much of what the Rabbi does all week is invisible to many members of the congregation. Leading the services seems to be at the core of the Rabbi’s duties. If the Rabbi doesn’t lead the services, then the Rabbi may not seem to be earning his or her keep.

A more significant answer is that rabbinical training uniquely qualifies the Rabbi to perform these functions. The Rabbi is charged with mastery of the Torah, a standard toward which I am constantly striving. Not only in rabbinical school, but also in ongoing study, the Rabbi is expected to obtain and maintain a high level of Torah knowledge. When the Rabbi leads the service, the Rabbi should be capable of conveying the spirit of each prayer’s meaning, even the presence of God. Reading the Torah, particularly as we do it here, with translation and commentary, the Rabbi is empowered to transmit the wisdom of countless generations of sages, together with modern insights. Preaching, the Rabbi’s role is best described in Rabbi’s Stahl’s words: to make the timeless timely. For these reasons, the congregation rightfully expects the Rabbi to lead its worship, to teach the Torah, and to offer meaningful sermons. I pray that the Rabbis of Temple Beth-El will always discharge these assignments faithfully.

I fear, though, that we have allowed the rabbinate to hold a monopoly on these sacred duties. Indeed, many have charged that American Jews have asked their Rabbis to perform their mitzvot, so that other Jews don’t have to do so. Every Jew is commanded to visit the sick, but some expect only the Rabbi to do so. Every Jew is required to comfort the mourner, but there are those who imagine that to be exclusively the Rabbi’s responsibility. Though every Jewish adult is privileged to lead worship, we have largely assigned this honor almost entirely to Rabbis alone.

To be fair, the Rabbi enjoys a unique blessing. The Rabbi is paid to perform mitzvot, while most other Jewish adults must spend at least two score hours each week earning a living doing something else. A Rabbi ought to embrace the responsibilities to study and to teach, to visit hospitals, to call on the bereaved. In the end, though, the Rabbi is being selfish, even hoarding mitzvot, if the Rabbi does not call upon the congregation to gain knowledge of Torah and to share that wisdom with others.

Recently, and particularly in the last year, we at Temple Beth-El have made significant strides in spreading traditionally rabbinical roles throughout the congregation. That trend has been a priority of our President, Marcia Goren Weser, and the membership has responded to her call. Our Adult Jewish Growth Committee has presented “Smorgasbords,” including serious courses of study, taught by Temple members, where only Rabbis had served as instructors in the past. A devoted corps of volunteers has established Yad B’yad, a program to visit Temple members who live in nursing homes or who are confined to their own homes, due to the infirmities of advanced age or illness. And now, tonight, we introduce the Shlihei Tzibbur Corps of Temple Beth-El.

For clarity, we are translating Shlihei Tzibbur as “worship leaders.” Literally, though, a Shaliah Tzibbur is an “agent of the community.” Though we are using the term to refer to lay leaders, the Rabbi who leads worship is also a shaliah tzibbur, the congregation’s representative, privileged to guide the worshipers in discharging an obligation that devolves equally on each and every one of them, Rabbi and laity alike. In the weeks ahead, sometimes with a Rabbi and sometimes without, Temple members, aged thirteen and up, will lead the congregation in worship.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that necessity was the “mother” of this invention. Despite what I hope are all the good reasons I am offering for our Shlihei Tzibbur Corps, honesty compels me to tell you that the reason we first considered taking this step was practical.

Permit me to explain. For the last three and a half years, we have offered two services every Friday night. Long before October of 1999, Rabbi Stahl and I had wished to provide the congregation with two different worship opportunities on Shabbat evenings, responding to varying worship style preferences in our membership. However, with only two Rabbis, we couldn’t figure out how to offer two services every week. If one of us were away, either on vacation or for another rabbinical function, then the remaining Rabbi would need to officiate at two services. The resulting problem would be that the Rabbi would not observe Shabbat with his own family. Such a practice would be bad for the Rabbi, but worse, it would be poor modeling for the congregation. At last, Rabbi Bergman Vann arrived, we had three Rabbis, and we could offer two services every Friday night, in addition to our monthly TOT Shabbat. Only very rarely would two of us be away at the same time, and the third would officiate at two services, no big deal.

Now, though, with the conclusion of Rabbi Bearman’s tenure, we are back to two Rabbis. Together, Rabbis and lay leadership considered a variety of options, including cutting back to one service each Friday or at least when one Rabbi is away. But which service should we eliminate? We are blessed with two vibrant worship communities on Friday nights at Temple Beth-El. Failing to hold both services every week would diminish the mitzvah of weekly Sabbath worship. We started talking about lay worship leaders. Suddenly, folks were coming out of the woodwork, expressing a willingness to be Shlihei Tzibbur. Our organizational meeting attracted so many members that we had to hold it in the Barshop Auditorium! Now, our greatest fear is that our volunteers will be frustrated, because we won’t have enough slots for all of them to serve.

You should know that we will never hold a worship service without the presence of professional Temple leadership on the bimah. If no Rabbi is present, Dr. David vanAbbema, our Cantorial Soloist, or Avram Mandell, our Education Director, will be here. Naturally, Rabbi Stahl is more than willing to help, and Rabbi Bergman Vann and I are prepared to conduct two services on a given Friday night when necessary, as we have in the past. A Rabbi will officiate at any service at which a Bar or Bat Mitzvah will participate, and whenever a baby is to be named or a betrothed couple to be blessed.

I hope I won’t appear self-serving if I mention that the Shlihei Tzibbur Corps actually creates more work for the Rabbis than leading services ourselves. We will dedicate more time to helping our lay leaders feel ready than we would need to devote to our own preparation. We are also grateful to our Membership and Program Coordinator, Nancy Gerson, who so ably administers the Corps.

The effort will be worthwhile, for Rabbi Bergman Vann and me personally, come the Friday night when the other is away, as we observe Shabbat at home, after the Early Shabbat Service or before 8:00 P.M. So much more, though, I pray that this endeavor will serve our congregation.

The fact that scores of Temple members have volunteered to stand before you as Shlihei Tzibbur testifies to their devotion to our congregation.

The readiness of these worship leaders is also evidence of the success of our educational programs, both for youth and adults, as so many in our midst really are capable of embracing this sacred duty.

With integrity, now, I may say to our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students: The responsibility to pray and the privilege to lead are linked, not just for Rabbis, but for every member of Temple Beth-El, indeed for every Jewish adult.

Amen.