Can a non-Jew (or a person studying for conversion, but not yet converted) lead prayers? Is there a difference for different parts or prayers (e.g. Kabbalat Shabbat vs Amidah)? Is there a difference if there is a minyan or not?
Prayer within Judaism is not simply a voluntary, spiritual opportunity. Rather, it is an obligation enshrined within Jewish law. As a consequence, the prayer leader actually functions in such a way as to afford others the opportunity to fulfill their prayer obligation. Many centuries ago, Jewish law ruled that only a person who is obligated to fulfill the commandment of prayer could provide others with the opportunity to fulfill their obligation:
“This is the general principle: One who is not obligated in a matter [of ritual observance] cannot enable others to fulfill their obligation [in that matter]." (Mishna Rosh HaShana 3:8)
Hence, since non-Jews (and prospective converts remain non-Jews until their conversion is complete) are not obligated in the ritual of prayer, they are not eligible to lead prayer.
Even beyond the legal issue, this makes sense. After all, Jewish prayer involves particular Jewish affirmations, and Jewish approaches. These affirmations, would – at a minimum – seem inconsistent coming from a non-Jew. Consequently, there is broad agreement across the Jewish spectrum that prayer leadership in the Jewish context should be the domain of a qualified Jewish individual.
There has been a lot of discussion about the distinction between prayers which require a minyan (quorum of ten adult males), such as the Amidah and Kadish, and those parts of the service that do not like Kabalat Shabbat and how this distinction may allow for greater participation of women in communal prayer. However, I think that the considerations are very different when it comes to non-Jews or people in the process of conversion.
Regarding people in the process of conversion, it is crucial to remember that they are in process and that there is an end goal in sight. The converts that I know and that I have been blessed to work with have tremendous dedication and resolve; I have the utmost respect and admiration for them. While a convert must integrate him or herself into the Jewish community and master the basics of Jewish practice, they must also keep in mind that until their conversion is complete they are not Jewish. This is the reason that though a convert publicly participates in Shabbat and holiday observance, in private he or she must do one activity that is forbidden on Shabbat in order to remind themselves that they are not yet Jewish. When it comes to participation in communal prayer, the same distinction must be made. Serving as a chazzan even for the “non-essential” parts of prayer confuses the status of a convert. Their participation in prayer services should be as a participant but not as a leader.
Non-Jews not in the process of conversion also should not serve as leaders of a Jewish prayer service. Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. Monotheistic religions are valid for non-Jews and developing a connection to God through prayer is a key value. However, the expectations and requirements of non-Jews are different than those for Jews. A non-Jew cannot serve as a leader or representative of the Jewish community during Jewish prayer services.
It is important to note that the halachic considerations in these matters are complicated. There may be instances when concerns for kavod ha-briyot (preserving human dignity) rabbis may allow non-Jews or candidates in the process of conversion to participate or even lead “non-essential” parts of the service. Generally this will happen when the person’s status as a non-Jew is not publicly known. Each Rabbi must make his decision based on the unique circumstances of each case.
There are different levels of prayers that carry different types of concerns. With any prayer that fulfills a requirement of the halakha, a non-Jew certainly cannot lead, since the prayer leader is, at least in part, fulfilling an obligation on behalf of those who are gathered. This is something that a non-Jew could not do because he does not share those obligations.
With other prayers there is no precise legal impediment since they do not represent the fulfillment of obligations. Nonetheless, as these have become part and parcel of the standard liturgy, they have become part of what we assume to be mandated when we talk about reciting daily prayers. We still think of the person leading prayers such as kabbalat shabbat as a shaliach tzibbur, a representative of the community. So leading such prayers is tantamount to leading the community prayer service, and I would consider it improper for a non-Jew to lead these parts of the service as well.
The gray area for me is in reciting non-liturgical prayers – English readings and the like – that we may incorporate into a service but are not fixed parts of the liturgy. Here in principle there is no legal relevance one way or the other to who leads such a prayer. Thus it becomes entirely a question of ethos and judgment, which may differ from one community to the next. Many authorities suggest that preserving the sanctity of the prayer service requires that no non-Jew ever lead a prayer. If there is occasion for a local official, clergy from another religious community, or some other non-Jew to address our community, these rabbis would argue that this must happen outside the framework of a service, even if we allow it in the sanctuary.
For others, though, the mere notion of a non-Jew participating is not inherently problematic – the struggle is tied much more to whom we permit to participate. The biggest struggle is about the non-Jewish half of intermarried couples who often wish to come up to the bima (podium) for the parents’ aliya at a bar mitzvah or in some other way actively participate in a family simcha (celebration). Here there are two problems, both concerned with perception: we may be concerned that doing so suggests a kind of communal acceptance/embrace of intermarriage which we want to avoid; and allowing this creates a problem of marit ayin, of giving the false impression that the person is in fact Jewish since they are members of the Jewish family we are in fact celebrating. This is especially a problem since they have been members of a Jewish family for some time and have actively chosen not to convert. So the strength of the opposition comes largely from the problems of this case.
This leaves room, in my opinion, to be more open to allowing participation when such problems of perception are absent. Allowing visiting clergy to offer a greeting or even benediction appropriate to a synagogue does not risk confusion as to that person’s religious status. Giving someone studying for conversion the chance to participate in a marginal way could serve to applaud and embrace their efforts and process while preserving a clear distinction between Jewish and not yet Jewish. These could be opportunities to be inclusive without the blurring of boundaries between “in” and “out” that are essential to our own self-definition.
The traditionalist in me says no, a person studying for conversion who has yet to convert cannot lead prayers because they are not traditionally obligated to lead prayers yet. The modernist in me says, maybe, but they can't lead the Amidah, they can't be called up for an Aliyah yet and are not counted as part of a minyan. This leaves leading the opening song and gathering the community before reciting the Barechu, reading Yotzer Or, Maariv Aravim or some of the poetic readings in a service and leading the closing song. The CCAR Responsa on this question answers in great detail the reasons why a person just prior to conversion isn’t obligated yet to fulfill the mitzvah of leading services. It also uses the traditional definition of a minyan:
“A minyan is thus a mini-recreation of the entire people of Israel. When a minyan is present, God is present. This is the rabbinic understanding of the verse, "God stands in the divine assembly [edah]" (Ps. 82:1).13 The constitution of a minyan for worship, therefore, is a reaffirmation of the relationship between God and Israel. Within the minyan, Israel collectively expresses its relationship with God, and the members of the minyan reaffirm their membership in the covenant community (b'nei b'rit). Minyan thus defines a Jewish community in a spiritual sense, as opposed to an organizational or institutional sense. When this spiritual community gathers as such for communal prayer, it must be led by one who is a full member of the community, i.e., one who is obligated to participate in fixed prayer. For this reason Tradition restricted the function of sheliach tsibbur to those upon whom it placed the obligation for public worship: free adult Jewish males14.”
The irony in today’s world is that the majority of reform Jews can't be bothered with daily prayers, Shabbat services or concerns about who is or isn't leading the prayers. On average most reform congregations are lucky to see between 2% of their members in a large congregation to 10% in a small congregation on a given Friday night. Jews by choice choose to be Jewish, seek community, and are actively defining their religious identity. Many people convert after years of journeying towards their Judaism, years of introspective soul searching and a years of classes and study. Most soon to be converts, after taking their local class of Introduction to Judaism, know more than naturally born reform Jews. Until their moment of conversion, however, a non-Jew just prior to conversion cannot yet be counted as part of a minyan or lead the central parts of a service. This should be seen as a goal within their conversion and not an insult or blockage towards their conversion. If person seeks to become part of the tradition and embrace its deeper meaning they must understand the difference of their status prior to conversion and post conversion when it comes to leading a Jewish prayer service.
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