Question: May a non-observant Jew serve as the chazan?
Short Answer: While it is certainly preferable to have a shomer Torah u’mitzvos serve as the chazan, there is room to be lenient in many circumstances and to allow a non-observant Jew to serve as the chazan.
I. Requirements of the Chazan
The Gemara in Taanis (16a) lists the requirements of the chazan, including the need for him to be “hagun” – proper – and free from sin. Rashi explains that this means that a chazan must lack financial improprieties.
The Maharsha (Taanis ibid), however, understands that Rashi does not list financial improprieties to the exclusion of other sins. Rather, a chazan must be free from all sins. The Mitzpei Eisan (ibid), on the other hand, explains that Rashi specifically lists financial improprieties because these sins are the only sins that prevent a person’s prayers from being answered.
II. Strict Halachah
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 53:4) rules that a chazan must be free from sin. Presumably, because the Shulchan Aruch does not mention financial improprieties, this requirement applies to all sins.
The Mishnah B’rurah (14) extends this requirement further, and writes that a chazan who is not sin-free may not even serve as a chazan on an irregular basis (i.e., on his father’s yahrzeit, etc.). Note, though, that the Mishnah B’rurah brings the Pri M’gadim who clarifies that we are only talking about cases where the sinner did not do t’shuvah from his sins. A sinner who did t’shuvah would be permitted to be chazan.
Indeed, the Riv’vos Ephraim (4:44:149) brings the opinion of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l that a congregation should preferably give the non-observant the role of serving as chazan for Ashrei/U’va L’Tzion instead of the more important parts of the davening.
III. Who Is a Sinner?
A tricky issue pertaining to this question is: What defines a “sinner.” In other words, what sins prevent a person from serving as the chazan? Surprisingly, the poskim are extremely strict on this issue and broadly define what constitutes a “sin” for this purpose. Some examples given are someone who shaves with a razor (see Chazon Ovadiah on Yamim Nora’im, p. 36), someone who watches improper shows on television (see Be’er Moshe 8:51:6), and an attorney who litigates against other Jews in secular court [without a heter arkaos] (see Shulchan Shlomo, T’filah, Chapter 2).
IV. Leniency for Our Times
Despite the strict nature of this halachah, the common custom appears to be that non-observant Jews do serve as chazan in our shuls, especially when they are observing a yahrzeit. What is the basis for our custom?
Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann (M’lameid L’ho’il, 29), writing 150 years ago in Germany, suggested that non-observant Jews be allowed to serve as chazan in America because they are not sinners, but rather have the status as “tinok she’nishbah” – like someone who was captured as a child and was never given the opportunity to learn Torah. Further, because of the multitudes of non-observant in America, this non-observant Jew is not considered as sinning “publicly.”
Similarly, the Minchas Yitzchak (26) suggests that since the non-observant do not brag or flaunt their non-observance, they are permitted to serve as chazan. [Note that he ultimately rejects this argument, though.]
Finally, the sefer B’Mar’eh HaBazak (3:6) allows a congregation largely made up of non-observant Jews to appoint a non-observant Jew as the chazan. Because of “pikuach nefesh ruchani” – i.e., the spiritual life of the congregation, and the continuity of the congregation, such a practice may be sanctioned.
Next Week’s Topic: May one serve as chazan if he has a family member who is no longer shomer Torah u’mitzvos (i.e., “off the derech”)?