I’ll begin with something counterintuitive to most people: the rabbi does not lead services. That is to say what a rabbi does in most synagogues is not what leading prayer is about, nor does the rabbi do what leading prayer is indeed about unless she or he steps out of the role of announcing pages and telling people to stand and sit. More to come.
I have learned a lot about leadership over the past number of years. The most important lesson is about the distinction between leadership and management. Leadership, suggests Marty Linsky (who is a real expert – look him up), is about change; it is about delivering disappointment to people at a rate they can tolerate. Leadership is about testing boundaries and making things different, ideally for the better.
Management is about maintaining the status quo. A good manager reassures people by keeping them dependably within a familiar system.
Synagogue worship is the ultimate in status quo, and rabbis are, therefore, the ultimate managers.
I should have learned this lesson early in my career when I was the rabbi of an intimate congregation with devoted regulars. One of the “shul kids” had her bat mitzvah and asked to conduct the whole service, almost always my role. I worked with her on the prayers and the melodies. And when the morning came, she did a spectacular imitation of me. Not only had she mastered the Hebrew prayers, she had mastered the exact wording and phrasing of the pulpit announcements I made each week. My instructions to turn to this page, turn to that page, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight were parroted with precision. It was the ultimate in status quo.
It is the sh’liach tzibbur (messenger of the community) who is the rightful leader of prayer. Often, this person is a hazzan (cantor), a person professionally trained in both music and liturgy, charged with the responsibility to draw collective devotion out of the community. But in many synagogues and many more minyanim (prayer quora), the duties are assumed by a lay person or the rabbi.
If leadership is delivering disappointment, what is the disappointment the prayer leader is to deliver? If leadership is promoting change, what is the change? If leadership is testing boundaries, what are the boundaries?
You won’t be surprised to discover that the targets are not the liturgy or even the collective experience, in my opinion. The targets for change are in the internal landscape of the individual Jews. If collective prayer is not encouraging the participants to consider their inadequacies, showing them a way to change (for the better) and testing the boundaries that prevent them from being better selves, then it fails miserably at everything other than management.
Yet, most rabbis treat public worship not so much as an opportunity for that kind of leadership as a long-running theatrical production, even (perhaps especially) in innovative circles. The script is inviolable, unless it calls for guest stars – people called forward to recite their lines. The fourth wall is maintained, all of the action taking place in the front. The people in attendance are spectators, dependent on announcements and (God help us) over-dramatic hand gestures to know where in the libretto to look and what position to assume. Even though the voice of the sh’liach tzibbur is guide and goad for the real prayer experience, we have imbued the role of the rabbi with a distracting authority that maintains the status quo and feeds the rabbinic ego. I’ve been there.
As my appreciation of my need for prayer deepened and expanded throughout the years (to my great surprise), my realization that it was frustrated by my pulpit role became clearer and clearer. I tried hard to model prayer rather than manage it, leaving the heavy lifting to the person whose role was the true practice of leadership – the hazzan. I tried to break through the fourth wall. I never waved people up or down. But with all that, the role of prayer manager still intruded on my prayer life, especially given the fact that so many people scrutinized my behavior as a model for their own. Eventually, in public circumstances, even when I was allegedly just a Jew in the pew, my spiritual life atrophied.
It is a fact, not a complaint. Don’t feel badly for me, and please don’t roll your eyes. I found a remedy for myself that involved disappointment, change and pushing boundaries – I left the pulpit! But I would like to think that there are other responses. I spent so many years talking and singing in front of people that I now find the deepest gratification and inspiration in listening quietly to others. My praying in private is aloud and animated. My praying in public is silent.
But here’s the deal: leading prayer must be an extension of a satisfying personal life of prayer. The person for whom prayer doesn’t work or who spends no time off the pulpit praying cannot lead prayer. Such a person can manage worship services, direct and host a weekly production and even make it onto a list of inspirational rabbis. But prayer, praying and leading prayer are, in the spiritual realm, far too important to individual Jews and to Judaism to be satisfied with the ultimate in status quo.