Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Ritual Committee: Rabbinic Extender

The Ritual Committee, acting with the Rabbi and Gabai, if any, shall assist in the conduct of religious services and distribute honors.
(Standard synagogue by-laws)

A mentor of mine once told me that a Rabbi’s authority must extend beyond Halachic guidance, to Policy guidance. This seems most logical to me – many communal, synagogue and personal issues are not directly halachic, but would benefit from rabbinic insight.

Communal - Allocation of community tzedakah funds.
Synagogue – Planning of Yom haShoah commemorations.
Personal - Co-ed slumber parties for teens.

There are two problems, though:
1. The Rabbi's influence, if brought to bear too often or without being invited, ceases to be influence at all. It becomes a nuisance, and is eventually ignored entirely.

2. On many of these Policy issues, people are personally invested. Therefore, every rabbinic stance is likely to offend someone. Multiply the issues, multiply the offenses.

So how is a rabbi to influence community, synagogue and individuals, without over-using his influence and without making enemies?

One answer: The Rabbinic Extender.
I've heard that a doctor’s support staff is called a “physician extender.” You know – the technicians who take your blood, the nurses who interview you when you come into the office, the physician’s assistant, etc.
The rabbi needs a “rabbinic extender” – someone who will do the job for him, to save his influence for the case in which it is truly needed.

For communal influence, the Rabbinic Extender may be in the person of insitutional board members he trusts.
For personal influence, there really may be no Rabbinic Extender.
For shul influence, enter the Ritual Committee – Rabbinic Extender extraordinaire.

When I first heard of a Ritual Committee, I thought the person was joking.
First, the term ritual is one I hate to use for davening; it connotes an academic coldness inappropriate for davening.
Second, why should anyone other than the rabbi decide what happens during davening?!

But over the years I have come to know better. As far as the first problem, get over it; people use the term “Ritual” and they like it. As far as the second problem, the good Ritual Committee is guided by the rabbi, but makes its own decisions, under its own name. And so, gone is the problem of the rabbi over-using his authority. And, gone is the problem of offending people with decisions; congregants who protest will be reminded that the congregants, themselves, made this decision, via a Board-appointed committee.

The Ritual Committee can decide whether to create a special minyan for a Sunday morning Bar Mitzvah.

The Ritual Committee can decide to encourage chazanim to sing more, or less, or to try new tunes or stick to the traditional ones.

The Ritual Committee can decide who holds the Sifrei Torah at Kol Nidrei.

Unless the issue is clearly and directly halachic, the rabbi can afford the ‘slight’ of having educated laypeople make the decision, in exchange for the benefits he receives.

And one more crucial benefit to having a good Ritual Committee: More people become invested in the davening and its coordination, so that they, and their circle of friends, feel closer to the shul and its operation.

Mind you, despite all of the benefits I generally remained uncomfortable with handing off this authority to a Ritual Committee, and I could do it only because I trusted my Ritual Chairs completely. But that’s the way of many responsibilities in life: If you want to survive with your health and happiness intact, find someone you can trust and then share the responsibility.


  1. I think shuls have outlived their usefulness.
    The only place I have ever felt anything real is in a yeshiva that is siting and learning Gemara. (i.e. not chasidic "yeshivot".Though i realize that this system also has limitation and I am the last person to say or think that the Talmud somehow has all the answers. But I do think there is something deep and important in it and places that make it their business the learn Talmud I think have a very special type of holiness.

  2. Re the Rabbinic Extender for personal influence, many a shul rebbetzin plays this role to perfection. There are some issues/questions that may be uncomfortable to ask directly to the shul Rabbi and/or they seem too "trivial" to bother the rabbi with, but the rebbetzin makes a perfect go-between and/or substitute. And yes, sometimes what seems like an offhand comment (and isn't) by the rebbetzin will be easier to take than a direct comment from the rabbi. I don't believe I'm alone in feeling that some things that a woman might have questions about are really very awkward to talk about to a rabbi that you see around on a constant basis, and really do need a female as sounding board. And presumably a rabbi and his wife will not feel awkward in discussing such issues.

  3. It seems to me that even the examples provided regarding what a ritual committee can decide have great halachic implications. For example, regarding the Bar Mitzvah minyan, is it really that clear that one can make another minyan at the same time as a regularly scheduled minyan, absent a genuine need? Shiva is a genuine need. Someone who is home-bound, that is a genuine need. Bar Mitzvah? I'm not so sure. Of course that doesn't even address the issues of Nusach, e.g. if the shul is Nusach Ashkenaz and most of the Bar Mitzvah guests use a different nusach do they get to use their own, or should they use Ashkenaz?

    Regarding Chazanim singing more or less, my experience is that when chazanim sing more it becomes an issue of repeating words. I am sure the topic if worth of a blog post of its own, if not a book of its own, but from what I can tell it is a halachic issue.

    If the members of a ritual committee are sufficiently knowledgeable to know what issues are Halachic and what are discretionary (e.g., the Rabbi decides the guidelines on who can get Aliyahs, the committee hands them out) then a ritual committee can work. From what I can tell what happens all to often is that the ritual committee decides which issues are Halachic and in some cases decides to pasken.

  4. Sorry Rabbi T if I'm jumping ahead of your reply, but Anonymous, your example of the Bar Mitzmah minyan and the nusach used have a whole bunch of other factors you are not considering.

    The size of the shul and number of mispalalim is a factor. If the shul is very small and having a separate Bar Mitzvah minyan would mean that the regular minyan would not have at least 10 men then that is one thing. Our shul is a very large one and davens with from 5 to 10 minyanim depending on the day of the week. Having a separate Bar Mitzvah minyan would not affect the other minyanim.

    And if that minyan is not the only one, then why would the nusach used present a problem? Our shul basically davens ashkenaz, except it does have a separate regular nusach sfard minyan. Again, if the Bar Mitzvah minyan is not taking away from the regular minyan, why should it matter what nusach is used?

  5. Adam-
    As someone who spends his days and nights in a kollel, I know what you mean. Nonetheless, to me, the shul remains important.

    ProfK (first)-
    I stand corrected; I suppose I tend to view the Rebbetzin's role as independent of the Rabbi's role, but there is so much overlap that the Rebbetzin could be called the Rabbinic Extender as well.

    Anonymous 12:24 AM-
    Thanks for commenting.
    I take as given that the rabbi will attend Ritual Committee meetings, so that the committee will not be in the position of deciding when to consult. As I wrote, they are guided and directed by the rabbi. The value of the committee is in weighing the other issues involved, which remain even after the psak.
    Re: Chazanim - Yes, I've written a few posts about chazanim...

    ProfK (second)-
    Yes, these are definitely factors. The nusach issue is more complicated, but size of the shul is certainly an issue, both in terms of impact on other minyanim and in terms of the frequency with which this question will arise.

  6. If the Rabbi attends the Ritual Committee meetings doesn't that stretch the plausible denialability to absurd lengths? If the Ritual Committee is so dependent on the Rav that he has to attend the meetings then the Ritual Committee itself has no more authority than an old time Shamash would. It would simply be the executory arm of the Rabbi, not an independent entity.

    How well does it work out in your experience? From what I have personally seen Ritual Committee decisions at best often represent a compromise between the Rabbi and the congregation, and way too often the Rabbi is not consulted on a very important issue.

    As an example (and part of the reason why I am posting anonymously) last where in shul during Pesach the Ritual Committee (which at our place also is responsible for Kiddushes and Seudat Shlishit) took upon itself to let it Egg Matza products without even consulting the Rav. When I questioned the head of the committee, he said that every person himself could decide whether he should eat it. The Rabbi happened not to be in town that Shabbat so he was not in a position to say anything, but given that this is an Ashkenazi shul and that the person I spoke to is Ashkenazi he should have known better.

    So what else can happen when you have a Ritual Committee that is not kept on a very tight leash?

  7. Anonymous 11:12 PM-
    In my opinion, the plausible deniability should be authentic, and not a facade. The rabbi should not be at the meeting to preside or adjudicate; only to avoid the Egg Matzah debacle you describe.
    When I was in the pulpit, I attended the Ritual Committee meetings, and weighed in on halachic issues and brought up matters of sensitivity which I felt should be noted - but I did not vote, as I recall.