Saturday, May 30, 2020

Is someone who sinned in his youth qualified to serve in a communal position, such as a pulpit rabbi? Can a ba’al teshuva, someone who grew up non-observant, be appointed to such a position? This question is particularly relevant given recent discussions about a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. While I am not sure that halacha should determine the appointment, we can at least look to see what halacha would say in general, setting aside the political considerations.

I. Good Reputation

The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 4:2) writes about the appointment of a rabbi: “It must be appointed in each and every Jewish community one who is wise, great, learned, God-fearing from his youth and who is loved by everyone to rebuke everybody and make them repent.”

Note the requirement that he be “God-fearing from his youth.” This would seem to exclude a ba’al teshuva from becoming a communal rabbi. Similarly, regarding appointment as a cantor for a fast day, Rambam (ibid., Hilchot Tan’aniyot 4:4) writes: “Who is fit to [lead the congregation in] prayer on these fasts? ...None of his children, nor any member of his household, nor any of his relatives who are dependent upon him, should be transgressors; rather, his house should be empty of sin; nor should any unfavorable report have been made concerning him during his childhood.”

And regarding a judge, Rambam (ibid., Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:7) writes: “[A judge in a court of three] must, however, possess... no trace of an unpleasant reputation, even during their early manhood, they were spoken of highly” (Touger translation).

In determining what constitutes evidence about a past sin, the Rema (Orach Chaim 53:25) writes that we ignore rumors and single witnesses. Only the testimony of two witnesses can lead to the removal of someone from a position for a past sin, although accusations with insufficient evidence should be investigated by a beit din (Mishnah Berurah 53:76). However, when appointing someone new, the bar of evidence is much lower and even a rumor of prior sin can disqualify a candidate (Mishnah Berurah 53:75). Although we have to take into account whether the rumor was initiated by enemies (Aruch HaShulchan, ibid., 7).

II. Repentant Apostates

In the wake of the Spanish Inquisition, Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi (Responsa 1:88) was asked whether someone who worshipped Christianity but then returned to Judaism may be appointed a cantor. He responded by distinguishing between communal appointments. He points out that the Rambam only quotes this rule regarding fast days. Apparently, the Rambam allowed returnees to serve as a cantor on all other days. In other words, specific roles hold a higher entry requirement, but other roles are more open.

Rav Shmuel De Modena (Responsa, Orach Chaim 32) disagrees with Rav Mizrachi. He says that since the Rosh (Ta’anit 2:3) and Tur (Orach Chaim 53) disqualify someone who sinned in the past from serving as a cantor, we must follow that strict opinion. Therefore, returned apostates—and other ba’alei teshuva—cannot be appointed as cantors. Later authorities debate this issue (see Ba’er Heitev 53:7) and the Mishnah Berurah (Bi’ur Halachah 53:4 s.v. dm”m) seems to follow the lenient view while the Aruch HaShulchan (53:8) says that we must be even stricter with a permanent cantor for the whole year.

III. Ba’al Teshuva Prophet

However, there is a difficulty with the Rambam’s position. The midrashic tradition (Bamidbar Rabbah 10:5) has it that the prophet Yoel (Joel) was the son of Shmuel (Samuel). According to 1 Samuel 8:1-3, Shmuel’s sons sinned terribly. One could suggest that since the Gemara (Shabbat 56a) states that Shmuel’s sons did not sin, they were entirely free from any sin. On this, see Rav Avigdor Nevenzahl’s collection of essays on Genesis (last essay) and Rav Ya’akov Medan’s book “David u-Bassheva.” If Yoel did, in fact, commit some sort of sin, even one of lesser severity than that mentioned in the text, then how could he become a prophet who rebuked the people? After all, he was not “God-fearing from his youth”?

Rav Yitzchak Sorotzkin addresses this in his Rinat Yitzchak to Joel 1:1. He first suggests that perhaps prophets are different and do not need to be God-fearing from youth. However, his second suggestion is relevant to our original question. The Gemara (Yoma 86b) states that one who repents from fear has his intentional sins turned into accidental sins, and one who repents from love has his intentional sins turned into merits. Rav Sorotzkin suggests that Yoel repented from his misdeeds through love, and therefore his past sins were erased and he became as if he had been God-fearing throughout his life.

Based on this, we can suggest that someone who became observant out of a love for Torah, rather than fear of Divine punishment, has his past sins erased and, like Yoel, is considered as if he had been God-fearing throughout his life. Therefore, he is qualified to become a pulpit rabbi, cantor or judge. However, someone who remains an unrepentant, or insufficiently repentant, sinner cannot serve in those Jewish communal positions.

Alternately, while this does not resolve the question about the prophet Yoel, Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot 1:99) suggests that the above halachic discussion revolves only around someone raised in a religious environment. His youthful indiscretions reflect acknowledged wrongdoing. However, someone who was raised without adequate religious instruction—what we call a tinok she-nishbah—is not liable for sins he did not sufficiently understand. Therefore, the common ba’al teshuva is not disadvantaged by his non-religious upbringing when it comes to communal appointments. Responsa Va-Yevarech David (1:8) reaches a similar conclusion.

By Rabbi Gil Student


Rabbi Gil Student is editor-in-chief of  

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