However, the Darchei Teshuva (Yoreh De’ah 119:34) cites the Taharat Yisrael to the effect that this rule only refers to someone violating a rabbinical law. In regards to biblical laws, a person is already considered a flagrant desecrator if his misdeed is known to 10 individuals.
The gaon Rabbi Moshe Stern, zt”l, discusses whether a mechallel Shabbat lete’avon (one who desecrates the Sabbath in order to satisfy his desire) can serve as a mohel if he acts Jewish to some degree (e.g. he dons tefillin, allows his sons to be circumcised, and prays in a synagogue). Rabbi Stern (in Responsa Ba’er Moshe, vol. 5:94) writes that such a person may serve as a mohel due to the importance of performing a brit milah at its proper time. If the person intentionally violates the Sabbath and is not seen observing other mitzvot, however, then it is better to delay the circumcision for a day in order to find another mohel to perform the circumcision.
Rabbi Stern qualifies his ruling by stating that it was issued in the Hungarian city of Debrecen, where the rav and congregation were closely regulated by state authorities. In places like the U.S., however, where we are free to accept or reject whomever we wish, there is no reason to be lenient.
Rabbi Sternbuch addresses a similar question in another teshuvah. He was asked (Teshuvot Ve’Hanhagot, vol. I, Yoreh De’ah 474) about a remote community where, due to an emergency, the only two people able to lead services were a Shomer Shabbat kohen who lived with a gentile woman and a blatant Sabbath desecrator. Rabbi Sternbuch argued that it was preferable to choose the Sabbath desecrator for at least his leading the services would not directly lead to Jews intermarrying. Yet, he added, “Woe to us that we have sinned so much that we have to deal with such questions.”
Similarly, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Hodakov, zt”l, who was the longtime secretary to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt”l, said in a speech at a shluchim convention some years ago that he would permit a Sabbath desecrator to lead services in extenuating circumstances – such as if one is running a shul in the American heartland (where there are fewer people available to fill the role of chazzan) “because at that moment, when [the mechallel Shabbat] leads the congregation, [one must ask] is he desecrating the Shabbat?”
Recently, klal Yisrael lost one of its forceful leaders, Rabbi Abraham Hecht, zt”l, who served as the catalyst in the development and exponential growth of Brooklyn’s Syrian Sephardic community in his capacity as rabbi of Congregation Sha’are Zion for over 50 years. At the Hashkavah– the Sephardic memorial at the culmination of shiva – his son Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht, rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue, Norwalk, CT, recounted the following incident:
In the early years of the community, before the construction of the beautiful Sha’are Zion Synagogue and when Sabbath observance was still very weak, Rabbi Hecht lead the Magen David congregation in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. On Shabbat mornings, young Yehoshua and several of his siblings would accompany their father on the long walk from their home on Ocean Parkway to the synagogue in Bensonhurst. One week, as they walked to the synagogue, Yehoshua suddenly became aware that their usual route was not the most direct. He asked, “Daddy, why don’t we go down Ave. P? It’s the shortest way to the shul.” Rabbi Hecht did not hesitate with his explanation: “Those stores that we would pass, unfortunately, are run by our people. When I see them in shul on Shabbat, I would rather not know what transpires in their stores.”
In analyzing the theory of mitzvah haba’ah be’averah in light of Rabbi Hodakov’s statement (as well as Rabbi Hecht’s answer to his son), it becomes evident that we cannot compare a shliach tzibbur who is mechallel Shabbos with someone who, for example, wishes to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin by stealing a pair and wearing them. The latter person is fulfilling a mitzvah by dint of performing an aveirah. The former, however, is doing nothing wrong – he is not violating the Sabbath – at the time that he’s serving as a shliach tzibbur. Nor did he do anything wrong to become the shliach tzibbur.