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THE SYNAGOGUE – A UNIQUE AND INDISPENSABLE INSTITUTION

by Rabbi David Kudan  -  Erev Rosh Hashanah 5773

My colleague in Lexington, Rabbi David Lerner describes how puzzled his congregants were when he brought a laptop into the morning minyan.  Lerner writes: "I guess it was to be expected – I had come into the minyan and opened up my laptop, which now was making strange noises. People were curious about why the rabbi would be disturbing the sanctity of the daily minyan by playing with his email.  At the end of services, the mourners observing yahrzeit got up to recite the Mourner's Kaddish. At that point I turned to the laptop and looked in, and a woman on the screen stood up to recite the Kaddish with them." He continues, "I explained to the minyannaires that we had a new participant in the Temple Emunah daily minyan. Her name is Maxine Marcus, though everyone calls her Max. She lives in Amsterdam and works in The Hague, where she serves as a war crimes prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia." ("Skyping the Minyan." (CJ:  VOICES OF CONSERVATIVE/MASORTI JUDAISM Summer 2012/5772 pp. 48-9).

Rabbi Lerner explained that Maxine had difficulty finding a minyan that met her needs in Amsterdam. She had friends who knew her late mother in Lexington, and it made sense for her to participate in the Minyan electronically.

Rabbi Lerner writes:  It has been a powerful experience, as members of the minyan got to know Max, schmoozing with her for a minute or two over Skype after minyan. This has been a great blessing. It is a reminder that our minyan is not just a gift to each participant – allowing us to experience the power of God, prayer, and community – but it also reaches out to include all who participate, even those on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean."(Lerner, P.49)

 

This article struck a chord with me for a number of reasons.  For one, At Temple Tifereth Israel these High Holidays we are again experimenting with streaming our services live – thanks to the skill and efforts of our TTI house chairman Mike Ardai.  Now we can offer community members who may be housebound or in a hospital bed the opportunity to participate in our services.

 

But this article interested me because of the questions it raises about the very nature of what constitutes a minyan, even beyond that, it raises the question of what of what makes a community and what is the essential role of the synagogue in modern Jewish life.

 

Before introducing the computer into the minyan, Rabbi Lerner dutifully reviewed the halacha on electronic participation in a minyan.  It turns out that even before Skype and Streaming video were invented, Rabbis wrote on the topic.  For nearly a century, it has been possible to connect a phone to a minyan, and to offer long-distance participation in that way.  Even in centuries past, people asked if one could be counted in a minyan if one stood outside the door or the window of the synagogue.  The short answer is – you can't count the person participating from a distance as part of the minyan, but the person who is using Skype or the internet can fulfill his or her obligation to worship with a community by electronic means.  It is preferable if it is a two-way link, but not necessary.  It turns out that, according to Jewish law, once a quorum has been duly constituted, however, anyone hearing the prayers in that minyan may respond and fulfill his or her obligations, even over long-distance communications of any sort. A real-time audio connection is required. Two-way connections to the whole minyan are preferable, though connection to the shaliach tzibbur alone or a one-way connection linking the minyan to the mourner is sufficient. Email and chat rooms or other typewritten connections do not suffice. Video connections are not necessary, but video without audio also would not suffice." (See Lerner, Pp. 48-49 and his reference to Rabbi

Reisner's ruling, available at rabbinicalassembly.org/teshuvot/docs/19912000/reisner_internetminyan.pdf)

 

What intrigues me most about this discussion is the question it raises about the very nature of the synagogue in the electronic age.  Some have been so bold as to suggest that we don't need synagogues anymore.  It is true that there are many institutions that seem to be less necessary now that we have the internet and computers.  Do we need art museums, when we can take a virtual tour of the Louvre or the MFA?  Do we need Movie theatres, when we can download almost any film on demand? Do we still need libraries or even stores?  Of course the answer is yes and no.  You can buy almost everything over the internet – but Apple and Microsoft insist on having brick and mortar stores.  You can't drink a virtual cup of coffee or download a hi-res burger either. And I would propose to you that if you want to have a satisfying Jewish experience, then synagogues in particular are indeed still necessary, even when we can avail ourselves of the most up-to-date technology to link up with fellow Jews and Jewish resources around the Globe.

 

I was sitting in the synagogue on Bryant Street one day and the phone rang.  A man with an Indian accent asked me what kind of institution I was working for, as he struggled over the name "Agudas Achim - Ezrath Israel." I explained that it is a synagogue. He paused and then responded; "that isn't on my list." So then the caller asked what my title was.  I replied that I am a rabbi.  He said that wasn't on his list, could he put down, "Executive?"  I understood that the caller was on another continent, with a list of phone numbers and he was charged with the task of compiling business listings.  I imagined that somehow we would be offered services for outsourcing our synagogue functions to East Asia.  Humorous as this might sound, perhaps this anecdote will serve to remind us that for some things we need to be present in the synagogue – to be part of a community – to be present in mind and in body if at all possible.

It is true that we haven't always had synagogues--only for the last 2500 years!  We know that synagogues existed while the Temple in Jerusalem still stood.  The invention of the Jewish teacher of text and prayer – the Rabbi – is coeval – born at the same time as that of the synagogue.  It seems likely that the synagogue really took root during the exile in Babylonia, and the Jewish teachers and scribes who returned – with at least a rough draft of the Torah in hand – decided that the institution had worked so well in preserving Jewish identity and religious values in the exile – that it should continue – as a central institution in Jewish life ever after.  Good thing they did, because no other institution in history had such a long and influential history.  It inspired the creation of the church and perhaps the mosque as well.

 

Every Jewish community in history has had the synagogue as a central feature – except one that I know of.  When we studied "exotic Jewish communities" in our adult education program two years ago, we read about the Jews of India, the Bene Yisrael. They had lived isolated from other Jews for centuries, and had neither synagogues, nor rabbis.  They had never heard of either!  Perhaps this isolated Jewish community is the exception that proves the rule.  And as soon as they were reconnected with other Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries – they eagerly adopted the synagogue and began to train rabbis. (See The Jews of India ed. Orpa Slapak.  Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 2003.)  We should mention too the Jewish communities of the Former Soviet Union and Communist bloc.  They had little access to synagogues or Jewish learning for over half a century. Somehow they maintained their identity, but their Judaism was impoverished and so many of these former Soviet Jews are avidly reclaiming their Judaism now and seeking to restore to their lives and community that which was denied them.  The Christian scholar Robert T Herford wrote:  "In all their long history, the Jewish people have done scarcely anything more wonderful than to create the synagogue. No human institution has a longer continuous history, and none has done more for the uplifting of the human race." High praise indeed. (Cited by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg in Moments of Transcendence.  Pp. 4-5)

 

What is so special about the synagogue; what is its essential meaning to us? Let us begin with our personal reasons for being here – on this Rosh Hashanah Eve?  On this New Year's.  Many are here because our parents or grandparents belonged.  We look around us and remember those who filled the seats of this sanctuary in years past.  We still hear the echo of their amens and their laughs and sighs in our hearts.  Many are here because we were introduced to the life of the synagogue – some synagogue in this or another city or town, shtetl or metropolis, at an early age. Some of us were raised in different faiths, or in no faiths, but we found here, in this or another synagogue, a sense of community, a place that nurtures the soul or the heart, or perhaps the mind, and here we return to affirm the choices we have made in life, to continue to find meaning in our age-old and ever-new traditions.

 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel helped us to draw nearer to the meaning of the synagogue when he asked these penetrating questions:

"What does a person expect to attain when entering the synagogue?  In the pursuit of learning, one goes to the library, for esthetic enrichment, one goes to the art museum, for pure music, to the concert hall.  What then, is the purpose of going to the synagogue?

 

"Many are the facilities which help us to acquire the important worldly virtues, skills and techniques.  But where should one learn about the insights of the spirit?  Many are the opportunities for public speech; where are the occasions for inner silence?  It is easy to find people to teach us to be eloquent; but who will teach us how to be still?  It is surely important to have a sense of reverence."  He continues to underscore what makes the synagogue the Sine qua non of Jewish existence, "Where should one learn the general wisdom of compassion? The fear of being cruel?  The danger of being callous?  Where should one learn that the greatest truth is found in contrition?"  He continues, "We are all in danger of sinking into the darkness of vanity; we are all involved in worshipping our own egos. Where should we become sensitive to the pitfalls of cleverness...?  We are constantly in need of experiencing moments in which the spiritual is as relevant and as concrete, for example, as the esthetic.  ...we must learn to be sensitive to the spirit.  It is in the synagogue where we must try to acquire such inwardness, such sensitivity." (Cited in Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational Readings for Rosh Hashanah, Ed. Dov Peretz Elkins.  Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1992. P.3)

 

Where else will Rachel or Jimmy learn to be a mentsch?  These values are rarely taught at school – despite the efforts of the most dedicated teachers.  These core values are rarely valued or rewarded in the workplace – certainly not in our political institutions or in the media.  Only in the synagogue or in like houses of worship and study – are these qualities and values intrinsic to our mission and goals.

The mission of the synagogue is summed up in three words:  Prayer, Study and Community.  As you certainly know, the synagogue is really three institutions rolled into one: The Bet Tefillah – House of Prayer, the Bet Midrash – House of Study, and the Bet Knesset, House of Assembly. Each one could – and sometimes does – stand on its own.  But it is in the combination of the three functions in all of their permutations that the true power of the synagogue resides.  Not just in the combination of three elements – but in their transmutation by a community actively committed to juggling all three functions simultaneously. The synagogue is a place that connects individuals – families, households to a larger community.  It gives us a sense of purpose of connectedness with generations of Jews past and present.  It lends significance to our strivings to become better people – giving us examples – real life individuals – for ourselves and our children to learn from and to emulate.  The synagogue is still indispensable.

A few years ago a family I knew in Chicago took their children to Europe.  One young bar mitzvah aged boy told me how amazed he had been when he entered the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa.  He had seen countless photos, on line and it was even on his T-Shirt. The image was everywhere.  But when he saw it in the museum a light bulb was illuminated in his mind.  He realized that he was standing there in front of the original.  He had never really considered that there was an original of any image.  And there it was – the Mona Lisa, painted stroke by stroke by the inspired hand of Da Vinci and it was the only one.  It was unique. It was a revelation.

 

This is the choice we have before us:  Will our Judaism be authentic or an imitation, a reflection or an original?  Even if we "dovven" by internet at times will we maintain our connection to the source – to the sustaining community, to the human relationships and humane values that restore our humanity and nurture our souls?  Will we on this New Year recommit ourselves to supporting the synagogue – through our actions, by our participation, through our financial support, and by our volunteer efforts, through being active in our ritual life, through rededication to study and to the strengthening of our communal life? The choice is ours ---.

I conclude with this simple prayer composed for as a meditation as we enter the synagogue and begin our communal worship:

 

"May the door of this synagogue be wide enough
To receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship.
May it welcome all who have cares to unburden,
Thanks to express, hopes to nurture.
May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough
To shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.
May its threshold be no stumbling block
To young or straying feet.
May it be too high to admit complacency,
Selfishness and harshness.
May this synagogue be, for all who enter,
The doorway to a richer and more meaningful life."
(Mishkan Tefilah, CCAR Press p. 124.)

 

In this New Year, and for many years to come, may the doors of this synagogue remain wide open for us, and may we have the wisdom to enter into these doors, and so open our hearts and minds to the authentic experience of Judaism.

 

L'Shana Tova Tikateyvu –

 

May this community, all of us, be inscribed for blessing in the New Year.