Friday, 18 June 2010

Some Thoughts on Synagogues

Mekorot for my sermon on Shabbat, pre a big shul lecture on the Talmud.
Interesting to see how the Rabbis 'placed' the Synagogue, as a meeting place for people, for people and God and in the context of it's place compared to the Temple and a person's home. Shabbat shalom.

Talmud and the Synagogue


Brachot 5b-6b

Abba Benjamin says, When two people enter [a Bet HaCeneset] to pray, and one of them finishes their prayer first and does not wait for the other but leaves, their prayer is torn up before their face. As it is says, You who tear their soul in anger, won’t the aretz be forsaken because of you? (Job 18[JG1] ) And more than that, they cause the Divine Presence to remove itself from Israel. As it says And won’t the rock be removed from its place (ibid) And ‘rock’ is the Holy Blessed One.

And if they wait, what is their reward? — Rav Yosi bar Rav Hanina says: They get the blessings of the verse When you heed my commands your prosperity will be like a river, your triumph like the waves of the sea, your offspring as many as the sand, their offspring as the grain. (Isaiah 48)


Abba Binyamin says ‘A person’s prayer is heard only in the Bet HaCeneset. For it is said: [May Your eyes be open] to hear the song and to the prayer. (I Kings 8) The prayer is to be recited where there is song.


Rabin bar Rav Adda says in the name of Rav Yitzhak ‘How do you know that the Holy Blessed One is to be found in the Bet HaCeneset? As it is says God stands in the congregation of God. (Ps 82)

He also said, ‘If a person regularly goes to the Bet HaCeneset and one day does not go, the Holy Blessed One asks after them. As is says Who among you who fears God and obeys the voice of God’s servant and now walks in darkness and has no light? (Is 50)

Rabbi Yochanan says: Whenever the Holy Blessed One comes into a Bet HaCeneset and does not find ten persons there,  God becomes angry at once. As it said Why when I came was there no-one. I called and there was no answer (Is 50[JG2] )


Brachot Mishnah 9:5 and 62b

A person should not enter the Temple Mount with their shoes on nor should they make it a Kappandaria

What is a kappandaria? Raba said: A short cut, as its name implies. Rav Hanah bar Adda ‘It is as if a man said, instead of going round the blocks [makkifna adari], I will go in here.’


Maybe the rule for the Temple mount where the shoe is forbidden should be applied to the Bet HaCeneset since it is forbidden both to make a short-cut through the Temple and through a Bet HaCeneset. No, said Raba, ‘[The Bet HaCeneset is] the same as a person’s house. Just as a person objects to their house being made a short cut but does not object to the wearing of shoes there, so in the case of the Bet HaCeneset, the using it as a short cut is forbidden, but wearing shoes is not forbidden. (loose translation)


Megillah 28a

Our Rabbis taught: ‘Btai HaCeneset must not be treated disrespectfully. It is not right to eat or to drink in them. Nor to dress up in them, nor to stroll about in them, nor to go into them in summer to escape the heat and in the rainy season to escape the rain[JG3] .


R. Aha the son of Raba asked R. Ashi: If a man has occasion to call another out of Bet HaCeneset, what is he to do? He replied: If he is a rabbinical student, let him say some halachah; if he is a tanna,7 let him repeat a Mishnah; if he is a Kara,8 let him say a verse of Scripture; if none of these, let him say to a child, ‘Repeat me the last verse you have learnt’; or else let him stay a little while and then get up.

 [JG1]‘Your prayer will be thrown into your face, if on your account the earth or synagogue is forsaken’.

 [JG2]Response to Kedushah

 [JG3]‘Nor to dress up in it’. Raba said: The Sages and their disciples are permitted — since R. Joshua b. Levi has said: What is the meaning of ‘Be Rabbanan’? The Rabbis’ house.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Swallowing Independent Minyanim


Here is an interesting Biblical story for anyone who wants to start a breakaway minyan. Korach wants to know who put Moses in charge when he thinks he has every right to do it his way. I won’t spoil the ending – it doesn’t go well.


I was invited, this week, to speak on a panel about independent minyanim – prayer communities defined, among other things, by being outside the centralised structures of Anglo-Jewry. There are a number in the local area as well as elsewhere in Britain and even around the world. It’s the new big thing – attracting the attention of JPR, UJIA and the big American Foundations and Federations. I can’t help but feel ambivalent.


On the one hand, as well as what is now our own Minyan Hadash, I’ve been involved in or at the founding of three other minyanim. I have form when it comes to independent minyanim. I don’t like being told what I can and can’t do Jewishly, I like being part of a community that suits me, my attitude towards religious life, and my attitude towards the ‘world out there’ and when I haven’t found that community, I’ve been more than willing to create it anew. Of course that is something I have that in common with the founder members of New London – we are the original Anglo-independent minyan.


On the other hand I represent institutionalised Judaism buildings, overheads, salaries. Not only do I love it I believe in it. I believe Judaism needs structures and institutions to develop and thrive over time. As indeed has happened at New London. Without the structure – the gravitational mass – Jewish communal life can too easily drift away.


There is a balance to be struck. Too much institution-for-the-sake-of institution and one can lose sense of purpose, meaning and – and we are a Synagogue – a connection to the Divine. Too much freedom from standards, having to put up with the uncomfortable presence of other people, too much homogeneity of expression, one can easily become an irrelevance, temporary and without definition.


I want in my sermon this week to look ‘out there’ across the Jewish world, and beyond, at some of what I see as the exciting new and not so new developments in religious institutions. What models are there that can assist us in our next 50 years. What can we learn, where should be going.


And next week, in the week before our AGM, I want to look at us and in particular our last year – a State of the Synagogue address – and I also want to give us the chance to speak and share our thoughts on what works and what doesn’t work at New London, not only on a mundane level, but in terms of our purpose, values and vision. I’ve been drawn onto the political stage too often in recent weeks and months. This is a good time to consider our community, our future and our path.


I hope you will be able to join me.


Shabbat shalom.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Stormy Waters

I have never, before this year, read this week’s ‘portion of the spies’ as a political text. Numbers 13:43, in which ten of the spies first deem themselves ‘grasshoppers’ and then become convinced that their enemies must see them as grasshoppers also, has only struck me as offering psychological insight. The way we see ourselves becomes the way others see us.


This year, with the waves of the flotilla still lapping at the newspaper front pages, the relationship between the way in which we see ourselves and the way others see us seems fraught with implications that result in loss of life. While the Israeli border guards sees themselves as the thin line protecting a democracy, refusing to back down in the face of terrorist rhetoric and action, sections of the crew of the Mavi Marmara see something quite different. In amongst all the claim and counter-claim, You-Tube links and interviews I’m left feeling profoundly angered that what should have been an act of non-violent civil disobedience ended so violently and profoundly saddened at the loss of life. I know that Israel has to police the borders of Gaza. I know also that the crew of Mavi Marmara were indeed waiting iron bars at the ready.  But I refuse to believe that it has to be this way. For all the political and religious differences between Palestinian and Zionist, Jew and Muslim, flotilla protester and naval soldier we are all human beings, all created in the same image, all aspiring for something better than violence.


In the words of our Kabbalat Shabbat service;

‘Above the thunder of the mighty waters, more majestic than the breakers of the sea is Adonai above.’ (Psalm 93)


Shabbat shalom

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