The Synagogue

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Drama and pageantry are an essential element in the human life experience. They provide the opportunity for the human being to fuse intellect and emotion resulting in a depth of commitment and expression of principle which, when utilizing but one of these human traits, may never be achieved.

In considering the Synagogue, we would do well to first try to understand the early worship of the Jewish People ‑ the sacrificial order. The Torah devotes literally an entire Book, Leviticus, referred to in Hebrew as Toras Cohanim, the book of Priests, to this unusual and seemingly incongruous element in Judaism. For when one considers the brilliance of Torah law, it’s timeless understanding of the human condition, sacrifices seem a throw back to primitive pagan religions of the past. Indeed, there are theologians who would sight the Jewish sacrificial order as proof that Judaism is but another evolutionary step in humankind’s quest for the spiritual, their central element in Judaism inextricably connecting Judaism to it roots in paganism.

The sacrificial order has been a troubling aspect of Judaism for our Sages as well who, in their brilliance, present arguments which attempt to clarify this issue by presenting a deeper understanding of them. For a believing Jew, one who accepts the Divinity of the Torah, the problems presented by the sacrificial order are clear. Does our G‑d need flesh offerings to mitigate His desire to punish us for our transgressing His law? Must we share the bounty resulting from our toil with Him for G‑d to truly understand our sense of gratitude for His support of Creation?

Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed writes, “It is impossible to go from one extreme to another. The nature of man will not allow him to suddenly disconnect himself from everything to which he is accustomed. G‑d sent Moses to make the Israelites into a kingdom of Priests and a Holy nation by means of the knowledge of G‑d...But the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up consisted of sacrificing animals in Temples which contained images to bow down to and to burn incense before them. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of G‑d as displayed in the whole of creation, that He did not command them to give up and discontinue all these modes of worship, for to them such a commandment would be contrary to the nature of man who clings to that which he is used to...For this reason G‑d allowed these rituals to continue. He transferred to His service that which was formerly used to worship created things and things imaginary and unreal and commanded them to worship Him in the same manner...” In this explanation Maimonides defines the relationship of G‑d and humankind and by so doing places the sacrificial order in its proper place.

In ancient times the incense, the sacrifices, the ritual garments of the Priests, the Cohanim, the choir of the Levites, the grandeur of the Temple, all came together to present a drama, a pageantry if you will, that captivated the mind and emotions of the worshipper. In the time of the prophets, however, it seems to have lost some of this capability with the Jews offering sacrifice with little contrition in their hearts. The books of the prophets are ample testimony to this fact. “Has the L‑rd as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifice as in listening to the voice of the L‑rd” (Samuel I 15) “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me burnt offerings and your meal-offerings, I will not accept them...But let justice well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5)

With this in mind, consider the reality of the present day Orthodox Synagogue, which is almost always the exclusive domain of Orthodox Observant Jews. I remember a time when this was not the case. The Orthodox Synagogue was filled with Jews of all levels of observance. They felt at home, they felt a part of the Congregation despite the fact that, then as now, they possessed little knowledge of the service nor were they fluent in Hebrew. What has sparked this change in Jewish life, a change that has contributed in part to the reclassification of the Torah observant Jew? In the past referred to as religious by his fellow Jews he now is referred to as Orthodox ‑ a word that in some quarters of Jewry has taken on a decidedly negative connotation. Perhaps a part of the answer to this question lies in the influence of the Yeshiva upon the Synagogue.

The Yeshiva ‑ a place filled with Torah study and deep religious devotion day and night provides a natural impetus for prayer. Students and faculty alike are constantly in tune with G‑d. The sound of Torah permeates the Yeshiva building. The simple but deeply felt method of prayer of the Yeshiva is most effective in this special milieu. But placed in the Synagogue, as has been more and more the case in recent years, it has by and large been unable to excite the emotions and minds of the worshippers.

Today, Orthodox Synagogues are devoid of Cantors or choirs of Baale Tephilla (laymen possessing special talents in chanting the service). Synagogues are housed in simple and humble facilities. They must depend upon the fervor of the worshipper who, unlike the Yeshiva student or his teachers, enters the portals of the Synagogue from the workday world. The result is obvious. Except for the devout, few find religious inspiration in the Synagogue. Even among those who are devout Orthodox Jews, the tears so commonplace in Synagogue when I was a child, tears of repentance and devotion, have long gone.

Talmudic and post‑talmudic texts present a clear distinction between the Synagogue and the Yeshiva, discussing the issue of which institution is more suitable for prayer for the scholar and lay person. This discussion is predicated upon the reality that these two important institutions in Jewish life have different roles to play.

Perhaps, in tune with Maimonides’ understanding of the sacrificial order, it is appropriate for us to realize that the Synagogue is not the Yeshiva and those elements depended upon to inspire the worshipper in the Yeshiva are simply lacking in the Synagogue. The heart felt and plaintive petitions of the professional Cantor accompanied by choir or those of the accomplished Baal Tephilla provided the impetus for prayer in the Synagogue of yesteryear. The beauty and majesty of the Synagogue structure as manifest in the laws of the Shulchan Auruch (Code of Jewish Law) imbued the worshipper with a sense of awe that in other edifices was sorely lacking. Surely if G‑d considered this an important element in the bond between Himself and the Jews even to the extent of incorporating into His relationship with His people, as Maimonidies indicates, heretofore pagan rites, we can do no less.

As the Rabbi of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation, a Synagogue called upon to serve ALL Jews, no matter their religious commitment, no matter their Jewish knowledge I understand this important element in creating a religious atmosphere able to inspire every single Jew. Moreover the gathering together of Jews, simply because they are Jews in common prayer, is an important and essential goal for our Congregation. “The family that prays together stays together” takes on new meaning in this context.

Our Congregation, utilizing our magnificent structure, will ever strive to be that welcoming and all embracing forum in which every Jew may find spiritual fulfillment and communion with G‑d.