Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Cedar Palace and the Tent

וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ, אֶל-נָתָן הַנָּבִיא, רְאֵה נָא, אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב בְּבֵית אֲרָזִים; וַאֲרוֹן, הָאֱלֹהִים, יֹשֵׁב, בְּתוֹךְ הַיְרִיעָה.
2 that the king said unto Nathan the prophet: 'See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwelleth within curtains.' (a tent)

Samuel II 7:2

    Moodiness in Religion

    Judaism resents moodiness even in the field of religion. We have never attributed much significance to the impulsive religious emotion, to the impetuous onrush of piety, the sudden conversion, the headlong emotional leap from the mundane and profane into the sacred and heavenly; we are reluctant to accept all kinds of precipitate moods as genuine expressions of God- intoxications of the soul. Judaism i s interested in a religious experience which mirrors the genuine personality, the most profound movement of the soul, an experience which is the result of true involvement in the transcendental gesture, of slow, painstaking self-reckoning and self-actualization, of deep intution of eternal values and comprehension of human destiny and paradox, of miserable sleepless nights of dreary doubt and skepticism and of glorious days of inspiration, of being torn by opposing forces and winning freedom.

    Therefore, Judaism has always avoided bringing man to God by alluring him with some external magnetic power or charm. It does not try to gain entrance to his soul by creating around it a soft, gentle and serene atmosphere, full of quieting beauty and tender charm, in which it should almost spontaneously feel relieved of all its worries; nor by suggesting the idea of the numinous and mysterious through different artistic means, in order to render the soul docile and submissive; nor by a display of majestic glory and splendor. Man, according to Judaism, must meet God on realistic terms, not in an enraptured romantic mood, when the activity of the intellect and the free exercise of the willpower are affected by hypnotic influences.

    That is why the Jewish service distinguishes itself by its utter simplicity and by the absence of any cultic ceremonial elements. It lacks the solemnity and magnificence of the Byzantine Greek Orthodox service, the moment of awe-struck wonder of the Roman Catholic Mass of transubstantiation,a nd the rhythym and streamlined quality of the Protestant church ceremony. It is nothing but a dialogue between God and man, a conversation- ordinary in its beginning, simple ni its unfolding and unceremoniously organized at its conclusion. There was never an attempt to use architectural designs (like vaulted halls, half-dark spaces, and lofty gothic sweep), decorative effects (such as the stained glass through which light filters, losing its living brightness and mingling with a magical darkness), or tonal effects (from the hardly perceptible soft pianissimo to triumphant hymn singing), in order to suggest to the worshiper on the one hand the great mystery, and on the other hand the heavenly bliss, of the God-man encounter.

    Judaism sees in all these esthetic motifs, which are designed to intimate the greatness and ineffability of God, merely extraneous means of creating a fugitive mood which will disappear with the departure of the worshipper from the cathedral into the fresh air and sunshine. Instead, Judaism concentrates on feelings which flow not from the outside, but from within the personality, on emotions which are exponents of much more deep-seated experiences, enhanced not by external stimuli but by the inner existence awareness...

    Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, pages 169-170 in Out of the Whirlwind

I have some difficulty with this concept.

On the one hand, I do not think it is proper that the only source, or the main source, of one's inspiration come from "effect," the draped curtains, the stained glass, the gothic structure, the uplifting music, or any other sort of staged production. If prayer is truly a meeting between man and God, such staging is quite ridiculous, similar to the way a Seer like Professor Trelawney (who has correctly prophecied twice, but does not remember either occasion) might set up her classroom (lots of dangling charms, a crystal ball, hazy smoke and incense, and so on and so forth) because she knows she cannot really foretell the future, and hence the student must be made to feel as though s/he is experiencing something supernatural.

On the other hand, I do not think it is right for a synagogue to be ugly. It is difficult to pray to God when one stares at drab walls, peeling paint, dust or grime-covered interiors. Even a synagogue that is perfectly serviceable but which is furnished in the manner of an operating room- stark, sterile, with harsh flourescent lights- bothers me. A synagogue should ideally be a comfortable place, a place where there is enough room for everyone, the walls are painted a cheerful color- a place a person can go where they feel safe, included, able to approach God in prayer.

I think a synagogue should be beautiful. It is a house of God, and while it is true that God is everywhere and accompanies us in our suffering (God in the thornbush while Israel was in Egypt) it is easier for people to reach out to Him if they are inspired by the beauty of their surrounding. The Beit HaMikdash itself was a beautiful place, filled with tapestries and golden and silver adornments, each ornament and utensil designated for its own special purpose for the glory of God.

Indeed, in Ezra we hear about the mixed reactions over the construction of the second Temple.

    Those Jews who had seen the glory of the First Beis Hamikdash wept because the second one seemed to be so much smaller. Although more than half a century had passed since the destruction of this Temple, the weepers, whowere all already at an advanced age, represented the majority of the people present at this scene for it was the sound of their weeping which overpowered the sound of joy and was heard far away.

    Horiyos 6a, taken from this site

And in terms of synagogues, we hear of the beauty and grandeur of the synagogue in Alexandria.

    He who has not seen the double gallery of the Synagogue in Alexandria of Egypt, has not seen the glory of Israel. . . . There were seventy-one seats arranged in it according to the number of the seventy-one members of the greater Sanhedrin, each seat of no less value than twenty-one myriads of golden talents. A wooden pulpit was in the centre, upon which stood the reader holding a Sudarium (a kind of flag) in his hand, which he waved when
    {p. 227}

    the vast congregation were required to say Amen at the end of any benediction, which, of course, it was impossible for all to hear in so stupendous a synagogue. The congregation did not sit promiscuously, but in guilds; goldsmiths apart, silversmiths apart, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, embroiderers, weavers, etc., all apart from each other. When a poor craftsman came in, he took his seat among the people of his guild, who maintained him till he found employment. Abaii says all this immense population was massacred by Alexander of Macedon. Why were they thus punished? Because they transgressed the Scripture, which says (Deut. xvii. 16), "We shall henceforth return no more that way."

    Succah, fol. 51, col. 2.

    Taken from this site

So we see there is a precedent for beautiful buildings in which to serve God, buildings that inspire joy and happiness. Buildings that are made of precious metals, the walls hung with beautiful tapestries.

Why, then, are so many shuls- particularly Ashkenazic shuls- so lacking in physical beauty?

This is not to say that all of them are, for some are indeed exquisitely beautiful. But there are so many- or at least I have seen so many- that are useful, practical, but nothing more. There are seats, some tables, a shtender, a bimah- and what more do you need? Nothing, it is true, to pray to God- for one can pray anywhere- and yet I do not like, actually like praying in this environment. I feel uneasy, cramped, unhappy. I cannot concentrate.

Today I went to a beautiful Sephardic shul in our neighborhood, referred to as 'The Persian Shul.' I enjoyed the experience so much, mostly because it was a sensory experience in addition to being a spiritual one. There are several things I particularly liked about the shul.

1. The physical layout. Sephardim sit facing the bimah- they utilized all three sides of the shul, where there are long cushioned benches, and the men are seated on these.

2. The mechitzah. There was no curtain, no lacy confection or velvet frippery, in some misguided attempt to prevent the women from looking in. Rather, the mechitza was waist-high, and the entrance to the shul (for both men and women) meant one had to walk on the path that went through the middle of the women's section. The mechitza comes from the idea of an Ezrat HaNashim in the Beis Hamikdash. It was not created so that men and women should not look upon one another, but rather so that they should be physically separated. The mechitzah in many other shuls prevents the woman from seeing the Rabbi when he speaks, hearing the Rabbi when he speaks, seeing the Chazzan or Ba'al Korei, and basically serves to wholly exclude women by placing them "behind the curtain." I'm not bothered by the fact that I may not sit next to my father, but I really see no need to go beyond the law and prevent women from watching the service.

3. The prayer for those who are sick (mishaberach l'cholim) was not said at the Torah, but rather before, when they opened the Aron to take out the Torah. The speaker addressed himself to the actual Sifrei Torah within the Aron, as though imploring God to listen to him. And, moreover, the name they said aloud in the prayer (before the other people silently inserted their own list of names) was 'Ariel Sharon.'

4. The 'taking-out' of the Torah- in most shuls, specifically Ashkenaz shuls, the men get to kiss the Torah, but the women are totally excluded (well, they are behind the curtain, recall...) Here, there was such joy in the shining eyes of both the men and women as they reached over to touch the Torah, and the man walked through the women's section as well. It was the first time in about eight years that I have been able to kiss the Torah.

5. The physical decorations. The lamps were globes of opaque glass; the curtain on the Aron was embroidered with many different colors. The seats were beautiful, and two large windows cast quite a lot of light upon the congregants. The Torah scroll itself (it is a 'stand-up' Torah, as all Sephardi Sifrei Torah are) stood in a silver and velvet case, and multicolored shining fabric hung from both sides. The Aron itself was flanked by two flags, one the American flag, the other the Israeli flag, in addition to two tall, electrical menorahs/ candelabras.

If you contrast this shul with the cramped closeness of a small building, painted entirely white, where I am thrust behind a series of curtains that do not even match, cannot see the Rabbi or any of the proceedings- then I suppose you can see why it is that I prefer 'The Persian Shul.' Aside from the fact that I feel most Sephardim are genuine people as opposed to many (although by no means all) Ashkenazim I know, who engage in a kind of phony religion that I observed at Templars and find distasteful, I simply feel that the Sephardi synagogues are decorated in a way that is very pleasing and appealing visually, while Ashkenazi shuls generally are not.

(If you are wondering why I have ventured into both types of shuls, it is because I am half-Sefard and half-Ashkenaz.)

This may, of course, also be specific to Chicago, where I live, and if I ventured to another state, it could be that the Ashkenaz shuls are also adorned beautifully. I would not know...

So it is difficult for me to totally agree with/ understand Rabbi Soloveitchik here. I feel that what he advocates is the ideal, but I do not think it is bad if a shul is beautiful. Possibly what he refers to is when something goes too far, in which case I could indeed agree. Moreover, if I live in a house that is furnished beautifully, isn't it logical that, as King David said, the shul must be at least as beautiful?

I have noticed that this preference I have for beautiful surroundings does not only extend to synagogues. My former school, Templars, was a very depressing place simply because of the way it was decorated. The bathroom doors were dark maroon, the lockers dark green, an olive green air pervaded the place, there was some black and white mixed in, but that was all. My new school fairly bursts with color- everything is clean and cheerful, there are yellows, reds, blues, every color under the sun dancing about the place. Also, we have many student-produced paintings (copies of master work, original paintings, those made by art teachers) gracing the place. The effect is very welcoming, and I believe that this is another reason I feel happier here.

I'm fairly sure the effect of color/ decoration has been psychologically proven to improve or subdue one's mood, based on the color choice... Why, then, would we not utilize this so that people may feel happy or uplifted when they pray to God?


dbs said...

I should be off skiing and here I am still sitting and reading your blog. Well done post. The Rav seems to be on shaky ground historically – though no doubt the shuls in Brisk where nothing fancy.

David_on_the_Lake said...

Chassidim have really re-organized the whole shul experience for ashkenazim. By introducing the shteeble..the idea was that the shteeble should replace the a place where can feel can meet friends, drink a l''s all holy.
This attitude has trickled down to ahskenazic Jewry as a whole. We are more "heimish" in our shuls than sephardim are. The sense of awe for the holiness of the shul has suffered as a consequence.

aj said...

a) Re: Rav Soloveitchik
In general, devotees of Rav Soloveitchik and the Brisk method have a very intellectual view of life and Judaism, and too often, seem to not even be able to grasp the spirituality and emotion that others may feel, or think that it is not worth pandering too. (IMHO)
b) In my (Modern Orthodox, co-ed, New York, mostly Ashkenazic) Jewish High School, the mechitzas were about 4 feet tall, so that the girls could always see what was going on. Additionally, I have seen Ashkenazic shuls in the New York area in which the Torah is given to a woman at one end of the mechitza, and taken back at the other.

Tobie said...

I think that, other than the physical layout of the shul, calling prayer an entirely intellectual experience is ignoring the text and the pageantry of prayer. Take, for example, the whole three steps back, three steps forward thing, or bowing for that matter- useless, ritualistic gestures that is meant to awe you, make you think that you are conducting an audience with a King. The texts themselves are neither chatty nor matter of fact, they are awed, poetic, euphoric, etc. I think, however, that the point that the Rav was trying to make (or at least a point I would make instead) is that this sentiment need not be derived from anything external. You can pray in an ugly Ashkenazi shul, or in an airport, or wherever, and still have an emotional experience based solely on the fact that this is an encounter with God.
As for mechitza, while I do resent mechitzot that shove women behind curtains and make it impossible to follow what's going on, I recently realized how uncomfortable the other extreme is, as well. My current shul (a university Hillel) has an entirely see-through mechitzah. It may be the force of habit, but I really can't stand the complete lack of visual barrier. It makes me feel more awkward and self-conscious, as if my prayer is a less private experience. Probably the best system I ever saw (in an Ashkenazi kollel, actually) was a mechitza whose top half was a one-way mirror. Not only could you see in, but having it half actual wood prevented the awkwardness of feeling as if nothing were there. Balconies have similar benefits.

aj said...

also - you couldn't find an appropriate Calvin and Hobbes? :-)

Chana said...

DBS- Shoo! Go skiing! Have fun! ;) But thanks. *winks*

AJ- the closest I came to one was this one. And thanks for your touche about the New York shuls.

David- thanks for your thoughtful response.

Tobie- that's interesting. I prefer no visual barrier. Out of curiousity, why do you feel the bowing and such are, "useless, ritualistic gestures that is meant to awe you, make you think that you are conducting an audience with a King?" By the very fact that they make you feel a certain way, aren't they no longer useless?

HaJew said...

It feels disingenuous when people put forth an aesthetic free Judaism. Don't we all like our homes to look nice?

A few years ago I spent a Shabbos in the neighborhood where Rav Avraham Pam lived. At the time, he was ill (and since has passed away) and there was a minyan regularly i his home.

One thing that struck me was that in the hallway before entering the house there was a painting on the wall that seemed kind of artsy to me (in a good way). As I recall it was a painting of hands and a vase. I found the presence of that painting very interesting.

FrumGirl said...

I was so kept behind the mechitza all my life and never got to see the services at all, my father went to a shteeble where davening was tasking. I first got to see something as simple as 'Hagba' in Israel my year in seminary and I will never forget the feeling of awe and the tears. I was angry at my upbringing that until the age of 18 such simple pleasure was kept from me. Chana... your post hit home. I would prefer the beautification of shul as well.

dbs said...

Although you don’t come out and say it, you’ve made a strong argument that this issue is more sociological than religious. It’s also somewhat economic – although perhaps ‘economic priority’ may be more accurate. I think that you’ve shown (and there are plenty more sources) that there is no fundamental problem with having a bait k’nesset be beautiful or inspiring. (Although, I think that chazal wanted to be careful that they were not promoting too much of an analogy to the mikdash.)

Rav Soloveitchik did have a strong notion of opposing the “Chrisianitization of the Synagouge”, and he wrote a scathing tshuva once about mixed pew seating. (Of which there is endless discussion – he actually treats it as objectively a d’oraisa.) And perhaps his objection to elaborate “esthetic motifs” is an extension of this idea. (And AJ has a valid point about the Briskers and emotion.)

I wonder if Sephardim have the same tendency to keep generating break-off minyanim as do Ashkenazim. Many times shuls barely get large enough to move out of some school cafeteria (or broom closet) before a third of the members leave to form up some new minyan.

One of the most interesting things about the post is that you include the mechitzah and kissing the Torah issues in your list of esthetic objections. (Just tried to slide that by, didn’t you.)

And finally, oy, poor Templars. Even on this post, they’re not safe :)

e-kvetcher said...

For what it's worth, many of the Non-Orthodox synagogues in Chicagoland are quite beautiful.

There is North Shore Congregation Israel
or Beth Emet in Evanston just to name a few.

I think DBS hit the nail on the head. It takes a lot of money to build a beautiful shul these days, especially in Skokie, where the real estate has been going through the roof. If the shuls keep splintering, no one wants to invest in making the buildings truly beautiful.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Chana: Your post reminded me of what must have been your favorite song at Templars.

Irina Tsukerman said...

Here, in Brooklyn, we have some very pretty Ashkenazi synagogues, as well. There's one I visit occasionally that looks like a landmark building, with beautiful stained glass windows and other decorations inside! Perhaps, that's why the environment is so welcoming.

Tobie said...

I meant useless only under the assumption that prayer is entirely intellectual.
Another point, especially as related to the Templar's- often, the ugliness is a function of utility rather than theology. Many shuls are ugly simply because they cannot afford to be otherwise. I am sure that a good many of them would theoretically agree with you that their buildings should be more attractive.

Halfnutcase said...

just for the sake of including it, i'll put a discription of the old ashkenazic shuls of europe:

the floors would be made of polished hard wood, and the walls paneled with wood. In the center you would have a tall heavily carved bima, on top of which was a table to read the torah. you usualy had wooden benches and chairs, with tables of some kind, and on shabbos all the tables, the bima, and the umad would be covered in white cloth. frequently they had chandeliers in order to provide light. (i'm guessing sometimes ornate sometimes not)

the ezras nashim was a balcony, usualy with a wooden banister reaching approximately waist hight. occasionaly you would have begining at the top of the banister a latticework screen, through which the women in the balcony could see the ENTIRE procedings, and indeed, my guess is that the customes relating to differentiating the manner of dress for married men and bochurim may have been in order to let the girls in the balcanies know who was available.

at the front of the shul you would have a row facing the kehila, the richest and most learned men would sit here, all in their indevidual seats, frequently heavily carved. these individualy where termed the panim, or faces. the rabbi sat with them.

these where the ideal in europe, not ever shul got there, because sometimes you would have some much smaller shuls. the way the do it in america is so not the way we did it there. i've seen pictures of the shuls like this in europe and some of them in america and they are awe inspiring, but in a very different way then the cathedrals of the non-jews. they where at once rather homey places, but also special places that where beautifull. i could hardly imagine having a hard time concentrating in such a shul.

and also i think that the custom of covering the womens section compleately came from an attempt to "out do" certain sections of chassidim who completely covered the womens sections. you know, that whole i'm holier than thou game which is so abborant.