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
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?