Respect in the Synagogue

Rabbinic restrictions on behavior in the synagogue reveal continuing tension between ordinary Jews' sense of being at home and at ease there, and the desire of rabbis to set it apart as a sacred place.

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The main function of the synagogue is for public worship, but there is, of course, no objection to a person entering the synagogue for private meditation at other times than those of public worship. The advice is given in the sources to proceed hurriedly when going to the synagogue but to depart from the synagogue with unhurried steps, to indicate eagerness to be there and reluctance to leave. The verse homiletically interpreted in this connection is: "We shall run to know the Lord" (Hosea 6:3). The verse does not, of course, refer to the synagogue but is made to yield the meaning that it is right "to run" to know God and to go to the synagogue is to proceed to a greater knowledge of the divine.

Attitudes to the Synagogue: Reverence, Mystical Awe, Social Utility

While all Jews have a reverential attitude towards the synagogue, some no doubt finding much significance even in the mystical understanding of the synagogue as the abode of the Shekhinah [the divine presence], a degree of resistance has come about in modern times, as it did in former times, to the idea that Judaism is synagogue-oriented. Rabbis are fond of preaching that Judaism demands far more than regular worship in the synagogue and that, for example, many of the highest ideals of the Jewish religion are realized in the Jewish home rather than in the synagogue.

Worship in the synagogue is a sublime end in itself but it is also a means of inspiring Jews to lead a full Jewish life and much of life has its place outside the synagogue. There is a "Torah" for the synagogue, detailed rules, regulations, and attitudes to be adopted in the synagogue, but this is only part, albeit a significant part, of the Torah as a whole. The Torah is always described as "the Torah of Life"--that is, of life as a whole.

For all that, the majority of Jews, nowadays, still view the synagogue as the best means of retaining loyalty to Judaism and preserving Jewish identity. As with regard to other particular aspects of Judaism, synagogal life is both an end in itself and a means to the ultimate end of Jewish life, the worship of God in every one of life's situations: "In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct thy paths" (Proverbs 3: 6). Contemporary rabbis thus find themselves in a dilemma. On the one hand they feel obliged to urge Jews to attend synagogue services regularly but, on the other hand, they cannot countenance the view that synagogue attendance is the be-all and end-all of Judaism. It is hard to determine how many Jews are regular attenders at the synagogue during the rest of the year, but a majority of Jews are found there on Yom Kippur, which exercises a powerful fascination over Jews as the great day of reconciliation with their God.

The Synagogue Is Used for More than Just Worship

This has been the problem of the synagogue, to make it a place apart in which the Jew communes with God together with his fellow worshippers and, at the same time, to make it a place wide open to the daily concerns of its members. A complete division between the sacred and the secular was never attempted. Appeals for charity were regularly made in the synagogue, hospitality to visitors offered there and mourners comforted there. It was not unknown for services in the medieval synagogue to be interrupted by someone with a complaint in financial matters that was not being adequately addressed, the complainant refusing to allow the services to proceed until he had obtained an assurance that his case would be considered.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.