Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Siddur" - The Downside of "Order" in the Synagogue

The other day in Jerusalem, near the Ticho House, I stumbled across this interesting art installation. It attracted my eye because it looked like pews from shul, all stacked up.

In fact, that is precisely what it is. The piece is entitled "Siddur" which refers on the one hand to the prayer book, but also can mean "order" or "organization" or "arrangement".

The seats are ordered vertically, or as the artist Noa Shkedi would say, "hierarchically". The artist intends to critique, or to give pause for thought about the way our synagogue seating is organized and whether the communal order it instills also possible excludes or creates walls.

It is always nice to have a fixed place in shul, in fact the code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Arukh O"CH 90:19) instructs a person to sit in a fixed seat. Many explain this as motivated by a desire to minimize distraction. A fixed seat means that your environment is familiar and one can focus upon prayer rather than the comfort of the seat, or the person alongside you.

But we have all had the experience, not as a community member, but as a visitor, walking into an unfamiliar shul and being asked to leave a seat because it is someone's place. It isn't a great feeling. Also, when the "old-timers" or the "important" people have their fixed seat, one gains the feeling of an unwelcoming shul, a place that doesn't want to engage with newcomers. Sometimes, "familiarity" doesn't merely help concentration; it also means that the new or unfamiliar see a mass of people who know all the lines, who know one another, and, even if highly unintended, these visitors feel like outsiders.

For this reason, my shul in Alon Shevut has eschewed the idea of fixed places and if you want a particular seat, you better come early. No one is allowed to ask anyone else to leave a particular seat. And yet, as a "fixed" community we have far to go to ensure that everyone who moves into our neighbourhood is welcomed, every person who enters the shul feels recognized. It is a task that needs constant attention and work.

On the one hand, I found this art installation a little cynical. After all, one could see this order, this "siddur" as the beautiful pattern of a community - young and old, olim and sabras, different levels of observance - all sitting in similar, identical seats; all equal before God. There are ways that our synagogue seating can be seen as highly positive and powerful - מה טובו אוהליך יעקב.

And yet, I will allow this art piece to reinforce our sensitivity to how alienating our shuls can be, how they can frequently feel closed and exclusive.

A decade ago, I spent a few weeks in Chicago, at a special shul - Anshei Shalom Bnei Israel. The Rabbi at the time, Asher Lopatin, made it a practice to announce page numbers during each and every prayer service. There were even some regular members who found it off-putting; after all these announcements made it seem a little like a beginners service, and they wanted a well-oiled Orthodox minyan. Rabbi Lopatin persisted, and explained: "We always have new people visiting the shul. If this helps a single person to feel welcome, then it is worth it." It wasn't fun for the Rabbi, and some congregants disliked it, but it made a statement that the shul intended to be welcoming. And indeed that shul has welcomed and continues to open its doors to great numbers of people who would otherwise not have stepped into an Orthodox congregation.

Ironically, the source for a fixed seat during prayer is learned (Berachot 6b) from Avraham Avinu:

'R. Helbo, in the name of R. Huna, says: Whosoever has a fixed place for his prayer has the God of Abraham as his helper. And when he dies, people will say of him: "Where is the pious man, where is the humble man, one of the disciples of our father Abraham?" - How do we know that our father Abraham had a fixed place [for his prayer]? For it is written: "And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood." (Gen 19:27) And 'standing' means nothing else but prayer.'

Abraham knew of the intensity of a fixed place of prayer but he also knew how to welcome guests. The Rabbis even suggest that Abraham left a prophetic encounter with God in order to attend to a group of wayfarers, people that he didn't even know. (He also did not know that they were angels.) Apparently Abraham knew how to balance the difficult dialectic between a "fixed place" and having a welcome, open environment.

Let us too try to ensure that our shuls and communities are open to visitors, guests and newcomers.