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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and the Mechitza

Last week, I shared an excerpt from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s piece found in the anthology: The Sanctity of the Synagogue. Looking back, we saw how the passage of half-a-century made Rabbi Lamm’s arguments somewhat foolish, though at the very hour of composition his arguments must have seemed quite formidable. Today, I share an excerpt from one of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s essays in the collection. After briefly mentioning the halachic and historical arguments for maintaining separate pews, he makes what I would call a “definitional” argument in which he describes his understanding of the very nature of prayer. "During prayer man must feel alone, removed, isolated...." For those who accept his definition of prayer, or at least, his ideal of prayer, it is worth reflecting how so many of our synagogues seem to have strayed from this ideal. Even with separate pews, frivolity prevails. Sadly, conversations had with neighbors, seated to one's right or left, are often more earnest than those had with the Creator. What can be done? To start, the queries need to be turned to the right address: 'Lord, what can I do to pray better?'
In the meantime here is the excerpt: 
'Thirdly, the entire concept of “family pews'' is in contradiction to the Jewish spirit of prayer. Prayer means communion with the Master of the World, and therefore withdrawal from all and everything. During prayer man must feel alone, removed, isolated. He must then regard the Creator as an only Friend, from whom alone he can hope for support and consolation. Behold, as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress; so our eyes look unto the Lord our God, until He be gracious unto us (Psalms 123:2)  
Clearly, the presence of women among men, or of men among women, which often evokes a certain frivolity in the group, either in spirit or in behavior, can contribute little to sanctification or to the deepening of religious feeling; nor can it help instill that mood in which a man must be immersed when he would communicate with the Almighty. Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord (Psalms 130: 1), says the Psalmist. Such a state of being will not be realized amid "family pews."' (The Sanctity of the Synagogue: Page 116)

1 comment:

  1. Definitely a good excerpt. It is quite fascinating how we proudly uphold the mechitza as a barrier to distraction, yet profane (as in the opposite of sacred) discourse during rhe repetition of the Amidah or the Torah service is perfectly acceptable. In too many shuls, as you stated, we have allowed our tefillah to become corrupted by the ineveitable socialization of the experience. I am aware that shul davening is almost if not exactly as much social as it is spiritual, but we need to be able to erect a mechitza between those two ideals. Perhaps cutting into P'sukei D'Zimra in favor of a discussion before or afterwards....who knows? But then again such ideas are heresy, which I guess is why I like them so much :)

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