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JStandard.com: My Talmudic Advice Column for January: Shul Boycott and Carlebach Conundrum
Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column Published in The Jewish Standard
Several years ago I attended a Bat Mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue in a Midwestern city. I recall witnessing something that has troubled me since that time. The principal of the Orthodox day school in the city attended the event but during the service he would not enter and he stood outside of the sanctuary in the hall. I found this action discourteous and disrespectful. Am I wrong to have been offended? Am I wrong to be raising this question after much time has passed?
It's not surprising or remarkable that you continue to recollect years later the event you describe. The scenario has all the trapping of a traumatic passive-aggressive social confrontation.
First, it's an odd circumstance that you describe that more likely would occur out-of-town than in one of the big metropolitan areas. In the small community context, on the one hand the rabbi likely felt obliged to accept the invitation because people in town would know if he did not. On the other hand, the dictates of his right-wing Orthodoxy prohibited him from entering a church or any non-Orthodox place of worship.
The rabbi's ill-conceived compromise was to partially attend the event. He would have been better advised to make an excuse and not be present at all. Of course, that's easier to do in a big busy town.
By all ordinary social conventions a person invited to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah comes to see and hear the child be called to the Torah and be accepted into the adult community. It seems that the rabbi's religious inhibitions were like blinders that prevented him from understanding the discourtesy of his actions.
Unfortunately, often we use the arena of the synagogue as a small field on which to play out the dramas of our larger social and communal lives. And do note that among these arenas, there are good synagogues and communities and bad ones.
In a healthy synagogue and community, dramas unfold with dignity and can be resolved with polity. In a toxic environment, spectacles can lead to insolence and be poorly worked out, leaving contempt and recriminations in their wake. These ill after effects can and will linger for years.
In this case that you raise, the rabbi acted out the conflict between Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism by his personal actions of standing in a synagogue hallway.
He came to the event with this baggage. Orthodoxy maintains first that it is the only true form of Judaism, that all other varieties are falsifications of the religion. Orthodoxy maintains second that Jews must shun other forms of Judaism lest they be granted "legitimacy". In the system of thought that justifies Orthodoxy, it's okay to do what needs to be done, and even to disrespect other forms of Judaism, because the very survival and future of Judaism (and the world) hangs in the balance.
And yet, basic human courtesy does persist as a factor even in the face of such strong sentiments. In your scenario, the rabbi you reference felt impelled to be polite, in a way that was offensive to you.
Yes, you are right to have been affronted. And no matter how long ago it took place, you are not wrong to object to social abusiveness cloaked in the camouflage of religion. Our community benefits greatly from those who reject divisiveness and narrow-mindedness and who instead pursue comity and understanding with vigor and persistence.
Our synagogue has a periodic Carlebach service based on the melodies of the famous singing rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. I have problems with that new practice. First I come to synagogue to hear the traditional melodies for the prayers, not newly invented tunes. Second, I have heard that Rabbi Carlebach was banned by his peer rabbis for his experimentation with the liturgy and for his personal shortcomings.
Am I wrong to object to the Carlebach minyan in our synagogue?
You left out from your inquiry the factor that most troubles synagogue-goers when it comes to the Carlebach-style prayer service, usually conducted on Friday night. That is, because of all the extra singing, the service can take much longer than the ordinary Kabbalat Shabbat.
On the specific point that you raise, of course, you may object to any and all innovations in the synagogue. But I don't know if that will get you anywhere. It's undeniable that avant garde is not desirable in a place where millennia old liturgy is cherished. Yet the hum-drum boredom of many of our congregations motivates people to seek in different directions for new forms of spirituality.
And true, some say that the Carlebach tunes are inspiring. But I have heard classically-trained hazzanim object vociferously to the extra-liturgical innovations that those songs contain. They say the rabbi did not honor the parameters of the prescribed and sanctioned chanting and singing.
During his life, Rabbi Carlebach indeed was chastised for his unorthodox actions and innovations. And most recently his daughter Neshama announced that she was converting to Reform Judaism. Her decision may be controversial, but it makes good sense to me, since Orthodoxy prohibits women from singing in public.
Now, you don't tell me if your congregation is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist. Carlebach services are held in all of those venues. But to answer your question, yes, you are wide of the mark to object to a minyan in your synagogue that was instituted by the proper procedures of your community. Although you may have good arguments in your corner, remember that synagogue attendance is voluntary. When there is a service that takes place that does not meet with your liking, you may stay home or attend another synagogue.
The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com