Synagogue and Community

  • Rav Ezra Bick



This shiur is dedicated le-zekher nishmot Amelia Ray and Morris Ray
on the occasion of their ninth yahrtzeits
by their children Patti Ray and Allen Ray


A.  The synagogue

            Every Jewish community contains a synagogue.  In fact, this is a halakhic and legal civic obligation.  As part of Jewish tax laws, there is a list of necessities that must be provided for in a Jewish community.  In this list, we find, "The inhabitants of a city may compel each other to build a synagogue" (Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 150:1).  Let me take a moment to explain the context: Normally, the decision to expend public funds or to levy a tax for a specific purpose would require a majority decision of the taxpayers.  However, certain basic public necessities - the original list in the Talmud (Bava Batra 7b) refers to basic security needs, such as a protective wall around the town - are not subject to the majority rule and any member may compel the others to contribute to it.  The halakha adds the building of a synagogue to this list, which implies that it is a basic necessity of a Jewish community.

            The word "synagogue" means "assembly," and so is a fairly accurate translation of the Hebrew name for the place of worship - "beit knesset," which literally means "house of assembly."  Nonetheless, I fear that association with the concept of the church is likely to confuse most of us, and so it is worthwhile to consider the nature of the synagogue in halakha.

            The synagogue is often considered to be a continuation in some sense of the Temple which stood in Jerusalem; and, in fact, the Talmud speaks of the synagogue as a "mikdash me'at," a little temple. This comparison is liable, however, to mislead.  The Temple is consistently described in the Bible as "the house of God" or as a "dwelling-place of God."  I shall not try here to explicate that obviously difficult concept, but at least as a metaphor we can understand, I think, that the sanctity of the Temple derives from the Divine presence within it.  It is not surprising to find that a basic attribute of the Temple is that its location is chosen by God, and the Torah prohibits temple sacrifices in any other place than the chosen one in Jerusalem, a place repeatedly referred to in the Torah as "the place chosen by God to rest His name."  Much of the Biblical history of the first Temple (the books of Kings) revolves around the struggle to eradicate the custom of the people to sacrifice locally rather than go to Jerusalem.  On the other hand, a synagogue is almost never referred to as "the house of God."  It is the place of assembly - of the assembly of the community.  It belongs, quite literally, to the community, unlike a church building, which belongs to the church (as an institution), or the Temple, which belonged to God.  This distinction lies at the root of the prominent difference between traditional synagogue and church architecture.  The difference perhaps should be summarized simply - there is no traditional synagogue architecture!  Unlike the churches of the Middle Ages, which are testimonies to the sweeping grandeur of the worship of God, seeking to mystify man and inspire him with a sense of the presence of that which is beyond comprehension, synagogues are meant to be places where one can sit and pray to He who is everywhere.  The major architectural consideration is that the synagogue be able to assemble the congregation - rather than a long nave leading up to a rising reach towards heaven, the traditional synagogue would often be wide, so that the community could be together.  It sought to join all in an assembly, rather than to drive the individual up towards God.  There is no dark mystery in a synagogue, and indeed, architecturally, it may well be a disappointment.  Somewhat more significantly, in terms of inspiration, it may well be a disappointment.  The God to be found in the synagogue is no different than the one found elsewhere, and the synagogue as a building does not attempt to give you a hint of a mysterium that lurks within its dark recesses.

            The word "knesset" is also used in a slightly different context, which strengthens this understanding.  The Jewish nation, in its relationship with God, is often called "Knesset Yisrael" in rabbinic literature.  Most often, this term is used in dramatic dialogues between a single (feminine) figure, Knesset Yisrael, and God, and expresses the emotional relationship between them.  Clearly, the term embodies the unified collective, a single personality, with a life of her own.  It is not too great a leap to understand that "beit knesset" is the house of "Knesset Yisrael."

            Therefore, in order to understand the place of the synagogue within halakhic Judaism, we must first understand the unique position of "Knesset Yisrael," of the unified and self-integrated community, of which the individual Jews are component parts.

B. Community

            The most prominent area in which the concept of community arises within halakha, other than that of "chesed" - the mutual obligations between members of the community - which we discussed three months ago, is that of prayer.  Last year, we discussed what prayer means in halakha, and the structure of the "shemoneh esrei," the main unit of prayer.  Today, we shall examine one particular aspect of prayer, communal prayer, in order to understand the idea of community in general.

            Jews pray together.  The unit of communal prayer is the "minyan," which means no more than "number."  The "minyan" needed for public prayer, and for any other ritual in which community plays a role is ten - hence the need for ten (males, over the age of thirteen) to constitute a minyan, meaning the group for prayer.

            There is no practical problem in praying alone.  The prayers are for the most part identical, whether recited in a minyan or alone.  Unlike many forms of Christian prayer, one does not need a priest or trained clergy to pray.  Just as a synagogue can be anywhere (unlike the Temple), so one can pray anywhere suitable, even outside a synagogue.  When I was younger and living in New York, route 17 was the highway which led from the city to the Catskill mountains, the location of innumerable Jewish summer homes.  On any day during the summer, if you were driving close to the setting of the sun and the time of the mincha prayer, you would see scores of Jews on the roadside, stretched out for miles, in prayer.  A somewhat stranger sight, perhaps, but not an uncommon one, is that of an obviously observant Jew in a phone booth on the street, talking nonstop for about five minutes into the phone.  The giveaway that there is no one talking on the other side (I would not say that there was no one LISTENING on the other side) is the slight swaying as he talks.  Being young, and somewhat self-conscious about praying in public on a Manhattan street, I would usually put in a dime (this was a long time ago) and dial before beginning my prayers, just in case anyone was waiting for the phone.  There is nothing unsuitable about a phone booth for praying.  So why do Jews think it so important to "go to shul (synagogue)?"

            The special quality of communal prayer is summed up in one sentence: "The prayers of the community are always heard."  There is a qualitative difference between praying alone and praying communally.  Notice that this is not phrased as an advantage to praying WITH a minyan, but as the prayer of the minyan.  The community as a whole offers one prayer, and that constitutes the special quality which we wish now to understand.

            R. Nissim of Gerona, one of the last of the great Spanish medieval talmudic scholars, explains the uniqueness of the community as follows.  Each person has some merit and some fault, some good qualities and some bad.  When standing alone, he is judged on his merits and is likely to be found wanting.  When we join together, the union benefits from the sum of the different merits of each individual.  In other words, we pool, as it were, our individually different strengths.  (The assumption here is that faults are negative, the absence of positive good, and hence are eliminated by the presence of the corresponding good quality.  Weaknesses do not add up, only strengths.)

            One direct outcome of this idea relates to the ancient question: Which is primary, the individual or the community?  According to the Ran, the community has a greater status than the individual, but only because of the individual merits of each one.  The superiority of the community to the individual is not based on the submerging of the individual by negating his individuality; on the contrary, the merit of the community consists solely of the sum of the individual qualities, put into service for all members of the community.  The individual is logically primary, but each individual gains by pooling his individuality into a union of them all.

            I would like to develop this idea further.  I think there is a deeper meaning to the value of the community of knesset Yisrael, based on the concept of the "image" of God, tzelem Elokim.  The Torah tells us that God made man in His image.  What does this cryptic expression mean?  The answer to this question will involve us in a rather difficult theological discussion, which I shall attempt to present as succinctly as I can.

            Every object is made according to a plan, a sketch, or a design.  That is the image of that object.  The image defines the limits of the object's potential, for it is the exemplar, the platonic ideal, as it were, which each particular object strives to emulate.  What, then, was the plan, the ideal version, according to which man was created by God?  The Torah answers that man has no fixed final limiting plan, for the image of man is the image of God.  There is no final, perfect man - man's potential, and hence his goal, is to reach up and become as like God as he can, without any cap on his potential development.

            Now every man reflects the perfection of God, in his own imperfect development, in a different way.  Judaism expresses this by speaking of the "midot" of God, of the divine attributes, and assigning these middot to different figures.  Abraham, for instance, is described as exemplifying the attribute of "chesed," of giving and caring.  Isaac his son is described in terms of "gevura," of strength and self-control.  This is trying to say that every individual is different, not because one is necessarily better, closer to God, but because even in the imitation of God each one follows his own particular image, which is the image of God, who exemplifies perfectly all the values.

            But this means that even the most perfect man imitates God well only in one particular aspect of the divine infinity.  Judaism believes that value is plural; there are multiple values which are one only in God, but which are different, even contradictory at times, from our perspective.  The sentence which closes the "shemoneh esrei" prayer - "He who makes peace in his heights, let Him make peace among us and among all Israel" - was interpreted by the Sages to mean:  He who makes peace in His world, in His Divine being, between the attributes of mercy and justice, of love and truth, may He bring this peace to us, where those attributes contradict and even war on each other, at least at times.  If value is multiple, no one person can embody all perfection, as God does.  But the injunction to imitate God ("You shall be holy, for holy am I, HaShem your God") calls for not only the individual perfection that is every man's singularity, but in the fullness of all perfections.  How can this be done, if each person has a particular distinct personality?  The answer is that we are also part of a community, a combination of individual values.  The community, the knesset Yisrael, fulfills that aspect of divine perfection, of imitatio Dei, rooted in the multiplicity of values which no single individual can ever embody.  This is the deeper meaning of the point of R. Nissim - each person contributes his singular values.  The result is a greater degree of perfection than could ever be achieved by any single person, and in this is achieved a greater degree of godliness, for unity from within multiplicity is the image of God.

            This then is the value of community.  One who cuts himself off from the community, no matter how great his individual merit and qualities, has cut himself off from the fullness of the image of God, and therefore has cut off his personal qualities from the root of value, making them merely human achievements rather than part of the image of God.  Writes the Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 3,11):

"One who divorces himself from the ways of the community, even though he has not transgressed transgressions, but is only separated from the congregation of Israel, and does not perform mitzvot together with them nor enter into their troubles nor fast on their fast-days, but goes about his way as one of the people of the earth, and as though he were not one of them - he has no portion in the World-to-Come."

            The importance of this concept cuts across all areas of Jewish life, as the Rambam states, but is especially crucial in prayer, when encountering God.  Man's ability to pray is his ability to encounter God as person to person.  This far transcends merely making requests from afar, mere communication.  Man meets God in prayer.  He can do this because he is a tzelem Elokim - an exemplar of the image of God.  The true form of man's image of God is the community as a whole - hence prayer from within the community, in minyan, is the ideal form.

            As I pointed out above when discussing R. Nissim's version of this idea, the community here is not based on the eradication of the individual; rather it is based on the individuality of the single person, put together with other's individuality.  One does not join a community by being less particular, but by being more together.  Hence, Jewish communal prayer is not based essentially on recitations out-loud or communal singing.  The classic communal prayer is the shemoneh esrei, said by each silently, all at that same time.  Each person offers his personal prayer, but he does it together.  My master the Rav zt"l, Rav Soloveitchik, explained in this way why Judaism does not favor, does not even understand, the concept of family pews.  When one prays, one is totally alone with God - totally alone, all together with all the others who are totally alone.  The prayer itself is me, myself, the flight of the alone to the alone.  It is the intertwining of our most individual prayers together, states the classic Jewish mystic formulation, that forms the crown which the angels place on the head of God each day.

            There is a basic law of prayer that reflects this aspect of community.  When one requests something of God, one should always ask in the plural.  In the words of the Talmud, one should always include oneself in the community when praying.  Even one who is sick should say to God, "cure us O God, and we shall be cured, save us and we shall be saved;" rather than "cure me."  Now one reason for this is the teaching of the Sages that "one who asks for others and needs the same thing is answered first."  But the more basic reason is that by speaking his personal prayer in the plural, one makes his personal prayer an expression of the community prayer, which comes before God in a totally different manner than the prayer of the divorced individual.

            (The most basic unit of the combination of individuals is the couple, man and woman.  Already on that level, the Sages teach that a successful union of two is characterized by the presence of God.  Similarly, we find that the high priest, who enters the holy of holies in the Temple on Yom Kippur, must be married.  A person who could not overcome his particularity and share his personality with another cannot represent knesset Yisrael).

            The halakha defines a hierarchy of praying with the community:

1. The best is to pray with a minyan in a synagogue.

2. If one has missed the communal prayer, it is still better to pray in the synagogue, even alone, for the synagogue is the beit knesset, the house of the community.

3. If one cannot go to the synagogue, one should pray, alone, at the same time as the community, for even in this way, the prayer is joined with the others.  (This indicates most clearly that public prayer is not necessarily chorused recitation, but the joining together of individual prayers.).

            This brings us back to the synagogue.  At the beginning of today's shiur, I defined the synagogue as the house of the community, beit knesset Yisrael.  Perhaps you wondered if by doing so I did not rob the synagogue of its sanctity.  But now we realize that the house of the community IN RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD is itself by definition the house of the most complete image of God attainable.  The synagogue does not attempt to reflect God's majesty or grandeur, nor hint at His mystery, but rather it binds together the human individuals who themselves reflect God's value and creativity into a greater whole, into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, thereby actually creating (and not merely reflecting) a more perfect image of God.  The synagogue does not attempt to find a home for the celestial God on earth, but a home for the human creation of the image of God, to reach up to the heavens.  The sanctity is the sanctity of what we have created in God's image, which is no small measure.  As the Torah states about the tabernacle of God in the desert, "And you shall make for Me a temple, and I shall dwell in YOUR midst."  When mere humans join together, God is in their midst.