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A Two-Way Street Runs through Your Shul

A heated brouhaha rocked my shul recently. The specific dispute is not important for this column (okay, okay, it was, shockingly, related to Trump). While I had, as you might imagine, a strong opinion, which I voiced to the appropriate people, what particularly struck me afterward were two more general questions: first, why do shul disputes often get so hot and heavy? And second, what can be done to lower the temperature?

I could answer the first question glibly by applying Sayer’s Law (the bon mot about academic politics) to shul politics, and say that they’re so heated because the stakes are so low. But I don’t really believe that. Rather, I think the opposite is true; we have a high personal stake in these issues because shuls truly are central to many of our lives.

Thus, although a primary function of a shul is to provide a location for prayer, the Hebrew phrase for synagogue is not beit tefillah, a house of prayer. Rather, it’s beit knesset, a house of assembly, because we assemble in our synagogues for so much more than prayer. We assemble for shiurim, lectures, and other programs; we assemble for rites of passage from brit or simchat bat to funerals; we assemble for social and communal activities, book readings, scholars in residence, and sometimes, political evenings; we assemble after Shabbat davening to schmooze and socialize at a kiddush and after yom tov davening for a meal in the sukkah, a community seder, or a Shavuot barbeque (sorry, no cheesecake).

There’s more. Services our shuls offer often provide emotional comfort and practical assistance in times of grief, give our children a place to meet with their friends and make new ones, arrange support for other community institutions like the eruv, mikveh, and yoetzet halachah, and keep us informed of our friends’ and neighbors’ important life-cycle events and celebrations.

And there’s still more. When people move into a new community, often the first friends they make are their neighbors, parents of their children’s classmates — and the people they sit next to in shul. And we continue to make friends as shuls expand and seats change. Indeed, when my shul built a new sanctuary a few years ago and I chose a different location in which to sit, I soon made friends with a group of young men (young being relative in that I’m at least 25 years older than the oldest of them) who sit in my row and the one behind, and whom I didn’t know before. This has helped me emerge from my age echo chamber and see important issues from a new perspective. (Hi guys! This is the shout-out you asked for.)

So I understand why we care deeply about an institution that is so important to us individually, familially, and communally, and thus why we sometimes can get unduly riled up. Nonetheless, too much heat isn’t good for us, and it’s certainly not good for the shul. And I first thought that there’s a one-word solution to calming things down — civility. But as I thought some more, I realized civility is necessary but not sufficient, and that another quality of character is required. That’s respect; respect both for the people on the other side as well as for the positions they hold.

Respect doesn’t mean agreement, of course, nor does it mean that you should be less passionate about your own position. Rather, it means to listen — sincerely listen — to the other side, and to take the other side and its advocates seriously. This applies not only to behavior between congregants and from congregants to rabbis, but from rabbis to congregants as well. Sloughing off a disagreement or criticism with a light, and often pat, comment or joke too often is substituted for a genuine, thoughtful, and respectful response.

Here’s a story I’ve told many times that illustrates this point. My rabbi, R. Yosef Adler of Congregation Rinat Yisrael, once delivered a sermon in which he explained an idea from his rebbe, the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. I thought, however, that his explanation wasn’t correct. Now, let me hasten to say that in matters of Torah knowledge, and especially knowledge of the Rav’s thought, if R. Adler belongs in the Hall of Fame (which he does) I’m only a minor leaguer (to use an analogy I think he’ll appreciate). But in this particular case, I had, in fact, previously spent a good deal of time thinking about and studying very carefully both what the Rav wrote about this issue and all the sources he referred to. I therefore felt a certain confidence about my understanding of the matter at hand.

So when davening concluded, I went up to the rabbi and, after wishing him a good shabbes I briefly voiced my objection. And he responded essentially as follows. “Joseph, we don’t have the Rav’s essay in front of us, nor do we have the sources he referred to. So it won’t be too productive to discuss this now. Why don’t we meet in the beit midrash after ma’ariv one evening this week, when we can look at all the materials together and then discuss them.”

And so, one evening later that week we spent about 30 minutes doing just what he suggested, and reviewed and quite passionately debated the Rav’s ideas. Now I admit that R. Adler didn’t convince me, and I’m willing to bet half my IRA that I didn’t convince him. But both of us understood the other side better, I think, and realized that there truly were two sides (even though I still think I’m right). He listened to me carefully, took me seriously, didn’t make an argument based on authority or position, and I felt respected. And so, while we often agree about important matters, we continue to disagree from time to time in like manner while retaining what I am proud to believe is a genuinely warm and friendly relationship.

I must add one caveat, however. There are some extreme positions, some radical arguments, that we can’t respect and to which we may not be able to maintain a sense of civility (although we still should try). All will agree about some of them (for example, racism or anti-Semitism), although undoubtedly there will be disagreements about exactly where to draw that line. But rarely, if ever, do shul arguments cross these boundaries.

We want, indeed we need, our shuls to be diverse and vibrant. And disagreement and argument, if and when done right, often enhance these qualities; they make a shul a vigorous and vital organization, a large tent where many can feel wanted and comfortable.

So let’s do it right.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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