It is fine to sound off in shul

The story of one congregant loudly berating another at the bimah may sound shocking, but synagogues are not temples

By Geoffrey Alderman, September 28, 2010

Hearing, and then reading of, the dramatic but cheerless story of the congregant who used the opportunity of a full house at the recent Rosh Hashanah evening service of an Orthodox synagogue in north-west London to publicly denounce a fellow male worshipper as an adulterer caused me to reflect on the appropriateness of a synagogue as a place in which such a grievance might legitimately be aired.

Some of my friends, while sympathising with the congregant - who must surely have been in a state of extreme mental anguish - felt that his action was entirely inappropriate, because "this is not the sort of thing you do in a synagogue". I wonder.

The word "synagogue" is a transliteration from Greek and simply means "assembly". The word was applied in ancient times to the places where Jews assembled, and this usage is reflected in the Hebrew phrase beit knesset - a "house of assembly". We think of a synagogue exclusively as a house of worship but strictly speaking this is incorrect. Jews can pray anywhere.

A synagogue - unlike a church - is neither a consecrated nor an especially holy place. It is most certainly not a "temple", as Reform Jews misguidedly term it, less still is it a substitute for the Temple in Jerusalem.

Indeed, synagogues existed during Temple times: archaeologists have unearthed at least a dozen such buildings, dating from the time of the Second Temple, and there is an intriguing dispute among students of that era as to whether these buildings were branches (so to speak) of the Jerusalem Temple, or were deliberately constructed as monuments of protest against the Temple establishment and the fat-cat machers who ran it.

A synagogue - unlike a church - is neither a consecrated nor holy place

The modern synagogue is merely a convenient place for Jews to meet, both for prayer and for other purposes. In the shtetls of pre-Holocaust Europe, where local communities were internally self-governing, the village synagogue also served as the town hall, where all manner of matters were discussed and decided. This practice was continued when our immigrant ancestors arrived on these shores. The makeshift shtiebels in which they worshipped were also the places where the business of Jewish trade unions, socialist clubs and friendly societies was conducted.

"Wait a minute," I hear you say, "it's one thing to use synagogue premises for secular meetings, but quite another to exploit the synagogue when prayers are actually being said or about to be said." Well, in one sense you are right, but in another you're wrong.

It is reported that Aba Werner, Rov of the Charedi Machzike Hadass synagogue in Brick Lane, Whitechapel, used the opportunity of a well attended Tisha b'Av service there in the 1890s to urge support for the infant Zionist movement, of which he was an enthusiastic devotee.

A few years later, the Jewish suffragette movement took to exploiting the power of the synagogue to further the cause of votes for women.

In October 1913, the solemnity of the Yom Kippur service at the upper-crust New West End synagogue was shattered when three Jewish women shouted an inspiring invocation to the Almighty to "forgive Herbert Samuel [Postmaster-General] and Sir Rufus Isaacs [Attorney-General] for denying freedom to women… [and]… for consenting to the torture of women."

In June 1914, a similar demonstration at the Brighton synagogue likened British treatment of suffragettes to Russian treatment of Jews. And let's not forget the officially-sanctioned disruption of the Yom Kippur overflow service at the Pavilion Theatre, Mile End, in 1915, to enable the Lord Mayor of London to be welcomed (and presented with a loyal address) while members of the choir suspended their penitential renditions in order to give what by all accounts was a lusty performance of Rule Britannia.

I can still see in my mind's eye the outline of the woman who, at the Kol Nidrei service at the Clapton synagogue in 1956 noisily interrupted proceedings in order to plead for help in getting her beleaguered family out of Hungary, then under a brutal Soviet occupation. She was quite right to do what she did and no-one - least of all the universally respected Rabbi Rashbass - condemned her.

There's a time and a place for everything. There are times when the order of service in a synagogue should not be interrupted, and there are times, and occasions, when an interruption is permitted. So let's not judge too harshly the congregant whose quite understandable emotions got the better of him in shul three weeks ago.

Last updated: 11:21am, September 28 2010