Tuesday, November 09, 2004

When last we saw Adam Ragil, he was approaching the lecturn at a meeting of the shteeble membership.

Folks, I was nervous. There I was, rising to face the crowd that had just brought a bead of sweat to the brow of one of the great unflappables of all time, our Grand Poobah. (Shteebles have no presidents) ... rising to tell a group of snarling Orthodox Jews that they were wrong about what they thought was a religious issue ...rising to out myself as "different" ...rising to make it clear, once and for all, that I was not with them on this matter.

My argument had a simple theme, and I spoke for less than 3 minutes before the crowd interrupted. Twice I asked for quiet. Twice I demanded to be heard. In the end the Rabbi was asked to interfere, by L, no less. To my embarrassment and disappointment the Rabbi sided with L, and with the mob. I sat down red-faced, unable to escape L's broad Cheshire smile.

Concisely, this was my argument: A shul is like a hospital. We expect higher standards from a hospital. We should expect higher standards from a shul. We can agree, I think, that face-to-face seating will undermine the shul's decorum. If we're sitting across from each other, we'll talk. Also, it's disrespectful to the sanctuary for us to sit with our backs to the front of the shul. If we commit ourselves to higher standards, it will be a wonderful example for ourselves and for our children.

At this point, I was interrupted for the first or second time.

Among the objections from the crowd: We had face-to-face seating in the shuls we grew up in. There's nothing wrong with it. It's not disrespectful. We turned out fine, didn't we? Ddidn't we? A shul without a table is not a shul. The atmosphere will be wrong. The feeling will be wrong. We won't like it. We can't have it. No. No. No.

I demanded silence. We've banished whiskey from the shul, even though there is room to allow it, I said. Our mechitzah is higher and thicker than any other mechitzah in the neighborhood. We've gone the extra mile for kashrus and for tznius. Why aren't we willing to go the extra mile for the sake of decorum, for the sake of teaching our children what it means to respect a shul?

I was interrupted again "Maybe where you grew up in this wasn't allowed. But we don't mind." said a man about my age, and L, my dear friend and arch-antagonist, saw his opening "Let's ask the rabbi," he called in his booming voice. "Is face-to-face seating ossur?"

Until now, the Rabbi had been sitting quietly in the front of the room., his nose in a book. He raised his head at L's invitation. I should interject here that, begining with the girl's event, the Rabbi and I became friendly. Often he shared with me with impatiance with the congregation, and their commitment to style, but not to halacha. I'm sure he saw this as another example. Tables in a shul after all, are about style. Not halacha. But he had been asked the question in terms of halacha, and by training and by temperament, our Rabbi is at first a jurist.

He sighed, and said, "I knew this was what the Grand Poobah had in mind, so I asked around and did some research. The answer is no. There is no reason to think that sitting backwards is prohibited or that it is a sign of disrespect to the Torah."

The crowd erupted. Was it my imagination or did I hear someone say, "So much for the modern guy?" I returned to my seat and passed L, style-concious L, grinning his stupid grin. He and his ilk had won, I suppose. The shul would have tables. The look and feel he wanted would be preserved, but at what expense?

I still think about the night. What, really, was I trying to accomplish? Was I declaring my independence from the group-think of the shteeble? Was I protesting our uncritical acceptance of received wisdom? Our conformity? Our refusal to act where the halacha is silent? Our short-sighted practice of putting style over substance? Did I really think I was going to convince anyone? Or, as my wife, ever the EC suggests, perhaps I was just trying to sabatoge my relationship with the shteeble. I don't know.

I suppose I wrote this post hoping to find the answer.


Give yourself a little time to process your thoughts and feelings and you may find the answer you seek.  

Your whole pont was that there was no halachic issue involved, so in a sense, it really did not matter what the Rabbi said, per se.
The only thing clear to me is that L is not your friend, your protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.  

Is L my friend? More about him and our relationship later. Remind me.

To my mind, L's problem is that he is unable to distinguish between style and substance, and he thinks hasidic Judaism is authentic Judaism. Anything else (even Yeshivish Judaism) is corrupt and untrue.

There are many like him, I suppose.  


A shteeble is not authentic Chassidism, let alone authentic Judaism.

My prediction: Your days at the Shteeble are numbered. It will become impossible to daven there with all the talking and you will get fed up.

You heard it here first.  

Mo beat me to it.
I think you should vote with your feet.
It's not like you live in a town with only one shul.  

It sounds to me as if you were trying to focus the other members on the fact that decorum and respect for the davening and the shul is more important than having a table (substance over style as you put it). Perhaps you could have asked the rabbi if talking in shul is ossur and if facing seats constitutes a stumbling block over which the other congregants could potentially fall (not that I'm trying to Monday Morning QB on you - sorry). Maybe when you sit down in the reconfigured shteeble (if you don't find somewhere more quiet to daven), you can put a sign near your talis that says, "This area of the shteeble demands SILENCE during davening. If you do not want to conform, please find somewhere else to daven," so that when people behave improperly around you, you can smile and show them the sign.
It seems as if the GP is with you on this one, so maybe between you, him and the rabbi, you can start a small revolution of decorum.  

The Rabbi's point was simple: The halacha reveals no preference for any particular configuration of seats, so we'll do what people want, and trust them to behave.

Isn't that funny? The Hasidic rabbi came down on the side of democracy.

Anyway, I think people, for the most part, will behave. But the idea of having people sitting with their backs to the front of the shul is difficult to swallow.  

When it comes to shul politics, the frum world doesn't have a monopoly. Yes, Virginia, even the apikorsim argue among themselves. For your amusement and entertainment, check out my post on the fun and games at *my* shul's Ritual Committee meeting (http://onthefringe_jewishblog.blogspot.com/2004/11/one-for-traditionalists-one-for.html#comments), and, while you're at it, check out the fun and games at *Golda Leah's* shul's Ritual Committee meeting (http://westernjew.blogspot.com/2004/11/minority-opinion.html#comments).

By the way, I'm with you. Sitting with one's back toward the Aron Kodesh?! Whatever happened to " . . . t'nu chavod laTorah?" Not to mention putting a michshol/("stumbling block," something that may tempt or cause a person to do something prohibited, such as talk during the Shema) in the path of a blabbermouth. . .  

You spoke your mind. You didn't just complain, you tried to give a sollution. No matter what happens at your shul, there will be guys who are unhappy and the ones who didn't bother to say how they felt will complain the loudest. Only those who try to solve the problem are the ones who can complain.  

you can bring a horse to water but cant make him drink. You can't change people who dont want to change. Save yourself the headache. Clearly the rabbi could have staked out a position if he wanted to support you, but instead decided to give only a halachic ruling, which, while correct, does not have to be the last word. Take the time you would  

Hope you are ok, haven't heard from you in a month.  

Wondering the same thing.  

I hope you and your family are in good health and stuffing yourselves silly on latkes and/or sufganiyot. And I also hope you'll rejoin the Jewish blogosphere soon.

Thurs., Dec. 9, 2004, 3rd night of Chanukah  

I hope this comment supports your position...once upon a time, I was an active member of an unruly little shul in Brooklyn. The talking was out of hand and the shul was just NOT growing, despite being situated in a hot, growing neighborhood.

And then, one day, a group of active members threatened to call it quits because of the talking. Yes, face-to-face, table seating was the layout and talking in shul was viewed as just the way it was going to be.

So I proposed we limit seating to one side of the table and shoe-horn a couple more tables in to the shul to compensate.

There was grumbling, ridicule, a few mild attempts to undermine the new seating and soon...voila...talking plumetted, decorum soared and the new seating plan became another one of the norms people take for granted.

No, the shul is still not perfect and still suffers from numerous chronic issues.

But the talking...it's a heck of a lot better than the bad old days. Don't give up!  

This Adam ragil is a nerd and a d-ckhead.
Who the hell cares about your stupid shteeble- you are a self-righteous creep. There is no god anyway and your religion is a fairytale, so "decorum" means nothing.
Honestly- I would rather see my daughter sandwiched between two shvartzes than hanging out at your shteebel!  

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