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.

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