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|The Shul Without
First published 2001
Excerpts from "The Shul Without a Clock" (from the back cover)
...WHEN PRIME MINISTER Jones stated
that Judaism must be strengthened in the Jewish state, panic gripped the secular leadership. Maariv declared: "Jones could undermine the character of the Jewish state. Religion is fine, but it should be confined to the synagogue. This is the 21st century, not the Middle Ages." Haaretz cried out: "This is against Jewish tradition. It is unthinkable that rabbis should determine the future of the Jewish people..."
...WHILE SHE WAS an ideal synagogue member, Mrs. Cooperman had one problem: Other than her ability to read Hebrew, she was completely unlettered. That is why she never skipped a word of davening: she was unable to distinguish between prayers recited on a regular Shabbat and those recited only when Shabbat coincides with Rosh Hodesh, or Yom Tov, or Hanukkah. Every Shabbat she would recite every single prayer on every single page of the service. ...When she appears before her Maker Who is not constrained by mortal boundaries of clocks and calendars, I like to think that perhaps He will not look with disfavor upon the seamless, timeless universe of His loyal servant Mrs. Cooperman...
...AFTER BEING BUMPED up to the first class section, I began to sense within me a sense of pride and condescension toward those huddled masses beneath me... I was troubled by. this feeling and scolded myself: Parvenu that you are, shameless arriviste. One short flight of stairs on a plane have you climbed, and look to what level you have sunk. Countless times have you preached about the sin of forgetting our origins, but in the time it takes to climb nine short steps you have forgotten1 who you are...
...ONE WAITS PATIENTLY for serious introspection within the Israeli secular community. Its intellectual leaders still utter the same tired banalities, the same generic boilerplate remedies - and nothing changes. And all the time the real remedy they seek stands silently by, waiting to be noticed. But it is not noticed, because the remedy has religious overtones and would force them to reevaluate their past. Those who speak always of intellectual honesty do not have the honesty to admit failure - whether it be the failure of their Oslo or the failures of their secular society...
(From the inside flap)
Touching yet funny, provocative yet playful, profound yet inspiring, this remarkable book evokes both laughter and tears as it takes you on a grand tour of today's fascinating and bewildering Jewish life.
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman takes you to baseball games that have a religious message, first-class flights that become guilt trips, uplifting funerals, depressing Bar Mitzvahs, and cellular phones at the Western Wall. Calling the shots as he sees them, he unflinchingly takes on quickie conversions, Orthodox feminism, the Jerusalem McDonalds, Israeli secularists, the self-delusions of the peace process, and the contradictions of American Judaism. Along the way, he makes you think about the religious-non-religious divide, and shares some fresh perspectives on Purim and Pesach and Tisha B'Av.
You will meet some unforgettable characters: the woman who recites every word in her Siddur every single Shabbat; Princess Diana vs. Mother Theresa; world-class Biblical scholars and world-class rogues; ordinary people who know Talmud by heart; the Christian Prime Minister of Israel who is a Shabbat observer; Shimon Peres reading apologies from Arafat.
This unique book will amuse you, inform you, and uplift you.
About the author:
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, presently living in Jerusalem, is a distinguished rabbi, writer and teacher. He led Atlanta's pioneer Congregation Beth Jacob for almost forty years. Ordained by Baltimore's Ner Israel, with degrees from Johns Hopkins and a doctorate from Emory University, he has taught at Jerusalem's Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, at Bar-llan University, and Emory University. Editor of Tradition magazine, he has published six previous books, including the best-selling Tales Out ofShul, On Judaism, and One Plus One Equals One.
This book is one of a special
MR. & MRS. LOUIS A. SIEGEL n
Two people, whose quiet but firm
Dedicated to the memory of
our beloved son
Amram Hillel ben Menachem Z"L"
who dwells in the serenity
of a clockless realm.
Other Books by Emanuel Feldman
The 28th of lyar
Law as Theology
The Biblical Echo
Tales Out of Shul
One Plus One Equals One
TO BEGIN WITH THE GENESIS of this book: for many years I have been writing short essays and sketches for a number of journals, primarily for Tradition magazine, where I have served as editor for the past thirteen years. The positive reaction of many readers has encouraged me to gather them together in this collection.
While some of the material in this book has never before been published, many articles appeared in Tradition, Jewish Action, Jerusalem Post, and Jerusalem Report, whose publishers I hereby thank for their permission to utilize them here.
I am grateful to my dear wife Estelle for her editorial contributions to these essays. Her finely honed sense of style and her perceptive editing are evident on every page. My esteemed brother, HaRav Aharon Feldman, gave unstintingly of his time and erudition in reviewing many of these essays. His insights and keen analysis were always on the mark. Obviously, I claim exclusive rights to the weaknesses in this work, and share them with no one else.
Both the editorial and graphics departments at Feldheim Publishers were highly professional, supportive, and creative. And my old friend Ben Gasner used his world-class talents to produce a cover that is creative, distinctive, and elegant.
Tishrei 5762 / September 200
PART ONE: REACHING FOR GOD God and Mrs. Cooperman
PART TWO: LIVING IN JERUSALEM
MRS. COOPERMAN, THE ELDERLY WIDOW who attended my father's synagogue in Baltimore, was every rabbi's ideal congregant: she never spoke during services, she davened meticulously, caressing every word, she listened avidly to the rabbi's sermons, gave charity generously, observed Shabbat and kashrut, and honored those who studied Torah.
There was only one problem. Other than her ability to read Hebrew, she was completely unlettered and unlearned. That is why, in fact, she never skipped a word of davening: she was unable to distinguish between prayers that are recited on a regular Shabbat and those that are recited only when Shabbat coincides with Rosh Hodesh, or Yom Tov, or Hanukah. The net result was that on every single Shabbat of the year she recited every single prayer on every single page of the service.
My mother, who always sat next to her, would gently remind her, "This you don't have say today because today is not Rosh Hodesh."
Mrs. Cooperman would smile: "I ask you, what is so terrible if I do say it? If it isn't Rosh Hodesh today, soon it will be. So it really makes no difference."
We three pre-teen brothers, growing up in our father's shul, were more than a little amused by Mrs. Cooperman. After all, we were already studying Chumash and Rashi and knew a little bit of Shulhan Arukh, and we found it absurd that an old lady could not make distinctions between Shatbat and Yom Tov. The mere thought of Mrs. Cooperman reading the shemone esrei or the birkat hamazon straight through without distinguishing one section from the next was enough to brighten up the dullest of days.
One year, Rosh Hodesh Tevet happened to coincide with the Shabbat of Hanukah. During the davening we recited yaaleh veyavo and al hanissim and hallel, and at the birkat hamazon after our meal we omitted nothing, reciting everything from beginning to end: the al hanissim for Hafiukah, the retze for Shabbat and the yaale veyavo for Rosh Hodesh. Suddenly it dawned on us that this was the one time that Mrs. Cooperman was right: on this one Shabbat of the year you simply opened up the siddur and kept going, reciting everything, omitting practically nothing. "Today is her day," we laughed, and from that moment and forevermore the wondrous conflation of Shabbat, Hanukah and Rosh Hodesh became known among us as Mrs. Cooperman's Shabbat. That such a Shabbat occurs just once every few years only intensified the wicked anticipation of the recurrence of that magical moment in time.
Many Hanukahs, many Roshei Hodashim, many Mrs.-Cooperman-Shabbatot have flown by since then. Mrs. Cooperman is no longer among the living, nor are her favorite rabbi and rebbetzin. We have passed her story down to our children and grandchildren, and whenever that special Shabbat occurs I still call my brothers across continents and oceans to remember the light-hearted mirth she unwittingly created for us when we were young.
A recent Hanukah provided us once again with one of her enchanted Shabbatot. We recited all the prayers consecutively: ya-aleh veyavo for Rosh Hodesh, al hanisim for Hanukah, the entire hallel, and we read from three different Sifrei Torah. We passed over nothing: quintessential, vintage Cooperman.
But while we still chuckle at the memories which her name evokes, our laughter is of a different kind now. She no longer provokes the giggles of mischievous young boys, but rather smiles of appreciation and illumination. Now we realize that while she may have been ignorant of the subtleties and nuances of Torah learning, she possessed something that we utterly lacked then, and probably still lack now: devotion, surrender, and child-like innocence before the Presence of God.
We were too young to understand that in the torrent of words she poured out before the Creator every Shabbat morning there lay a key ingredient of worship. She didn't know the translation of those words, but in a much deeper sense she understood their meaning. She brought to her praying a total submission of the self before the Presence of God, a love for her Creator so consuming that she could not bear to pass over a single word of His holy siddur.
She worshiped God not from knowledge or intellect, but from an inner spirit that transcends the mind. She did not know the proofs for the existence of God, but she needed none, for God was not an abstraction but a reality. She had no idea of the philosophical underpinnings of prayers, but when she said barukh atah, she knew she was talking to her personal Creator and that He was listening. She did not know the subtle differences between faith and trust and belief, and her prayer calendar was a seamless web which did not distinguish between one kind of holiness and the next, and she thanked God for the miracle of the Hanukah oil every Shabbat, and ushered in the new moon every week of the year. But she loved God, and her greatest joy was to engage in conversation with Him.
It occurs to me that in our restless society, when a synagogue's worth is often measured by the rapidity with which it runs through its Shabbat service, and when insufficient velocity of prayer is considered sufficient cause to break away and begin a shtiebel of one's own; when omitting a tahanun prayer is a cause for joy at a minyan, and we are irritated by a baal tefilla who keeps us in Shul five extra minutes; when our prayers are often a robotic, mechanical service of the lips, in an unhappy fulfillment of the mitsvat anashim melumadah of Isaiah 29:13 in such a hurried time, the picture of a Mrs. Cooperman lovingly whispering every word of prayer is a striking counterpoint.
Yes, her davening was halakhically out of joint. Certainly God is addressed differently on a Shabbat Hanukah than on a normative Shabbat. Granted, our relationship to God is different on Pesach than it is on Rosh Hodesh, and we many not arrogate to our transient moods the right to transform different approaches to God into one happy mishmash of words which is why we don't recite hallel every day of the year. And while we certainly may approach God at any time with any words of our own, the words of the siddur are sacred because, stemming from the Men of the Great Assembly, they reflect the changing divine-human connectedness of different religious seasons of the year that may not be shifted and molded according to our momentary whims.
But when Mrs. Cooperman appeared before her Maker Who is not constrained by the mortal boundaries and limitations of clocks and calendars, and for Whom Time is an indivisible entity, I like to think that perhaps He did not look with disfavor upon the seamless, timeless universe of His loyal servant Mrs. Cooperman.
Without a Clock
I OFTEN FIND MYSELF WISHING that synagogues would not have clocks on their walls. After all, this is the sacred sphere of the Timeless One. This is where finite man seeks to enter that infinite realm of public and private prayer, the study of Torah, thoughts of God and our relationship to Him those moments when time stands still and relinquishes its dominion to the One Who is beyond time. A clock in a shul is somehow a discordant note, a temporal intrusion in an other-worldly realm. A clockless shul would represent a timeless, eternal place.
But when non-transcendental reality sets in, I realize how inextricably woven into our service of the Timeless One are the elements of mundane time. Wherever one turns in the religious realm, one is confronted by the relentlessly pointing finger of time and its handmaidens: numbers and counting.
Consider prayer itself. Paradoxically, the act of communing with the Most High is enveloped by the constrictions of the clock. One must pray before the fourth hour of the day, recite the morning shema before the third hour, mussaf before the seventh hour, minhah after the sixth hour but before the sunset, and the evening shema before midnight.
The fact is that a consciousness of the passage of time manifested in the ubiquitous requirement to count pervades our entire religious life.
" On the eighth day after birth comes the requirement of berit mila, and after thirty days, the requirement for pidyon ha-ben.
" After giving birth, the mother counts her days of purity: seven days, fourteen days, thirty-three days, sixty-six days (Lev. 15:28); and the married woman counts during every menstrual cycle.
" The courts count the days between new moons, and at the twenty-ninth day they await eagerly the moon-sighting of the witnesses.
" The Paschal lamb must be slaughtered after the sixth hour of the day.
" The daily offerings must be inspected for defects for four days prior to the sacrifice.
" The Biblical months have no names of their own, but are numbered: the first month, the second month....
Not only do we reckon hours, days, weeks, and months, we also count the years: in the first and second years, and the fourth and fifth years of the seven year cycle, we are required to give the First Tithe and the Second Tithe; in the third year and the sixth year, the First Tithe to the Poor; in the seventh year, the fields must lie fallow, open to everyone alike. And Lev. 25:28 commands that the courts count seven times seven sabbatical years in order to arrive at the year of Jubilee.
Before creation, all is chaos. At creation, time and counting and numbers enter the universe, and with them come order and regularity. Time separates and classifies, maintains boundaries and limitations: the first day, the second day, the third day, culminating in the holy seventh day. The sun rises and sets, the moon waxes and wanes, the tides advance and recede, the seasons come and go, all according to the clock established at creation and affirmed to Noah: Zera ve-katsir, kor va-hom, kayyits va-horef, yom va-lailah lo yishbotu / "... Seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease" (Gen. 8:22; Jer. 33:20).
This is the pulse of the universe. Thus it is that, in Exodus 12, the very first commandment given to the Jewish people concerns the basis for religious times and seasons the fixing of the new moon. The rhythm of numbers and the choreography of the clock are implanted in our genes, and man, the microcosm of the universe, cannot escape it. His very own heartbeat is a paradigm of time, a sign both of his creation and his mortality: when its pulse comes to an end, time for him comes to an end.
A striking fact: although time is universal, there is a zone of religious time that exists only when man creates it. Certain numbers have no life unless man does the counting. Lev. 27:32, for example, require us to tithe our cattle. How is this done? The Mishnah (Bekhorot 9:7) describes the procedure explicitly:
How do we tithe animals? We bring them to a shed and make for them a small opening [in the fence] so that two shall not be able to go out simultaneously. We count [with the rod]: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. He marks every tenth lamb that goes out and says, "This is [the tithe]." If he failed to mark it or did not count [the lambs] with a rod, or if he counted them while they were crouching or standing, they are still considered tithed.
A fascinating question is addressed by the Mishnah: What if a man wishes to give ten percent of his cattle at random but chooses not to engage in the act of counting? The answer is that this will not suffice. If he owns one hundred lambs and offers ten at random, this is not a valid tithe, even though he has given ten percent of his flock. The reason: the Torah explicitly requires that "the tenth shall be holy" that is, he must physically count every tenth animal. If the count has not taken place, the tithe has not taken place. The act of counting by the owner is the crucial element in the tithing of cattle.
A similar insistence on human counting is found in Lev. 23:15 concerning the counting of the days between Pesach and Shavuot: U-sefartem lakhem sheva shabbatot temimot/ "You shall count seven full weeks ... they are to be fifty days...." The festival of Shavuot and its offerings will take place whether or not we count the days, but the Torah insists that we nevertheless engage in the act of counting.
More obligatory counting: As part of the Yom Kippur avodah, Lev. 16 requires the kohen gadol to enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of the bull offering upon the Ark cover, once with an upward motion and seven times with a downward motion. The Mishnah (Yoma 5:3) describes the procedure, which we recide in the mussaf of Yom Kippur: Ve-kakh haya mone: / "This is how he would count: 'one; one plus one; one plus two; one plus three; one plus four; one plus five; one plus six; one plus seven.'" Sprinkling alone is insufficient. He must engage in the act of counting.
Through such mandatory counting, God takes man by the hand and, in effect, says: "Come, I Who am the Me-kadesh Yisrael veha-zemanim will teach you how to elevate the ephemeral moment into something eternal, how to number your days (li-mnot yameinu ken hoda... Ps. 90:12) In the celebration of every seventh day, you attach yourself to the Infinite, and time, though it continues to move, is brought under your control. So, too, in Yom Tov. So, too, in every aspect of religious time. By enveloping your hours in the cloak of holiness, you soar upward to a sphere where time has no dominion. Although time is Mine, you can sanctify it with Me. Through your counting, the potential holiness in My universe is actualized."
But despite the full realization that the world-to-come is the only timeless realm, it nevertheless seems to me that it would be felicitous if, in the one place on this earth which is an adumbration of that realm the house of God one would not confronted by that relentlessly ticking reminder of this world's temporality. That is why I still find myself wistfully looking for a clockless shul.
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