Correcting Misconceptions About Shul Centrality

I was reading a post by Harry Maryles protesting shuls that go against Jewish halachic norms. I join Harry in that protest, but I would like to look at one of his points.

Harry wrote:

Perhaps this is where the problem really lies. As important as a Shul is – it is not the central focus of Judaism. But in Heterodox (Conservative and Reform) movements this has certainly been the case. …

The truth is that Orthodox Judaism is a full time religion. Halacha mandates that we pay attention to God throughout our day and provides many rituals for both men and women to do so. The Shul is a place where one of those rituals take place. It is our house of prayer. But it does not define us in our totality.

Although Shuls may not be the central focus of Judaism, they are a big part of it. When the Mishna says the world stands on Torah, Avodah and Acts of Kindness, I haven’t seen any major commentators that make distinctions of what’s most central, they’re all important. But just because we can’t assert that it’s the central focus, does not diminish it’s importance.

Prayer is a key component of Judaism and prayer takes place primarily in Shuls. And we’ve pointed out before, in many places, the Shul is often the organizing structure for learning Torah and Acts of Kindness. So minimizing the importance of Shuls by saying “it is not the central focus of Judaism” is misleading.

Perhaps the confusion comes from Harry’s second point quoted above, that “Orthodox Judaism is a full time religion. Halacha mandates that we pay attention to God throughout our day”. I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, but it is most true for a spiritually experienced person who knows about Jewish law and pays attention to the spiritual opportunities available throughout the day. Even many Torah observant people get distracted often and neglect those spiritual opportunities. And certainly those uneducated in Torah observance can not avail themselves of those spiritual opportunities.

This is why the Shabbos Minyan is so central. It is a time and a place where everybody can focus on connecting to G-d. Unfortunately even among the Torah observant, we don’t always take advantage of that obvious spiritual opportunity.

For some spiritual beginners, learning Torah is a better place to start, but for many, the Shul experience is the portal to an increasing spiritual life. I will end with a caveat that perhaps moves me closer to Harry’s position. The Shul experience is just one part. A lasting and growing spiritual life necessitates that the person work on their everyday acts of kindness, learning Torah and the spiritual experiences as expressed in the halacha that are available throughout the day.

In summary, Shul’s are central to spiritual growth but a spiritually mature person observes the halacha throughout the day. For many people the Shul is a logical entry point for spiritual awareness, but it’s important to stress that it can’t stop there.

4 thoughts on “Correcting Misconceptions About Shul Centrality”

  1. I was thinking about Judaism in the Shul vs. Judaism in the Home. In my humble opinion, Reform and Conservative Jewish women demanded to become rabbis because those movements diminished the importance of Judaism in the home. Once Jewish men declared, “There’s no Torah in my kitchen, because I’m not keeping the laws of Kosher; there’s no Torah in my bedroom, because I’m not keeping the laws of Niddah,” they no longer had a reason to marry only Jewish women, and intermarriage soared. The earnest caring sincere Jewish woman no longer was welcome to practice Judaism in the home, so she sought to practice Judaism in the shul.

  2. I have been thinking about this post for the past day because it brings up a few ways that we relate to our Yiddishkeit:

    Individually- as we alone navigate in the world/workplace
    Communaly- within the family/shul

    R Maryles wrote, “The Shul is a place where one of those rituals take place. It is our house of prayer. But it does not define us in our totality.”

    I think that the house o’ prayer and each of our own homes serves as a shelter and recharging unit from the chaos of our daily lives. As we know, without the Beis Hamikdash, the shechina resides in the shuls and batai midrashim while we are in golus.

    The Shabbos minyan, which, sadly, may be the only time some people daven with a minyan during the week. The bond that is formed between congregants, even in the most talkative minyan, is powerful because they come together at a set time for tefillah on a regular basis.

  3. Judy, that’s hitting the nail on the head! If the whole connection a person has is the synagogue, what happens all those days and hours when that’s not a part of their lives? That’s what, to a large degree, Judaism has become in this country. And that’s why more people are attracted to Torah via a Shabbos meal then at a shul. While davening in a minyan is certainly essential, anyplace where 10 men can gather can suffice.

    1. Years ago, in “Di Alte Heim,” the shul was a humble little place where Jewish men of the town gathered to discharge their religious obligations. They came every morning for Shacharis, every night for Mincha & Maariv. In larger towns, you might find that men of a certain trade had their own shul (the tailors’ synagogue, for example). Sometimes a poor young rabbi was persuaded for a few coins to give a shiur between Mincha and Maariv. Real Judaism was found in the Jewish home, under the wise guidance of the Jewish mother. It’s only nowadays, when Judaism has been surgically excised from many Jewish homes, that the humble shul has turned into a grand pompous Jewish Center and the only place where individuals of the Jewish persuasion remember that they are Jewish.

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