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.