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The Purpose of a Synagogue
What is the purpose of a synagogue?
It is a Beit Knesset – a house of gathering. A place where people come together as a community, to be in community. A place where we can go when we feel the desire to be with one another. To gather to celebrate the most joyous moments of life as we have this morning – babies being welcomed into the covenant of the Jewish people, loving partnerships celebrated, religious milestones. And to gather to mourn so that we feel supported and embraced amidst the loneliness of grief.
It is a Beit Midrash – a house of study. A place to expand the mind, to engage in lifelong learning. To nourish the intellect and engage in dialogue with God and each other through the written word of our tradition. As people of faith we meet each other across a page. You come to a Beit midrash and you expect to learn something and rightly so.
It is a Beit Tefila – a house of prayer. A place to express our inner most longings in worship. To find one or multiple modes of adoration, contemplation and supplication and through those modes nourish our spirit and engage in dialogue with God. A place where we pray with the words of our heart and the meditations of thousands of years of Jewish poetry.
A purpose of a synagogue is all those things and I am proud to say confidently that Chizuk Amuno is a beit Knesset, a beit midrash, and a beit tefilah. But this week I want to ask what else should a synagogue be?
Where in that list is the space to speak about the abominable killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on Wednesday?
Friday morning when I posted something on Facebook about the killings, people “liked it.” That was not my intention and I should have been clearer. I did not want our synagogue community to like it. I wanted our synagogue community to do something about it.
There are halachot, laws, in our tradition that specify where one can pray, in what type of synagogue. Ideally, the codes say that one should pray in a room with windows so that one may look up to heaven.( Shulchan Aruch with Mishna Brurah 90:4-5) But the requirement to pray with windows I believe is also tied to the need to look outwards. We do not remain in our beautiful insular sanctuary at 8100 Stevenson Road. Even in these sacred moments of reflection and prayer, Judaism is constantly urging us to look beyond our own space, our own community, our own insularity to the greater world beyond.
For a synagogue to be only a beit Knesset, beit midrash and beit tefilah would be akin to praying in a sanctuary without windows. We could do all of those things brilliantly and still not be all of what a synagogue should be.
A synagogue should be a beit tikkun – a house of rectification. A place where we become inspired, enlightened and empowered to make course corrections in our personal lives and course corrections in the world around us. A synagogue is not a place of complacency, rather it is a home for tikkun, where rectification is required and welcomed.
A synagogue should be a beit emet – a house of truth. Last Yom Kippur I spoke from this bimah about the need to tell the whole truth. About how if we tell only a half truth or say nothing at all that we are complicit in the lies around us. so this should be a place where we can say that we oppose on religious grounds the ability of any angered or broken down individual with enough money to purchase a gun. This should be a place where we can say that we have not cared enough about, and listened well enough to, the African American neighbors in Baltimore and neighbors in the United States. We can tell the whole truth here about how blacks are treated and how racism is deeply embedded it the DNA of our country.
A synagogue should be a beit Aliyah – a house of rising up. Aliyah is the word we use when one comes to the Torah or has an honor. We are uplifted as we draw near to our sacred texts and take on a leadership role in our community. We want this to be a place where people come when they are brought low knowing that they can be lifted up. A synagogue should be a place where the potential is present as individuals and as a community to go le eleh u lelieh higher and higher. And a synagogue should be a place to rise up against that which is repugnant to us. It should give us the strength and the vehicles to rise up and to do so in the language of faith. That is the great potential of the synagogue to raise up the level of discourse, to raise up the expectations of behavior, to raise up voices in protest of that which we believe to be antithetical to the kingdom of heaven.
Less than two months ago on the Shabbat following the unrest in response to the killing of Freddie Gray we spoke from this bimah. I myself spoke more than 1400 words and I know you listened. I know you did because in 16 years I have never heard a sanctuary so quiet as it was that shabbat. But I failed in every one of those words because I did not ask you to do anything. Today I am asking you to do something, a first step – to stay after services for a few moments to speak with me, to speak to others in our community who are similarly moved about what we can do, about what we will do. We are not going to the chapel, or to the social hall, we are staying right here in the most important room in our synagogue as we set out on this most important task.
There was a time in Jewish history when a synagogue was also a Beit Mikdash – a house of sanctuary. But not a sanctuary to retreat or hide out, rather it was a place of sanctification. Where things were set apart, where they were different from the world around them. Let us uphold Chizuk Amuno as a synagogue that holds fast to its purposes of the past 144 years, let us work to embrace the purposes that are before us now.
The code of Jewish law which says that one should endeavor to pray in a room with windows goes on to say that one should pray in a place which will allow one’s heart to be broken. You have come here today – look out the windows of this sanctuary at the world beyond and allow your heart to be broken.