Thursday, October 31, 2013

Practical spirituality for dummies: the desert fathers and mothers

How much does "Spiritual Warfare" have to do with your personal faith? For many of us in "Practical
Spirituality for Dummies" this is not a primary concern, which would explain why we do not immediately identify with the "desert fathers and mothers" who withdrew from
mainstream society in the 4th Century to battle against demonic spirits by long hours of prayer and fasting.

In fact, we are not as different from them as it first seems. Anyone who struggles against any kind of addiction knows the destructive power such afflictions can wield, and also the spiritual struggle that recovery requires on a daily basis. When we see how humanity seems "addicted" to patterns of waste and consumption that threaten the ecosystems that sustain life, we can relate more readily to a "desert spirituality" that seeks to renounce the self-destructive impulses within us. The same could be said about violence and greed.
The awareness of evil and the need to actively cultivate spiritual health is more of a concern among us than might first appear. While the life of an eccentric hermit has little attraction for us, we can see how periods of silence and solitude, regular prayer, and an effort to live more simply make sense.
At the same time, we have seen the harm done when a concern for evil becomes obsessive, and exercises a kind of addictive fascination for people and for society. Conspiracy theories, racism, and homophobia can work this way, in individuals as well as in society, revealing once again the need for the kind of spiritual sanity and serenity that only a higher power can restore in us.
A sense of humor can also help. The writer and family therapist Edwin Friedman observed that his clients were usually deadly serious about the problems in their lives, and that the ability to see the humor in their dysfunctional behavior could be an early sign of recovery.
In the 4th Century people used to flock to the desert to seek counsel from holy hermits such as St. Antony of Egypt and St. John the Dwarf. The enigmatic advice dispensed by these desert-dwellers inspired me to invent an alter-ego for myself, an addle-brained ascetic named Abba Jonathan, whose "wisdom" is either so obscure, or so unnecessary, as to deflate any tendency I might have to take myself too seriously.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

synagogues, shuls, and temples

Synagogues, Shuls and Temples

Level: Basic
• A Jewish "church" is called a synagogue, shul or temple
• A synagogue is a place of worship and study, and a "town hall"
• Synagogues are run by laypeople and financed by membership dues
• There are several important ritual items found in the synagogue
• Non-Jews may visit a synagogue, but dress and should behave appropriately
• The Temple is the ancient center of Jewish worship where sacrifices were performed
The synagogue is the Jewish equivalent of a church, more or less. It is the center of the Jewish religious community: a place of prayer, study and education, social and charitable work, as well as a social center.

What's in a Name?

Throughout this site, I have used the word "synagogue," but there are actually several different terms for a Jewish "church," and you can tell a lot about people by the terms they use.
The Hebrew term is beit k'nesset (literally, House of Assembly), although you will rarely hear this term used in conversation in English.
The Orthodox and Chasidim typically use the word "shul," which is Yiddish. The word is derived from a German word meaning "school," and emphasizes the synagogue's role as a place of study.
Conservative Jews usually use the word "synagogue," which is actually a Greek translation of Beit K'nesset and means "place of assembly" (it's related to the word "synod").
Reform Jews use the word "temple," because they consider every one of their meeting places to be equivalent to, or a replacement for, The Temple in Jerusalem.
The use of the word "temple" to describe modern houses of prayer offends some traditional Jews, because it trivializes the importance of The Temple. The word "shul," on the other hand, is unfamiliar to many modern Jews. When in doubt, the word "synagogue" is the best bet, because everyone knows what it means, and I've never known anyone to be offended by it.

Functions of a Synagogue

At a minimum, a synagogue is a beit tefilah, a house of prayer. It is the place where Jews come together for community prayer services. Jews can satisfy the obligations of daily prayer by praying anywhere; however, there are certain prayers that can only be said in the presence of a minyan (a quorum of 10 adult men), and tradition teaches that there is more merit to praying with a group than there is in praying alone. The sanctity of the synagogue for this purpose is second only to The Temple. In fact, in rabbinical literature, the synagogue is sometimes referred to as the "little Temple."
A synagogue is usually also a beit midrash, a house of study. Contrary to popular belief, Jewish education does not end at the age of bar mitzvah. For the observant Jew, the study of sacred texts is a life-long task. Thus, a synagogue normally has a well-stocked library of sacred Jewish texts for members of the community to study. It is also the place where children receive their basic religious education.
Most synagogues also have a social hall for religious and non-religious activities. The synagogue often functions as a sort of town hall where matters of importance to the community can be discussed.
In addition, the synagogue functions as a social welfare agency, collecting and dispensing money and other items for the aid of the poor and needy within the community.

Organizational Structure

Synagogues are, for the most part, independent community organizations. In the United States, at least, individual synagogues do not answer to any central authority. There are central organizations for the various movements of Judaism, and synagogues are often affiliated with these organizations, but these organizations have no real power over individual synagogues.
Synagogues are generally run by a board of directors composed of lay people. They manage and maintain the synagogue and its activities, and hire a rabbi and chazzan (cantor) for the community.
Yes, you read that right: Jewish clergy are employees of the synagogue, hired and fired by the lay members of the synagogue. Clergy are not provided by any central organization, as they are in some denominations of Christianity. However, if a synagogue hires a rabbi or chazzan that is not acceptable to the central organization, they may lose membership in that central organization. For example, if an Orthodox synagogue hires a Reform rabbi, the synagogue will lose membership in the Orthodox Union. If a Conservative synagogue wishes to hire a Reconstructionist rabbi, it must first get permission from the USCJ. The rabbi usually works with a ritual committee made up of lay members of the synagogue to set standards and procedures for the synagogue. Not surprisingly, there can be tension between the rabbi and the membership (his employers) if they do not have the same standards, for example if the membership wants to serve pepperoni pizza (not kosher) at a synagogue event.
It is worth noting that a synagogue can exist without a rabbi or a chazzan: religious services can be, and often are, conducted by lay people in whole or in part. It is not unusual for a synagogue to be without a rabbi, at least temporarily, and many synagogues, particularly smaller ones, have no chazzan. However, the rabbi and chazzan are valuable members of the community, providing leadership, guidance and education.
Synagogues do not pass around collection plates during services, as many churches do. This is largely because Jewish law prohibits carrying money on holidays and Shabbat. Tzedakah (charitable donation) is routinely collected at weekday morning services, usually through a centrally-located pushke, but this money is usually given to charity, and not used for synagogue expenses. Instead, synagogues are financed through membership dues paid annually, through voluntary donations, through the purchase of reserved seats for services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the holidays when the synagogue is most crowded), and through the purchase of various types of memorial plaques. It is important to note, however, that you do not have to be a member of a synagogue in order to worship there. If you plan to worship at a synagogue regularly and you have the financial means, you should certainly pay your dues to cover your fair share of the synagogue's costs, but no synagogue checks membership cards at the door (except possibly on the High Holidays mentioned above, if there aren't enough seats for everyone).

Ritual Items in the Synagogue

The portion of the synagogue where prayer services are performed is commonly called the sanctuary. Synagogues in the United States are generally designed so that the front of the sanctuary is on the side towards Jerusalem, which is the direction that we are supposed to face when reciting certain prayers.
ArkProbably the most important feature of the sanctuary is the Ark, a cabinet or recession in the wall that holds the Torah scrolls. The Ark is also called the Aron Kodesh ("holy cabinet"), and I was once told that the term "ark" is an acrostic of "aron kodesh," although someone else told me that "ark" is just an old word for a chest. In any case, the word has no relation to Noah's Ark, which is the word "teyvat" in Hebrew.
The Ark is generally placed in the front of the room; that is, on the side towards Jerusalem. The Ark has doors as well as an inner curtain called a parokhet. This curtain is in imitation of the curtain in the Sanctuary in The Temple, and is named for it. During certain prayers, the doors and/or curtain of the Ark may be opened or closed. Opening or closing the doors or curtain is performed by a member of the congregation, and is considered an honor. All congregants stand when the Ark is open.
In front of and slightly above the Ark, you will find the ner tamid, the Eternal Lamp. This lamp symbolizes the commandment to keep a light burning in the Tabernacle outside of the curtain surrounding the Ark of the Covenant. (Ex. 27:20-21).
MenorahIn addition to the ner tamid, you may find a menorah (candelabrum) in many synagogues, symbolizing the menorah in the Temple. The menorah in the synagogue will generally have six or eight branches instead of the Temple menorah's seven, because exact duplication of the Temple's ritual items is improper.
In the center of the room or in the front you will find a pedestal called the bimah. The Torah scrolls are placed on the bimah when they are read. The bimah is also sometimes used as a podium for leading services. There is an additional, lower lectern in some synagogues called an amud.
MechitzahIn Orthodox synagogues, you will also find a separate section where the women sit. This may be on an upper floor balcony, or in the back of the room, or on the side of the room, separated from the men's section by a wall or curtain called a mechitzah. Men are not permitted to pray in the presence of women, because they are supposed to have their minds on their prayers, not on pretty girls. See The Role of Women in the Synagogue for details.

Finding a Synagogue

If you are interested in finding an Orthodox synagogue or minyan (prayer group) in your area, check out Go Daven, a searchable worldwide database of Orthodox minyans. Just tell them where you want to daven (pray), and they'll find you an Orthodox minyan, complete with service times and even a link to a map! Chabad, a division of the Lubavitcher Chasidic movement, also has a good searchable directory of their prayer and learning centers. Although Chabad is strictly and uncompromisingly Orthodox, they are very open to those at a different level of observance who are interested in learning.
If you would prefer a Conservative synagogue, try the USCJ's Find a Kehilla page. If you prefer Reform, try the URJ's Directory of Congregations. For Reconstructionist synagogues, try the JRF's directory of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot.

Non-Jews Visiting a Synagogue

Non-Jews are always welcome to attend services in a synagogue, so long as they behave as proper guests. Proselytizing and "witnessing" to the congregation are not proper guest behavior. Would you walk into a stranger's house and criticize the decor? But we always welcome non-Jews who come to synagogue out of genuine curiosity, interest in the service or simply to join a friend in celebration of a Jewish event.
When going to a synagogue, you should dress as you would for church: nicely, formally, and modestly. A man should wear a yarmulke (skullcap) if Jewish men in the congregation do so; yarmulkes are available at the entrance for those who do not have one. In some synagogues, married women should also wear a head covering. A piece of lace sometimes called a "chapel hat" is generally provided for this purpose in synagogues where this is required. Non-Jews should not, however, wear a tallit (prayer shawl) or tefillin, because these items are signs of our obligation to observe Jewish law.
If you are in an Orthodox synagogue, be careful to sit in the right section: men and women are seated separately in an Orthodox synagogue. See The Role of Women in the Synagogue for details.
During services, non-Jews can follow along with the English, which is normally printed side-by-side with the Hebrew in the prayerbook. You may join in with as much or as little of the prayer service as you feel comfortable participating in. You may wish to review Jewish Liturgy before attending the service, to gain a better understanding of what is going on.
Non-Jews should stand whenever the Ark is open and when the Torah is carried to or from the Ark, as a sign of respect for the Torah and for G-d. At any other time where worshippers stand, non-Jews may stand or sit.

The Temple

When we speak of The Temple, we speak of the place in Jerusalem that was the center of Jewish worship from the time of Solomon to its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E. This was the one and only place where sacrifices and certain other religious rituals were performed. It was partially destroyed at the time of the Babylonian Exile and rebuilt. The rebuilt temple was known as the Second Temple. The famous "Wailing Wall" (known to Jews as the Western Wall or in Hebrew, the Kotel) is the remains of the western retaining wall of the hill that the Temple was built on. It is as close to the site of the original Sanctuary as Jews can go today. You can see a live picture of the Kotel and learn about it at KotelCam. The Temple was located on a platform above and behind this wall.
Today, the site of The Temple is occupied by the Dome of the Rock (a Muslim shrine for pilgrims) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque (a Muslim house of prayer). The Dome of the Rock is the gold-domed building that figures prominently in most pictures of Jerusalem.
Traditional Jews believe that The Temple will be rebuilt when the Mashiach (Messiah) comes. They eagerly await that day and pray for it continually.
Modern Jews, on the other hand, reject the idea of rebuilding the Temple and resuming sacrifices. They call their houses of prayer "temples," believing that such houses of worship are the only temples we need, the only temples we will ever have, and are equivalent to the Temple in Jerusalem. This idea is very offensive to some traditional Jews, which is why you should be very careful when using the word Temple to describe a Jewish place of worship.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Thursday, October 10, 2013


notes on the Ark of the Covenant, The Temple, and the Wailing Wall

Building the Ark
The construction of the Ark is commanded by God to Moses while the Jews were still camped at Sinai (Ex. 25:10-22; 37:1-9). The Ark was a box with the dimensions of two-and-a-half cubits in length, by one-and-a-half cubits in heights, by one-and-a-half cubits in width (a cubit is about 18 inches). It was constructed of acacia wood, and was plated with pure gold, inside and out. On the bottom of the box, four gold rings were attached, through which two poles, also made of acacia and coated in gold, were put. The family of Kehath, of the tribe of Levi, would carry the ark on their shoulders using these poles.

Artistic rendering of the Ark of the Covenant
Covering the box was the kapporet, a pure gold covering that was two-and-a-half by one-and-a-half cubits. Attached to the kapporet were two sculpted Cherubs, also made of pure gold. The two Cherubs faced one another, and their wings, which wrapped around their bodies, touched between them.
The contents of the Ark has been debated through the centuries. The general consensus is that the first tablets containing the Ten Commandments, which were broken by Moses, and the second tablets, which remained intact, were contained in the Ark (Bava Batra 14b). According to one opinion in the Talmud, both Tablets were together in the Ark; according to another, there were two Arks, and each contained one set of Tablets (Berakhot 8b).
The Ark was built by Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, who constructed the entire Tabernacle – the portable Temple used in the desert and during the conquest of the land of Israel. The Tabernacle was the resting place for the Ark, and also contained other vessels that were used in the physical worship of God. The Biblical commentators argue over why God commanded Moses to build a Tabernacle in the first place: According to Rashi (Ex. 31:18), God realized after the sin of the Golden Calf that the Israelites needed an outlet for physical worship, and commanded that they build the Tabernacle as a way of expressing their own need for physical representation of God. According to Nachmanides (Ex. 25:1), however, the Jews were commanded to build the Tabernacle even before the sin of the Golden Calf; rather than filling a human need, the Tabernacle was God's method of achieving continuous revelation in the Israelites' camp. These two opinions as to whether the Tabernacles, and the Temples that followed them, were an a priori necessity or a necessary evil demonstrate the controversial role of physical worship in Judaism as a whole.
The Role of the Ark
The Ark was used in the desert and in Israel proper for a number of spiritual and pragmatic purposes. Practically, God used the Ark as an indicator of when he wanted the nation to travel, and when to stop. In the traveling formation in the desert, the Ark was carried 2000 cubits ahead of the nation (Num. R. 2:9). According to one midrash, it would clear the path for the nation by burning snakes, scorpions, and thorns with two jets of flame that shot from its underside (T. VaYakhel, 7); another midrash says that rather than being carried by its bearers, the Ark in fact carried its bearers inches above the ground (Sotah 35a). When the Israelites went to war in the desert and during the conquering of Canaan, the Ark accompanied them; whether its presence was symbolic, to provide motivation for the Jews, or whether it actually aided them in fighting, is debated by commentators.
Spiritually, the Ark was the manifestation of God's physical presence on earth (the shekhina). When God spoke with Moses in the Tent of Meeting in the desert, he did so from between the two Cherubs (Num. 7:89). Once the Ark was moved into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple, it was accessible only once a year, and then, only by one person. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) could enter the Holy of Holies to ask forgiveness for himself and for all the nation of Israel (Lev. 16:2).
The relationship between the Ark and the shekhina is reinforced by the recurring motif of clouds. God's presence is frequently seen in the guise of a cloud in the Bible (Ex. 24:16), and the Ark is constantly accompanied by clouds: When God spoke from between the Cherubs, there was a glowing cloud visible there (Ex. 40:35); when the Jews traveled, they were led by the Ark and a pillar of clouds (Num. 10:34); at night, the pillar of clouds was replaced by a pillar of fire, another common descriptor of God's appearance (Ex. 24:17); and when the High Priest entered presence of the Ark on Yom Kippur, he did so only under the cover of a cloud of incense, perhaps intended to mask the sight of the shekhina in all its glory (Lev. 16:13).
The holiness of the Ark also made it dangerous to those who came in contact with it. When Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, brought a foreign flame to offer a sacrifice in the Tabernacle, they were devoured by a fire that emanated "from the Lord" (Lev. 10:2). During the saga of the capture of the Ark by the Philistines, numerous people, including some who merely looked at the Ark, were killed by its power. Similarly, the Priests who served in the Tabernacle and Temple were told that viewing the Ark at an improper time would result in immediate death (Num. 4:20).
History of the Ark
The Ark accompanied the Jews throughout their time in the desert, traveling with them and accompanying them to their wars with Emor and Midian. When the Jews crossed into the land of Canaan, the waters of the Jordan River miraculously split and the Ark led them through (Josh. 3). Throughout their conquest of the land, the Jews were accompanied by the Ark. The most dramatic demonstration of its power comes when the Jews breached the walls of Jericho merely by circling them, blowing horns and carrying the Ark (Josh. 6).
After the conquest was completed, the Ark, and the entire Tabernacle, were set up in Shiloh (Josh. 18) . There they remained until the battles of the Jews with the Philistines during the Priesthood of Eli. The Jews, after suffering a defeat at the Philistines' hands, took the Ark from Shiloh to Even-Ezer in hopes of winning the next battle. But the Jews were routed, and the Ark was captured by the Philistines. Back in Shiloh, Eli, the High Priest, immediately died upon hearing the news (I Sam. 4).
The Philistines took the Ark back to Ashdod, their capital city in the south of Canaan, where they placed it in the temple of their god Dagon. The next day, however, they found the idol fallen on its face. After replacing the statue, they found it the next day decapitated, with only its trunk remaining, and soon afterward, the entire city of Ashdod was struck with a plague. The Philistines moved the Ark to the city of Gath, and from there to Ekron, but whatever city the Ark was in, the inhabitants were struck with plague. After seven months, the Philistines decided to send the Ark back to the Israelites, and accompanied it with expensive gifts. The Ark was taken back to Beit Shemesh, and, according to midrash, the oxen pulling the Ark burst into song as soon as it was once again in Israel's possession (A.Z. 22b). The actual text of the story, however, tells a much grimmer tale: The men of Beit Shemesh were punished for staring disrespectfully at the Ark, and many were killed with a plague.

The Church of St. Mary. The Treasury that is said to contain the Ark is in the background on the left.
From Beit Shemesh, the Ark was transported to Kiryat Yearim, where it remained for twenty years. From there, King David transported it to Jerusalem. En route, however, the oxen pulling it stumbled, and when Uzzah reached out to steady the Ark, he died immediately. As a result of this tragedy, David decided to leave the Ark at the home of Obed-edom the Gittite. Three months later, he moved it to Jerusalem, the seat of his kingdom, where it remained until the construction of the First Temple by David's son Solomon (I Sam. 5-6). When the Ark was finally placed in the Temple, the midrash reports that the golden tree decorations that adorned the walls blossomed with fruit that grew continuously until the Temple's destruction (Yoma 39b).
The crowning achievement of King Solomon's reign was the erection of the magnificent Temple (Hebrew- Beit haMikdash) in the capital city of ancient Israel - Jerusalem. His father, King David, had wanted to build the great Temple a generation earlier, as a permanent resting place for the Ark of the Covenant which contained the Ten Commandments. A divine edict, however, had forbidden him from doing so: "You will not build a house for My name," God said to David, "for you are a man of battles and have shed blood" (I Chronicles 28:3).

Artists rendering of Solomon's Temple
The Bible's description of Solomon's Temple (also called The First Temple) suggests that the inside ceiling was was 180 feet long, 90 feet wide, and 50 feet high. The highest point on the Temple that King Solomon built was actually 120 cubits tall (about 20 stories or about 207 feet).
According to the Tanach (II Chronicles):
       3:3- "The length by cubits after the ancient measure was threescore cubits, and the breadth twenty cubits".
       3:4- "And the porch that was before the house, the length of it, according to the breadth of the house, was twenty cubits, and the height a hundred and twenty; and he overlaid it within with pure gold."
Solomon spared no expense for the building's creation. He ordered vast quantities of cedar wood from King Hiram of Tyre (I Kings 5:20­25), had huge blocks of the choicest stone quarried, and commanded that the building's foundation be laid with hewn stone. To complete the massive project, he imposed forced labor on all his subjects, drafting people for work shifts that sometimes lasted a month at a time. Some 3,300 officials were appointed to oversee the Temple's erection (5:27­30). Solomon assumed such heavy debts in building the Temple that he is forced to pay off King Hiram by handing over twenty towns in the Galilee (I Kings 9:11).
When the Temple was completed, Solomon inaugurated it with prayer and sacrifice, and even invited non­Jews to come and pray there. He urged God to pay particular heed to their prayers: "Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House that I have built" (I Kings 8:43).

Sacrifice was the predominant mode of divine service in the Temple until it was destroyed by the Babylonians some four hundred years later, in 586 BCE. Seventy years later, after the story of Purim, a number of Jews returned to Israel - led by the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah - and the Second Temple was built on the same site. Sacrifices to God were once again resumed. During the first century B.C.E., Herod, the Roman appointed head of Judea, made substantial modifications to the Temple and the surrounding mountain, enlargening and expanding the Temple. The Second Temple, however, met the same fate as the first and was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., following the failure of the Great Revolt.
As glorious and elaborate as the Temple was, its most important room contained almost no furniture at all. Known as the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Kodashim), it housed the two tablets of the Ten Commandments inside the Ark of Covenant. Unfortunately, the tablets disappeared when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and, therefore, during the Second Temple era the Holy of Holies was reduced to small, entirely bare room. Only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would enter this room and pray to God on behalf of the Israelite nation


Psalm 51
8 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
   rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then you will delight in right sacrifices,
   in burnt-offerings and whole burnt-offerings;
   then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Psalm 122

A Song of Ascents. Of David.
1 I was glad when they said to me,
   ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’
2 Our feet are standing
   within your gates, O Jerusalem.

3 Jerusalem—built as a city
   that is bound firmly together.
4 To it the tribes go up,
   the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
   to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5 For there the thrones for judgement were set up,
   the thrones of the house of David.

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
   ‘May they prosper who love you.


Psalm 89.11:

The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours;
   the world and all that is in it—you have founded them.

Psalm 95

1 O come, let us sing to the Lord;
   let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
   let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
3 For the Lord is a great God,
   and a great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth;
   the heights of the mountains are his also.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
   and the dry land, which his hands have formed.

6 O come, let us worship and bow down,
   let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
7 For he is our God,
   and we are the people of his pasture,
   and the sheep of his hand.