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Why Synagogues Are Important - President's Message 22/07

22/07/16 00:41:48


Last week I discussed how my father’s death led me to daven at the daily minyan, an enveloping experience. Coincidentally, in his weekly Torah commentary on Parshas Chukat, former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also starts with the death of his father: he relates that his personal experience of the trauma of loss gave him insight in understanding the incident of Moses striking the rock instead of speaking to it to get water. He sees the parsha as being about death, loss and bereavement. He writes:

Miriam dies. Moses and Aaron are overwhelmed with grief. Moses, for a moment, loses control, and he and Aaron are reminded that they too are mortal and will die before entering the land. Yet this is, as Maimonides said, “the way of the world.” We are embodied souls. We are flesh and blood. We grow old. We lose those we love. Outwardly we struggle to maintain our composure but inwardly we weep. Yet life goes on, and what we began, others will continue. 

In the last book he wrote before becoming chief rabbi 25 years ago, Arguments for the Sake of Heaven – which you can find in our shul library – Sacks explores the past and the future of the Jewish people. He considers different approaches to Jewish identity. One of these comes from a leading Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, who articulated what he called the 614 commandment, that it is “forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory.” Sacks argues that suffering is not a source of Jewish identity: “Judaism survives despite Auschwitz, not because of it.” More generally, Sacks rejects anti-Semitism as the basis of identity because it is imposed, as Jewishness being something thrust upon the Jew. He also rejects Zionism and Israel as a substitute for Jewish religion. And he rejects minimalist conceptions of Jewish identity, whether it be a form of folk religion or feeling of kinship. Sacks argues that the Jews constituted a single people because of Torah, the essence “that bound them to a shared life, a shared history, and a shared destiny.” We are a faith community bound by a tradition of interpretation. As Sacks put in a more recent book, Future Tense (2009, also in our library):

Judaism is not an ethnicity, a culture, a set of folkways, a defiance of anti-Semitism or political correctness plus a yarmulkah (cap) and Jewish jokes. It is a faith, and the people who are in a state of denial about this are Jews. It was as a faith that Jews were born as a people, and it is as a faith that Jews will survive as a people. Leave faith out of the Jewish equation and what is left is a body without a soul. 

The institution of the synagogue dates from about 2500 years ago, from the time of the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile. Over a dozen synagogue sites dating from the Second Temple period have been discovered by archaeologists in Israel and elsewhere. When the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70, Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the leading rabbis of that era, “promulgated the idea of creating individual houses of worship in whatever locale Jews found themselves. This contributed to the continuity of the Jewish people by maintaining a unique identity and a portable way of worship despite the destruction of the Temple, according to many historians.” (Wikipedia) The structure of the prayer services was codified during the Talmudic era (the commonality of Ashkenazi and Sephardi services suggests that the main elements were in place over 1000 years ago). The synagogue is the main centre of Jewish life, religious, spiritual and social – a place of prayer (davening), assembly (kehillah) and learning (shul). For a faith community, the synagogue is where it’s at.

My wife Yvonne and I support many Jewish charities, JCA, UIA, JNF and others. We are fortunate that we are able to do so. They all do important things. But, in my view, they are in the periphery, we are at the core. Synagogues matter. Large, important synagogues like South Head matter a lot – we are the building blocks of the faith community of today and the future. 

Thu, 23 January 2020 26 Teves 5780

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