Is a non-Orthodox Synagogue in Pittsburgh a synagogue?

When Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Lau replied to a newspaper interviewer who noted that the haredi media won’t use the word “synagogue” to refer to a Reform or Conservative house of worship even while reporting on the killing of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue; Rabbi Lau said he doesn’t speak for the haredi media, and that he often disagrees with what they do and write.

That was nice, but Rabbi Lau missed a good opportunity to openly say Conservative and Reform synagogues were indeed Jewish synagogues and to rebuke those in the haredi media who won’t use the word “synagogue” to refer to a Reform or Conservative house of worship. Rabbi Lau should learn from Rabbi Hanina who taught [Shabbat 119b]: “Jerusalem was destroyed only because its inhabitants did not reprove one another. Israel in that generation kept their faces looking down to the ground and did not reprove one another.”

Although six weeks have passed since Yom Kippur, it is good to look at a passage in Talmud [Yoma 39b] which discusses numerous remarkable phenomena that occurred in the Jerusalem Temple during the Yom Kippur service; stating that there was a strip of scarlet-dyed wool tied to the head of the scapegoat that would turn white in the presence of the large crowd gathered at the Temple on the Day of Atonement.

The Jewish people perceived this transformation as a heavenly sign that their sins were forgiven. The Talmud then relates, that 40 years before the destruction of the second Temple the scarlet colored strip of wool did not turn white: “The Rabbis taught that forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple the lot did not come up in the [high priest’s] right hand, nor did the tongue of scarlet wool become white . . . [Yoma 39b]

Citing the above statement, many Christian missionaries contend that the year the scarlet ribbon ceased turning white coincides with Jesus’ crucifixion because 40 years prior to the second Temple’s destruction corresponds to the year 30 C.E. which is about the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus they conclude the whitening of the scarlet ribbon ended because God was no longer accepting animal sacrifices, and the Jewish people therefore, needed to turn to Jesus as their only possible avenue for atonement.

However, the discussion leading to this quote actually begins on the previous page 39a. The Talmud begins with a discussion of the deteriorating spiritual condition of the Jewish people during the second Temple period. Throughout this fascinating discourse, the miraculous events that transpired during the Temple ceremonies are the barometer used to measure the religious decline of the nation of Israel during this epoch in Jewish history.

The three century period of time examined in this assessment begins with the era during which Shimon HaTzaddik officiated as the high priest until the time that the Romans destroyed the second Temple in the year 70 C.E. More specifically, the Talmud breaks this period down into three successive stages, with the first stage being the most meritorious, the second marking a gradual spiritual decline, and the third the most deleterious.

The Talmud begins by recounting the miraculous events that repeatedly occurred during the forty years when Shimon HaTzaddik officiated as high priest, by relating how the appearance of these miracles progressively diminished in the years that followed his death. These events are as follows:

1) The lot inscribed “LaHashem,” would always appear in the right hand of the high priest6 during the Yom Kippur service.

2) The strip of scarlet-dyed wool which was tied to the head of the scapegoat always turned white during the Yom Kippur service.

3) The western-most lamp of the Temple menorah remained lit until the priest would use its fire to kindle the next day’s lamps.

4) The pyre on the alter never required any additional wood to sustain the fire.

The faithfulness, kindness and goodwill that Shimon HaTzaddik embodied during his public tenure as high priest had inspired the Jewish nation. His most famous maxim was, “The world exists on three things: the Torah, Divine worship, and acts of kindness.” (Pirkay Avot 1:2) His extraordinary character affected the people deeply, and this manifested itself with their being able to see many miraculous events in the Temple.

Following his death however, the Jewish people were unable to sustain the spiritual heights they had achieved during Shimon HaTzaddik’s lifetime. They slid into a downward spiritual spiral. This decline continued and worsened as the second Temple era continued to unfold. After the death of Shimon HaTzaddik the occurrence of these miracles became sporadic; some years these signs were seen, in other years they were not.

This spiritual decay plunged to its lowest point during the last 40 years of the second Temple period when none of the above miracles occurred during these last four decades of the second Temple.

So what dreadful sins did the children of Israel indulge in during these last 40 years of the second Temple that proved so devastating to their spiritual subsistence?

The most profound rabbinic statement is from Midrash Eikhah Rabbah [1:33]: “Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things which existed in it: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. …But why was the Second Temple destroyed, since at that time people were involved in study, mitzvot, and deeds of kindness? Because at that time there was senseless hatred among the Jewish people. This teaches that unrestrained hatred is as powerful an evil as idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed combined!”

And the nation’s religious leaders did not reprove the haters in public, especially those establishment leaders who disparaged all the sects that disagreed with them. Rabbi Hanina taught [Shabbat 119b]: “Jerusalem was destroyed only because its inhabitants did not reprove one another. Israel in that generation kept their faces looking down to the ground and did not reprove one another.”

As the government of Israel’s report on the murder of Prime Minister Rabin concluded; Avtalyon, (a Greek or Roman convert to Judaism) taught: “(Yeshivah) scholars, be careful with your words, lest you deserve a deserved exile to a place of evil (extremist) waters; and your disciples who come after you drink and die, and the Name of God be desecrated.” [Avot 1:11]

The Talmud also records this amazing statement, “Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘Jerusalem was only destroyed, because they judged by Din Torah (rigorous/strict Law). Should they have judged by the brutal (Roman) laws?–(no,) but they judged by strict law, and did not go Lifnim miShurat haDin (beyond the line/letter of the law). [Bava Mezia 30b].

Strict halakah and narrow minded zeal easily lead to anger and hate, which unfettered and unrestrained lead to the disaster. It is not surprising that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai openly criticizes the failure to judge people with understanding, flexibility and loving tolerance. He was the only Rabbi in the Talmud to openly declare a Torah commandment (sotah), suspended due to changed circumstances.

But there were Rabbis who tried to overcome the spread of narrow minded, self righteous religious leaders by decreeing a special blessing to be said when we see a very large population of Jews, who because of their great numbers must include more sects of Jews than we ourselves would normally associate with: “Blessed is the Sage of Esoterica, for the opinion of each (Jew) is different from the other, just as the face of each (Jew) is different from the other.” [Berakhot 58a]

This is a blessing of religious pluralism that needs to be recited by every religious leader every day.

For more insight into the importance and spiritual benefits of religious pluralism, see my just published book: “Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st century Kuzari”, (Hadassa Word Press ISBN 978-620-2-45517-6)

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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