Yael Unterman

Is synagogue the place for leopards of outrage and pain?

Even the regular liturgy can snap us out of complacency, but for how long?
Stained glass windows in Jerusalem's Great Synagogue. (Wikipedia, Hebrew)
Stained glass windows in Jerusalem's Great Synagogue. (Wikipedia, Hebrew)

Two incidents over Shabbat made me reflect about the nature of the shared synagogue space.

The first took place on Friday night. The organizer and hazan (cantor) of my local Carlebach minyan has a strong sense of what should and should not be happening in shul, and as the founder and sovereign of this small kingdom, he certainly gets to dictate that. But this Friday night, he did something unusual. As we turned around for “Bo’i beshalom,” in Lekha Dodi, with some already launching into the tune, he called for silence and asked us to take a moment to think of the family of Sgt. Ron Kukia z”l who was killed in Arad on Thursday.

We stood in brief pause, our thoughts with a grieving family whose lives had been changed forever, and then continued with the prayer. At the end of the service, I asked a friend what she thought of this. She was perturbed. “I hadn’t heard about this,” she said. “We don’t deliver bad news on Shabbat.” I asked her: “If you had heard, then would this have been appropriate?” She shook her heard. “It lowers your spirits.”

My friend is a good person. I am sure she cares about the soldier’s family. I presume that, like me, she simply did not want to be forcibly jolted out of the haven of sweet melodies, of the one night in the week when we can forget the tensions in Israel and the world and our private lives, can connect to God and community, and be uplifted, soothed and healed.

The following day, sitting in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue surrounded by chandeliers and elegant women, I was listening with half an ear to the Torah reading, preoccupied with my thoughts. Then the reader came to the narrative in which Dina is taken (whether she is actually raped or not is a matter of discussion, see here for the case for not) by Shechem son of Hamor, a neighbor of Jacob, and the subsequent revenge plot and massacre by her brothers Shimon and Levi. During this passage, the reader lowered his voice. This drew my attention, and I was suddenly fully in the story, actually experiencing a deep pain, to the point of tears, that my ancestors carried out such a heinous deed. I know some who applaud Shimon and Levi; I am not one of them.

Moreover, beyond the brutality and disregard for human life, it also struck me for the first time that, that the use of the circumcision that is God’s covenant as a ruse to weaken the men, pretending that thus they would be able to join in an alliance with the family of Jacob, is disgusting. In the recent move to sanction a get-refuser in one of the Israeli towns, the argument I’ve heard made is that, no matter what, the halacha should not be used as a card in a divorce battle. We should not be using mitzvot and halacha as ways to deceive, or score points, or for anything aside from their intended sacred usage. This is a gross abuse.

After Shabbat, I looked up some sources around reading in a low voice. It is customary to read the section of curses (Lev. 26:14-29 and Deut. 28:15-68) quietly, though even this is not fully agreed upon. There are also those who recommend reading the incident of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32) in a muted voice. However, the author of Shaar Hamifkad points out that if we start doing this for every narrative of which we are ashamed, we will also have to read the stories of Korach, the spies, the immorality with the daughters of Moab and any number of other texts in a low voice — there are no end of embarrassing tales. Tellingly, he does not mention the story of Dina and I do not believe there is a source for this custom.

Perhaps I imagined it, perhaps not. Regardless, it had its effect on me. In raising this online with friends, a discussion raged as to whether it is legitimate for the ba’al korei to insert emotions and dramatics into the reading. Some felt strongly that the leining should be as neutral as possible, sans any special emphases (especially in a passage that is the subject of controversy). Others proposed that there is no such thing as neutral. People brought examples of things recently done in their synagogues, such as leaving a gap between “I am” and “Esau your firstborn,” in line with the midrash, which they found annoying; or complained of the funny voices used during megillat Esther at the expense of the accuracy of the reading. A friend who is involved theatre was fascinated by the question of the dramatics involved in leining. Another friend even shared that “So much of leining is personal choice that it can make or break my Shabbat.”

I’ve never reflected on this specific subject before. It’s fascinating. Except for instances of mere pedantry for pedantry’s sake, I feel that the fact that we care about the text and how it is read to the point that it “can make or break our Shabbat” is a good thing. Even more than this, the fact that, whether intentionally or not, the baal korei drew me back from my dreamworld into the story and I experienced it, for a moment, as vividly as if it had just occurred yesterday in my own hometown, means that it is alive for me, that it can affect my heart. This is the crux of the matter.

Franz Kafka has an incredible extremely short story entitled “Leopard in the Synagogue”:

One day a leopard came stalking into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail.

Three weeks later, it had become part of the liturgy.

This is what we want to avoid, at all costs. The routine. A synagogue full of comatose words floating listlessly mid-air instead of soaring to the skies and roaring in our ears.

Returning to what happened Friday night. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo has, in the past, suggested that we add prayers into the synagogue service for Syria and other instances of moral atrocities or natural disasters. He observes in disappointment: “… one place that seems to be totally indifferent to what is happening in Syria and in other parts of the world is the Orthodox synagogue, the most Jewish place of all, and of which I am a proud member.” He, in fact, sent out a prayer for world peace that he had penned, suggesting it be said during services, but very few Orthodox synagogues took it on board; it was mostly non-Orthodox synagogues and some churches that accepted it.

In discussions with him, I have expressed my doubts as to whether the middle of the prayer service is the right place for this moral stance, important as it is. Prayer is a very reflective, personal place, and the design of the traditional synagogue service serves to create a refuge and a fortress against the outside world. On the other hand, rabbis in their sermons often bring in current affairs, and we say a prayer for the sovereign, the government, and (in many places) IDF soldiers. I feel that at this point in the service — and perhaps only at this point (or, on Friday night, before Maariv or before Adon Olam?).– is the appropriate place to add in prayers for world events, before we re-enter the rarefied private and inner mode that characterizes the sanctum and its prayer.

Though I imagine that, were such prayers to be added, the leopard of outrage might well within three weeks become part of the liturgy. Such is the way of things.

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of fictional stories, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. Contact Yael if you would like to participate in Bibliodrama sessions on Zoom.
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