A Priest Walks into a Shul…

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Have you ever been to a church service?

Me neither.

Still, I (and perhaps you) have an image of what one is like. And that image, strange as it might seem, is an important one for observant Jews to regularly recall. At least according to the Magen Avrohom and the Chasam Sofer.

There are many different types of churches, of course. Many, probably most, are places of solemnity and high ritual, with congregants maintaining a reverent silence, other than to chant prayers when such is indicated. There are also non-Jewish places of worship, of course, that are loud and boisterous, echoing with “amen!”s and fervent encouragements of sermonizers.

All, though—at least to my imagining, which I have been told is pretty much accurate—are places where petty conversation during services is unheard and unheard of.

Which brings us, or should, to a paragraph in the famous 19th century encyclopedia of halachic responsa, the Sdei Chemed (written by Rav Chaim Chizkiya Medini). It cites (in Maareches Beis Haknesses, 21) the Magen Avrohom and the Chasam Sofer to the effect that any behavior considered disrespectful in a society’s non-Jewish houses of worship becomes, as a result, forbidden in Jewish shuls. Even actions that are otherwise permitted by halacha in a shul, if they are shunned as disrespectful in neighboring churches, are forbidden to Jews in their own places of worship.

In a similar vein, the Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chayim 66:4) writes that the permission provided by halacha for interruptions to Kri’as Shma and its brachos (to greet certain people or return greetings) no longer applies today, as “now it would be considered irreverent for someone to interrupt [his prayers to greet anyone or return a greeting].”

“We in fact see,” continues the sefer’s renowned author, Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, “that even when a [non-Jewish] minister [sar] comes to a Jew’s home and finds him praying, he will not speak with him, and will wait until he has completed his prayer.” Here too, it is clear, the etiquette acceptable in society has an impact on halachos regarding prayer, rendering what was once proper improper.

It may strike us as odd that what transpires in a church should have import regarding the halacha of a beis k’nesses. But the presumed reasoning of the poskim cited is that respect is something societally variable; to treat an object or place with halachically mandated respect requires not only actions or inactions codified from the start in halacha but also those that have come to be accepted by larger society. It would be disrespectful, in other words, for Jews to be perceived as less respectful of their places of worship than their non-Jewish neighbors are of theirs. It’s hard to argue otherwise.

Perhaps there are churches where congregants “warm up” to services by discussing business or sports or the stock market. Maybe there are others where those present take the opportunity of a pause in the service to gossip or share jokes or bring one another up to date on their families.

But I don’t think so.

There are many shuls where proper decorum is the norm. But, as we all know, there are many, too, that reflect less the concept of a mikdash me’at (a miniature Holy Temple) than a shuk me’at.

Some people, kindly, view the laxity of decorum in such shuls with a generous eye, as a sign of the comfort Jews feel in their place of prayer. We feel at home in shul, the “favorable judgment” goes. And indeed we do, and we should.

But even a comfortable “heimishe” shul is still a shul. And even a familiar davening is still a davening. We are comfortable holding a sefer Torah too, but who among us (one hopes) would think of telling a joke or providing a post-game analysis while doing so?

Something to imagine during chazaras hashatz or Kaddish: A priest or minister—or one of their congregants—walks into shul just then. Imagine his expression. Does it show that he is impressed with the dignity of the Jewish worship service he is witnessing? Or is his face clouded over in puzzlement?

© 2012 AMI MAGAZINE

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