May Orthodox Jews pray in a basement?

We raise this Talmudic question after hearing a fine presentation last week by Professor David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College, which touched on many subjects including an analysis of a famous statement by Rabbi Israel Hildesheimer.

The 19th century Orthodox leader wrote an essay in which he replied to Hungarian Orthodox rabbis who forbade a whole bunch of synagogue innovations such as sermons in the vernacular, robes, choirs, spires, weddings in the shul, or pretty much any change in the synagogue from what they liked. Rabbi Hildesheimer pointed out that these edicts had no basis in Jewish law and took issue with his Orthodox adversaries.

An irony of the lecture apparently went right over the heads of all 50 or so people in attendance in Teaneck.

The sponsor was Davar, an alternative Orthodox minyan group that meets in the finished basement of a local home in the town. Although all speeches are offered in the vernacular, there are no spires, choirs or spiffy robes to be found anywhere in sight. No danger of the aesthetic innovations of other religions influencing this venue. It is a spacious and pleasant basement, but it was not designed originally to be a spacious and pleasant sacred space of worship.

This big question has always nagged at me. If you have an beautiful synagogue facility nearby - designed to be a sacred space - are you permitted to pray in a basement?

True, there is nothing rancid or offensive in such a venue. But the setting of Judaic prayer is part of the performance of the mitzvah - so should Jews not build and use the most aesthetic places that they can for prayer?

And given the choice of praying in an alleyway, a basement or a nice synagogue, is it not obvious that one should opt for the more classy locale?

Just a Talmudic inquiry tinged with irony.

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