My Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column for October 2014: Downstairs Davening

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic advice column

Dear Rabbi,

I’ve been arguing with my friend, who wants me to join her at Shabbat services at an alternative minyan. She says I will find it more intellectual and more egalitarian and I should come with her. I explained to her that I went to that minyan once and found out that services were held in the basement of a private home.

I’ve learned that ideally public communal prayer should be conducted in the most aesthetic surroundings, preferably an attractive dedicated synagogue building, not a rec room.

I agree with that and I’m not going to go with my friend. But what should I tell her?

Aesthetic in Englewood

Dear Aesthetic,

It’s always best to tell your friend the truth about how you feel. But try not to disparage her choices when you do that.

In an ideal world, a community will provide its people with centralized places of worship that are artistically beautiful, intellectually stimulating, and open and welcoming to all who wish to come. By joining together in such venues, a local population can be more efficient in the use of its resources and strengthen social solidarity.

For most people, those simple, practical goals are enough to motivate them to accept some compromises to their independence and join in with the larger collective.

Your friend and her group want to vary from this path, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. It may be that they want a subtly variant style of prayer or that they want greater control over lectures and learning that they cannot have within a mainstream group.

We know that even the nicest finished basement cannot be ranked as the ideal architectural context for creating a sense of the numinous for awe-inspiring worship. But your friend and her ilk opt to forego that for their offbeat independence. And they seem to have the resources to sustain their preferences.

Although in theory you are right to conclude that for the context of public prayer, above ground is preferable to underground, permanent is better than ad hoc, and aesthetics do matter, you should recognize what’s going on and not criticize her group’s decisions.

In our complex communities we need to allow that one person’s rec room can be another person’s special spiritual place.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy was ordained at Yeshiva University and earned his Ph.D. in religious studies at Brown University. He has published several new Kindle Editions at Amazon.com, including “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi: The Greatest Talmudic Advice” which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

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