My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy Talmudic Advice Column for May 2017: Peeved Over Pews - Stressed Over Seats

My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy Talmudic Advice Column for May 2017: 
Peeved Over Pews - Stressed Over Seats

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

My shul is like a multiplex theater. On Shabbat morning we have multiple minyans that start at different times in several locations throughout our building. This accommodates our diverse community of various ages and praying styles.

Now, after a couple of years, a relatively new minyan of younger people got approval to move from its initial social hall location to one of the main sanctuaries. Ostensibly this move will be a trade. The minyan that now occupies the main space, mostly older people, will be relocated to our less desirable location. However, there is ambiguity in the move. Current occupants may opt to stay where they are, making this more of a merger than a trade.

Here is my question. In preparing for the move, a spokesman at the younger minyan gave the timetable for the switch a few weeks before it was to take place. He added that all seating in the main location will become open and up for grabs. The older people will have no claim to a regular spot in the pews, he said.

Among the uncertainties raised by this move, I was taken aback particularly by the insensitivity, perhaps the rudeness, of this declaration. Should we not absolutely respect the established seats of others? Am I right about this? What can I say or do to smooth all of this over?

Peeved over pews in Teaneck

Dear Peeved,

Wow, these seating and space issues sure do touch on a nerve. And yes, the younger spokesman missed picking up on the potential pitfalls because of the sensitivity people have about their accustomed seats in shul. Let’s consider why that is the case, why most people care about this topic, and why some people just do not get it.

First, let’s look at the most obvious examples of special seating in shuls, synagogues, and temples.

Of course, we know from a popular cultural source the special status that some seats can have in some shuls. Tevye the milkman, in the timeless Broadway show “Fiddler on the Roof,” proclaims in his song, “If I were a Rich Man”: “If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack / To sit in the synagogue and pray, / And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall…”

We do know that seats are assigned by rows and number for the High Holidays in most synagogues and temples. The assignments can be based on status, wealth, seniority, or sequence of requests.

During the rest of the year, in the United States, it’s not that common for pews to be reserved officially. But in Israel I have seen small plaques on seats indicating that they belong to designated daveners.

And in many cases the rabbi, and perhaps the president of the synagogue, sits in a special seat of honor next to the Ark of the Torah. In these examples, preferred seating for public prayer can come at a price, or as a perk of a job.

What about for the rest of us, the hoi polloi, during the rest of the year? It may help if we step back and consider the familiar models of seating that we know about for other public events like movies, shows, concerts, operas, night clubs, sports events, and the like.

In most instances seats are assigned by row and number, today even in the grandstand at a ballgame and even in many local movie theaters. And the desirable seats frequently cost more. Should that be the case now for all the services in our places of worship?

Wait. You may object to any comparison of synagogue services to entertainment events. We say that we attend shul or temple to participate in sacred prayer, not to sit back and be entertained in a profane or secular manner. And that is true, in part.

Our activity in our public services vacillates. When we sing or meditate together, we are part of the performing chorus. And when we listen to the chazan chant the service, we are part of the docile audience listening to sacred musical. And when we follow along with the Torah reader, we are the spectators at a dramatic or informative chanted peroration or declaration.

So it seems that synagogue is a hybrid place, where those of us sitting in the pews are sometimes honored, sometimes participant members of the performing chorus, and often mainly attending audience members.

Professor Samuel Heilman brilliantly explained some of the details of the dynamics of the sociology of synagogue seating back in 1976, in a classic book called “Synagogue Life: A Study in Symbolic Interaction.” He made himself into a newcomer in his shul, becoming subject and observer, and used the technique of microanalysis of face-to-face behavior to study the social dynamics in his Orthodox synagogue.

He showed, with great skill and nuance, that people come to the synagogue not only for prayer and other spiritual purposes but also to establish where and how they fit into life in their religious community.

Knowing where you sit and with whom you share a pew is a key part of that process.

Heilman claimed that he acted as a native who “discovered how to look at once-taken-for-granted synagogue life like a stranger.” He urged that the “natives can use their special familiarity and still be trained to distance themselves from their own group, making use of the disciplines of sociology and anthropology.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we all need to step into a new skin and become anthropologists of our shuls. However, there are times when it is useful to step back and realize that if you mix things up in a structured social setting, there are potential consequences. Big ones.

Do consider that a new person entering an unfamiliar place of worship looks around and immediately is struck by the uncertainty of where to sit and by the anxiety that may arise from that. An old member has worked that out long ago. He or she is a pure established participant and ceases to be a new insecure observer.

In “Synagogue Life,” Heilman explained the synagogue seating choice process as follows (p. 36), “To begin with most people sit near friends, thereby exhibiting alliances. Moreover, those who sit together share other things besides friendship. They are often persons with similar occupations, and levels of education, both secular and Jewish. And, as becomes clear after a closer observation, seat neighbors tend, within the limits of modern Orthodoxy, to observe and deviate from halachic doctrines along the same lines.”

Heilman continued to point out that fixed-place seating establishes closed cliques. “Members know precisely where one section ends and another begins, and no one ever makes the mistake of sitting in the wrong place, i.e., invades a section and clique where he is not accepted.”

Accordingly, you are right to consider rude the blanket statement by a spokesman that regular seats need not be respected after the young people move their minyan and trade with — or “invade” — the main sanctuary.

You can see that there are many details that need to be worked out during any such social transition to keep it from seeming like an invasion. And there are two discernable modes in which to do that — the active and the passive.

If the active is the choice, people will need to talk in some formal or at least informal ways about how the old timers who stay will preserve their turf and cliques, and still accommodate the newcomers.

If the passive is the resolution mode, then you’ll have to have faith that things will work themselves out without nasty confrontations.

So I suggest that you take nothing for granted. There is always a danger that in either case disagreements and misunderstandings will occur. But good-faith negotiations can be encouraged. With determination, all parties can keep peace and harmony and establish a new micro-social order that includes a regular seating arrangement that satisfies the expectations of all the participants, all the observers, all the cliques and alliances, active or passive, young or old, wealthy or not.

And one more thought. It would be good to have a single designated official person overseeing all of this. And yet, despite having crowded and busy cosmopolitan shuls, our local congregations in New Jersey do not assign an official called the “shammos” to turn to, someone who can work things like this out. I’ve always lamented that the shammos is not a part of our local synagogue staff.

In the shuls I attended as a child, the shammos made efforts to serve many purposes. Firstly, he often was a Torah reader and service director. Less officially, yes, he helped people find seats, and in addition, he kept the social order and shushed people, when needed, to keep conversations to a minimum during the services.

I do not expect a turnabout and a sudden embrace of the idea of having a designated usher or a shammos in our shuls. I do suggest that for the first few weeks of the new minyan arrangements, some folks step up and act informally to help sort out the seating plans and all other adjustments. And during the realignment period, all good citizens ought to make extra efforts to keep the social harmony of the synagogue intact.

Let’s keep in mind that the word synagogue in Greek, and the term beit knesset in Hebrew, have no connotations of a place of spiritual fulfillment. They simply mean a place of gathering.

And know well that only if the activities of social congregating go smoothly, can the spirituality that we seek, and that we need, be present and palpable in our midst. Good luck with your upcoming realignments!

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is a prolific author and has published many books about the synagogue and prayer. His books about Judaism include “The Polychrome Historical Haggadah,” “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Talmudic Advice” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

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