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Saloons with Prayer Services

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The Wall Street Journal last month featured a front-page article titled “After These Jewish Prayer Services, Things Come ‘To Life’ at Open Bar,” with the sub-heading, “To Woo Worshippers, Synagogues Compete with Food and Booze.”

The article was quite expansive about a number of shuls that serve very elaborate feasts every week, with lavish food and abundant drink, like the banquets of Achashveirosh in his time. Why? “In the face of dwindling attendance…the sumptuous food, fine wines and liquors are a way to help draw congregants.”

Whatever it takes, I guess. Thousands upon thousands of dollars are spent per week on food and alcohol, with faithful Jews their enthusiastic consumers. No tuition “crisis” there.

In one shul, the rabbi has an “adviser on food and drink.” In another, a dedicated volunteer brings a gigantic bottle of $500 Scotch every Friday afternoon. In still another, the rabbi boasted about the “quality whiskey” served in his community: “the perception is, the more expensive the bottle, the more prestigious the Kiddush.”

Not to be outdone, a Conservative rabbinic leader claimed, in essence, that Conservative Jews are just as good (or bad) as the Orthodox. “Finding a really good kiddush – that’s a blood sport in the Jewish community,” he said.

At least he had the good sense to decry the “cult of alcohol” that exists in our world. One non-Jewish online commentator asked: “Where do I go to convert?”

The article quoted Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the OU, who described the phenomenon as “very upsetting” and “not in keeping with Jewish standards of modesty.”

Rabbi Hershel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere spoke about people in his shul in years past leaving davening in order to drink and coming back drunk and loud, and so liquor was banned. Period. Even for Kiddush. The article dryly notes: “Some members left in protest.” Big loss, I’m sure.

But the most telling statement was by Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis, who said: “Once upon a time, some people went to synagogue to talk to God. Nowadays, more and more people come to see their friends. The prayers and sermons are a distraction. Conviviality goes better with a drink.” Is he right? It certainly seems so.

We can yell “Kiddush, Kiddush” as much as we want and think it is somehow rooted in holiness, and exult “l’chaim” and think liquor is really life; we can speak until we are blue in the face about the “mitzvot” we can fulfill with wine and liquor; we can preach about the importance of kiruv (Jewish outreach) whatever the methodology used – even if underage college students are plied with free liquor to induce them to participate in “Jewish” activities; and we can really believe that what is most critical in shuls is getting bodies into seats and dues being paid.

But what is missing from all this is one word: God. Where is God in all this? What does any of this have to do with G-d?

This travesty sheds light on verses from the tragic vision of Yeshayahu that have always troubled me: “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? God says. I am satiated with ram-offerings and the choicest of fattened animals…” (Yeshayahu 1:11)

Traditionally, we understand the problem as insincerity – as bringing offerings in the Temple in a mechanical way, without repentance or genuine commitment. But that is true of the korban chatat or asham or even some olot (sin-, trespass-, or ascent-offerings) but what does that have to do with shelamim – peace-offerings that are brought on festive occasions or as personal expressions of gratitude? There is no repentance or sincerity required for shelamim. So why did the prophet castigate those as well – what he referred to as the “fattened calves”?

The answer is that even shelamim require at least an acknowledgment of God and recognition of the holiness of the Temple. Indeed, the Beit HaMikdash also hosted a perpetual feast. Many of the offerings brought had to be consumed pursuant to a rigid system – a day and a night for some, or two days and a night for others. They had to be eaten in the vicinity of the Temple, so that, in fact, in the Temple and its environs people were always eating and drinking. But they came to “seek out God’s presence” (Devarim 12:5).

To come to the Beit HaMikdash for the purpose of eating and drinking? For that the prophet admonished us in the harshest terms: “Who asked you to come and trample My courtyards?” (Yeshayahu 1:12). Indeed, who asked them to come? Apparently, God does not want them there – even for kiruv purposes, even to put bodies in seats, even to attract attention in newspapers. For the end result of such an edifice is churban – destruction. The building does not last, because it does not deserve to last.

King Shlomo stated (Mishlei 15:8) that “the offering of the wicked is an abomination to God,” and the Vilna Gaon commented here that “offering” means shelamim, the peace-offering that is purely voluntary and not at all for atonement – and yet it is still an abomination to God. But “His desire is the prayer of the upright.” He continued (ibid 15:16): “Even a little done with fear of God is better than a great abundance acquired with turmoil and commotion.” That is as true in life as it is for shuls and places of holiness. Quality matters more than quantity.

It is easy to build a shul: it is infinitely more difficult is to do it for the sake of Heaven, to serve only God and not man. That is much more complicated. Indeed, all shuls wrestle with the dilemma Professor Sarna highlighted – how to strike a balance between the people who come to shul to talk to God and the people who come to see their friends; between those who see the shul as a place to daven and learn Torah and those who see it as a social environment in which davening and learning are just two of several possible functions and activities.

The body finds its sustenance out there in the world, but the soul finds its enrichment in the places designated for holiness. That is the uniqueness of a shul that is easily lost amid the cacophony of clinking glasses.

We drive away the divine presence when we sully His holy places and transform them into saloons that host prayer services. But we gain eternity and sanctity, and with it the spread of His presence, by focusing on true service of God and surrender to His will.

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About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.


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One Response to “Saloons with Prayer Services”

  1. Gloria Wolff says:

    Excellent response to N Y Times biased article.

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