Friday, July 26, 2002

God’s Clubhouse (Jewish Week)


God’s Clubhouse
Joshua Hammerman

As I sat in my ritual committee meeting last week, all I could think about was a Berenstain Bears story that I used to read to my kids at bedtime. It was the one where Brother Bear decides to build a clubhouse in a tree to get away from his tag-along younger sister. Sister takes a walk into the woods looking for Brother and is shocked to see the big sign out front of his hut, “NO GIRLS ALLOWED.” A big to-do ensues, with Mama and Papa Bear eventually helping Sister build her own girls-only clubhouse, fully stocked with a smorgasbord of honeycomb and salmon. This attracts Brother, who is invited up for a snack and recognizes the errors of his ways.

The Berenstains would have appreciated the committee meeting because Topic A was that elevated piece of real estate that seems to cause more controversy among Jews than any other property this side of the Green Line: the bima. Not that this is anything new. God’s Clubhouse has been a hot topic for thousands of years. Ever since the days of King Josiah, who destroyed lofty holy sites the way Barry Bonds destroys fastballs, Jews have been obsessed with the architecture of worship, alternately building up and knocking down these high places while consuming much energy trying to figure out who belongs up there and who does not.

For my congregation the issue was finding appropriate ways of involving non-Jewish parents of a bar or bat mitzvah on the pulpit. For other synagogues the issue might be the presence on the bima of women, non-Jewish clergy, animals, mini-skirts, Republicans, ex-presidents, board members who’ve been indicted, husbands who haven’t given their divorced wives a proper “get,” or Bibi Netanyahu. Rabbis have been fired over whom they’ve invited onto the bima. Congregations have split over it.

I tend to take an inclusive view on these things. More and more, however, I’ve come to realize that the question should not be who gets to go on the bima but rather why we need to have a bima at all. I love the symbolism of seeking God in high places, but if God is everywhere, why not low ones as well? While Psalm 121 speaks of how we “turn our eyes toward the mountains, from where my help will come,” Psalm 130 suggests a more humble approach: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” This latter verse has inspired the construction of some bima s below the level of the sanctuary floor, sort of like an orchestra pit.

For most of Jewish history, the reader’s pulpit was located primarily in the center of the sanctuary and not where the ark and Torah scrolls were found. That changed in the 19th century when the Reform movement located both the bima and ark in the front of the sanctuary, modeling itself after European church architecture. This innovation was vigorously protested, leading to a proclamation by 100 Orthodox rabbis prohibiting worship in a synagogue that does not have a bima in the center.

If these rabbis were concerned that the frontal bima would lead to a more theatrical, less participatory service, they were right. The liberal movements have been paying the price for that innovation ever since, and many congregations have lowered their nosebleed pulpits in recent years. But I wonder how many of the Reform originators of the modern pulpit had any idea that it would eventually become a vehicle for arbitrary discrimination. If the stifling lack of participation weren’t enough reason to cut it down, the fact that it has become a weapon for pettiness and unnecessary exclusion should be.

Maimonides understood this nine centuries ago. In the design favored in his Mishnah Torah, the entire congregation sits in rows facing a fixed platform up front where the ark and Torah scroll are placed. Most have their backs to the bima, which is located in the center. But the bima is where almost all of the service takes place, including the sermon and reading of the Torah. (This configuration differs from many contemporary synagogues and chavurot, where congregants sit in a semi-circle facing the bima in the center, with all eyes on the leader.) In Maimonides’ scheme, the service leader is meant to be heard, not seen. Humility is emphasized, so that nothing might distract us from contemplating the divine.

Appropriately, the focus of halachic sources is not on who stands where but on who is qualified to represent the community in leading the service. While I do not agree with some of the traditional restrictions, most notably women, at least it gets us beyond who has the right to stand in the front of the room and eliminates the possibility of bima-envy.

There is much to be said for abolishing the frontal bima. At my synagogue, we hold many bima-free services outside the main sanctuary, and even in the “big room,” I now spend most of the service off the pulpit. The primary result is that we’re less preoccupied with who’s been invited up to the bima. Board members now get to sit with their families or be warm and welcoming in the back. Seeking God has become less a matter of who belongs up there and more of what’s going on down here.

Liberated from the distractions, I’ve actually caught myself praying from time to time. Perhaps even God has relished this release from captivity.

The mountain has become a molehill and we’ve discovered that at its peak there’s room enough for us all. n

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., can be reached at His new book, “ Seeking God in Cyberspace” can be previewed on-line at

Special To The Jewish Week

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