Sunday, March 30, 2008

God's Clubhouse

The Jewish Week, June 20, 2002

As I sat in my ritual committee meeting last week, and 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 up 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 to 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 Bimah. 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 as often as Barry Bonds destroys fastballs, Jews have been obsessed with the architecture of worship, alternately building up and knocking down these high places, while consuming oodles of 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 Bimah 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 Bimah. Congregations have split over it. No doubt even Stan and Jan Berenstain have been burned by a Bimah snub at some point.

I tend to take an inclusive view when it comes to these things; but more and more I’ve come to realize that the question shouldn’t be who gets to go on the Bimah, but rather why we need to have a Bimah 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 Bimahs 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 Bimah and ark in the front of the sanctuary, modeling itself after European church architecture. This innovation was vigorously protested, leading to proclamation by 100 Orthodox rabbis prohibiting worship in a synagogue that does not have a Bimah in the center.

If these rabbis were concerned that the frontal Bimah 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 Bimah, which is located in the center. But the Bimah 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 Havurot, where congregants sit in a semi-circle facing the Bimah 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. In the 17th-century Altneuschul in Prague, this concept is brought to an extreme: the Bimah is enclosed in a wrought iron cage (a great idea for tag-team wrestling, but please do not try this on your local clergy).

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 (excluding unbearded men, for instance, or a person who pronounces an aleph as an ayin, or one suspected of being a “freethinker;” oh yes, and women) at least it gets us beyond who has the right to stand in the front of the room and eliminates the possibility of Bimah-envy.

There is much to be said for abolishing the frontal Bimah. At my synagogue, we hold many Bimah-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 to God’s Clubhouse. 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 wrought iron captivity. The mountain has become a molehill and we’ve discovered that at its peak there’s room enough for us all.

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