On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah – Vayak'heil: How Do We Build Our Communities?

Constructing the Miskhan brings us to ask - how can we build our communities? What do we need besides a synagogue space in order to engender a communal environment? Even something as simple as seating makes all the difference.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Vayak'heil, and he asks "What is the architecture of our Jewish community? And how do we build?"

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Vayak'heil, the second to last Torah portion in the Book of Exodus. You know that we have a series of parashiyot towards the end of Exodus that talk about the actual building and construction of the first praying place in Judaism. It was a modest, portable, wonderful, and simple basic creation of their hands and hearts called the Tabernacle, and it was carried by our ancestors on their journeys. So this is the second half, where we really actually see the actual doing -- not the plan to do it, but actual doing it. And it leads me to think about all the things that were in the ancient Tabernacle. And many of those elements were brought into the First and Second Temples that stood in Jerusalem.

And yet, I also want to focus on something that's not talked about, but is sort of a curious thing. So you have the table for sacrifices, of the incense. You have the ark. You have the place where the priests were, and the place where the people were. The one thing that seems to be really missing is something that all of you will say is not incidental to a praying place, which is someplace to sit down. I mean, can you imagine you go to a synagogue this week, and you get there for a wonderful Kabbalat Shabbat, and you look around and it's a beautiful space.... and there are no chairs. And you say, "All right. I could stand up for this service. But ...really?" Well, it turns out that the ancient portable praying place didn't have pews, didn't have seats, and it wasn't a necessarily for everybody to be gathered close in. And it turns out in the history of synagogues and sacred spaces that it wasn't until quite a bit later that we have pews at all, and that the pews are as we understand them today.

So just a few reference points. I know that we always talked about the Pew Study, right? It has to do with the Pew Charitable Trust, this amazing organization that does surveys about everything. This is kind of a "Jacobs Pew Survey," which is it's about pews, not the Pew Trust. So, again, if you're smiling a little bit, wherever you are, I appreciate that little smile. So it turns out that in looking at the history of Christianity, they would say that they're weren't pews until fairly recently. And the big, kind of, game-changer in Christianity was the sermon -- that basically services in the Catholic Church for the first millennium were, you know, a ritual experience. But there wasn't a such a long and detailed sermon. Once that became part of Protestant practice, people said, you know what, this is interesting, I'm going to need to sit down. Now, in the Jewish tradition, we did have and do have examples where pews were part of very old synagogues -- and yet, those pews might have been used differently.

I want to just single out one dramatic moment in the history of pews, and that has to do with Isaac Mayer Wise, whose centennial we're going to celebrate in March. He was the founder of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the URJ, the Union for Reform Judaism. He was the founder of the Hebrew Union College, he was the founder of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, he was the founder of the three central institutions of Reform Judaism -- the first one in 1873. Then HUC in 1875, 1889, the Central Conference of American Rabbis. One of his great innovations that he's credited with is the family pew. You know that in traditional Jewish life, men sit separately from the women, and it was always a great cause of pride that our founder of the UHC, now the URJ, was the innovator of the family pew, and that took place in Albany, New York at Congregation Anshei Emeth. But it turns out, I was reading in his autobiographical reminiscences, that he basically makes the honest truth revelation that the reason that they had family pews in the building they were dedicating in 1851 was because the church had family pews already built in, and it would have been expensive to rebuild the sanctuary. So they said, "You know what, this is a good thing. We're happy to have families sit together, men and women, kids, all together" -- on what was called a "family pew." This was a huge innovation in Jewish life. So not only were there pews, but these pews signaled egalitarian, inclusive Judaism, and I'm so proud that this is part of this early phase of Reform Judaism here in North America. And even if they fell into the change because of existing architecture, they nonetheless celebrated that over the years.

Interestingly, when we get into other examples in 1855, I was really taken by Dan Judson's new book, "Pennies for Heaven: The History of Synagogues and Money." He points out that in 1855 in New York City, Temple Emanuel's budget was almost 95 percent the result of selling the pews. Meaning, that if you wanted to sit in the fourth row, you paid a fee and the total budget. By the way, that will make you smile if you're a temple treasurer or if you're ever been part of a budget committee in a temple. The total budget of Temple Emanuel in 1855 was $5,804. Amazingly, almost all of it comes from the sale of pews. Now, one of the problems with that is that you can only sell pews for the number of people who will fit into them. And they wanted to expand membership -- that was standard in the 19th century, so they actually moved away from selling the pews as the sole source of revenue. But even more, it was the egalitarian nature. The idea of selling pews meant that it was kind of an hierarchy of economic means. So the more well-to-do families would sit up front in those very church pews. And as the synagogue world expanded in the 19th century, in the 20th century, the idea was, you know what, can we make the pews for anyone who gets there early? You sit wherever you'd like to sit and be part of a community that not only sits men and women together, but since people regardless of their economic means -- we're all members of this valued community.

Now where I want to kind of spend the last minute thinking, is that today we are at a moment where a lot of us think about who's going to be in those pews in the next 50 years. Are those pews going to be empty, or are they going to be full? Who are the the individuals today -- that may be in diapers! -- who could or could not find their way into contemporary Jewish life? So when we think about Isaac Mayer Wise, he led a revolution to change Jewish life for the better, both in terms of the values that undergird our communities, the values that undergird our pews, and then also the financial shifts and changes -- again, guided by values, not guided by simply operational considerations. So one of the questions is: how do we rethink and reimagine all of the pathways into Jewish life, including synagogues? Where are the people? Where are they going to come from, and where are they going to sit? Or maybe, you know, we're going to think about how long our services can be -- maybe don't need the seats! (That was a little bit of a light-hearted comment, if you don't know me. If this is your first podcast, [if you were] thinking "Jacobs, was that your attempt at a humorous comment?" Yes, that was.)

But I do think the way we set the nature of where we might pray, the way we organize the ritual, the way we think of the elements-- the sacred elements, the music, the choreography, the liturgy -- all those things, they are part of the unfolding of Jewish life. And I think we are at a dramatic inflection point where we need to think not only about the architecture as Vayak'heil thinks about the architecture, but more importantly the values underneath the architecture and the architecture of our Jewish community. Those are the things that require us to have a different kind of "pew survey." I hope this was a bit awakening to some of those questions.

And my last thought is, when we were developing a beautiful new sanctuary at the congregation I used to serve in Westchester, New York, the question was "chairs or pews?" And I remember the debate -- it was a full day of debating, and the winning argument was that pews actually allow people to feel more close together. Seats very much are, "This is my seat. That's your seat." Pews, you can always squeeze in a few more people. And I love the motivation to, even in a brand new synagogue, to create something that really helps facilitate more connectedness, more community, more meaning and more value. That's what we want to fill our pews with, our buildings, and our Jewish community. Vayak'heil: Let's build it together.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!