Role of the Synagogue Regarding Newcomers
Young Ms. Goldberg walks into the doors of a local synagogue. She’s not a member, she doesn’t know much Hebrew or Jewish history, but she feels a part of the Jewish people and is looking to connect to her heritage in some way. How should the Jewish community react to her? What role does the synagogue play in connecting her to God, Torah and the Jewish people?
We may find some answers in a midrashon the famous first verse of the “Song at the Sea” — found in our parashah : “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said: I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;” (Exodus 15:1). Tosefta Sotah — a rabbinic work, written some 1800 years ago — has these comments to make:
“Rabbi Akiva expounded: When Israel came up from the Red Sea, the holy spirit rested on them, and they sought to utter song. How did they utter their song? In the manner of a child who chants the Hallel in school, while the congregation responds by repeating each verse of each psalm. Thus Moses said, “I will sing to the Lord”, and Israel responded, “I will sing to the Lord.” Moses said, “The Lord is my strength and song” (Exodus 15:2), and Israel responded, “The Lord is my strength and song.”… Rabbi Nehemiah said: They uttered their song in the manner of people who recite the Shema in the synagogue. Moses opened with a verse of praise, and Israel completed it in response…” (Tosefta Sotah 6:2—3)
As the Etz Hayim Humash (pp. 406—407) suggests, the disagreement between Rabbi Nehemiah and Rabbi Akiva might be understood as follows: Rabbi Nehemiah might welcome into the synagogue only those who knew the whole prayer (or already had a firm grip on the Jewish tradition), but Rabbi Akiva would welcome any person into the synagogue who wanted to connect with God and the Jewish people — whether they knew the prayer or not. Rabbi Akiva would understand that those who don’t know can be “given the words to recite” along with those who know. Rabbi Akiva would understand that with a patient, gentle, inspiring teacher, even the repetition of verses could be made to be meaningful to the Jew in search of his or her roots. Though the metaphor of a child’s learning may seem condescending — the truth in our times is that many adult Jews are like children in their knowledge of Judaism. They often know very little, and what they know is often unsophisticated. To further their difficulties, they are often bright, accomplished professionals, and are embarrassed by what they don’t know in Judaism. So a teacher like Rabbi Akiva — who knows they need to start with “short verses”, but also knows that the “holy spirit” rests on them and they long to connect with God — will approach them sensitively, will “sing along” with them, and provide them with a community which delights in “singing along” with its most recent members. May our synagogues all follow Rabbi Akiva’s approach, in inviting all seeking Jews to feel comfortable walking through their doors, and inspired to begin singing, learning and celebrating with their community.
With wishes for a good week and a Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Melissa Crespy
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi