Commentary Magazine


In the Synagogue

To the Editor:

I feel moved to respond to David Singer’s thoughtful review of my book, Synagogue Life [Books in Review, June], because Mr. Singer ends his review with questions that clearly require some answering.

My book was written with an eye for the interactional details of everyday life in the Orthodox synagogue. While this everyday activity may not constitute the soul of that life, its details do seem to make up its ceaseless pulse. They reveal a ritualized behavior pattern consisting of what I have called “interlocking involvements” whereby matters of sacred law and faith interact with profane human matters.

Despite Mr. Singer’s presumption to the contrary, the Orthodox Jews I have observed are not brought to their synagogues by faith any more than college students come to the university out of a burning desire for knowledge. Such ideological and doctrinal imperatives may lie somewhere in the history of the institution, but the everyday motivations of their inhabitants—at least as suggested by their actions—appear to be far more pedestrian. During the period of my research—and I suspect still today—people came to shul to share each other’s company, to gossip, to joke, to honor and assess each other, and generally to share a communion and congregation in the heimisch (homey) atmosphere of prayer—or, more precisely, of davening, the more profane incarnation of that prayer. It was this warm communal shelter, more than any self-conscious faith, which seemed to attract them away from the individual loneliness of the contemporary American urban scene. Even among the Orthodox, this social imperative, enriched by joint singing, talking, swaying, and praying, governs the shul more than does the faith of the fathers.

God may very well dwell in the modern Orthodox synagogue; He may even hold the ultimate mortgage. But in the course of its everyday existence, the shul remains a people’s house of assembly, a Bais Hak’nesses, pulsating with profane behavior even as it may ideologically aspire to the sacred.

Samuel C. Heilman
Queens College
Flushing, New York

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