Who is the most important person in the synagogue?

November 27, 2017 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple answers this question…and others.


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Who is the most important person in a synagogue?

A. You can work up an argument in favour of the rabbi, the cantor, the shammas, the president, the secretary, the caterer, the cleaner… and so the list goes on.

Obviously there would be no synagogue without a congregation, so you could also argue that the most important person is any congregant you choose to nominate.

Naturally the whole purpose of the shule is to acclaim the Creator, so the most important person (or rather, Being) is God.

In my view, though, there is no such thing as the most important person. The whole shule population, not forgetting God Himself, is the entire team.

In the same way that the tabernacle in the wilderness needed everybody, the architects, the artisans, the community leaders and the population as a whole, with everyone having their own special function in the operation of the sanctuary, so the modern synagogue needs everybody.


Q. Is it acceptable for male and female congregants to join in singing Adon Olam?

A. The Talmud (Sotah 48a) objects to two types of mixed singing:

1. When men sing and women then join in, and

2. When women sing and men then join in.

The second case is regarded more negatively than the first. The rationale of both appears to be that when one gender starts and waits for the second to join in, unholy thoughts may be aroused.

Rabbi J Simcha Cohen, formerly of Mizrachi in Melbourne and an acknowledged halachic writer, notes a third scenario which the Talmud does not record at all, i.e. when a community sings together in unison.

In that situation the singing is not structured on male-female lines and neither men nor women are paying specific attention to the melodic tones of the other gender; they are singing as a community (“Intermarriage and Conversion: A Halachic Solution”, 1987, chap. 19).

However, this does not justify a mixed choir, which is, by definition, structured to take note of the different group of voices.


Q. How does “creative humour” fit into Jewish culture?

A. Presumably the adjective “creative” has the same connotation as in the phrase “creative writing” or “creative art” and contrasts with imitative writing, art… or humour.

In Jewish humour it is possible to re-work old material so skilfully that nobody knows the difference and one gets a reputation as a humourist. There is nothing wrong with this, as we know from stage and screen, where actors can take a role which others have mastered and re-work it to make it their own.

The creative humourist is more spontaneous, laughing at a moment, or situation in a more or less unpredictable way.

Jews, according to Nathan Ausubel, are virtuosi in the art of joke-making and joke-telling (“Treasury of Jewish Folklore”, page 264), because they have a “dual capacity for weeping and laughing at the same time”.

Jews, says Ausubel, have had long experience at finding the serious side of life – as well as recognising “the foolishness and incongruities of the Human Comedy”.

Sigmund Freud had a particular interest in Jewish humour and believed that the two qualities of a joke – that it makes us laugh and serves our ideological interest – are well satisfied by Jewish jokes.

Theodor Reik, student and colleague, suggested two further marks of Jewish humour – the fact that it is “not merry”, and its “emotional intimacy”.

Freud made a distinction between jokes that Jews tell about themselves, and jokes that gentiles tell about Jews. The second category, far from being Jewish humour, is “brutal buffoonery”, says Freud, because it is generally nasty and hostile; instead of being funny, it pokes fun and makes mischief.

This is why Jews laugh at Jewish jokes when told “in club”, but get annoyed when outsiders try to tell jokes about Jews or Jewish ways.

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