Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic advice column

Dear Rabbi,

I’ve been arguing with my friend, who wants me to join her at Shabbat services at an alternative minyan. She says I will find it more intellectual and more egalitarian and I should come with her. I explained to her that I went to that minyan once and found out that services were held in the basement of a private home.

I’ve learned that ideally public communal prayer should be conducted in the most aesthetic surroundings, preferably an attractive dedicated synagogue building, not a rec room.

I agree with that and I’m not going to go with my friend. But what should I tell her?

Aesthetic in Englewood

 

Dear Aesthetic,

It’s always best to tell your friend the truth about how you feel. But try not to disparage her choices when you do that.

In an ideal world, a community will provide its people with centralized places of worship that are artistically beautiful, intellectually stimulating, and open and welcoming to all who wish to come. By joining together in such venues, a local population can be more efficient in the use of its resources and strengthen social solidarity.

For most people, those simple, practical goals are enough to motivate them to accept some compromises to their independence and join in with the larger collective.

Your friend and her group want to vary from this path, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. It may be that they want a subtly variant style of prayer or that they want greater control over lectures and learning that they cannot have within a mainstream group.

We know that even the nicest finished basement cannot be ranked as the ideal architectural context for creating a sense of the numinous for awe-inspiring worship. But your friend and her ilk opt to forego that for their offbeat independence. And they seem to have the resources to sustain their preferences.

Although in theory you are right to conclude that for the context of public prayer, above ground is preferable to underground, permanent is better than ad hoc, and aesthetics do matter, you should recognize what’s going on and not criticize her group’s decisions.

In our complex communities we need to allow that one person’s rec room can be another person’s special spiritual place.

 

Dear Rabbi,

I’m bombarded at this time of year with requests for donations from many worthy local, national and international causes.

I’m not wealthy. So how do I prioritize which ones to support?

Parsimonious in Paramus

 

Dear Parsimonious,

Yes, that’s a tough question. To find the most philanthropic gratification I advise that you give thoughtfully to accredited organizations as an expression of your values. If you believe foremost in supporting the indigent and those in personal straits, then give to a credible social welfare agency. Depending on exactly where they live, many local people support the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson or the Jewish Family Service of Northern Jersey, or Project Ezra.

If you choose to support religious or education initiatives, we are blessed with a multitude of shul and school options in our communities.

If you have resources to direct to the performing arts, then the distinguished local Teaneck Garage Theatre Group will welcome your help.

If you wish to make a basket donation to cover many bases, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey encompasses varied charities. It is a good alternative if you want one-stop giving.

In the season when we seek compassion for ourselves, it is good to bestow compassion on others by making your generous gifts and pledges now for the coming year.

 

Dear Rabbi,

I’m an ultra-Orthodox man who will not sit next to a woman on an airplane. After boarding a flight recently I politely asked that a woman next to me move her seat to accommodate my religious obligations. The woman refused and the flight was delayed. Airline security was called, and I was threatened with being removed from the flight and being blocked from flying in the future by being assigned to the no-fly list.

I need to fly to see my family and to conduct my business. I feel that people are misunderstanding my religious needs and discriminating against me. What should I do?

Misunderstood in Monsey


Dear Misunderstood,

Unfortunately it appears that nobody misunderstands your intention to discriminate against others based on gender. In America and most of the world, segregation or the denial of civil rights based on race or gender or sexual orientation no longer is condoned. That being said, you have three options to choose from.

You can live apart from the world in a self-imposed ghetto with other like-minded people, and continue to practice your gender segregation together. Or you can go out to the public sphere with your current attitudes and continue to clash with the people around you. Or you can modify your beliefs and behaviors and no longer practice segregation, discrimination, and the denial of civil rights based on gender. It’s up to you to decide how to live your life.