Monday, March 2nd, 2009
There is no more cautionary concept in Judaism than that of mitzvah haba b’avera – the act of tainting a good deed by committing a bad deed in the process.
I’m sure most halachic decisors would concur that we are not to be judged simply on a system of how many mitzvot we rack up in our lives (like points in a game) but by the manner in which we conduct ourselves and the consideration and thoughtfulness we put into our actions.
Years ago, a neighbor told me of his discovery of a bird’s nest on his property and his intention to fulfill the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, shooing away the mother bird before taking her eggs. This mandate is surely meant to inspire compassion from those forced to collect such eggs for sustenance. It’s hard to believe it applies to someone who has no use for the eggs, and wouldn’t even eat them, but sets out to terrorize a defenseless animal in the name of a good deed. In doing so, he commits saar baal chayim, cruelty to animals, nullifying any pretense of compassionate intent.
I witnessed similarly questionable judgment while attending a recent celebration at a Conservative synagogue. Because the caterer has a glatt kosher mashgiach, the temple was an acceptable venue for an Orthodox gathering, including assemblage in the sanctuary for speeches.
But when it came time for mincha and maariv minyanim, a group of men eschewed this same sanctuary, initially walking in and then back out. The venue they preferred was a hallway, directly in front of the men’s room. There was no discussion; maybe some of the daveners were concerned about the lack of mechitza in the room, despite the fact that no women were participating in the minyan or in the room at the time.
As a result of their davening in this central hallway, however, numerous women passed by, at one point passing directly through the heart of the minyan. So much for the mechitza problem.
I would no more criticize an Orthodox Jew who declined to participate in a Conservative minyan than I would a Conservative Jew who does not feel comfortable in an Orthodox shul. The customs and liturgy are different, and just as some view mixed seating as a transgression, others view separate seating the same way.
But this act was intended more as a statement of principle rather than one of ritual adherence.
I don’t know if any regular member of the Conservative temple was present to witness this, but if they were, they would surely have been offended by the notion that their revered sanctuary was a less holy space than the hallway outside the men’s room.
For a perspective on this, I went to “Ask A Rabbi,” a question and answer Web site run by Gateways, an Orthodox outreach group and e-mailed my question to see if these men were acting on their own or following established Orthodox interpretation of halacha. Here is the response I got from Rabbi Reuven Lauffer of Jerusalem, who is editor and Web Advisor for Ohr Somayach’s Torah magazine:
“No, it is not permissible to hold a service in a Conservative sanctuary. it might be permissible to hold one in a classroom or auditorium that is not used as a sanctuary but the people involved should ask a local Orthodox Rabbi before doing so.”
I have seen Orthodox minyanim carried out in bus stations, airports, an ice skating rink or in the backs of restaurants, none of which was as quiet, secluded and dignified as the majestic sanctuary these men passed up, which featured the Ten Commandments in huge letters covering the ark. So I e-mailed a follow-up question about why such venues are more acceptable than a Jewish house of worship, and precisely what halacha was involved here.
Here is his response:
“We believe that the conservative movement has compromised on certain basic, fundamental beliefs in Judaism. Torah from Sinai, the Oral Law, etc. etc. We believe that their services and synagogues do not conform to Halachah. So praying in an office doesn’t show any acquiescence to a wrong belief, neither does praying in an airport etc. However praying in a Conservative Synagogue can be seen as a de facto agreement to that which we consider wrong. Either it is the antithesis of my obligation of Macha’a (objection to wrongdoing) or it is a Chillul Hashem (agreement to an aveirah).”
This may be a widely held practice among the Orthodox, but I’m sure there are other opinions.
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