For reasons beyond my control, I’ve lived in exile my whole life and in Flatbush for the past eighteen years. While the Brooklyn community has grown on this out-of-town boy in some ways, I am still puzzled by certain practices. One that continues to astound me is the direction in which people pray. Shlomo promised that people who pray toward the Temple is Jerusalem will find their prayers answered (1 Kings 8:35,44,48). Based on these verses, Jews from antiquity have prayed toward Jerusalem (Berakhos 30a). In New York, that means toward the east.
This rule is codified in Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 94:1) without dissent. Even many non-religious Jews recognize that we pray toward the east. Yet in Flatbush, which I pick on only because I am familiar with the neighborhood, many of the finest synagogues and yeshivas pray to the south or north. This includes the popular minyan factory, built relatively recently, and the prominent yeshiva nearby. It also includes synagogues across the spectrum from Agudah to Jewish Centers. Even when the ark is in the north or south, perhaps to avoid placing it on a wall with a door, the proper direction for prayer is the east (Magen Avraham 94:3). This is, to my knowledge, undisputed (see Mishnah Berurah ad loc., 9; Arukh Ha-Shulchan ad loc., 12).[Elsewhere (Bi’ur Halakhah 150 sv. she-hu), the Mishnah Berurah leaves open the question of whether the congregation should pray toward the ark or east. R. Chaim Kanievsky (Shoneh Halakhos 150:14) writes that the Mishnah Berurah answers this question in 94:9-10, as above. Similarly, the Shevet Ha-Levi (10:20), quoted in Piskei Teshuvos (94:1 n. 9) also rules like the earlier Mishnah Berurah.]
The question halakhic authorities address is what an individual should do when attending a synagogue in which everyone prays in the wrong direction. The Mishnah Berurah says to turn only your face east. Similarly, the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (ibid., 13) writes that an individual is prohibited from praying in a different direction than the rest of the congregation. However, R. Asher Bush (Sho’el Bi-Shlomo, no. 3) points out that the Machatzis Ha-Shekel (ad loc., 3) and Ba’er Heitev (ad loc., 3) say that, in such a situation, you may pray to the east at your discretion. This is how I saw my teachers act, both in yeshiva and in local synagogues.
R. Bush points out that the halakhic problem of deviating from communal practice does not apply to a community behaving improperly. When the congregation prays in the wrong direction, you need not do the wrong thing simply because everyone else is. Surely your parents have confronted you with the rhetorical question about what to do when everyone else is jumping off a bridge. The congregation is violating an uncontested rule. You are not blameworthy for failing to follow their rule-breaking.
With all that said, I assume that some thought went into the design and practice of these synagogues and yeshivas. Does anyone know why they built their sanctuaries facing north or south and why they pray toward their arks and not east? The Netziv (Meishiv Davar 1:10) explains very simply (I am omitting his cynical answer): people are used to praying toward the ark and this incorrect practice was established in a synagogue without thought. Bedi’eved, it should not be disrupted to avoid confusing the masses. Is that really the case in these fine synagogues and yeshivas?