Merging and Making New Shuls

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

19 Tevet: Merging and Making New Shuls

On 19 Tevet 5723 (January, 1963), R. Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, responded to a question about merging four synagogues in Scranton, Pa, published as Iggerot Moshe Orach Chayim 2;46.  R. Feinstein’s approach, in comparison with two much earlier responsa on similar issues, brings us to consider the nature of communal membership and whether and when members can choose to leave.

Times of Denominational Tension and the Response

The first reason R. Moshe Feinstein opposes the initiative seems to me a function of specifics of the case at hand, not any general view of combining or dividing synagogues. Ostensibly, the four would merge to create a more unified, larger (and, perhaps, more sustainable) entity.  Mishlei 14;28 provides halachic justification for the move, telling us berov ‘am hadrat melech, the larger a populace serving a king, the greater the honor to that king (which tradition extended to the King of Kings).

All other things being equal (perhaps the largest loophole in human language), Jews should join larger communities, pray in settings with more people there. In Scranton, those who wanted to make one big shul claimed they were acting on this halachic value.

R. Feinstein disagrees. He says (I assume based on conversations he had with people involved in the situation, leaving us with little way to judge the accuracy of the claim) people really wanted to turn the new synagogue Conservative or Reformed. (To understand the virulence of his reaction, we have to remember the great strength of the Conservative and Reformed movements in the early 1960s, when Orthodoxy felt existential threatened).Less radically, but still problematically, R. Feinstein worried the large merged congregation would quickly decide they needed a microphone (which clearly violates Shabbat, in his view).

Creating New Congregations

Specifics of the situation aside, R. Moshe says he can demonstrate an halachic preference for leaving the four synagogues operating.  Magen Avraham 154;23 cites Shu”t Rivash 331, who decried anyone who oppose opening a new venue for prayer.  To Rivash (in the fourteenth century), such opposition obstructs others from performing a mitzvah, which Rambam includes in his list of 24 actions for which one can incur nidui, a form of excommunication. (That bears repeating: getting in the way of others performing a mitzvah is itself worthy of being temporarily excommunicated.)

R. Feinstein attributes Rivash’s strong statement to the downside of having one synagogue rather than four. While the one does give greater be-rov ‘am, it also lengthens the distance to the synagogue for some people, some of whom will decide to stay home. Rivash finds the trade-off a problem, in R. Moshe’s understanding [although if he is right about Rivash’s reading, we would have to wonder what Mishlei meant by be-rov ‘am].

Such a harsh reaction to those who tried to stop building of a new shul tells R. Feinstein Rivash would have opposed the dismantling of an existing one.

The Other Side of the Question

R. Feinstein does note at least one authority who seems to come down on the other side of the issue, cited in by Magen Avraham in the same paragraph. In Responsum 53, R. Eliyahu Mizrachi, perhaps best known for his supercommentary on Rashi but who was also the chief rabbi of Constantinople in the early 1500s, ruled against building a new synagogue if the existing one was big enough.

R. Feinstein thinks R. Mizrachi was bothered by the reduction of already-existing be-rov ‘am, but would have agreed in our case. He, too, would have said we do not sacrifice the existing values of closeness to ashul and the greater participation in communal activities which comes with it for the other value of be-rov ‘am.

R. Mizrachi’s responsum 53 raises other issues about splitting congregations, such as the division of assets.R. Feinstein gave what seems to me scant attention to the issue, and I want to return to it.  Before I do, let me note R. Mizrachi’s clear objection to splitting up a community as an easy way to handle dissension. He thinks communities must work on and work out conflicts, not reach for the lazy (and expensive) way of launching an entire new community.

Communities as Cities, and the Porous Borders Between Them

Let me sidetrack to a responsum of Maharashdam, R. Shmuel de Medina, an important rabbi in Salonica, only a few decades younger than R. Mizrachi.  Maharashdam Orach Chayim 36 discussed a man who wanted to leave the congregation in which he and his ancestors had prayed (the community needed him to stay, I suspect for financial reasons).

Maharashdam thinks the answer depends on another new idea of his. Until his time, halachah assumed each place establishes custom, and newcomers to any town or city had to adopt its customs. Maharashdam was one of the first decisors to face the clashes brought by communities of Ashkenazi Jews migrating to heretofore Sephardi communities (and vice versa). He granted each synagogue, each community, the halachic status of a separate city.

A group of Ashkenazic Jews, fleeing Germany, who found themselves in a Sephardic city, could set up their own synagogue and retain their customs. Once each synagogue counts as a kind of city, Maharashdam says we do not stop people from moving from one city to another, so we also have no way to stop them from moving from one community to another.  Legally, each Jew picks his own place of residence, of Torah study (an example Maharashdam raises—we’d never require someone to stay and learn in the local yeshiva just because it was functioning), and of prayer.

Just Because He Can Leave Does Not Mean He Should

R. Feinstein and Maharashdam leave me with a few questions, because they seem to me to have glided over salient points in both Rivash and R. Mizrachi’s responsa. While excoriating those who oppose a new place of worship, Rivash added crucial words: “and if they [the opponents] give a reason for their position, the viability of the existing shul, that it should not be destroyed, the community should investigate the matter, and find a way to keep them both running.”

He recognized situations where a new synagogue deserved opposition, because it would hurt or destroy the old one. When the old one would be fine, the new one adds a synagogue, a positive to be welcomed, but only if there’s no other cost. [I wonder whether the problems created by a new synagogue always present themselves immediately. In my experience, new charitable institutions—synagogues and other—often start with no intent to compete for charity dollars, and then find themselves in need of more money than expected. They thus can pose problems for other existing synagogues, but to other charitable causes, which often have to compete for a limited pool of resources.]

R. Feinstein’s confidence he would have rejected merging synagogues might then be misplaced, since Rivash might have agreed to merging the shuls, depending on the need.

I also struggle with Maharashdam’s equation of leaving a synagogue and a city. A Jew who has a problem with the local rabbi, gabbai, or friend would be unlikely to leave town, but might easily choose to move to a new minyan. Members’ ease of movement might make synagogues more responsive (for fear of losing people), a positive, but has what seems to me the more corrosive effect of rendering the community powerless.  How can a community make rules and enforce standards when people can and will leave (with Maharashdam’s apparent blessing) at first discomfort?

Were he alive today, I like to think Maharashdam would say we are supposed and required to belong to communities, to switch only in the most extraordinary circumstances, like with family.  Once we must exhaust all other options first, I hope people would recover their commitment to compromise on contentious issues, not allow one faction to run roughshod over the rest.

Talmudic times generally saw community per city; Maharashdam, in the first draft of how to deal with influxes of Jews, made a choice. Many experts who have followed have accepted his view, so my thoughts seem to be clearly in the minority.  Ease of exit means the community has no coercive power, which hinders the ability to build an institution (or protect innocent victims, such as women whose husbands decide not to grant them a get). Coercion isn’t everything, but as in families and educational institutions, without the possibility, people do what they want, right or wrong. (I have thought about this for a long time, and I find it relevant to mention Hashem’s commanding us to cultivate both ahavat Hashem and yirat Hashem, love and fear, similar to the obligation of honor and fear of parents and rebbeim, teachers of Torah. Just love works only to a certain extent).

Build with Caution

R. Feinstein’s specific case seems to have been as much about how to cope with budding sectarianism as with the technical questions. With already existing shuls, he denied any halachic push to consolidate. By taking the discussion to the flip side, though, he seems to me to have opened a difficult can of worms, the balance individual freedom (particularly of exit) and communal discipline.

With no obvious or general answers in sight.


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