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Points of View
Minhag Hamakom
My Point of View, August, 2008
© Rabbi Jack Moline

The title means "local custom," and in the grayish areas of Jewish ritual conduct it is the determining factor in what is the standard and what is not.

Perhaps the most obvious example for Agudas Achim is egalitarianism on the pulpit. Men and women who are Jewish and of age have full and equal access to all matters of ritual leadership and participation. Permitted within our understanding of halakha, it is the default position of the community and, as such, must be respected. It would be inappropriate in fact, to the point of offense to suggest that we suspend including women in minyan or leading prayer in deference to the practice elsewhere.

How do we prevent local custom from becoming a tyranny that eliminates individually meaningful practice? This dilemma, while not new, is more pronounced in a society that is fluid and diverse, as ours has become. People gather in Alexandria having been raised up the street, across the river or beyond the Mississippi and bring with them practices they learned and cherished at a different time of life. Others have visited different communities and been inspired by something they encountered there. Do we tell people to "get with the program" or get out?

Of course not. Like most everything else, it takes common sense and respect on the part of everyone. I myself have a number of individual customs that enhance my personal davvenen, but that are not a part of our public worship. I observe them quietly, unless I am in a leadership role in which case, I uphold the community standard. Were I to interject my practices by distraction, it would be disrespectful and inappropriate.

Believe me, I know it can be hard to find that balance. I have been a guest in synagogues where the standard of worship is unsatisfying to me. Do I go with the flow, or strike out on my own, essentially ignoring the people around me who are engaged in their services? Both respect and Jewish tradition make it clear that if you won't respect the circumstances, you should politely absent yourself. To do otherwise is to separate yourself from the community of practitioners and to cast aspersions on the validity of the endeavor. (And if that's your intent, then the transgression is especially egregious.)

Minhag hamakom has its obvious limitations. If it closes off the chance to learn and grow, then it is nothing more than an obstacle to genuine devotion. Anyone with constructive suggestions about how to enhance services is welcome to bring them to the attention of the rabbi, the Hazzan or the ritual committee. In the end, our community sets its own standards.

Having written those words, I know now that there are members who sing when we say, stand when we sit, "s" when we "t," or bend when we bow who are wondering if this is a broadside against them. Of course not. The desire to bring individual gifts to the greater community is a blessing, not a cause for reproach. Only if in your divergence is the belief that the community is "doing it wrong" should you consider finding somewhere that they "do it right."

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