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Parshas Terumah (5775)

Judaism is NOT a Religion

Did you ever wonder why in some synagogues the Bimah (podium from which the Torah is read) is positioned in the center of the sanctuary while in others it is at the front near the Holy Ark?

There is a long-standing tradition going back almost 2000 years that the Bimah is to be positioned in the center of the synagogue. The Talmud describes the great synagogue of Alexandria which had such a Bimah in the center of the synagogue.

Maimonides (1138-1204), in his Mishneh Torah in the Laws of Prayer and the Priestly Blessing (11:3), writes that the bimah should be placed in the center of the sanctuary, and supplies a practical reason for this: When the reader is in the center, everyone is able to hear the Torah reading clearly and easily. This ruling is echoed by the Rem”a, Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520-1572), who writes in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 150:5), that the Bimah must be situated at the center of the synagogue, so as to ensure that everybody could hear the reader.

The Kesef Mishneh (commentary to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah by Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Aruch) claims that this requirement would not apply in a small synagogue where everyone can easily hear the Torah reader regardless of where he stands.

However Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839), in his classic work of Halachic Responsa Chasam Sofer (Volume 1 Orach Chayim #28) offers a different reason for the positioning of the Bimah in the center of the synagogue. He explains that the Bimah in the synagogue is representative of the altar that was in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Just like the altar was positioned in the center of the Temple courtyard, we position the Bimah in the center of the synagogue. Based on this explanation, the Chasam Sofer rules that even in small synagogues the Bimah must be placed at the center.

[Notwithstanding the long-standing tradition and the ruling of the Chasam Sofer, many Orthodox synagogues today place the bimah near the front of the sanctuary. They perhaps rely on the Kesef Mishneh's ruling, restricting this requirement to situations where some congregants may find it difficult to hear the reader if he would not stand in the center. The acoustics in contemporary synagogues allow for the reader's voice to reach everyone in the synagogue regardless of where he stands, and for this reason, perhaps, it has become customary to allow situating the Bimah even towards the front of the synagogue.]

It is well known that the Reform movement in Germany in the early 1800’s decided to go against the aforementioned tradition, and in many of their Temples they placed the Bimah at the front of the sanctuary near the Holy Ark.

This debate over the placement of the Bimah in the synagogue is not just a legalistic issue but reflects differing ideological viewpoints about Torah and its place in Judaism.

Rabbi Joseph Carlebach (1883-1942), former Chief Rabbi of Hamburg, Germany, writes:

The Rambam (Maimonides) as well as the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) make it quite clear that the Bimah must be situated in the center of the synagogue. This is of great symbolic significance; it reminds us that the words of the Torah must sound forth from the “midst of the people”. From its heavenly origin (symbolized by the elevated Holy Ark and the curtain which veils it), the Torah descends into the “midst” of the Jewish people in order to be proclaimed to the nation as its most precious treasure, as the soul of our souls. It is only Christianity that constantly emphasizes the other-worldly nature of the Word of G-d. We Jews say regarding our Torah, “It is not in Heaven”.

I believe that the placement of the Bimah in the center of the synagogue also reflects a traditional view of the Jewish “religion”.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to Genesis 11:7, makes an insightful point about our religion:

Every European language speaks of religion. We, the People of Religion par excellence have no expression for it. [The word ‘das’, currently used in Modern Hebrew to denote religion, is a borrowed term that actually means ‘law’ - dz]. As soon as anything is used to designate some special relationship in our lives as religious, it specializes just this, and implies that there are phases in life which have no relation to it. It makes it a separate realm. But where everything from birth to death belongs to religion this conception cannot exist inasmuch as every phase of life is penetrated with it and nothing at all left out.

So we see that from a traditional standpoint, Judaism is not a “religion” per se, i.e. something that we do on weekends, or that some rabbi or cantor does for us. Rather it is an all-encompassing, Divinely-ordained program for us to follow as laid out in the Torah that instructs us and guides us in every area of life – be it at home, at work, or even in the bedroom.

Having the Bimah positioned smack in the center of the synagogue and in the middle of the people instead of “up there” near the Holy Ark and distant from everyone, brings this point home really well. Judaism is not a religion but a spiritual lifestyle, there for each and every one of us to learn from and to use in order to maximize our lives. It's a relationship.

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