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Holding up Services in Order to be Heard

The pros and cons of the synagogue as a site of political and judicial protest
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

No system of social justice functions, however just its laws and however well-intentioned its leadership is, unless the civil society speaks up to protest injustices and inequities. We began our first chapter of this book, “Israel’s Vocation for Social Justice,” with Biblical models of protest at the injustice of the powers that be: Abraham’s appeal against the King of kings’ decision to destroy Sodom. We mentioned the prophet Nathan’s sophisticated critique of King David’s adultery with Batsheva and the killing of Uriah and Elijah’s public accusations against King Ahab for killing Navot and confiscating his hereditary vineyard. We saw the verses in the Torah that warn perpetrators of injustice to poor widows and orphans that those victims will raise a cry to God who will then punish them:

Do not abuse any widow or orphan. Because if you should abuse them, then they will certainly cry out to Me and I will just as certainly hear them. Then I will become angry and kill you with the sword, so that your wives will become widows and your children orphans. (Exodus 22: 21-24)

In the Second Temple era Josephus reports that the young Herod, before becoming king, killed a man named Hezkiah as well as other Galileans. Then “the mothers of those killed by Herod aroused the anger of King Hyrcanus by pleading daily to the king and to the people in the Temple” until Herod was put on trial before the Sanhedrin.

Whether the protest against injustice is initiated by the victims or religious leaders concerned with the character of society, the social justice quotient of a society is measured both by its enabling people to criticize the government and by its response to those calls for tikkun. In this postscript we wish to cite two examples of how a society can raise its social justice quotient: (1) a medieval tradition of stopping communal prayers until a single person’s complaints about injustice are addressed, and (2) the 2011 protest in modern Israel with 450,000 participants demanding a change in government policies which treat various segments of the population unequally.

Ikuv Tefillah: Holding Up Communal Prayer until Justice is Done

After the loss of political independence and the demise of the Sanhedrin in Yavne and then Tiberias after 70 CE, the synagogue often became the center of Jewish political, legislative, judicial, social and religious life for Jewish minority self-government. [1] In fact, synagogue means not house of prayer (beit tefillah) or house of study (beit midrash) but house of gathering (beit knesset). The Jewish city council would meet there and their elections held there; rabbis would conduct court proceeding and administer oaths with the Torah scroll; gabbaei tzedakah (collectors of tzedakah would assess taxes and distribute foods in synagogues); and public legal announcements would be issued such as announcing lost objects or shaming adult children who do not support their aging destitute parents or rebellious wives who if they do come to heel will lose their ketubah payments. Therefore when injustices were not properly managed in the view of the plaintiffs, then they might run to the synagogue to “file” their protest in an oral declaration in the midst of services.

In Muslim lands this legally-sanctioned, synagogue-based procedure was called tze’akah and in Ashkenaz ikuv tefillah. In 11th C. Cairo, for example, a woman abandoned by her husband without funds protested in the synagogue:

Community of Israel I cry out to God and to you over the injustice .. .and I ask the head of the community, may God strengthen him and protect him, to do me justice. If not I will be forced to turn to the courts of the gentiles.

In Sefer Hasidim one paradigmatic reason for stopping public prayer was to handle tzedakah collection for the poor: “From here we learn that a person can close the synagogue in order to treat the issue of giving tzedakah to the poor and to shame anyone who does not want to contribute.” But most of the cases reported in Ashkenaz regard plantiffs who are owed money and the defendant or witnesses refuses to come to court or the judges have delayed making decision on the matter.

There was tendency for the aggrieved parties to disrupt prayers time and time again. On one Shabbat the whole Torah reading was cancelled and two Torah readings had to be read the following Shabbat. The community sought to set rules to regulate but not to suspend the right of ikuv tefillah. Sefer Hasidim recommends:

One of the leaders of the council whose voice will be heard should protest to the plaintiff holding up services …Anyone who prevents the Torah from entering in order to force his wishes on the community – when the good people [who are pious and not corrupt plutocrats] say the plaintiff is not acting according to the law – then the Torah will cry out to the plaintiff: ‘So-and-so you will not come to this place in peace’ and that is pronounced over him and his soul.

But the leader of the services could not ignore the protest and go on with the service unless the city council approved this move. Later in the 16th C. in Poland Rav Ephraim Lunchitz condemned the whole tradition, without much success:

This terrible custom of ikuv tefillah called klammen is such a criminal sin that one’s mouth cannot express how bad it is. Who is the plaintiff holding up? He is holding up the Creator of the world by not giving him his praise until they do what he wants of them. In the synagogue raucous cries are heard among the fighting factions and that is a public shame before our [Christian] neighbors such that it has become their custom to go to the synagogues [as spectators] to see what the Jews are doing.  (Lunchitz, Amudei Shesh, The Pillar of Worship)

Despite its abuses this tradition of public protest by victims of injustice is both a right and a duty. It is a right that empowers the marginalized when the institutions of government ignore them for lack of their clout, but it is also a duty for the good of tikkun olam in society. One aggrieved individual explained, in simple and eloquent terms, why he was disturbing the services (11th C. Cairo):

I cried out for justice to you as a man of Israel is obligated to cry out for help to the judges of Israel and to the communities of Israel.
“If the plaintiff held up the service to arouse people to aid him/her in this cause, that is permitted. But if one continued to plead and to prevent the continuation of services, that is not permitted and the plaintiff must be restrained, and prayer must go on. However in Iraq [as opposed to North Africa] we do not have this custom for the public [represented in the synagogue] are not responsible for the judicial system but rather the court is authorized in this matter and they can issue a warning, curse or excommunication to the [recalcitrant] defendant. Therefore in any place where a judge is appointed to execute justice, the plaintiff should turn to him and not to the public [in the synagogue].” (Responsa of Geomim, edited by Asaf, 108)

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