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On Shabbos, The Priest Went To…Shul?

I have very warm memories of the Young Israel of Woodmere. It has been more than 25 years since I set foot there, but over 25 years ago, there was a two-year period when I was in the area of the Five Towns and would occasionally daven there. I am certain that he does not remember me, as I only introduced myself once, but I remember being impressed with the young rabbi of the shul, Rabbi Heshie Billet. He seemed to be a person who truly cared about his congregants. His speeches were always well prepared and eloquently delivered with a relevant message. I remember being impressed with his mentchlichkeit and that he interacted with people with respect and care.

That is why I hesitate to write words critical of Rabbi Billet. I hope that they will therefore be understood in the spirit of one brother having a dialogue with another brother, without rancor, in an attempt to arrive at the truth.

Last Shabbos, Father Patrick Debois, a French Roman Catholic priest, delivered a speech to hundreds of congregants sitting in the main sanctuary of the Young Israel of Woodmere after the Shabbos morning davening.

 

In advance of the speech, there was heated debate about the appropriateness of the invitation to the priest extended by Rabbi Billet. The debate became so spirited that Rabbi Billet felt compelled to send out an e-mail explaining the rationale behind the invitation and adamantly insisting that having the priest address the congregation in the main sanctuary was a kiddush Hashem.

 

NO ORDINARY PRIEST

 

Let us be clear. Reverend Patrick Debois is no ordinary Roman Catholic priest. He has made it his life’s work to uncover mass Jewish graves in the Ukraine, the final resting place of Jews who were shot by the Nazis and their Ukrainian accomplices in a most brutal way. He goes from village to village in the Ukraine interviewing elderly people and gathering testimony about the atrocities committed. As a priest, he is able to open people’s hearts, minds and mouths as they make what is akin to a “confession” of the sins and atrocities that they saw or in which they were participants or accomplices. He documents and films each of those testimonies and has uncovered many Babi Yar-like mass graves that dot the landscape of the Ukraine.

 

According to information that Rabbi Billet has publically provided about him and independent research, he certainly seems to be one of the chasidei umos haolam who deserves our unreserved praise and admiration.

 

That being said, Rabbi Billet’s insistence that he speak in shul gives us pause. We are not the only ones who are troubled by the choice of venue. There has been “a crescendo of protest,” in Rabbi Billet’s own words, from many congregants and non-congregants who are wondering what could possibly justify having a priest speak on Shabbos morning in a shul. In a fairly long letter to his congregants, Rabbi Billet forcefully and adamantly defends his position. At the end of the letter, he states, “I believe that it is most appropriate for this event to take place in our main sanctuary. The sanctuary is the place where we try to sanctify Hashem’s name each day. We have the opportunity to do that in receiving Father Desbois this week with respect.”

 

Although we certainly sympathize with Rabbi Billet’s deep, genuine desire to express hakoras hatov to Reverend Debois, we are skeptical about his judgment of using a shul, a mikdash me’at, to achieve that goal.

 

This column is not a halachic one, and I leave any possible halachic issues inherent in the invitation for qualified rabbonim to address.

 

A TIME AND A PLACE TO SEPARATE

 

From a hashkafic point of view, the invitation and subsequent speech are troubling. The Gemara (Shabbos 14b) teaches us: “At the time that Shlomo Hamelech instituted the laws of eiruvin and netilas yodayim,the enactments of building an eiruv to enable the carrying on Shabbos from one domain to another and the washing of one’s hands before eating, a bas kol (a Heavenly voice) emanated and said, ‘My son, if your heart is wise, my heart shall rejoice too. Be wise my son and make my heart glad.’”

 

One of the meforshim ask why Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men, specifically instituted these two enactments, eiruvin and netilas yodayim. The answer given is that these two mitzvos symbolize two integral attributes that we must internalize. Eiruvin refers to the concept of being me’urav, together or united. An eiruv is a tool that unites people, allowing them to be considered as if in one large domain. It symbolizes achdus, brotherhood, togetherness and inclusiveness. Netilas yodayim, washing one’s hands, symbolizes something else. There are times when a person must lift up his hands and wash them, separating them and insisting on purity.

 

The intention of Shlomo Hamelech, the chochom mikol adam, was to teach us how to juggle these two concepts and understand when to apply each one. There are times when one must realize that it is time for “netilas yodayim,” separation. Retaining the sanctity of a shul is one of them. Kedushah, the Gemara in Maseches Kiddushin teaches us, means havdalah, separation. Having a priest, even one “who is a righteous human being who happens to be a priest,” in Rabbi Billet’s words, speak in a holy shul, in front of an aron kodesh that contains holy Sifrei Torah after having just finished davening on Shabbos, is a breach in this all important havdalah that is so critically important.

 

YOUNG ISRAEL: A MOVEMENT BORN IN HAVDALAH

 

In addition, the fact that this event took place in a shul that is affiliated with Young Israel is an additional source of umbrage. The Young Israel movement is on the cusp of celebrating its 100th anniversary. YI has a rich and important history which, unfortunately, is not as well known or understood as it should be. The early founders of the YI movement were deeply idealistic and religious people who realized that American youth of the early 20th century would be lost to Judaism if steps were not taken to make synagogue-going relevant to them.

 

The movement became inviting to American youth at the time. The lectures and speeches were delivered in English and spoke to the mindset of American-raised young people. Nevertheless, the movement built in extremely strict by-laws to ensure that it would not stray from authentic halachic Judaism.

 

Tellingly, the final impetus to establish YI was a breach in the sanctity of the synagogue. Apparently, in 1911, Rabbi Stephen Wise, the head of the Reform movement, held a lecture on the Lower East Side that was attended by thousands. Some of the young American Orthodox Jews were appalled by the speech and the desecration of Shabbos that took place there. That incident was the impetus that ultimately led to the founding of YI a few months later.

 

For almost a century, YI has been a bulwark of strength in preserving the sanctity of the synagogue, and therefore, a YI shul should perhaps be even more sensitive to any breaches, or even perceived breaches, in kedushas bais haknesses, sanctity that generations of congregants across the country have battled so valiantly to preserve.

 

NOT THE PROPER VENUE

 

Perhaps, we, in many of our shuls, engage in so much conduct unbecoming of a shul, and thus, our sensitivity to the sanctity of a shul has been so eroded that we don’t even realize how inappropriate such a thing is.

 

Just imagine if, in recognition of the hakoras hatov we owe the priest, we would symbolically let him hold the Sefer Torah before the onset of davening on Kol Nidrei night, before everyone puts on their talleisim, or perhaps after Maariv, immediately after the tallesim have been taken off. We would view it as sacrilege. And we would be right.

 

It is our humble opinion that there are many perfectly legitimate ways and venues to show hakoras hatov. A sanctuary of a shul is not one of them.

 

Every Motzoei Shabbos, during the recitation of Havdalah, we say, “Hamavdil bein kodesh lechol, bein ohr lechoshech, bein Yisroel lo’amim…

 

As important as Reverand Debois’ work is, and as important as hakoras hatov is, and as important as recognizing the remarkable work that he does and recognizing him for the human being he is, a holy bais haknesses, in front of holy Sifrei Torah right after a holy Shabbos morning service, is not the venue. With innovative thinking, a more appropriate venue to express hakoras hatov surely could have been found…if the will to do so was there.