Sunday, May 24, 2009

Chazakah, & other challenges to being welcoming

Recently, I received a request to reprint some old posts of mine on the Jewish Writing Project blog. I gave permission to reprint "Responsibilities without rights," an eye-rolling rant about the irony of my local Conservative synagogue giving women the right to lein Torah (chant a reading from the Bible scroll) when we're not allowed to have aliyot. But I wasn't so sure about giving permission to reprint "My life as a misfit," because I think (or, at least, I hope) that I understand the concept of "chazakah" better now than when I wrote that post.

"Chazakah" seems to refer not only to clergy, which is what I thought when I wrote that post, but to laypeople, as well. It seems to indicate a matter of precedent, or "first dibs." So, for example, a person who's been chanting a certain haftarah in memory of his father for the last 10 years might be said to have a chazakah for that haftarah.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I had the opportunity to learn the trope/cantillation for the chanting of a haftarah--I'd learned my Bat Mitzah haftarah from a record (remember those?)--and was assigned the honor of chanting Haftarat Vaetchanan. I practiced for several months. So when the Cantor Emeritus appeared on the morning of Shabbat Vaetchanan, he was quite upset to learn that he would not be chanting that haftarah, which he'd been chanting for many years. After all the effort that I'd made to learn that haftarah, I did not cede the privilege. But I never chanted that haftarah again, for as long as he was alive. I probably never heard the word "chazakah" until at least 20 years later, but, in retrospect, I realize that Haftarat Vaetchanan was the late Chazzan's chazakah.

Then there's the yahrzeit problem, namely, that the precedent for a person who has a yahrzeit (anniversary of a close relative's death) to get an aliyah seems to outweigh all other considerations. In fact, I actually witnessed a Bar Mitzvah celebration at which the Bar Mitzvah boy's father didn't get an aliyah because there were so many people observing yahrzeit. Okay, maybe the father didn't want an aliyah, and, certainly, the tradition of honoring the deceased goes back a lot farther than the relatively-new Bar Mitzvah celebration (see the comments here). But still . . .

To top it off, people even have to be careful about where they sit. I've recently learned that having someone come up to you in synagogue and say "you're sitting in my seat" is not just an annoyance, but actually has halachic implications--the notion of a fixed place for prayer comes straight from rabbinical interpretation of a verse from Torah, and carries the official-sounding name makom kavuah. Who knew?

So a person A) can't sit where s/he wants because it's someone else's makom kavuah, B) can't get an aliyah because there are so people observing yahrzeit--I'm assuming that there's a limit to how many "extra" aliyot (acharon, hosafah, or whatever they're called) are permissible, even on a day when "acharons" are permissible--and C) can't chant a haftarah because it's someone else's chazakah. Personally, if it were me, I'd turn around and walk out, and go davven (pray) at home.

Why should I bust my chops learning a new haftarah if someone who's maintained membership in my synagogue for the sole purpose of being notified of a parent's yahrzeit can waltz in one Shabbos for the first time since the High Holidays and get the privilege of chanting the haftarah automatically because s/he has a chazzakah on that haftarah and someone didn't know or forgot to tell me?

In all seriousness, how do we make people feel welcome in synagogue, and how do we encourage them to participate actively in synagogue worship and learn new aspects thereof, if so much is pre-determined by law and precedent?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The cynical me suspects that chazakah is just another word for "I only know the one piece that I learned for my bar/bat mitzvah and I'm too lazy to learn anything else".

On the other hand, I am completely comfortable with the idea of auctioning off / bidding for aliyot, which makes some people queasy.

I'm more tolerant of makom kavua; even though I consider it silly and reminiscent of kindergarten. If I can't pray where I am, I should be working on kavana, not quibbling about the seat.

Sun May 24, 03:49:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

You're a cynic, alright. :)

I've never been fond of selling aliyot, or "calling" pledges at a fundraiser. I prefer to think that we can figure out ways to raise money without embarrassing people in public.

"If I can't pray where I am, I should be working on kavana, " An interesting point, but many of us are creatures of habit. Still, it can be difficult for newcomers to feel welcome after they've been asked to move once or twice. But, on the other hand, the "regulars" can't be blamed for wanting to sit where they usually sit. It's a classic case of everyone being right.

Sun May 24, 08:25:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

Makom Kavuah in particular is a bete noir of mine. Your makom kavuah is anywhere within 4 amot (yards of where you usually daven, and in any event derech eretz (respect//politeness/manners) can and does override your right to daven in your makom kavuah. Take a look at the article entitled Makom Kavuah.

Sun May 24, 08:45:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

The word 'chazakah' means presumption, btw.

Sun May 24, 08:47:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Thanks for the information and the translation, Larry. (I think the link may not be leading to the intended article, though.)

Mon May 25, 11:01:00 AM 2009  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

(I think the link may not be leading to the intended article, though.)Scroll down, on the second page is an article entitled Makom Kavuah.

Tue May 26, 10:53:00 AM 2009  

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