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Can a shule change its minhag?

בס׳ד
ה' אלול ה' אלפים תשס"ח

Rabbi Y. Cohen & Others
Before Dayan Berger on 23rd Cheshvan 5768/4th Novemeber 2007

Mr. D. Berkeley QC for the Plaintiff
Rabbi Goldblatt for the Defendants
Both parties signed the Deed of Arbitration

AWARD

This case concerns a disagreement between a member, or members, of  Adass Yeshurun Shul, and its Rabbi and Executive apparently supported by the general membership. At the hearing on 23rd Cheshvan 5768/4th November 07 it was agreed that I decide, by way of a preliminary question, the following issue: "Is it within the powers of the Rabbi, the Executive and the general membership to alter the ethos of the Shul?"

In deciding this, one has to determine what had been the objectives of the Shul[1]. The Shul was founded in 1940 by German refugees. One ought to remember that at the time there was no shortage of Prayer Houses in Manchester. Was the founders' goal merely to provide a familiar ambience for the German refugees? Or, did they go further in endeavouring to perpetuate and keep alive the illustrious Germanic tradition? Guidance on this may be found in the Congregation's Constitution.

Clause 2 thereof provides inter-alia:

"All activities shall be carried out in accordance with Shulchan Oruch (Ashkenas)".

Clause 3 provides:

"Every Jewish person who is Shomer Shabbos may become and remain a member"

Clause 11 provides:

"If a member in the opinion of the Executive no longer adheres to item 2 and 3 of this constitution he can be excluded from the congregation".

Clause 12 provides:

"It is declared that items two and three are declared to be fundamental and unalterable for all times."

One ought to bear in mind that the document was not drafted by constitutional lawyers and is therefore somewhat ambiguous, I take it to mean that the congregation cannot abandon the Shulchan Oruch or to alter what it calls Ashkenas, nor may it admit members who are not Shomrei Shabbos.

In this context a question springs to mind. Whilst one can appreciate the insistence on adherence to the rules of Shulchan Oruch, as the founders were adamant that their efforts should not, in future, be diverted to Reform, why insist on Ashkenas? Why not rely on Shulchan Oruch to determine when and under what circumstances Ashkenas may be abandoned? This, as well as my personal experience in other cases, leads me to the conclusion that the founders were endeavouring to perpetuate and keep alive the Germanic traditions. They were determined that their hard labour should not be converted into a Chasidic Shtiebel or a Lithuanian Shul.

I now turn to define the meaning of Ashkenas in clause 2. On a narrow, technical interpretation it qualifies the words "Shulchan Oruch" just preceding it as if to say "according to the rules of the Rema". Following on from what I said above, however, I do not believe that that is the case.  What it means is that all activities shall be carried out according to Shulchan Oruch and the rites and customs of Germany (in Hebrew Ashkenas).  I now come to a crucial issue: what is deemed a change of ethos? In fact there is no precise answer. It is obvious that not every modification is necessarily a change of ethos. A need for change may arise out of current circumstances that necessitate a modification of the prevailing custom. For example, when the Shul is
attended by boisterous youngsters it may be advisable to omit some Piyutim. When there is no one able to render a certain tune, a more familiar one may be substituted. However, changes only designed to eradicate the idiosyncrasies of the congregation certainly fall foul of the constitution.

That being the case, any member may insist that the constitution be adhered to. It is not necessary for me to determine now, nor, I hope, in the future, what should happen if the adherence to the old ways will result in mass defection to the extent that it would not be possible to carry on with the Shul activities.

Costs:

The cost for the Hearing and all associated activity has been fixed by the Administrative Department of the Beth Din at 300. In keeping with Halocho, this is to be paid equally by the parties on receipt of this Psak.

Issued by the Manchester Beth Din on 5th Adar 1/ 11th February '08

Dayan I.D. Berger


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...This relates to persecution I suffered as a result of my temerity in suggesting that the minhagim of my shul should not be altered against the wishes of part of the membership. For my pains, I was physically ejected and guards put at the door to prevent my entry, something not heard of since the days when Yeravam ben Nevat posted sentries to prevent his subjects from being oleh regel. I believe that this extreme action was not taken against the other dissenters because they were so successfully intimidated by the 'Reform' faction that they fled the place. I was forced to take the rabbi and executive to a Din Torah in front of the Manchester Beth Din and obtained the psak below. Unfortunately those in control saw fit to ignore its ruling despite having signed a shtar birurim (deed of arbitration) before the hearing agreeing to accept its ruling. Can anyone suggest what I should do next?

Posted by Mr M Stern on 2008-09-07 02:30:05 GMT