Sunday, 27 January 2008

Facing East

I came across an interesting "live" insight into the question of the direction of liturgical prayer during the week. As part of my trade union role I am a member of the local authority's Standing Advisory Committee for Religious Education(or SACRE - this is the body responsible for overseeing the teaching of RE in state funded schools that do not have a designated religious character). Our recent meeting was hosted at a Synagogue, where one of the committee members is the rabbi. We took the opportunity to visit the Synagogue itself. To use the rabbi's own words, it was a Synagogue where the services where celebrated in an "Orthodox" way, largely in Hebrew.
The Ark of the Torah was placed centrally against what would theologically speaking (but not geographically speaking - see below) be the eastern wall. The veil or curtain that covered the Ark was of a material that might be described as "worthy" of its purpose. When opened, it revealed a collection of some eight or nine scrolls of the Torah, and the rabbi's description of them being carried through the congregation was rich with echoes of the Gospel procession at Mass. The respect with which the scrolls are treated - once written , the page of the scroll itself is not touched by human hands and a "pointer" is used by the reader to follow his place along the scroll - could perhaps teach us something about how to treat the Book of the Gospels during the celebration of the Christian liturgy.
The arrangement of the seats in the Synagogue was such that the rabbi would lead the service with most of the congregation behind him and only a few in front of him (except when preaching from a position directly in front of the Ark of the Torah). As an Orthodox congregation, the ladies sit in a gallery above the main floor of the Synagogue as well. This prompted one of my fellow committee members to ask the rabbi about not being able to see most of the congregation during the service. I quote the rabbi's immediate and un-hesitating response: "When we stand up to pray, we all face the same way, towards the East". By this, he meant facing in the direction towards the wall that contained the Ark of the Torah - the "theological East" - which was in reality the northern wall of the building - the "geographical north".
So the rabbi's full response had a rather dry, and, I thought, a typically Jewish touch to it: "When we stand up to pray, we all face the same way, towards the East" (at this point, extending his arm to indicate the direction of the geographical east as opposed to the theological east) "though East is really that way".

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