This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Seat of the Problem*

In our communities, there are usually only two or three special holidays during the year when it matters where a person is allowed to sit in the synagogue. This situation does not necessarily reflect well on the levels of our shul attendance, but it does help to minimize the occasions for strife and friction between congregants.

In more traditionally observant communities, as were the norm in earlier generations, it was expected that all eligible worshippers would be in attendance at the services, at least for the Sabbath and holiday prayers. Furthermore, since many Jewish communities would only sanction the existence of a single congregation in their midst, the indignant members who were dissatisfied for one reason or other did not have the option of taking their sacred business to a competing synagogue.

As we learn from documents in the Cairo Genizah, when a faction refrained from going down to the community synagogue, this was no mere expression of protest or dissatisfaction. People would not take such radical measures unless they were convinced that they had no alternative. They had to be thoroughly convinced that worshipping in the synagogue would constitute a violation of their religious principles, whether because of the inappropriateness of the prayer leaders, an objectionable phrase in the liturgy, or some other grave concern.

On the other hand, the austere Jewish community of Qumran, which left us the Dead Sea Scrolls, seems to have been more accustomed to people leaving their ranks. Evidently, they actually had a fixed liturgical ritual to accompany the expulsion of members who did not conform to their demanding standards.

With the completion of Amsterdam's magnificent Portuguese synagogue in 1675, which boasted almost 900 members at its inception, the institution of assigned seating became the established practice. Of course, not all members were satisfied with their seats, and it became increasingly common for people to simply park themselves where they pleased.

In 1680, the city's Sephardic community council--the Mahamad--responded to the encroaching anarchy by appointing a special seating committee that would be responsible for the allocation of places in the synagogue. Their decisions would remain immutable for five years, and anyone who refused to accept them would be barred from entering the interior of the sanctuary.

The task of synagogue seating committees is never an easy one. In their attempts to please their congregations, they must give consideration to innumerable factors: there are friends who wished to be placed near each other, and adversaries who should be kept apart at a discrete distance. In times when communities were divided into clear social hierarchies, the stratification was also reflected in the distribution of synagogue places.

It was hoped that the Amsterdam community's decisions would be widely accepted, either because the fairness of the process was evident to all, or in deference to the authority that stood behind them.

Inevitably, there were some malcontents. The chief gadfly was a certain Ishack (Isaac) Enrriquez Cotiño. Señor Cotiño expressed his displeasure about his placement in the synagogue in a particularly rude and insolent letter that he penned to the communal leadership. In it, he complained that the seat assignments had been carried out unfairly, and had thereby undermined the cohesiveness of the congregation.

Following the established procedure in that community, the dissident was invited to three interviews with the community representatives, in hope of arriving at a mutually satisfactory arrangement. However, the negotiations broke down when he refused to attend the meetings.

Exactly one month after the establishment of the seating committee, the Mahamad responded in a decisive manner by barring Cotiño from the synagogue, even from his previous seat, and by denying him the privilege of praying with the community. He would not be eligible for readmission until he made a formal public apology.

Having reached an impasse at the highest level of the Jewish community administration, it appeared as if Cotiño had exhausted all his options. Undaunted, he chose to go over the heads of the Jewish leadership, and proceeded to launch a suit against the Mahamad in the civil courts.

This turned out to be a huge mistake on his part. Not only did the judges uphold the authority of the Jewish leadership to enforce their decisions, but they went a significant step further, denying him even the prerogative of worshipping in the privacy of his home. As long as he was a member of the Jewish community, he was obliged to abide by the decisions of its leaders and sit in his designated place in the synagogue.

Even at this stage, Cotiño was still not ready to admit defeat. This time, he approached the Amsterdam city council and accused the Mahamad of committing procedural irregularities when they placed him under a severe ban of excommunication--herem--without providing him with a sufficient opportunity to argue his position.

It was easily established in the course of the hearing that this latter accusation was simply not true; Cotiño had never been placed in herem.

At any rate, our rebel pleaded that, if the Mahamad refused to assign him the seat that he coveted in the synagogue, they should at least refrain from harassing him when he tried to assemble a priviate minyan in his residence.

Cotiño's appeal was again rejected.

At this point, we lose track of the litigation, and Cotiño's name disappears for a few years from the lists of tax-paying community members. Eventually, he resurfaces as a paid member in good standing. In the last year of his life, his contribution to the community chest was especially generous.

The case of Amsterdam's Ishack Enrriquez Cotiño may have been an uncommonly acerbic episode. The community authorities might have adopted an unusually intransigent stance in order to stave off unorthodox or embarrassing behaviour that sometimes typified Spanish crypto-Jews recently returned to the fold--of whom Spinoza was the most notorious, but by no means the sole example. However, it seems that squabbles of a similar nature have been standard fare in synagogue life throughout history.

In my more youthful days, I am certain that I would have been cheering for the rebel tilting at the Establishment windmills (though Señor Cotiño was actually an affluent capitalist). At any rate, decades of working on behalf of beleaguered Jewish community institutions have severely diminished my patience for troublemakers of his ilk.

My sympathies are now entirely with the dedicated and longsuffering volunteers who strive to enhance harmony in the community by serving dutifully on the seating committees.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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