Friday, December 5, 2008

The Synagogue and the Secular Jew: The Challenge of Being Spiritually Relevant in a Skeptical Time

The Synagogue and the Secular Jew: The Challenge of Being Spiritually Relevant in a Skeptical Time: Summary-Jews are the most secular "religious community" in America. Jews pray less than any other religious grouping. Why are Jews so Secular and how does it impact communal religious life? How then do synagogues which are religious institutions by definition connect with a largely secular Jewish public?

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Temple Beth Shalom, Long Beach, CA
Sermon Given: 12/6/08
Copies are at the synagogue website:
Our portion, Vayetze opens with a collision of sorts. “Vayifga bamakom-Jacob collided with this place.” It is on his hurried journey to escape the wrath of his brother Esau who wants to kill him. The Torah proceeds to describe Jacob’s unexpected night encounter with God. The Rabbi’s interpreted the phrase: Vayifga Bamakom as a proof text that Jacob introduced the evening prayer (Maariv). No one, according to the Rabbis, had ever tried praying at night. According to the rabbinic imagination, Jacob’s grandfather had introduced Morning Prayer (Shahrit) and his father, Isaac, fathered the Afternoon Prayer (Minchah). But Jacob completed the triad of Jewish prayer by praying in darkness.

Thus according to tradition the template of worship was laid out by our forefathers. Our patriarchs are depicted as inventors of a sort, innovators of prayer. Their startup religion, the religion of Yahweh, centered on prayer-the human approach and encounter with God.

It is with great irony then that in 21st century America, Jews are the religious group least likely to be found in its houses of worship. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently published data on religion in America ( ) showing that Jews are closer in their behaviors to the unaffiliated Americans than to religiously defined Americans of Christian denominations. While Jewish identity tends to be relatively strong, religious practice is much weaker. This is also evident in Israel, where most Israeli Jews are decidedly secular, rarely attend synagogue, do not observe Shabbat and more and more do not observe dietary laws. Over my career I have probably converted over 500 people. The most common perplexity of almost every convert I ever mentored was why most of the Jews they knew were less religious than they aspired to be as new Jews. How curious this perplexity. How miraculous that these new Jews hear the music of Jewish religious insight, but so many born Jews are tone deaf, unmoved by the songs of their legacy.

What is the impact on a Jewish community in which most of its people are secular? What are the implications for synagogues as religious institutions? These questions are often not honestly faced in synagogues? We sweep them under the rug? Or we let the Rabbi serve as the lightning rod for these unresolved communal issues. The reason is that there is an uncomfortable accommodation, especially in Conservative Synagogues between those who are more on the so called religious spectrum and those who are more comfortable on the secular side. Orthodox synagogues don’t suffer from these tensions as much because they are unambiguously religious in orientation and demand more strict observance from their members. Reform also has less ambiguity since they assume the secularity of the great majority of their members. Conservative congregations wobble, built on shaky coalitions so called traditionally oriented persons, but in reality a very broad spectrum of culturally oriented secular Jews and traditionally leaning Jews who find Orthodoxy too stringent or closed minded.

Who are secular Jews? The term itself is broad. They are variously described as unaffiliated, but the truth is that many are affiliated. Sometimes secular are described as non-religious. But even the so called religious in a Conservative congregation are selective in their observance of commandments, like coming to services but not having a kosher home or only observing some Shabbat laws. The term ‘apikorus’ is rarely used but helped previous generations portray secular Jews as non-believers, open atheists who still maintained an ardent loyalty to their people. I prefer the nomenclature of ‘cultural Jew’. Cultural Jews have an affinity to many aspects of Judaism including many of its religious dimensions, but are not pious or meticulous in their commitment to the traditional commandments.

This in turn helps us to describe a religious person. There is no term for religious in classic Hebrew. Rather a person who was devoted to a religious life was described as Shomer Mitzvot-a guardian of the commandments. In Conservative synagogues the underlying tension is between those who shomer-guard certain communal commandments like the koshrut of the kitchen or the laws of the Shabbat services in contrast to the members who don’t guard those traditions with equal fervor. Thus there is often a tension in a Conservative synagogue between those who piously value attending services and those who don’t often attend or who casually attend based on reasons other than a sense of religious personal obligation.

As a congregational rabbi I have to mediate these often subterranean tensions. I have had 25 years to think through this problem and here are some principles I have arrived at.

1. There are many mitzvot in the Torah. The Torah does not generally prioritize them, so my role is to praise and validate whatever mitzvot a Jew has taken on to do.

2. I believe every Jew does some mitzvot. So called cultural Jews do mitzvot. Jews who attend synagogue do other mitzvot. Jews who work in social action do mitzvot. Jews who go to Israel do mitzvot. They all deserve praise.

3. While I think the mitzvot connected to communal synagogue life such as prayer are very important, I do not guilt trip, browbeat, and condescend to cultural Jews who do not focus on these mitzvot. I will also not function as a DGT (designated guilt tripper) on behalf of congregants who think the rabbi should do this. I encourage people to perform these mitzvot and teach people who are willing to listen why they are important.

4. I acknowledge that there is a lot of alienation from the synagogue by cultural Jews and realize that one of the ways to connect to them is in other places than synagogues: at their home tables, at their workplaces, in supermarkets, and at social justice events. Therefore I believe that rabbinic work involves serving as a rabbi in these contexts.

5. Most important, most Jews are agnostic and atheistic. Therefore they have often unarticulated or sometimes highly thought through opinon about prayer, God talk, and rituals that assume belief and affirmation of the God of Israel. Assuming that everyone has resolved this issue in their minds when we conduct public rituals strikes many Jews as either arrogant or pure obliviousness. I hate to be viewed as just another oblivious rabbi, so I try to work hard to acknowledge this ambivalence on the part of most Jews.

6. Our services should be places for people to express their faith and doubt. Jewish prayer has one great advantage over worship in other traditions. It is highly participatory and allows for people with different levels of faith to participate and to feel involved. This beautiful flexibility has led me to emphasize giving as many people as possible roles in public worship that overcome resistance to the religious ideas and expectations of the prayers. The more people participating the better. They become stakeholders and ‘spiritual citizens of the minyan’.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Larwence Kushner beautifully expressed how synagogues should accommodate and support different types of Jews. I believe his words are very important for Conservative synagogues and creating a climate of communal purpose, toleration, and collaboration.

“Jews need one another, and therefore congregations, to do primary religious acts which they should not and probably cannot, do alone. Doing primary religious acts is the only way we have of growing as Jews. Consequently, it is also the only justification for the existence of a congregation. Everything else congregations do, Jews can always do cheaper, easier, and better somewhere else. “

“There are three ancient kinds of primary Jewish acts: communal prayer, holy study, and good deeds, or in the classical language of Pirke Avot: Avodah, Torah, and G'milut Hasadim. This is not a capricious categorization. Prayer is emotional: song, candles, dance, meditation, and silence. A matter of the heart. Study is intellectual reading, questioning, discussion, rigorous logic and argument. A matter of the head. And good deeds are public acts: helping, repairing, matching, fighting, and doing. Matters of the hand. Only rare individuals are able to do all three with equal fervor and skill. And so our membership in a congregation and association with a broad spectrum of Jews will compensate for our personal deficiencies. “

In our portion, Jacob after his ‘collision’ with the places has a dream. He wakes up and says: “God was in this place, and I, I did not know.” The challenge of modern synagogue is to create ‘collisions’ in which people end up saying Jacob’s words. Right now, many Jews don’t expect to find God in the synagogue, much less anywhere else. All we can do is open the many doors of Jewish life for our fellow Jews and hope that they have a Jacob-like collision. That is the holy work I have committed myself to and I hope you will join me.

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