The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. was a watershed moment in Jewish history. With Roman control of Judea making the idea of rebuilding a third temple impossible, the question became not so much as where to meet God but as how to meet God, for the Temple’s destruction eliminated Jews’ ability to participate in the sacrificial cult, their primary means of communicating with Adonai. Forced to adapt, the Rabbis looked at biblical texts, interpreting them to find answers like the one that Psalm 40:7-8 presents, reading, “You do not desire sacrifice and meal offering; You do not ask for burnt offering and sin offering. Then I said…To do what please You, my God, is my desire; Your teaching is in my inmost parts” (JPS). Understanding that God no longer wanted sacrifices (Ps. 40:7-8), the Rabbis slowly developed a number of supplications to replace burnt offerings. Prayer solved the how of connecting to God, and the local synagogues simply served as God’s meeting place.
In my last post, “Where Do We Meet God?” I addressed Reform and Conservative Jews’ (college- and graduate-aged) increased apathy for the synagogue. While some might posit that this phenomenon evidences the need to revitalize the temple in general, such an opinion misses the point entirely. The source of the problem lies in how clergy and lay leaders present Judaism to their constituents, for while they cannot change Judaism’s essence, they do determine how to frame it, often doing so in a stale manner, teaching Judaism as a passive religion which chooses to connect to God only through traditional prayer and traditional forms of study. While these methods have great merit, as they work for some people (myself included), the fact that they increasingly estrange others remains. Whereas Jews in the Rabbinic period and in the recent past connected to God primarily through prayer, the majority of this generation does not. This generation wants less performance and more interaction, less “talking at” and more “discussing with,” less hesitation and more action. Perhaps most importantly, this generation wants fewer answers and more questions.
For too long, many clergy and lay leaders have presented prayer, practice, and participation in Judaism in a set manner. Because of these leaders’ authority within the community, their way became the only way, prevailing to this day. But here lies the problem: they present Judaism in a box, but it means different things to different people. Here, then, lies the answer to the underlying question, “how do we connect to God?” To connect, we must first connect to Judaism, and, through it, approach God in the manner best suited for us.
Re-amping Reform and Conservative Judaism requires that its leaders first recognize that no one has the exact same idea of God. But this understanding alone will not suffice. While some rabbis and laity already acknowledge this fact, few if any (I have yet to meet one), consciously make the effort to publicize this idea; thus, a sorry disconnect forms. This generation seeks a community that both accepts and promotes pluarlism. This generation sees just another group of Jews stuck in their ways, unwilling to change. And the rabbi and administration of that synagogue wonder, “We have all of these different programs to offer. We don’t define God, we accept different forms of practice, and we encourage exploration. Why do our numbers continue to dwindle?” If only more people would actively inform others that some pluralistic synagogues exist.
But what about those schuls, still stuck in the past? They need to understand that Jews search for a vibrant community, one that touts different practices and beliefs. Having acknowledged this, they should make it known that they encourage pluralism, right? Wrong. Believing in pluralism is vital, but without a vehicle through which to engage in one’s own beliefs, its acceptance is worthless.
Second, they must develop a variety of avenues through which people can connect. Such avenues could include temple youth groups, alternative services, continuing Jewish education, “Introduction to Judaism” classes, Jewish cooking classes, instruction on Israeli dance, business classes with local Jewish entrepreneurs, intramural sports, gardening at the temple, and much, much more. Simply teaching the melodies for different prayers during services can have a dramatic impact on the congregation’s enjoyment. To attract this generation of Jews, clergy and laypeople need to have the ability not only to permit current Jewish tunes (from people such as Debbie Friedman, Craig Taubman, and Dan Nichols) but they themselves must enjoy using them. Nothing worse exists than a rabbi who displays no excitement or joy in his or her job. Without a smile on his or her face, the ruach in the congregation does not even die; it never comes into being in the first place.
Only after developing these programs can communities advertise to the outside world that, “Yes, we LOVE people who worship in different ways, who hold unique beliefs, and who see Judaism from a different perspective. Please, come to this community. We would love to have you not only in our community but making it.”
The task at hand presents many challenges. Will the older generation accept the idea of pluralism and enjoy it themselves? Will new opportunities develop within synagogues to affirm Judaism’s great strength, that no single dogma defines how to practice its way of life? Will leaders let this generation know that their community not only understands pluralism but encourages it? Once all of the above happens, the question of “where do we meet God” will no longer exist, for “how do we/I meet God” will have replaced the former. No one has the one true answer; it differs for every single person.
Of course, all of this raises an issue: if each person develops his/her own form of Judaism, what will keep the community together? I will address this topic in my next post. Until then, I thank you for taking the time out of your day to delve into my thoughts, and I welcome your comments. Until then, Shabbat Shalom v’Shanah Tovah um’tukah.
Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, David Bloom attends Indiana University Bloomington where he majors in Jewish Studies and Religious Studies. His column, J-Studs, appears here on alternating Saturdays.