The Perfect Shul – A Message for Rosh Hashanah
Close your eyes and begin a delightful journey into your imagination. Start by anticipating a romantic evening, tantalized by the splendor and grandeur of the symphony. You hold your head high and smile with self-assurance knowing you managed to procure premier front row seats. You gaze at your surroundings and every seat is occupied before the lights are dimmed. The audience is palpitating yet you are serene and calm. The slightest movement is frowned upon and everyone remains politely settled until the very end. When the concert concludes, the audience rises to their feet with loud cheers and clapping. The performers are deeply touched and honored by the loving cries of, “Encore! Encore!”
Close your eyes once again and imagine a slightly different scene. You are attending Rosh Hashanah services, albeit sans any expectation of grandeur, pomp or ceremony. Only the most pious are in the synagogue before services begin, and during your brief stay you question how anyone can possibly concentrate on prayer with the cacophony of noise. You find the perpetual motion of those swaying back and forth unsettling. You begin to think about your time spent in concert halls and wonder why the synagogue doesn’t appear to garner as much reverence and respect.
Let me assuage your concern and temper your anxiety. A synagogue was never intended to be a place of entertainment and should never be misconstrued as such. Furthermore, all enjoyment is subjective and many a good Jew might find a shul service dull. Personally, I can’t imagine a scenario where I would voluntarily attend a symphony orchestra. Not only is the music not to my liking, I find the pomp and ceremony artificial and contrived. Honestly, I would be unimpressed attending a shul that mirrored the stuffy ambiance of a concert hall. I enjoy a shul’s fluidity of movement and camaraderie and appreciate that people may be in attendance for a variety of reasons. For some people, spending five hours in prayer is pure bliss, while for others, even half an hour may be too long. The services may help catapult some into a higher spiritual orbit; their swaying and chanting akin to an artificial stimulant. For others, the continuous need to celebrate that God is king, or the multitude of repetitive blessings and phraseology just doesn’t resonate with them.
I think shuls work well for some but fail to stimulate the broader Jewish community. Instead of wondering why people are not attending, we should acknowledge that what we are offering is less than enticing. I am not advocating changing what is good and proper, I am advocating that a one shoe fits all policy is a lofty ideal but fraught with difficulties. The Torah portion read the week before Rosh Hashanah states:
atem nitzavim kulchem lifnei………. You are all standing before God: your heads, tribal leaders, ……….children, wood cutters and water drawers. It expounds on the idea that Jews are a diverse group, but the fundamental objective of Judaism is in fusing these differences into a cohesive unit.
I see a synagogue as a Bet HaKneset, literally God’s house of gathering where everyone is welcome. While prayer and Torah study may be the ultimate goal, it may be self-defeating to imagine that most Jews will concur. According to the Pew Report, a majority of Jews identify by remembering the Holocaust (73 percent), leading an ethical life (69 percent), and working for justice and equality (56 percent) as key components of being Jewish while only 19 percent say observing Jewish law is essential to what it means to be Jewish. Thus, if we continue to only address the needs of the minority, organized religion will ultimately cease to exist.
So when you attend services this Rosh Hashanah be cognizant that each person is unique and has their own relationship with Hashem. While some may want to pray, other just want to silently communicate with God without using or uttering the traditional prayers. And there may be some that need not pray at all but find solace and comfort in the tranquility of the sanctuary. I know of individuals that are content with all they have received and have no desire to task God by asking for additional assistance. They attend primarily as a means of identifying with family. However, I am more impressed by the quiet majority that supports the Jewish community but for whom davening and prayer is just not part of their lexicon. They may never physically enter the sanctuary but they express a deep love of yiddishkeit. They may never recite prayers in Hebrew, but I am confident that their direct line with the Almighty is often answered on the first ring.
This year, instead of keeping our eyes closed and only imagining, I hope that we open our eyes and hearts and welcome the collective goodness that makes up the Jewish people. The older I get the more I hope that the cocoon in which Orthodox Judaism has hidden itself will eventually grow to spread its wings and reveal the inherent beauty of authentic Judaism.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tova,
Rabbi Jack Engel