Why a shul?
Two people having a conversation on a Saturday morning at home: “Get out of bed and go to shul!” “But I don’t want to go to shul. I’m tired. I don’t like the cantor’s singing. And I don’t have any friends in the congregation. Give me one good reason why I have to go to shul.” “Because you’re the rabbi.”
I was moved by Avrum Rosensweig’s column in last month’s CJN about community. He hit the nail squarely on the head when he wrote, “If you don’t belong, consider it. It can be exasperating, but highly soothing in a life where our existential anguish can throb like a sore ligament.”
I don’t know if I would choose the word soothing for synagogue life. Ever been to a soothing shul board meeting? I don’t think shul should be an elixir for all that ails us. In fact, shul should challenge us and vex our otherwise cozy existence. (As my old homiletics teacher once said, “Our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”) But Rosensweig is certainly right that belonging plays a huge part in shrinking the existential disconnect that so many of us feel so much of the time.
As I reported in February, I’ve returned to the congregational rabbinate after 20 years. But I never explained why. Why shul? (Notice I didn’t say, “Why my shul?” Too many of us are territorial about memberships. Oh, for the good old days in the shtetl, when you paid one set of dues into the community coffers and got the rabbi of your choice, a burial plot in the community Jewish cemetery, and the ability to go to all of the shuls that benefited from those coffers. Sigh.)
So, why shul?
• Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, writes, “The synagogue is the only place in the Jewish world that can be counted on to care about the individual Jew.” We’re all searching for a sense of community that takes us offline. The synagogue may be one of the only places where each of us is expected to move beyond “I.” Shuls speak in “we” more than “I”. In a society that values individual productivity, and where “team” is mostly a metaphor for well-paid individuals trying to work together to stay well-paid, many of us choose to stay away from a place that pretty well requires us to sacrifice for the collective good. Those who don’t belong are missing a rare chance to be in a “we” with others who have also chosen to speak in “we.”
• The synagogue may be the only place an adult is expected to continue learning things that aren’t connected to their work and don’t help them “get ahead”: Torah for Torah’s sake, new tunes, how to lift a Torah scroll, the history of the Jews of Spain, Hebrew, mysticism, the Maccabees. There are no professional credits, no incentives other than knowledge. Those who don’t belong often get stuck in a 13-year old’s level of Jewish knowledge and understanding. They may never meet the sophisticated adult system of Judaism and can’t even answer the simple questions of their friends and neighbours.
• Other than your therapist, your rabbi is the only professional paid to care about you, pay attention to you, ask about your life and listen carefully to the answer, visit you when you’re sick, hold your hand when you lose a loved one, inquire about your kids, or notice when you’ve lost your way. Those who don’t belong get a rabbi parachuted into their life for a few precious moments on a fee-per-service basis, no different than a florist or a caterer.
• The synagogue is the place you can be spiritual and not be embarrassed by it, or be non-spiritual and enjoy others being spiritual. It’s a place where meaning really matters, where big questions are asked, where depth is the norm, where large ideas are debated in a friendly way, where your voice and your vote really can change the way things work. It’s a place you can be “touchy-feely” or intellectual, philosophical or political, passionate about things that others may think are wimpy.
If you don’t belong, there isn’t much space in society for your soul, except maybe at your yoga class. But does your yoga class give you everything else I’ve mentioned, and will they be there when you want a minyan to say Kaddish?
This column appears in the May 31 print issue of The CJN