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Reinventing Synagogues and Prayer

With all the talk about God and spirituality in the Jewish community, the real truth is that most Jews can't pray. Nor does the contemporary American synagogue offer much help in this regard.

It's not that we don't try. Those Jews who are raised with some kind of Jewish education learn a handful of prayers by rote. It tends to be a version of “The Siddur's Greatest Hits.” If one attends synagogue services fairly regularly, it is not too hard to broaden your repertoire past the

Shema, Ashrei and Adon Olam. Of course, most Jews don't attend services very regularly. When they do come, usually as an invited guest for some sort of simha, they sit passively for two-plus hours, perhaps joining in on the one or two prayers that they learned as a child — provided that the cantor hasn't changed the tune.

If we took an exit poll of Jews leaving services and asked the question, “Have you had a meaningful prayer experience,” few would answer in the affirmative.

Synagogues do many things well. They provide places for Jews to gather, bond, educate themselves and their children, mobilize on behalf of important causes, transmit Jewish heritage. Some do connect with the liturgy. In the old joke about synagogue services, Levine admits that Goldberg attends synagogue to talk to God but he goes to talk to Goldberg. The problem is that we have a lot more Levines in our community than Goldbergs.

I encounter more and more Jews today who are engaged on a spiritual search. They read books about Jewish mysticism, spirituality and God. They experiment with alternative religious disciplines, from meditation to yoga to a variety of eastern religious ashrams or fellowship houses. Depending on what type of rabbi you ask, such explorations are characterized anywhere from “a useful experience to enhance one's spirituality” to “a dangerous threat to one's Jewish identity.” Many rabbis don't know what to make of the phenomenon.

Some of these Jewish seekers find their way to a local synagogue. Most leave, convinced that the religion of their childhood is incapable of meeting their longing for spirituality. Essentially, the problem is a gap between keva and kavanah. Keva represents the inherited liturgical tradition. Each of the movements in American Jewish life have adapted the keva to a certain extent, and those adaptations are generally represented in the official prayer books they publish. Each synagogue works to make their particular keva as familiar and as comfortable to their congregants as possible. While the keva of a Reform temple is significantly different from the keva of an Orthodox synagogue, each carries the same level of sanctity to the constituency of its respective institution.

It is here that Reconstructionist congregations have a unique contribution to make to American Jewish life. Our communities represent precious portals into Judaism for the contemporary Jewish seeker. First, Reconstructionism has a long tradition of demystifying and decoding words that often confuse and turn off many Jews. Words like God, prayer, faith, tradition, belief, and ritual are pregnant with meaning, and stir up a lot of negative baggage in Jews. Reconstructionist rabbis are trained not to take such words for granted. Each requires careful unpacking and repackaging in order for Jews to give the tradition a second chance.

Second, the very premise of Reconstructionist Judaism puts the Jewish people prior to the Jewish tradition. What this means is that we recognize that our religion, as an outgrowth of the historical experience of the Jewish people, changes with time. While Judaism cannot and should not merely be whatever a group of Jews make of it at a given time, changing conceptions of God, community, morality and justice cannot but have a dramatic impact on the Judaism we have inherited from our ancestors. From this tension — between the wisdom and power of continuity of the tradition, and the search of contemporary Jews for sacred expressions of their highest aspirations and deepest longings — can emerge the vibrant and spiritual practice of Judaism.

Today's spiritual seekers come with little knowledge of any keva, but with a soul full of kavanah. In traditional Hebrew usage, kavanah is defined as the deep intention of the prayer. To the contemporary seeker, kavanah is their own intention to connect with something that they may call spirituality, meaning, or transcendence. Conventional idiom calls this God.

The problem is that when the kavanah of the seeker meets up with the keva of the synagogue, the spiritual spark is more likely suffocated than nurtured. Even if the rabbi of a given synagogue is effective in creating a level of kavanah within the keva of their own worship service for their regular worshipers, this language is mostly closed to the uninitiated.

Unless rabbis and synagogues find ways to address the needs of this category of seeker, we will fail to attract some of the most sensitive and thoughtful Jewish souls around today. This is not an easy task. There are tens of thousands of Jews who have been searching for a more compelling mode of Jewish life and practice and who have gained glimpses of what that could look like at selected retreats, conventions, institutes and workshops. They want to find places where they can bring their particular kavanah, reflecting their own life experience, and have that connect to the words of our tradition. Most don't have the learning to do that. And most rabbis don't even have these Jews on their radar screens. This is a generation that is ready to dance in the aisles in joyful worship; most synagogues are still offering us responsive readings!

What Jewish life needs today is a spiritual feasibility study in which the constituency is not only the Jews who are affiliated with a synagogue. We must cast a wider net: invite into focus groups all who care about the creative survival of the Jewish people and of Jewish religious practice; invite those who aren't even sure they care; make sure rabbis and synagogue presidents are in attendance.

Ask these focus groups about their spiritual needs. You will hear about a desire for connectedness, belonging, purpose and meaning. It is not a bad starting point for what should be happening in synagogues and during a religious service. Judaism provides a magnificent framework for these longings. Unfortunately, most synagogues believe that when Jews are ready for “the real thing” (as each particular synagogue practices it), they will come and join their synagogues. Some do, but they do so grudgingly and without passion. Increasing numbers simply opt out. With a little imagination and courage, synagogues could begin to build a bridge between the kavanah in the hearts of Jews currently outside the synagogue orbit and the keva that would attract such Jews into their congregations.

Bridging the gap between keva and kavanah means creating a new set of objectives for what we call “religious services.” The spiritual seekers in our midst are looking for an experience of joy, a sense of awe, a moment of quiet contemplation, a flash of intellectual insight, a feeling of communal support, a hand of friendship, a connection to history. The siddur provides gateways to every one of these experiences, but the liturgy must be decoded to make these intentions understandable to the seekers among us. Are our seminaries, and rabbinical organizations asking these kinds of questions and equipping rabbis with these skills today? We must see to it that they do. If Jewish continuity simply means continuing what exists, I am not sure there are enough takers to make the enterprise worthwhile. On the other hand, if we hold out a more ambitious goal for Jewish continuity — the ability to attract a large category of Jews whose needs currently go unmet in the organized Jewish community, then the Jewish future might look a lot more exciting than anyone today has fair reason to expect.

Type: RT Article

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