Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What is religion good for?

Rabbi Larry Hoffman* is one of the leading thinkers in the synagogue-renewal world. He's probably done as much as anyone in recent history to get Jews (and members of other religions, as well) to think seriously about how their synagogues (and churches, etc.) function, and how they need to change. He recently wrote a piece on his blog which gives an excellent, brief overview of Liberal Religion, and does a wonderful job** of explaining why so many synagogues seem a bit lost, right now.

* he is probably one of the three rabbis whom I quote, and from who I unabashedly steal, most often. Take him, Rabbi Larry Kushner and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and you've got my rabbinic All-Star team!

** it's not a long piece, so if you're interested, it's definitely worth the click-through to read the whole thing. The comments on his page are pretty interesting, too!

To Hoffman, it all starts in the late 1700's with the then-revolutionary idea that Judaism is a religion. What, exactly, is a religion?

For Jews in Christian countries, religion was a system of belief that was operationalized in worship

That's actually a fantastic definition of "religion," which is one of those words that we all use, but would struggle to define. The problem is, since Judaism hadn't evolved as a “religion,” in that sense, it never really took. And so, our attempts to build synagogues which were essentially modeled on Protestant Churches were destined to fail (or, at least, not succeed fully). So, rather than close up shop (which institutions almost never do, voluntarily) we set about finding other reasons to continue to exist.

We tried relying on anti-Semitism as a reason to be. That was, ultimately, unfulfilling. We claimed to be a place which valued family like no other, which led in large part to most synagogues focusing on lifecycle events, and we expanded that idea, to say that our main purpose was “community,” which has its own failings:

The evidence, however, is against our being able to do this very well. Except for synagogue clergy, professionals, and the “regulars” (the self-selected “insiders” for whom synagogue really is community), most synagogues are not seen as communities that care, nurture, and provide whatever it is that beleaguered boomers want. At least life-cycle celebration is something we are good at. Community, apparently, is not. And the next generation, the boomers’ children may not even want it.

All in all, it's a pretty dim view of synagogues (and all the more painful because it rings so true). But, thankfully Hoffman isn't out just to depress us. Instead, he suggests there might be another purpose which synagogues can fulfill: spirituality.

You know, it's a funny thing. For a long time I've resisted the term “spiritual.” Partially, that's because it's so overused, and is often used in a very amorphous way—almost as if the point is to not talk seriously, and instead have a conversation in generalities and feel-good bromides. I've also resisted it because it came with certain connotations. A “spiritual person” was a particular type of person–ethereal, touchy-feely and so on. It might be an understatement to say that I have never been that type of person, and I've never really wanted to be (nothing wrong with those who are; it's just not me).

But, the reality is that, either through a process of aging and (God forbid) maturation, or maybe through the study I've done over the years, I've come to realize that spirituality really is one of the absolute primary components of a religious life. And (I'll fully admit—I'm proud to have had this realization before I read Rabbi Hoffman's piece) it might be exactly the one thing which synagogues can offer which few others can (notice—I didn't say no others can; I actually don't believe that this is the sole province of organized religion).

We don't need synagogues by default like we did half a century ago (we're fine if we never join or attend a synagogue). We don't need synagogues to provide our primary community, anymore (lots of places can do that, and as Hoffman suggests, studies suggest that the next generation might not care so much about “primary community” anymore). If we're going to survive (by "we" I mean synagogues, not Judaism more broadly) we have to be able to offer something vital, something powerful, and something not easily obtainable elsewhere. And that thing might be a serious, profound connection with some One greater than ourselves. Synagogues might have to start taking spirituality more seriously than we have in a long time (also worth nothing - this isn't a new insight; plenty of synagogues already are). We might have to start defining success by how many people's spiritual lives we can deepen.

This is all just a little bit of musing, to show you where my mind has been, of late. But it's also a bit of a preview of a new program we'll be starting after the High Holy Days. For those who are members of Congregation Beth Am, or just those who are in the Tampa Bay area, keep your eye out for a monthly Shabbat morning program called “Making Prayer Real,” based around the book by the same name. In brief, it's going to be an attempt to seriously examine our own prayer lives, and our own spiritual selves, in the hopes of making our prayers (both personal and communal) more intense, more powerful and more meaningful. It will be before services on the 2nd Saturday of each month, starting in the fall.

I doubt that we'll be seeing our current synagogue structures replaced by the Jewish equivalent to ashrams, anytime soon. At least, not in large numbers. But, I'm excited, as well as being a bit nervous, I'll admit, about seeing where this goes. And seeing what happens to us, and to me, if we really start putting our spirits at the center of our lives.

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