Q. Rabbi Nathan Cardozo said recently that God has moved and is no longer in the synagogue. Do you agree?
A. Rabbi Cardozo makes three main points:
1. True seekers are not generally found in synagogues but in cafes, non-traditional minyanim, study halls, etc.;
2. Synagogues are largely devoid of the spiritual, meaningful and experiential;
3. Observant Jews are in denial, focussing on contrived legal questions and ignoring the “big picture” issues.
He is partly right – and partly wrong. Where he is right is that some synagogues run their affairs in a routine, perfunctory way without emotional, spiritual or intellectual excitement. Genuine seeking and encounter is the last thing that happens there.
The old joke has come true: “I’ll let you into the synagogue, but don’t let me catch you praying”. There is no danger of people actually praying in some shules. Congregants gallop through the pages of the Siddur, stop for a conversation (usually on irrelevancies such as what she’s wearing and what’s doing in the stock market), and God either isn’t there or maybe all He gets is a passing nod.
Other places, maybe those which Rabbi Cardozo enumerates, maybe the beach, the hills, even a quiet garden, are more conducive to spiritual experience. Sometimes the seeker finds Him simply through being alone.
Sermons feature “big picture” issues – but without passion or urgency, and so wrapped up in banalities and rhetoric that they mean nothing to anybody, not even the preacher. Shiurim address little points of little significance – almost like the medievals who debated how many angels could sit on the point of a pin.
If this is all true, let’s feel sorry for God. We tell the secularists that one can’t have Judaism without God, but we ourselves are fostering a Judaism where God hardly figures.
Outside the synagogue one can certainly find God, but the soaring moments are occasional and ephemeral. They can’t be relied upon. They can also be anarchic. Their spiritual quality is not necessarily God. Nor does the spiritual encounter necessarily make a difference to a person’s life, or the world.
The synagogue should not be written off. Its agenda item is God – and man’s relationship to Him. Forget about who gets sh’lishi or shishi. Think big. But small synagogues need to become large: large synagogues need to become small.
Small synagogues need to become more than comfort zones for catching a Kaddish, but quiet places of humming and meditation. Large synagogues need to create a sense of fellowship with less formality and more moments of quiet in the midst of the pomp and ceremony. Both need to arouse and re-charge the soul, and send people back into the world as better people with a task.
A verse from Psalm 16 is emblazoned in many synagogues, Shiviti HaShem l’negdi tamid – “I set the Lord always before me”. That verse prefaces the Code of Jewish Law and says, “If the Divine Presence is with you always, you are sure to make it a better world on behalf of God”.