On Going to Synagogue

Image for On Going to Synagogue

Synagogue membership rolls have been dwindling, and the Jewish establishment is right to wonder about the fate of the one communal institution around which the religious lives of most Jewish men and women have revolved since the destruction of the Second Temple. In the United States, the synagogue is threatened by a scale of young and unaffiliated Jewish Americans that is bigger than any previous generation. Some innovators have sought to make the synagogue more appealing by bringing its services in line with contemporary mores, especially by updating the liturgy to better reflect the psyche of the young. Writing in Commentary in 2009, George B. Goodman makes the counter-case, a strategy for synagogue revival that is grounded in the eternal rather than the contemporary. Men and women will be attracted to the pews once again when the synagogue does not reconfirm all of the modern platitudes that young secular Americans already believe, but instead offers its best traditions and ancestral prayer as an invitation to holiness.

The synagogue connects the generations—children with their parents, individuals with the inheritances of Jewish history—through the rituals and prayers of the Shabbat morning service, the display of names of deceased members on its walls, and by training children for their b’nei mitzvah. Shabbat offers a respite from the chaos of the work week. Religious services and the weekly Torah portion remind us of the limits of our knowledge about ultimate things. These limits allows us to deepen ourselves, to wonder. The individual gains much from participation, and owes others his participation in return, making the ideal of community a living reality.

I attend to observe how my own response to the services has matured over time. The services cannot and should not change to suit my individual needs. The services would not be improved by modification for my purposes alone. Exactly the inverse is true: I attend because I was the one who changed, not the synagogue. I learned to want and try to be a better Jew as a result.

The recursive melodies I heard at services offered me a path back to Judaism after long absence. It wasn’t the liturgy or the ritual. It was the music. No matter how out of tune or time our voices sometimes sound, these are our prayers and they have been our prayers in our music for thousands of years. They will be our prayers for thousands and thousands more, not the smug updates of tradition that pass for attempts at meaning. . . .

At shul, I see the children of our congregation come here to be educated and to prepare for bar and bat mitzvah. I know that the number of Jews around the world is dwindling. We reproduce ourselves inefficiently and many of us marry non-Jews. In fact, my wife is a Gentile and we are childless. These children are Judaism’s future. How can we expect them to cherish Judaism and live vibrantly Jewish lives if they come to believe their parents and the adults in their orbit find no meaning in attending services?

How can we insist that they must learn the Hebrew alphabet, sing the songs, chant the Torah, and all the rest if we show them at the same time these things hold no value for us? I attend because I want the children to see me as an adult attending services. And I want them one day to want their children to see them attending services in turn.

I attend services because if I don’t, who will?

Read the whole essay in Commentary.

More podcasts: