Why the Jews reject the Pews

This year I had a very uplifting Rosh Hashana, immersed in a shule environment that was fully focussed on tefillah. This was followed by an all afternoon discussion with my friends about exactly what environmental factors encourage and discourage people to attend a shule service. We figured that even if the collective attendance level across all Shules in Perth was around 2,500, which we considered a fair estimate, it would mean that for every Jewish person in Shule this Rosh Hashana there were another two to three people who were not in a Shule.

Why is it that the majority of Jews in our community do not feel connected enough to their tradition to be in Shule on such an important day?

 One part of the answer to the question is sitting on the Sensible Jew blog, of which I am a big fan. Sensiblejew has courage to be antiestablishment when it is needed, and cares a great deal about matters of importance to the Jewish community. I particularly enjoyed her post about being in Shule on Rosh Hashana. I too struggle to cope with large shules whose congregants are present for the social value of being seen ahead of the introspective value of tefillah. The following quote from the blog particularly resonated with me, and my own early childhood shule memories:

“Generations X and Y have little patience for the empty ritual of some of the older, more established shuls. That’s why those buildings are emptying and the shtiebls are filling with young people. We want our religious leaders to believe in what they are doing, and to be able to communicate with us without being patronising or banal. The carapace surrounding some among the older generations, that repudiates religious devotion and emotional engagement in prayer, is not what younger people are searching for. What I saw over Rosh Hashana was the emergence of new ways that may make the older crumbling edifices quite obsolete.”

I agree that a concert, fashion show, talkfest and traffic jam in the shule carpark is a cultural environment that demeans Rosh Hashana. An environment of intense concentration on tehilim, contemplation of the words of tefilah, and an atmosphere where people are more focussed on what they are doing, and not so much on what others around them are doing, is far more conducive to a meaningful Yom Tov.

However I think the answer extends a lot deeper than just this.

Too many people consider the Synagogue to be a “place of worship”. They draw comparisons between a Synagogue and a Church or Mosque as a place of prayer. They look to the role of the Rabbi as being akin to that of a priest or an Imam. They consider Judaism to be a religion like Christianity or Islam.

It would be hard to argue (or, at least for most) that Judaism is not a religion. Even I concede that it is. However Judaism is not just a religion, and it is not the same type of religion as the other monotheistic faiths. Judaism is firstly and foremostly about nationhood, within which our religious tradition is embedded.  It is an important distinction, as the focus of our whole system of religious tradition is humanistic.

With this in mind, consider that many people attempt to come to Shule for a spiritual experience, and perhaps leave disappointed that they didn’t find one. Kol Hakavod to the few that do. It is a lot easier when the preparatory work is invested beforehand. However, too many people just rock up to shule and expect their spiritual quest to be satiated on the basis of a shule service, moreso still when they are observers as opposed to participants.  If people expect sudden spiritual ingratiation from Shule, then they have missed the point.  For a start it is not about “taking away”, it is about “giving of oneself”.  Beyond that, the tefillah is a validation of action, not a surrogate to action.

Rabbi Ian Pear in his book the Accidental Zionist writes as follows:

“unlike some religions that invest significant resources in the realm of theology – in trying to understand God – Judaism focuses much more on trying to influence the nature of its human adherents. This is not to say that theology is unimportant, but rather that Judaism considers theological goals in general as achievable only when successfully implemented by real people”

Rabbi Pear goes on to describe how the halachic system, a legal doctrine that is the product of human development, aids this quest.

I personally love and enjoy the ritual of the Synagogue. I can also understand why some don’t. There is however a style and feel, and beyond everything else a purpose to the Jewish liturgy of YomTov that distinguishes it from what would be called “worship” in English. It is this element of tefillah that many of Perth’s Jews fail to recognise. They are not coming to shule as a spectator, but as a contributor. They are not coming to “pray”, they are coming to enhance their character.

Rabbi Sacks writes as follows:

“Prayer” in Hebrew is not tefillah but bakashah. And again these terms are opposites. Bakashah means to pray, request, beseech. But tefillah means, to attach oneself. In bakashah the person asks G-d to provide him, from above, with what he lacks. Therefore when he is not in need of anything, or feels no desire for a gift from above, bakashah becomes redundant. But in tefillah the person seeks to attach himself to G-d. It is a movement from below, from man, reaching towards G-d. And this is something appropriate to everyone and at every time. The Jewish soul has a bond with G-d. But it also inhabits a body, whose preoccupation with the material world may attenuate that bond. So it has constantly to be strengthened and renewed. This is the function of tefillah. And it is necessary for every Jew.”

If only more of our local Jews understood the nature of davening on Yom Tov. If those who do find their way into shule only undertook more of the hard and practical work required prior to reaching their seat in the shule. If only many more of us spent more than a couple of hours two or three times a year in the presence of a minyan. If only those who go to shule regularly had the inclination to welcome more of their chevra to join them more often, and did more to influence the character of their Minyan, then we would have a far more dynamic and informed Jewish community.

Sadly, many will go on and retain their “church” like attitude towards Shule. Shules themselves will continue to perpetuate this as a culture, to their own detriment. We all stand to lose out.

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