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Maybe This Time We'll Do It Differently: Enfranchising the Spiritual Seeker
United Synagogue Review--Fall 1998
© Rabbi Jack Moline

In many ways, spirituality is like beauty -- it is subjective and hard to define, but most people know it when they see it. And, like beauty, however attractive it may seem on the surface, the most abiding sense of spirituality comes from a deeper place.

When addressing the yearnings of the heart, the approach of the synagogue is hampered by two obstacles. Jews who are seeking a closer relationship with God may look everywhere but the familiar confines of the shul. When the structure of "organized religion" is not providing a sense of connectedness for an individual, it is hard to argue that more regular attendance or intensive involvement is the solution. The disenfranchised soul is not interested in more of the same.

The second obstacle is the nature of synagogue culture. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman of the Synagogue 2000 project suggests, tongue in cheek, that emblazoned over the ark in most synagogues is not the traditional "Know Before Whom You Stand," but the more accurate, "We Have Always Done It This Way." Religious institutions are naturally resistant to change, and the people who are most deeply committed to them are most deeply vested in the status quo.

Ironically, it is the synagogue which is uniquely able to provide the locus for a spiritual life. Precisely because of its institutional nature and its regular presence, the synagogue should be the place where seekers can find a community which will provide support for exploration and structure for expression. Spiritual experiences are easy to find -- the wonders of nature or the intensity of a retreat with like-minded people may provide a benchmark event. Nevertheless, a spiritual life -- that is, a life informed by an ongoing relationship with God -- cannot be dependent on withdrawing from everyday life.

It is hard work finding the balance between comfort and innovation. The work of Synagogue 2000 and its sixteen pilot sites (including ours and seven other United Synagogue congregations) involves reimagining a synagogue community in ways that deepen the religious experience for the core membership while drawing other members -- and non-affiliated seekers -- closer. In each of the pilot synagogues, a team of members has spent more than a year studying, talking and praying together to identify ways to make spiritual consciousness more integrated into all aspects of synagogue life.

In some cases, merely recasting familiar activities can achieve the goal. When a person enters the synagogue for Shabbat services, he or she is ordinarily welcomed by an usher or a greeter. Reminding the congregation that both sides of that interpersonal transaction are conducted by creations in God's image elevates a simple "hello" to a sacred interaction.

Many people who come to synagogue regularly cannot comfortably follow services. You might think of those who come to daily minyan for a yahrtzeit observance, but a surprising number of Shabbat regulars know only the publicly recited sounds of prayer, not their meaning or context. Mentoring by congregants who are better versed in the siddur can open the world of the liturgy to other worshippers by helping a friend or visitor through the service. Pro-active opportunities like Hebrew reading and comprehension courses, learner' services and reflective writings in the synagogue bulletin can reach many more people at once.

Music can also be an important vehicle to deepening the experience of God. The wealth of liturgical and folk music which can be incorporated into services is boundless. Our hazzanim are extraordinary resources for such music, especially if occasionally freed of the expectation to repeat the same familiar melodies. Music can also set a tone for board and committee meetings. During a particularly controversial period in our synagogue's history, we opened each meeting with the haunting Mi ha-ish he-hafetz hayyim from Psalm 34. Whenever members were having trouble keeping our tongues from evil and our lips from guile, someone would start singing or humming the melody. (Starting the meeting with the song usually obviated the need to sing it again!)

Recasting the context of synagogue life requires the conscious and cooperative efforts of rabbi, hazzan, educator, executive director, staff, officers, committee chairs and laity. There are no "programs" which will make a synagogue spiritually satisfying; there is only process. But if tweaks to the status quo were all that was necessary, we could certainly fill our pews. I am absolutely committed to halakhah as binding on all Jews and central to the covenant with the Holy One. I achieved that commitment gradually through my years as a child of observant parents and education in afternoon Hebrew school, USY and the Jewish Theological Seminary. If I mistake my point of arrival as the point of departure for the wider Jewish community, I stand the likelihood of losing contact with Jews who have found other -- and often highly effective -- paths to spiritual life. Our synagogues must be open to opportunities to enhance the spiritual life of the congregation by enfranchising practices unfamiliar and even threatening to the staid world of liturgy and ritual observance.

Personal spontaneous prayer is a richly rewarding experience, but one we have abandoned to other traditions. Reclaiming the ability to pray with our hearts by speaking to God directly is not only enormously satisfying but an essential aspect of a Jew's prayer life. The concluding paragraph of the Amidah is meant to prompt such personal prayer, not replace it.

The rich legacy of contemplative and meditative practices in Judaism is reopening in our time. We have rediscovered the value of silence and introspection, often from Jews who have embraced the practices of Eastern traditions. Some congregations, including mine, conduct regularly scheduled alternative services designed to explore these practices. (We call ours the Kavanah Minyan.) Those more daring will incorporate these practices into the set liturgy in the sanctuary or chapel. We have introduced movement and dance, extended periods of silent reflection, guided visualizations and niggunim to the regular shul-goers.

Creative approaches to traditional texts and traditional approaches to creative text can also broaden the points of access for people. Bibliodrama, an interactive encounter designed to develop a form of modern midrash, can open Biblical text to students in a remarkable way. Pioneered by Peter Pitzele, it invites readers to enter the spaces between the words in Torah and imagine the voices which might fill them.

The literature of Jewish mysticism and Hasidism is another vehicle to spiritual insight and meaning. A generation ago, most scholars dismissed these texts as curiosities or folk art forms. Today, their deep roots in our tradition are being explored with increasing attention to the echoes of Torah-truth within. Because many rabbis are without expertise in these texts, they tend to shy away from them. Yet, the partnership in study with lay people can open worlds to teacher and student alike.

Of course, it would be a mistake to identify spirituality only with an inward journey. Our obligation to improve our world is grounded in deeply spiritual values. We must begin to recast our social activism in spiritual terms. "Morality" and "spirituality" are not mutually exclusive terms; indeed, if our commitment to social justice, the Land of Israel and the environment find their source in God's instruction, then feeling God work through us in this holy work can be most richly spiritual -- if only we pay attention to the sacred nature of what we do.

In the quest for renewed spiritual life in our congregations, we must have a motto to replace "We Have Always Done It This Way." I would suggest, "Nothing Halakhah Permits Should Be Alien." Or perhaps a more traditional formulation would be in order. Rav Hai Gaon lived a thousand years ago and formulated much of what we know of halakhah today. He concisely offered the two ingredients to a spiritual life: "To fulfill our obligations and to do the will of our Creator." Rabbi Moline is the spiritual leader of Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Virginia.

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