Rabbi Sid Schwartz concludes his essay on synagogue innovation (Forward, September 18, 2009) this way, “For too many Jews coming to shul on the holidays, the fare will be predictable and will not result in a return visit for another 12 months.” I know Rabbi Schwartz and hold him in high esteem, so I felt more than a twinge of guilt about my not even going to shul for the holy days.
Not that guilt is enough to change my mind. The thought of sitting through a painfully long liturgy reflecting a worldview I rejected decades ago, just keeps me frozen to my seat. Rabbi Schwartz says that we need to make the synagogue experience more compelling. Fair enough. But what would get me out of my house and into a synagogue?
I know what I am supposed to say: a short, well–crafted naturalist liturgy that draws on tradition while honoring science and avoiding supernaturalism; a service punctuated with minutes (rather than moments) of true silence inviting me to realize God rather than talk about God; an honest engagement with Torah that blends cutting edge Bible study (literary, historical, philosophical, etc.) with the mytho-poetic spirituality of scholars and mystics like Joseph Campbell; a sermon that sets out some challenging proposal, and which morphs into an open–ended and passionate discussion among the congregants; and music that is more than just entertaining and professional, but that uses chazanut (cantorial singing), Hebrew chanting, and Hasidic niggunim (melodies) to create opportunities for spiritual awakening and transformation.
That’s what I should say. And I wouldn’t be lying if I said it. But I might be thinking wishfully. The truth is, even if all this were offered, I still might stay home. I wonder if the reason Jews don’t go to shul is that they don’t want to; and that even if it was tailor–made for them, they still might not go.
I may have simply grown too selfish for shul; too fond of solitude to tolerate community; too comfortable with silence to tolerate words; too taken with my own ideas and those of the scholars I read and study to entertain the ideas of others. In short, I may be too full of myself to make room for others. I actually prefer davvenen (praying) alone.
I will get up at dawn tomorrow (Rosh haShanah morning) and walk for miles along the banks of Stones River. I will talk with God, and sing to Her. I will review and give thanks for the year just past, and free myself as best I can to welcome the year about to unfold. I will, Shabbos aside, do tashlich and symbolically toss all I needlessly cling to into the water, inviting freshness into my life. And then I will go home, shower, and study Torah the rest of the day. My minyan (prayer quorum) will be the trees of the forest, and among my rabbis will be Martin Buber and Baruch Spinoza. I will be alone with my books, my thoughts, and my life.
This isn’t very Jewish, I know. And some will think it very sad. But I will be quietly happy. True, if a few people, a minyan even, wanted to join me, I would enjoy that as well. But all the Jews I know will be in shul. Somebody must be doing something right.