Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
A couple of years ago, I finally fulfilled one of the dreams of my calling. I preached a Sunday sermon at an African-American church.
A few days before, I called the pastor to ask about subject and duration of the sermon. He said, “Son, you speak about anything that God inspires you to say. I usually go about 40 minutes, but you take as long as you like.”
I worried and wondered what I could speak about for 40 minutes.
The Church was packed with faithful, singing and swaying congregants. There were sermons given before the main sermon. The words were mesmerizing in cadence and tone. My wife looked at me and said, “Honey, you are in big trouble. How are you ever going to compete with what is going on up there on that pulpit?” I gulped and wondered what I had gotten myself into! I quaked in my Jewish boots.
It went better than I could have expected. Something took over. The church members screamed and clapped and laughed and cried. I had found my place. Well, at least for that morning, I did.
And suddenly, I had a new worry on my mind. I knew when I came back to my synagogue the following Friday night, no matter how well or impassioned I preached, the reaction would not be the same. No one was going to cry out in prayer and yearning in response to my words.
I wondered what distinguished this church community from my own. Indeed, there are differences; some too complicated to thoroughly explain in this space. Our respective congregations differ in culture and race and of course, in our religious norms. It is different in so many respects, but I knew then and I steadfastly believe now that despite what made us different, our souls and hearts are the same. The universal truth that connects all of us is our need for meaning and purpose. Yet, somehow, so many of us get stuck between our search for meaning and knowing where to find a place to express that same search.
Ironically, for most, this is not a question of faith. Studies show that 92% of Americans believe in a Being greater than ourselves. Of that 92%, only 40% attend services weekly. Jews, however, come at the much lower rate of about 15% weekly.
“Rabbi,” I often hear from members of my congregation, “I love being Jewish. I don’t come to temple often because I am spiritual, not religious.”
Spiritual, not religious has become one of the most popular phrases of our time. Google it. You will find 26 million hits.
Religious and spiritual are actually synonyms in definition, but not in practice. When I ask people to differentiate between the two terms, I am told, “I am interested in miracles, angels and coincidence; fate and reincarnation. I find God at yoga and spin; on the glacier, the mountaintop; in the rainbow and sunset.
My dear congregants express an authentic, soulful yearning. And over the years, I have come to the conclusion that many, in the congregational world, but mostly those who are not connected to a congregational community are saying that they are spiritually hungry and interested, but institutionally suspicious.
I am a dedicated congregational rabbi and I believe in my sacred work. I believe that what my colleagues and I do is worthwhile and that my congregation does indeed find real value and purpose in their connection to our community. By all standards in fact, ours is considered a thriving suburban synagogue. But, I also believe that many Jews throughout our nation have been alienated for a long time for a whole array of reasons. And more, too many Jews are institutionally suspicious because the institution over the years has lost some of its ability to be agile and nimble in its approach. As a dear teacher of mine recently taught, people are so incredibly hungry, but too many institutions are not offering a menu from which their people want to eat.
There are many answers to the questions I raise in this space. There are myriad scholars, researchers and demographers who spend all of their time studying these issues to help navigate our way. There are wise solutions being offered — to be played out inside; and in some cases, more importantly, outside of our walls. Indeed, we will have to live beyond our comfortable borders to really reach those who seek, but are not ready to walk in through our doors.
To reach people inside and outside of our doors, we will need to continue to ask brave and delving questions, those which will bring forth a brand of wisdom that help people flourish and find meaning and purpose. We will have to worry about what we want for ourselves and at the same time, wonder and worry about what the people around us want and need as well.
As a respected colleague of mine recently said, “We have to be able to say it all in our congregational homes. Maybe there is no one way to be Jewish. And maybe, we need to make sure we know that it is okay to express that. We have to find a way to make sure we know that synagogue is a place where we share stories, a place where we are taken seriously and join together to explore the critical questions of our era and our lives. Questions like, How do I decide what is ultimately most important in my life? How am I Jewish? What do I believe?” There is no Jewish subject that is out of bounds in synagogue: not matters of God, or faith, or disbelief, or doubt about God.”
None of it should be out of bounds. Perhaps, when we open up the boundaries, our doors will open more widely as well.