Monday, August 27, 2012

Synagogues Speak for Judaism

Only the synagogue can be the center of Judaism.

For a long time it was wrongly taught that “synagogues replaced the ancient temple.”  In fact, this is not true.  From well before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E, our people had gathered in our towns and communities to hear the Torah read and to say public prayers. 

One of my favorite artifacts is the Theodotus stone, which can be found in Jerusalem’s Rockefeller museum.  This stone, carved in Greek and found in excavations in the City of David, which declares Theodotus to have been a head of a synagogue whose purpose was to welcome the wayfarer in a gathering place of Torah.  Even in Holy Jerusalem, with her hallowed Temple and Priesthood functioning fully, there was a need for a synagogue to welcome and gather people to learn from the Torah.

Look as well at the ruins in Gamla, in upper Galilee.  A 1st century synagogue there has a central reading table, and benches seated all around the walls facing in.  Far from Jerusalem and into the hills, the community needed its center, and even the building was oriented to draw attention inward to the lessons of the sacred text.

The synagogue was not founded because of a lack of the Temple.  It grows from the center of our people’s need for meaning and for community.  We find God talking among us and to us in these sacred buildings and places.  The gathering place is an institution, which is still vitally needed today. 

In recent years, many sought to redefine the “center” of Judaism. At first non-religious institutions such as community centers, and federations claimed the center by virtue their “non-sectarian” nature.  Worse, recent funding trends have corted the peripheral Jewish community at great cost and with rare success.  Formal Jewish institutions can speak for Jews, but only synagogues can speak for Judaism.

America has always been a religious culture, and there is no “post-religious” future in view.  In an age where the fastest growing religions in America include both Mormonism and Islam, our next generation needs to be brought into religious dialogue with our American neighbors by first having a strong religious identity  of their own.  This can not be provided by the community center or the federation, and is seldom the goal of initiatives to reach the unaffiliated.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Metro West has encouraged synagogue affiliation, much to its credit.  It knows that synagogue affiliation is a lead indicator of likely future donors, but it also knows that synagogues provide a soul to Jewish society.  The moral teachings of our various synagogues are what give us strength and purpose. 

The Mormons and the Moslems will be speaking religious language if we truly wish to get to know them.  Will we be able to do the same?

In every generation, in every culture and historic circumstance we have faced, it was the synagogue which was the heartbeat of Jewish living.  The doors are open as the new year begins.  Come back to the center.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu.