There has been a decline in attendance and membership in synagogues. To paraphrase Bob Dylan: “And we would not feel so alone…” that everybody is experiencing a decline in attendance. It seems to be a social phenomenon that people are avoiding traditional houses of worship.
There are, however, exceptions. Someone recently cited Pew Research that Evangelical Christians and Megachurches are experiencing prosperity. In Judaism, it’s like a barbell: the Orthodox movement is growing, ostensibly because, perhaps, people seek out religion for guidance, and traditional Judaism is very specific. The Reformed movement is growing because they tend to be very progressive and well, more permissive.
Conservative Judaism was the major movement in Judaism a few generations ago. It represented the middle of the road, in which the halacha wasn’t that intense and still allowed to adapt to modern times. Now, they say it’s dying. Why?
(No idea what’s going on in Islam and their houses of worship).
Let’s stop for a little survey. What is the difference between spirituality and religion? The point will be clear in a few minutes….
Tough question, right? Let’s try a working definition of each term. Spirituality is that part of us that seeks to identify and understand things that are beyond our level of reasoning. Spirituality is that belief that there is a greater force, mostly good, that controls and accounts for how our lives proceed and progress, and what forces interact with us, and how they will turn out. It acknowledges, typically, some higher power or Being, either G-d or Nature, or what-have-you.
Religion, then, is the format and venue in which people can express that spirituality. It is all the rituals and rites and processes that help us connect with this Higher Power in as real a way as possible. It is the vehicle that will help us connect to the greater forces that guide the flow of the Universe.
People seek out religion for the spirituality. Consider that most people want spirituality in their lives and that’s why they go to, in our case, synagogue. They want to know that their lives mean something and that in the challenges they face, there is an ultimate good that will come out of that. People want to know that when they do attend services and recite prayers and perform our rituals (Torah, bread, candles, wine), that their lives will be that much better.
This week’s portion in “Nasso”. A major part of the portion talks about how the princes of each tribe (“Nasim”) all brought items and animals for use in the Tabernacle, and by the Priests (Cohanim) and the Ministers (Levites). What’s remarkable about this is that they all brought the same items and without really being asked. They were more than happy to contribute to this new budding institution of what became Judaism.
By contrast today, people are hesitant to contribute to synagogues and many are struggling. The difference? Those people were surrounded by the Shechinah of G-d’s presence. They saw the manna and water that sustained them and the pillars of fire and clouds that protected them. They witnessed the birth of the Ten Commandments. The rituals and ceremonies made sense and they could all relate to it.
Even though we pray three times a day that we’re thankful for G-d’s miracles each day, it’s as off we’re talking ourselves into believing that. Today, the closest thing we see to a miracle is finding a parking space close to door of the doctor’s office. We’re so involved in our struggles, it’s tough, almost hypocritical to stop and give thanks.
And yet, there are indeed things for which we can be thankful every day. Here we are three thousand years later, and Judaism still exists. We have the holy land back in our possession and we are thriving.
Individually, we still wake up in the morning and can get out of bed and go about our daily business. If you have issues considering that a miracle, ask someone who’s had hip problems or some diseases or is old and has trouble standing on their own two feet! Most of us have our five senses and even people who are handicapped have resources available to help them thrive despite those challenges.
So where does that leave us? How does our synagogue promote spirituality? We need to go beyond just the words and the chanting and see what messages these Torah portions and our prayers have for us. We need to delve into what we are truly saying, and then consider the answers.