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The Renewal of Judaism

Remarks by Eugen Schoenfeld, PhD
Yom Kippur 5765
Shema Yisrael - The Open Synagogue

We are shrinking. The Jewish people in the United States will cease to be even a minority, we are becoming, if you permit me to coin a new word, a "minisculity." We are less than two per cent of the total population and shrinking. Soon, if the present trend continues, we will not matter. The sign of our shrinking is very evident in Sabbath and other holyday attendance. Attendance is very low to say the least. Why?

I can argue that it is due to a trend in the Western world called secularization. It is quite true that people no longer place significance on religion as the explanation of natural order. With the exception of a very few sects even religious people seek the advice of a physician for their medical problems rather than trying prayer. Of course, so people will use both approaches. But I think that the secularization of Jews can be attributed to more than increased reliance on secular knowledge. I would like to propose that our decline is the consequence of the erosion of Judaism. As a sociologist I would say that after having talked to many people who left Judaism I found in one common denominator in their comments: Judaism no longer seems to satisfy the needs of our people. People with whom I talked seem to say: "I am a spiritual person, but when I come to services I do not find it satisfying. I come out empty." This being the case Judaism must seek a new renaissance, a rebirth, in short a renewal.

Professor Neusner in an interesting treatise Death and Birth of Judaism proposes that throughout our history we have developed different forms of Judaisms. In spite of the traditionalist claims that the Torah is eternal the reality is that one form of religion of religion cannot serve the needs of people throughout eternity. We must put our efforts to the renewal of our great religion so that it can again serve as a light not only to us Jews but also for the world. To accomplish this task we must first expand our education of our history, belief, and moral philosophy and second to instill into all of us a sense of faith, trust, and hope that comes with developing a personal relationship with the Allmighty.

Most American Jews’ level of knowledge of our religion, even those who periodically attend services, can be described as pediatric. For the most part our children attend Hebrew School for the sole purpose of acquiring the knowledge to be Bar or Bath Mitzvah. At best they acquire a knowledge of Judaism that is comprehensible to a thirteen old.. When they grow into adulthood all they know is what they remember - a few shreds of information or stories about the holidays. They never get an insight into historical struggles for our existence, they never become familiar with our great philosophy and theology, they never understand the meaning of prayer and above all else they never develop a personal faith and trust in God. To alleviate this we must first place greater emphasis on study than on prayer. We must turn our temples and synagogues into "batei midrashim" houses of study. Only, after we have been successful in acquiring knowledge can we develop a deep sense of faith. It is the latter that is perhaps most crucial to our psychological well being. It is only when we acquire faith when our synagogue experience may be most satisfying. It is no enough for an individual to say "I am a spiritual person." We all must learn how to be spiritual, how to have a relationship with God, and how to be a part of our spiritual community.

The advent of modernity in the last century the importance of faith has been eroded in our belief. A great part of this erosion can be attributed to the process of secularization. For the last hundred and fifty years religion has been critically examined from a philosophical, psychological, sociological, and even from modern theological perspectives. Jewish scholars, particularly in Germany and later in America, were an integral part producing scholarly works that were defined as criticism of religion. Such critical examinations have objectified religion and God. We examined God as a thing. We examined God from an existential point of view looking at the issue of His existence. We also examined God from an ontological perspective seeking to determine God’s characteristic. Rabbis, especially in the liberal tradition, in an effort to modernize religion sought also to modernize our concepts of God. The trend to modernity is particularly evident that we have emphasized the scientific study of religion and in so doing we have objectified God and we in addition placed a greater emphasis on the rational understanding of religion rather than on the emotional experience of it. In emphasizing modernism we sought to eradicate the old ways that ways that included shaking and moving while praying, loud praying that often drowned out the best efforts of the Chazzan was defined as the uncouth behavior of the uneducated lower classes. The old synagogue traditions that gave the appearance of being a free for all were totally condemned and were substituted by decorum and total formality. For the sake of decorum we have introduced children’s services that have successfully separated parents from their children No longer have parents served as models. Most of all modern synagogues and temples unlike the synagogues of the past do not permit the expression of emotions. I remember well the Kol Nidre services in my youth when women, and even some men, have expressed their fear for the future through tears coupled with sights and loud outcries. To day during services every one sits quietly listening to the choir (if there is one), that by the way often is made up of professional non Jewish singers, and the congregation unlike of a community in prayers give the appearance of an audiences in a theater. Synagogue and especially Temple services reflecting demand of modernity have become sterile. Look at the synagogue and temple architecture the central feature there is the podium, the stage. Does it not resemble the structure of a theater without curtains? In the modern form of worship, it seems to me, the expression of feelings of awe of wonderment of personal connection to God have been eliminated which then ultimately has led to dissatisfaction. Very often people have asked me: Why is it that in the end of a service they do not feel reinvigorated? Instead, if they are pleased they comment "well it was a nice service." But all in all very frequently, unlike my parents and grandparents come away from services empty and sterile. Modernism and rationality go hand in hand. However, rationality engages our mind but it does not warm our hearts. The latter comes from faith alone, from having a close and trusting relationship with God. Faith is the fuel that enflames us. Faith and trust in God was the essence of Chassidism a movement that sought to contra vent the influence of rationality and substitute it with an emphasis on emotion. The key word that characterized what the Chassidim searched in their relationship with God is Hitlahavuth - to experience their soul on fire.

Mind you, I do not wish to suggest that we bring back Shtetl like service. Nor do I wish to eliminate scholarship and discourse. I do wish to suggest that we should become aware that there are more significant and important elements in our relationship with God than study alone. We must also develop a strong and abiding faith in God. We need to develop, as the Shema states a love and trust in God. Happiness, something that we all are seeking, I suggest, cannot be attained without a commitment to and a relationship with God. Today in such confusing and threatening times faith in God is most important.

Over a hundred years ago the great Jewish sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that because the human beings psychological constitution, people cannot live without attachment some object which transcends and survives him... Life, he cautions us, is often seen to be intolerable unless we develop some reason for our existence, some purpose justifying life’s trials. The individual alone, as Rabbi Hillel pointed out when he is only for himself is not sufficient to produce a meaning for his life. We human beings cannot cope with a meaningless life we are most fearful of nihilism. We are in despair if we find that all that there is to life is nothing but struggle. We need courage to live and we need hope to act and struggle with life’s difficulties. This courage and hope we get, not from the brilliance of scholarship but from the love that is encapsulated in our faith and trust in God.

In the Chassidic book Sefer Hamidoth (Book of God’s Attributes) gives us the following characteristics and consequences of faith.

He who trusts in the Lord feels no fear.
Trust in the Lord leads to peace.
Faith and love of Heaven leads to trust in God.
He who lacks the feeling of trust will speak untruth.
Trust saves from worries, tribulations and shame.
Trust saves us from the necessity of asking the help of man.
Flattery causes the loss of trust.
Trust causes man to approach nearer to God.
Three years ago as I have become reacquainted with the importance of trusting and having faith in God. I was lying on the operating table waiting to have an engiogram not knowing what physician will find and I was scared. I have already experienced a heart attack. I already had a quintuple by-pass operation and I was told that I again have some blockages in my arteries. Suddenly, and I do not know why and how, I began to recite a passage from the hymn Adon Olam. I kept repeating a few times the passage "beyado afkid ruchi" into His hands I entrust my soul. This was my declaration of faith and I became calm and no longer fearful.

Today on Yom Kippur we indeed need to make t’shuvoh, not repentance but to return to God, to develop and enhance our knowledge of Judaism and to develop and strengthen our faith in God. In short we must seek both personal and collective renewal. Let me offer this brief prayer: Oh Lord renew our lives as you have done in the past. Give us hope for the future and peace in our soul so that we can truly say each day: This day the Lord made for us let us rejoice in it.

Shanah Tovah.

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