How can Synagogues Authentically Change?

On our Youth Retreat last Shabbat at Camp Ramah, our students acted out a play based on the Torah portion; an excerpt:

Israelite #1: I like those hats Moses is putting on them.  I’ll have to ask where he bought them.

Israelite #3: It’s not a hat. It’s a miter.

Israelite #1: What’s a miter?

Israelite #2: Nothing. What’s a miter with you?

🙂  Yes, puns are fun for all ages!

But all of this fun begs the question: why in this week’s parashah, last week’s and week before are we so focused on sacrifices?  In fact, much of the Torah details in extraordinary specifics, these laws.

What was so important about these ancient rites?  Our rabbis posed this question 2000 years ago – for starters, they encourage us to look at the Hebrew.  What is the word for sacrifice? Korban – from the word Karov, meaning ‘close.’  These rituals were meant to bring us close to God, to each other, and to our ancient traditions.  

And these practices worked – especially on the pilgrimage festivals, they were elaborate gatherings filled with food, and pomp and circumstance akin to the largest tailgate party you could imagine.

But with the destruction of the Second Temple two millennia ago, the question about these rituals intensified.  Since we no longer bring the sacrifices, and now, we offer our prayers, why did we ever need the sacrifices?

Maimonides, our great doctor, rabbi, and thinker dwells on this question.  Sitting in Fostat, Old Cairo, in the late 12th century, he writes the Guide to the Perplexed in Arabic and I will read an English translation with some explanation:

“Many precepts in our Law are the result of a similar course adopted by the same Supreme Being [i.e. gradual evolution]. It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other; it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which has been accustomed….  The custom which was in those days widespread among all people, and the general mode of worship in which Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images and to burn incense before them…. For this reason, God allowed these kinds of service to continue. He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings [i.e. idolatry]….  By this Divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith — the existence and unity of God — was firmly established. This was achieved without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.”

Now, while I may not attribute this all to God, but leave some of the credit to the ancient Israelites, Maimonides’ overall perspective is spot on.

The success of ancient Israel was in its ability to shift things slowly change never works too rapidly we all know that from failed diets.  Change is challenging and for it to work, it needs to be slow and even subtle.

That’s what Ancient Judaism accomplished the sacrifices the same rituals, the same feeling, the same meats (mostly), but a different God we removed your idol and replaced it with a God (admittedly one you cannot see), but a God who is beyond time and space.

And that was a change the people gradually accepted.

Same with amulets and tefillin.  Same idea of wearing an object for protection and connection, but the idol was replaced with the eternal words of God in the form of a mini-Torah scroll.

That has been the secret of our tradition the ability to change slowly, blending the best of ideas of the world around us, but maintaining an authentic connection to the past.

The great leader of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Robert Gordis explains that this is part of the tradition to this day.

“To understand Jewish law truly, it must be recognized not as a point but as a line, not as a one-time event but as an ongoing process.  Hence, to decide what Jewish law today requires on any given issue means not merely marking a point, but plotting a line on a graph on which tradition is one coordinate, and contemporary life the other.  To disregard either spells death to Judaism. In other words, it is important to know not merely where the Halakhah stands, but in what direction it is moving.”

(Gordis, Robert. Understanding Conservative Judaism.  Pg. 40, 3rd para. New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 1978.)

Author photo by Alan S. Orling from Study in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures by Gerson D. Cohen (Philadelphia/New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991)

Gerson Cohen, the great historian and Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, spoke about the evolving nature of our tradition in a commencement speech delivered at Hebrew College in 1966.

“Throughout Jewish history, there have been great changes in law, in thought, and in basic categories of expression, reflecting the need of the Jews to adapt themselves and their way of life to new conditions.  This assimilation, or adaptation, was not the consequence of a desire to make things easier, but the result of a need to continue to make the tradition relevant.

Once again, permit me to cite some examples.  If rabbinic Judaism was able to win so many thousands of souls to its ethical monotheism, it was precisely because rabbinic Judaism was able to reinterpret the Bible and to reformulate it in Hellenistic terms.  Every student of rabbinism knows, as I have already suggested, that the Hebrew language underwent a major metamorphosis under the impact of the Greek language and Greek culture. Instead of protesting against this natural growth, the Rabbis appropriated it and made use of it in order to express themselves in terms that were relevant to the Hellenistic world in which they lived.”

(Cohen, Gershon D.  Jewish History and Jewish Identity. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1966.)

What does this mean for us today??

Well, we are still struggling with that same tension.

How do we adapt and change and yet, not change too much nor lose our authentic core?

Synagogues and Judaism in general are thinking about that a great deal as the world around us changes more and more quickly.

Here, at Emunah, we are always trying to adapt, bringing new innovations and ideas to our community.  We have created numerous social, educational, cultural and religious programs that find space for many different Jewish interests.

But the hardest challenge is at our services especially on Shabbat morning for some of us, myself included, we love the traditional words, values, rituals, and melodies it would not feel like our Shabbat morning service without them.  But for some, it is the new approaches singing niggunim, holding a melody without words for a longer period of time or meditation, that truly engages.  

How can we keep adapting, yet maintain our core our deep connection to the past that anchors us, is the challenge of this time.  How do synagogues authentically change?

I do not claim to have all the answers; I do not.  But I do know how important it is to ask the right questions and to engage in this as a community.

I hope that together we can explore these issues, continuing a journey of thousands of years where we continue to both evolve and honor the tradition.  

Not a simple task, but quite a meaningful one.

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.
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