Jonathan Muskat

Synagogues Should Foster Feelings of Both Belonging and Discomfort

When we hear the shofar blast on the first day of Rosh Hashana, for many of us, the sound is a little bit jarring. Though we have heard it so many times before, this sound causes us jolt to attention, to feel a little bit of trepidation about where are and where we are headed. According to the Rambam, this is exactly what those shofar blasts are meant to do.  The shofar tells us to awaken from our spiritual slumber.

In some ways, this forced discomfort is somewhat countercultural to the classic synagogue experience.  I was recently listening to a podcast by the Tikvah Center with Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish History.  He attempted to explain the many recent changes in American Jewish denominational life, including the strengths and weaknesses of the major Jewish movements.  During the podcast, he made the following observation regarding why some people choose to join an Orthodox shul, a Conservative synagogue or a Reform temple. He said that while ideology does play a role, increasingly Jews are choosing their synagogues not based on ideology, but based on where they feel most comfortable.  People want to attend synagogue where they feel they belong.

Many of us are familiar with the story of the young rabbi, fresh from rabbinical school, who addresses his first several sermons to his new congregation on topics ranging from meticulous Shabbat observance, refraining from malicious gossip to honesty in business. After a few weeks, the shul president approaches the rabbi and tells him that many congregants are upset because they don’t feel comfortable listening to these topics in shul.   The rabbi then asks, “What then do you suggest that I speak about in my sermons?”  To which the president replies, “Judaism! Why not just talk about Judaism?”

On the surface, these two terms, “comfort” and “belonging,” appear essentially interchangeable.  Typically, I would feel comfortable in an environment where I feel that I belong and I would feel a sense of belonging in an environment where I feel comfortable.  And yet, I wonder if the focus of our synagogues should be to create a sense of belonging but not necessarily a feeling of complete comfort.  Michelle Shain, assistant director of the Center for Communal Research at the Orthodox Union, recently wrote an article where she challenged the notion that creating welcoming and warm, inclusive spaces creates a more vibrant Jewish community.   She cited a study from Brandeis University which surveyed both intermarried and “in-married” couples.  The intermarried couples felt completely welcome in the Jewish community; however, they lagged far behind “in-married” couples on measures of engagement in Jewish life.  Ms. Shain argued that religious groups that are lenient and relativistic elicit far less enthusiasm from their members than religious groups that are more demanding. These findings touch the question of how synagogues should reach out to their members and prospective members. Should we meet congregants where they are without issuing any expectations or demands?  Or are we better served if we strive for more, pushing ourselves and our congregants out of our collective comfort zones, even if that sometimes means making them feel uncomfortable?

In truth, this is a question that goes beyond synagogue life. It is really a question that applies to our overall religious experience.  Rav Soloveitchik explained that for many religious world interpretations, secularism is conceived as a state of uncertainty and fear, unrest and apprehension. The secular individual drifts and wanders as a straying, wind-tossed leaf and religion is viewed as a state of security and impregnability.  This view has shaped the general outlook of many pragmatic expositions as to the essence of the religious act.  According to this view, religion offers happiness and comfort in this shattered world. In reality, such a depiction is overly simplistic.  The truth is that it is easier to sell religion to the nonbeliever if you praise your merchandise as a means to eradicate pain and misery.  However, the religious experience is fraught with pitfalls and continual challenges.  Religion enriches life and provides its very depth, but it does not always grant a sense of peace or immediate gratification.  Religion shines a light upon that which we should aspire, but does not make it easy to get there.  According to Rav Soloveitchik, the beauty of religion reveals itself to us not in easy solutions or a shallow sense of harmony, but in conflict, and wanting, and work.  According to the Rav, religious tension, and not comfort, is the ideal religious experience. We are meant to be aware of the ways in which we are lacking, and this discomfort must push us to work harder.  The tension that is created by the shofar blast, telling us to wake up from our slumber, that not everything is okay, that we need to re-think how we go about our daily lives, highlights this view of an authentic Jewish experience.

Let us all endeavor to create spaces of belonging, of connection, where each man and women, boy and girl feels that he or she has found his or her place in our synagogues.  Let us also remember that a shofar blast is not a bad thing, that feeling spiritually uncomfortable is not a bad thing.  On the contrary, it tells us that we belong to a community that embraces religious tension, which is the catalyst to passionate engagement and real, meaningful growth.  This Yom Tov season, this is something that we should all strive for.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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