Derek Taylor

The future of synagogue

Inside a Synagogue (Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash via Jewish News)
Inside a Synagogue (Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash via Jewish News)

Matt Plen, the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in this country, has said that the problem with synagogues is that they are too prayer-led. Dan Liberson, a prominent American voice, is also reported as saying that our “religiosity has never been great.”

I am reminded of the sign in the Paris Metro which read “God is dead – Nietzsche”.

This had been crossed out and replaced with a new sign – “Nietsche is dead – God!”

Messrs Plen and Liberson are the latest examples of Jews who want to reinvent the wheel. They come from a very undistinguished line, including Theudas, Simon of Peraea and Athronges in the first century, through Sabbatei Zevi in the 17th and Judah ben Shalom in the 19th. It should be a warning to Messrs Plen and Liberson that you are now saying “Who?” Because, in the years to come, it might be difficult to remember Messrs Plen and Liberson.

The Jews are a religion; they are not a civilisation as says the Reconstructionist Rabbi, Mr. Plen quotes. They are the first monotheist religion and millions of Jews have died over the centuries, insisting that they be allowed to continue to practice their faith. There was another kind of Jew in Bible times and they were equally as numerous; they were the Samaritans and if there are only a few hundred left, they still follow exactly the same rituals as their founders, 4,000 years ago.

Mr. Plen tells us that “Synagogue is founded on the one aspect of Judaism which many are unable to commit to – tefillah, prayer.” It’s surprising though how many find the commitment when they are in deep trouble.

What Messrs Plan and Liberson are addressing is the Jewish guilt complex. There are a lot of rules and it’s an exceptional individual who can claim to obey them all. So how do you attract those with a guilt complex? You could tell them, for instance, that they shouldn’t feel guilty because the synagogues are too prayer-led and Judaism isn’t a religion; it’s only a civilisation. It’s the fault of the synagogues and your upbringing, not you.

If Synagogue isn’t prayer-led, are we going to abandon morning and evening services on weekdays? Are we going to give up honouring our dead parents with yahrzeit because there aren’t ten members who want more than a civilization.

Mind you, a lot of those born Jews will agree with Mr. Plen. We may have had over 200 Nobel prize winners, but a lot of them left the faith.

Is it worth dying for a civilisation? There are about 15 million of us after 4,000 years, but our numbers would have been far greater if we had added belief in Jesus and Mohommad to the civilization. To avoid execution in many countries at many times, all we had to do was convert. Mind you, the churches are pretty prayer-led as well, so it might not have solved the guilt problem. Our ancestors didn’t anyway, but then it’s the Chinese who are best known for honouring ancestors.

Did the Jews who stuck to the faith know they were supporting a civilisation in buildings which were devoted to prayer? Of course, the din is that a synagogue is a place of meeting, a place of learning and a place of prayer. It can’t just be a place of prayer, according to the din, but would you turn up at all if the only thing on offer was a lecture on Jewish civilisation.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter a jot whether you turn up or not. The Jews have a minyan without you, or they will get one, but it should matter to you. Because there is a tough world out there and to face it on your own is a great challenge. Is one of the conditions of joining the Masorti that you have to believe in God? Certainly, its founder in this country, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, did. Would he have thought the synagogue was too prayer-led?

About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book