Spirituality and the Modern Synagogue
“JEWS Hear Calls for Spirituality.” So read the headline of an article reporting on a convention of Conservative rabbis being held at Kiamisha Lake, New York. It went on to tell how Dr. S. Greenberg, vice-chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, called for a rebirth of the prayer book and the synagogue to overcome the “spiritually sterile impasse” of Jewish secular groups, such as Zionism, in the United States.—New York Times, April 26, 1961.
Earlier in the year two spokesmen for modern Judaism, in addresses at the Theodor Herzl Institute in New York city, expressed themselves in a similar vein. The one spoke out against the trend toward secularization of the synagogue and the other discussed the lack of spirituality on the part of many rabbis.
What is the basic cause for these conditions and trends? Of course, to understand the problem it is necessary first to have some knowledge of the institution of the synagogue, its organization, place and form of worship. Apart from the Jews themselves, comparatively few know anything about the synagogue. As a recent issue of the United Synagogue Review aptly put it: “Judaism has frequently been called the least known religion.”
Basically, the synagogue is a democratic institution. It sprang up as a folk school in religion. Thus a plaque in the lobby of New York city’s leading Reform Synagogue reads: “The aim of the Free Synagogue is to reassert the democratic ideal of Israel, to democratize anew the spirit and form alike of the present-day synagogue.—S. S. Wise.” A synagogue group elects its own officers, its president and board of directors, its own rabbi and its own hazzan or cantor. The cantor may be a layman or professional, part time or full time, providing he is familiar with the Hebrew liturgy used by the particular congregation and has an acceptable voice.
Most synagogues have a day school in connection with them for teaching children the Hebrew language and Hebrew customs on Sundays and after school hours. And more and more synagogues are establishing parochial schools for their youth. Many synagogues also have recreational centers, for sports, dancing, massage and suchlike activities.
Large synagogues usually have a “Little Synagogue,” which is used when smaller groups meet, as at weddings and for summer services. The smaller synagogue is every bit as complete as the larger one.
Most synagogues belong to a federation of the particular branch of Judaism to which they subscribe: Orthodox, Conservative (a little less orthodox) and Reform (unorthodox); the federation exercises a measure of supervision and a degree of discipline. There is, however, more concern over practices than over beliefs.
THE SYNAGOGUE ITSELF
Orthodox synagogues are so constructed that they face east, toward Jerusalem. In the front is the compartment on or in the wall housing the Torah scrolls, even as in Solomon’s temple the ark of the covenant contained the books of the law. Before the compartment shines the “Eternal Light,” in imitation of the Shekinah, the supernatural light that shone above the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy or innermost part of the temple and which represented Jehovah God’s presence. Invariably displayed are the two tablets on which are inscribed the Ten Commandments. In front also is a platform and speaker’s stand, flanked by honorary seats facing the synagogue.—Deut. 31:26.
Additionally there is a stand for the one directing the prayers and those reading from the Torah or Law. In synagogues using the German or Ashkenazic ritual and liturgy based on the Babylonian Talmud this stand is toward the front. In the Spanish-Portuguese or Sephardic form of worship based on the Babylonian Talmud this stand is more or less in the center of the synagogue. The purpose of this is to make it easier for those in the audience to take part in the reading as well as to hear better what is said.
Another fixture of the synagogue that calls to mind the temple worship is the lampstand with its seven arms and lights.
As in the temple of Herod there was a court for the women, so in Orthodox synagogues there is a separate section for them, in large synagogues this being the upper balcony. As a result of this segregation comparatively few women are on hand for the sabbath morning worship; in one large synagogue only a handful of women were seen, compared with several hundred men and boys. In the Reform synagogue, which more often is called a temple, there is no such segregation. In most Conservative synagogues it is neglected, although held to in principle. The same, more or less, is true of such customs as wearing a hat and donning a prayer shawl at synagogue worship.
FORM OF WORSHIP
In times past, one’s belonging to the synagogue was not voluntary. Because of social pressure a Jew had no choice; he either belonged to the synagogue or was a man without a country. Thus in Germany in years gone by Jewish students in high school were taught by a rabbi employed by the government and they had no choice in the matter. Being Jews, they had to study under him and make passing grades in their Jewish religion.
In modern times, and especially in Western lands, belonging to a synagogue is voluntary, and some Jews even belong to more than one synagogue, an Orthodox and a Reform, for reasons best known to them. In keeping with its being called a “shul” or school, its overseer is called rabbi, meaning a teacher. Even two who began to follow Jesus said to him: “Rabbi, (which means, when translated, Teacher,) where are you staying?” Yes, Jesus’ disciples recognized him as their Rabbi or Teacher, but he limited this title to himself.—John 1:38; Matt. 23:7, 8.
Foremost in synagogue worship is the regular sabbath service, which in a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue may last from eight to twelve in the morning, or four hours. It consists of long prayers, readings from the Psalms, chanting of the creed, the Shema; readings from the Torah, the Law; and the Prophets, the Haftorah; and a sermon. Except for the sermon, which is in the vernacular tongue, everything is in Hebrew and sung or chanted. Most of the singing and chanting is done by the cantor, with regular responses of varying length by the worshipers. At intervals a trained choir, whose services are paid for, sings, assisted by children’s voices. Organ music is a part of the worship in Conservative and Reform synagogues but not in Orthodox. Thus there is singing by the cantor or hazzan, by the worshipers and by the choir. Interestingly, it appears that music played no small role in the temple worship, as can be seen from the frequent references to singers in connection with it, from First Kings through the book of Nehemiah.
It is also the custom to have a daily synagogue service in the morning and in the evening, about a half-hour long, consisting of prayers and the recitation of the creed or Shema. On Mondays and Thursdays the Torah is also read. This custom was instituted, it is said, because in ancient times these were the market days and so Jews came to town and were able to attend the synagogue. According to others, however, the reason for reading the Law on these days was so that no Jew would ever go three days without hearing the Law.
In addition to such regular features of synagogue worship there are certain feast days, some very solemn, others very joyous. The two solemn or high holy days, “Days of Awe,” are the New Year or Rosh Hashana and the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. These mark the beginning and the end of a period known as the “The Ten Days of Penitence.” Each of these two days has its own added features, such as the blowing of the Shophar horn on New Year’s Day. In a truly Orthodox synagogue services are continuous from morning to night on the Day of Atonement, and the devout Jew is expected to remain in the synagogue all day, listening and fasting, after the manner of ancient Jews. The especially pious also observe a number of other fasts.
Among the joyous occasions celebrated at the synagogue are the three annual feasts: Pesach or Passover, Shabuoth or Pentecost, and Sukkoth or the Festival of Tabernacles, all of which were originally commanded by Moses. Two feasts added since his day are Purim and Hanukkah, the former commemorating the victory of the Jews in the days of Mordecai and Queen Esther, the latter celebrating the rededication of the temple in the time of the Maccabees.—John 10:22.
The synagogue is also the place for naming a baby girl, although not as part of a regular sabbath service. However, the ceremony by which a Jewish boy at the age of thirteen is recognized as a “son of duty or the law,” known as the Bar Mitzvah, is a part thereof. On this sabbath he is called up to do part of the Scripture reading for the day, make comments and express his appreciation. The Bar Mitzvah ceremony has given way to the confirmation ceremony in Reform synagogues, as they do not give the male a preferred position, and so they confirm girls as well as boys.
Funerals are not conducted at a synagogue, but weddings are. Collections are not taken, although special offerings may be made. The worship is financed by membership dues and voluntary offerings. In Orthodox synagogues men keep on their hats as a gesture of respect and upon entering the synagogue for morning worship also don a shawl, being given one by the attendant if they do not have their own. In all such matters the Reform synagogue worship resembles more the Protestant church service than the Orthodox Jewish, with the Conservative in between.
CONDUCIVE TO SPIRITUALITY?
Does all this form of worship tend toward spirituality? One thing that definitely tends toward a lack of spirituality is the rabbi-laity division that is becoming more and more pronounced in synagogue worship, the worshiper taking less and less active part, and becoming ever less informed. This is especially true of the younger generation.
A second weakness is the adulation given to the Torah scrolls. “There is no more sacred object than the Torah scroll,” we are told. Ritual accompanies its removal from the ark and its return, and it is considered a great honor to be permitted to carry it. It is wrapped in highly decorated velvet cloth and has ornate end pieces. But how enlightening is all this? Does it help one to understand and appreciate its contents?
Instead of giving the scroll itself so much attention, would it not be better to stress its laws? For example, are those in attendance guilty of looking to other gods, to the United Nations or other political organizations instead of to the God of the Bible for guidance and help? Are children obedient and submissive? The Law condemns murder, but does not engaging in Gentile war violate that command? What about the rest of the commandments: You must not steal, commit adultery, bear false witness and covet? Surely by learning to obey such commandments the Torah would be held in more honor than merely by a ritual.
Most serious of all is the lack of faith in the Torah as the inspired Word of God, handed to Moses by the Creator. More and more, Judaism in all its branches is taking a liberal view regarding the Torah as the work of men and having only tradition to support it. Human tradition is like a broken cistern that can hold no water.—Jer. 2:13.
Each Jew should be familiar with his Hebrew Scriptures. He should not rest his faith solely on his rabbi. In times past the prophets denounced the religious leaders for having misled the people and they urged them to pay attention to the Word of God. The Hebrew Scriptures point to deliverance by the Messiah. Every Jew who takes his worship seriously should be well acquainted with the prophecies that tell about the Messiah. He should know where they are found and what they say. He should give personal consideration to those who history says have been hailed as their Messiah and know for a certainty whether any of them met the Scriptural requirements. God’s purposes will not fail, but many, for lack of spirituality, will fail to receive God’s blessings.