Monday, June 22, 2009

What Today's Synagogues Are Missing

In my journeys over the past few years, I've been to a number of synagogues, both large and small, and across the Jewish spectrum, from Reform to Chabad. I've had varying responses to the religious exercises I found there, and I've written those variations off to the obvious: I know where I'm comfortable, and this place was too far to the left, that other too far to the right, and so on. I've also responded to the warmth (or lack thereof) of the community. Was I welcomed? Was I invited to sit with someone? Did anyone even notice I was there?

But a quote I just came across has prompted me to think in a different direction altogether. Someone once observed that the little shuls (and of course they weren't all little) in Europe were cozy places where we could seek God in community, while here in America, the synagogues you most hear about are the large "megashuls," the "cathedral synagogue," with a sanctuary capable of seating hundreds (thousands?). The observation went on to comment that those who had experienced the small shul of Europe were uncomfortable in the large synagogue of America. And why? The ceiling, essentially, was too high. The higher the ceiling, the comment reasoned, the farther God was from us.

The quote that has prompted this rumination is from Professor Nahum M. Sarna in his commentary on Exodus published as part of the JPS Torah Commentary [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991], p. 237. He observes, "The function of the Tabernacle was to create a portable Sinai. . . . The cloud is the manifest token of the immediacy of the Divine Presence . . ."

At the risk of evoking chuckles among my readers, I must say that Professor Sarna is on to something here in terms of modern congregations. The bold, clean lines of modern sanctuaries are aesthetically wonderful. But we see too clearly. The mystery is gone. The incense we used to use in the Temples of old have now been claimed by the Catholic church. There's no cloud. There's no replication of the mystery of Temple worship. Those who know what to look for will point out that the ner tamid (eternal light) is a reminder of the ongoing flame on the altar; the breastplate of the Torah reminds us of the priest's breastplate; the bells on the Torah decorations remind us of the bells on the hem of the priest's tunic. If we know what to look for, we find reminders of Temple service. But those reminders are all visible, tangible.

I remember a class at the Seminary with Professor Neil Gillman. I took so many classes with him that I can't tell you which one it was - perhaps the theology of the liturgy. At any rate, somehow we got on the topic of mystery, and a member of the class familiar with the Catholic church observed that one of the losses bemoaned by Catholics since Vatican II was the loss of Latin. Did anyone really understand the Latin, she was asked. No, but that was the point. There was a mystery in the intoned words, and the mystery was now lost. Everyone understood the words, and the words were somehow not as special.

I might digress here and talk about Hebrew, but that's not the point. And I don't honestly know what the answer is. Do we stop dusting our sanctuaries, invite allergy attacks and asthma issues, so that the sunlight might be diffused through the dust motes floating in the air? Unlikely. But how might we make our sanctuaries less spectacular and more mysterious? Not threatening. Not scary. But a door open into a world where God might be expected to be found. We celebrate finding God in nature - at the Grand Canyon, among the cherry trees in Washington, at the shore, even after an ice storm, when the bare trees are glittering with icicles. Nothing we are looking at was made by us. It was crafted by a superior Hand, and we are in awe. So we build spectacular buildings and expect to find the same awe in structures made by human hands. Not possible.

How might the 21st century synagogue be imagined? I've been in beautiful sanctuaries with walls of glass, filled with light, where daveners are distracted by the views on the outside. But the sanctuaries were still high-ceilinged, modern edifices, and not the spiritual place I would have wanted.

The artifacts of the sanctuary remind us of Temple worship. How might we imagine a synagogue that transports us back to Sinai? When we celebrate wedding anniversaries (especially notable ones), we work at remembering the day of our marriage. Think about all the couples who want to "renew their vows" on their 50th anniversary. How do we renew our vow with God that was made at Sinai? How might we capture that awe? In architecture? In ritual? It's the part of Jewish observance, I think, that is most lacking and most needed.