In her new book, “Christianity for the Rest of Us,” Diana Bass explores a sampling of thousands of mainline Protestant churches thriving in the United States today. Long thought to be going the way of the dodo, mainline churches that focus more on social justice in this life than how to get into the next life, are still going strong. But why? What is it that makes them work?
In this morning’s USA TODAY (Yes, I know, what would I have to talk about without USA TODAY?) Rev. Gary Erdos, a pastor of one of these churches, attributes his success to three things: “orthodox preaching, attention to detail, and hospitality.” The more important, I suspect, is the first. Preaching the Good News that the Kingdom of God is here and now if you are willing to pay the price for living it, is compelling to Christians. I envy them that.
Is there something equivalent to capture the hearts and minds of liberal Jews? Most Jews don’t attend religious services, don’t find the siddur (prayer book) moving or compelling, and don’t love, listen to, or even believe in the God of their fathers. For most Jews Judaism, the religion not the culture, is dry, lifeless, and irrelevant to the lives they lead.
So what’s a rabbi to do? Is there a Judaism for the Rest of Us?
We have tried lots of things: hand clapping, kabbalah-esque guided meditations, rock bands, more Hebrew, less Hebrew, more tradition, less tradition, more talk…. Nothing seems to work. And those synagogues that do thrive often do so for reasons having nothing to do with Judaism and God and everything to do with Jewish singles looking for mates.
The problem is God. We spend so much time reading about and praying to a God we don’t believe in that after a while most of us just don’t bother. And which God are we to follow: The creator/destroyer god of Genesis, the violent warrior god of Exodus, the barbeque-loving priestly god of Leviticus, the genocidal god of Deuteronomy? None of these speak to most Jews anymore. And yet this is what our rabbis are left with, and try as they do to make a nice guy out of an often violent, misogynist, and xenophobic deity, it just rings hollow.
I don’t claim to have THE answer, but if I were still in the synagogue business I think I would drop the standard Torah readings and focus on the Wisdom Books of the Bible— Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Job— and the God who teaches us how to examine life and in so doing discover for ourselves the principles of godliness that we are to live and teach. This is worthy of our study and creative response. It may be too little, too late, but I cannot imagine Judaism with out God. What we have to do is begin to imagine a God worthy of the Jews.