An editorial in this week’s FORWARD newspaper cites Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, on the need for raising levels of observance among Conservative Jews—“too many Conservative Jews can’t read Hebrew, don’t keep the Sabbath and other central Jewish observances, and don’t find synagogue prayer meaningful or attractive.”
I doubt this is a problem unique to Conservative Judaism. Most Jews don’t read Hebrew for the same reason most Jews don’t read French—they don’t need it. The reason most Jews fail to observe Shabbat or keep kosher is that these traditions no longer speak to them. The reason they don’t find synagogue services meaningful or attractive is that 1) the liturgy reflects a medieval worldview that most 8-year olds have outgrown, and 2) because we have become used to theatrical production values that synagogue services cannot match.
What most Jews want—what most postmodern, postindustrial first worlders want—isn’t more tradition but more meaning and authentic encounters with reality. We live in a world of contrived meanings faux reality fed to us by advertisers and reality television. Even real disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile are turned into soap operas by the infotainment media. Synagogue is just another faux reality where Jews are asked to believe in a god and worldview that most do not take seriously.
Liberal Judaisms as a whole rarely offer their members anything truly deep, challenging, existentially compelling, or spiritually transformative. And most of their congregants wouldn’t get involved even if they did.
Why? Because deeply transformative spiritual work is, well, work. And most people aren’t interested. This is true in any religion. The truly devout are always a minority. If liberal Jews wanted to be more observant they would be more observant. They just don’t want to.
What should be done? Stop thinking in terms of competing denominations and start thinking in terms of a spectrum of community offerings. Every decent sized Jewish community ought to have a JCC where rabbis from Chabad to Neo-Hasidic/Renewal to Humanistic Judaism are on staff, serving the needs of different kinds of Jews. These rabbis wouldn’t have to worry about building private communities to support themselves and their families. They would be paid by the Federation and hired to teach the theory and practice of their denominations.
Shabbat and Holy Day services of different kinds would be offered around the JCC campus, and the community would come together for Kiddush and, perhaps, dinner. No one would join a separate community; rather they would pay dues to the Federation or JCC to be registered as a member of the Jewish community at large. Membership would entitle you to access to all Jewish services, educational programs, and rabbis.
Denominations are draining our resources, financial and intellectual. Rather than retreat into our respective shtetls, let’s create new forms of belonging and learning.