The core problem with synagogues is that they have no raison d’etre, no obvious reason to continue. It is not that they do not work. Most of them work quite well – at what they do. It is just not clear to a lot of people why they should keep on doing it. There are obvious exceptions — synagogues that focus single-mindedly on purpose. But most synagogue boards, professionals and rabbis would be hard put to say in a sentence what their purpose is. They know what they do, but they have no compelling rationale by with which to judge it and no correspondingly convincing rhetoric to enroll the loyalty of people whose needs run deeper than life-cycle celebrations and high holiday tickets.
To the extent that there is any rationale at all, it is likely to be captured in the word “community.” But what kind of community, and community to what end? The usual response, “sacred community,” does not get us very far because as little as we commonly know what synagogues are for, even less do we commonly know what the sacred is.
Until relatively recently, the absence of a transcendent reason for synagogues to exist could easily be overlooked. “Proper” Americans automatically affiliated with a “church of their choice” and synagogues were our “churches.” Besides, we needed our own places to pursue a Jewish agenda: fighting anti-Semitism, hearing about Israel, passing on our heritage, and the like. Those reasons are still valid, more or less, especially if you add the goal of playing out the prophetic commitment to correcting the world’s ills.
But that agenda rings true only for Jews already committed to Judaism’s mission and to pursuing it in the traditional synagogue setting. More and more Jews have discovered they can change the world faster and better outside the synagogue context: Habitat for Humanity, The American Jewish World Service, Mazon, Hazon, or any number of like-minded addresses that focus attention and funding on good causes. As for education and lobbying, few synagogues can compete with organizations like AJC, JNF, UJA, and Federations, which specialize in matters that synagogues only dabble at. JCCs provide preschools and have long aspired to running full scale religious schools as well – not to mention High Holiday services. Entrepreneurial rabbis now hang out shingles promising privately planned bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, burial, and even catering during shivah. So why synagogues, which are generalists in an age of specialization and which cost a fortune and require affiliation, to boot?
The answer must lie in synagogues becoming what they alone can be: deeply rooted Jewish responses to the human condition in our time.
One approach comes from philosopher Charles Taylor’s recognition that human nature demands judgments of “admiration and contempt,” two polar extremes by which we measure moral worth. We assume the existence of something we call “the good,” and pursue it for no other reason than that we should. For starters, then, synagogues can be the singular place where community forms to direct attention to the good. A vision of the good is central to religion in general, certainly to Judaism. Think of the synagogue as a moral center for the 21st century.
This polar judgment of “admiration or contempt” transcends the moral, however. It encompasses also the sense that life should matter; that we live not just from moment to moment but to create an identity whose whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We are authors of our own life’s project, the part of us that gets reported as our eulogy someday — the praise we earn because of the dignity of a life well led. Call this spirituality, the soaring of the human spirit to encompass a mission beyond the gritty needs of daily existence. We see it even in the hell of war-time destruction, when some combatants rise above the fray to display a higher self than we have reason to expect. All the more do we expect it of ourselves, given the privileged conditions in which we live.
More than just being moral, then, we have the sense that we should better ourselves, develop life projects, build a business, make a home, stand for something. We believe in the right – indeed, the obligation — to be true to the best that is in us, not to squander our potential in self-centered gluttony, laziness, or hedonism.
Humanity at its best seeks out the good and leads fulfilling lives that matter. The synagogue is the community that engages Jews in that twin endeavor. All else follows from this, the synagogue’s mission: to be a moral and spiritual center for the 21st century.