This is something that's been resonating with me for a while. I'm always asking myself the question, "if I wasn't a pulpit rabbi, what synagogue would I join?" Chances are, it would look a lot like an independant minyan or chavurah; an informal, relatively unstructured community of peers coming together to create meaningful encounters with Judaism. At its heart, that's what all synagogues are. In fact, many (at least from what I've seen) were spontaneous expressions of a desire on the part of a group of Jews to create a supportive community that met their individual spiritual needs. Somewhere along the way, they accrued more and more structure: tasks that used to be done informally become formal and organized. You hire staff to do what volunteers used to do, you add more programmatic and physical offerings (events, a building, etc.) to meet expanding and varying generational needs. Mission creep sets in--or the synagogue truly evolves with the times and changing leadership.
Lance Sussman once said something in a gathering of Reform rabbis that I quote frequently: synagogues are dealing with a 19th century infrastructure (dues, boards, hierarchies, buildings, etc.) with congregants who have a 21st century mentality (destructured and decentralized lives, portability, etc.), and we have to figure out how to catch up to them fast. Or, as my youth director said quoting last week's NFTY convention: innovate or die. But the synagogue has always done this, from its earliest beginnings in the Babylonian Exile. And I have no doubt that, even through tectonic shifts in generational understanding, demographics, and Movement redefinition, the healthy synagogues will survive and be stronger for it, and be radically different, as different as the grand edifices of the 19th century were from the shteibles that preceded them and the suburban quasi-JCCs that followed.
A lot of that transition will come from how we talk about God. That sounds funny, as most synagogue talk (at least organizationally) is about physical, governmental and organizational structures, and not really about theology. At least one Reform Rabbi suggests that this is the problem: we spend all of our time talking about empowering the individual and creating programming without strengthening the theological underpinnings that lead to greater observance and personal practice, essentially creating empty shells. While I disagree with the conclusions and some of the assumptions of the writer (even if we bought into a more hierarchical theology, who's to say that anyone would find it credible?), he does raise a very interesting point, one that is also being made by the Independant Minyanim: Synagogues need to be about creating meaningful, spiritual and sacred encounters with Judaism and Jewish tradition, not only for 'mere' self-preservation, but (as Art Green argues in Radical Judaism) to empower Jews (and those who would participate) in living out a universal message of shared responsibility for our world and each other, created in the image of God. Classical Reform, for all its cold distance, got that, as surely as Neo-Chasidism and its warm fuzzies does today (now there's an image, neh?). But so long as we spend more time talking about stuff and less time talking about meaning, the less likely people are going to engage for any reason other than for services rendered (or as Menachem Creditor once quipped to me: "We get it--now let's make Torah together!").
This is especially relevant for me tomorrow, as I'm talking with the Brotherhood about God, and especially my own theological thoughts, which should be interesting since, as one congregant and friend once put it, my head is in Cincinnati, but my heart is in Lubavitch (well, at least Bratslav, or maybe Apt).
So, for those who can't make it tomorrow, let me ask you a double-barreled question:
1. What would you ask about God and encountering God (however defined by you)?
2. What do you expect to encounter in the synagogue (or your house of worship) and what do you want to encounter?