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What are Synagogues for?

05/05/2021 03:01:51 PM


Rabbi Brent Spodek

As we glimpse the light at the end of the Covid tunnel and plan to “build back better,” I’ve been wondering what synagogues like ours are for. Why should we - or any synagogue - exist at all? 

It's an uncomfortable question, but one we need to ask - What do synagogues like ours hope to accomplish in the world? Or put differently, in what way would the world be diminished if synagogues ceased to exist?

I’d like to explore the possibility that the purpose of a synagogue is to mobilize the Jewish tradition to facilitate personal, communal, and societal growth.

I do not practice Judaism because I am certain that is what God wants of me, and I do not practice Judaism as an homage to an imagined past. I practice Judaism because it enables me to live in alignment with the unique image of the Holy One that I - and all of us - carry in our souls. 


A few years ago, my wife was diagnosed with leukemia. She is alive today because her body, weakened by cancer, received a bone marrow transplant from a donor. Thanks to that transplant, her body produces healthy blood on its own; without that transplant, she might not be alive today. And yet, my wife’s very DNA is different than it was before - the transplant saved her, and it also changed her. 

It is not only a person who is changed when they are saved; a people can be changed as well. 

The Nazis murdered six million Jews in the Holocaust, a tragedy beyond measure. They also nearly - but thankfully didn’t - murder Judaism. By some measures, 90% of the rabbis and scholars alive in the world before the war were killed during the Holocaust. Like my wife, who survives because of a transplant from a donor, our post-Holocaust Judaism lives because of transplants from other traditions helped us bridge the loss of so many of our masters. 

Judaism was a rich and vibrant culture before the war, with a wild diversity of practices, connections and understandings of the world. The assimilating Jews of Germany, the secular bundists of Warsaw and the Hasidic mystics of Ukraine all had radically different understandings of what God was and how society should be organized. Judaism was a more robust and chaotic place and Jews had many options for how to do and be Jewish. 

The narrow sliver of Judaism that took root in America while the Holocaust raged was but one strand of that vibrant tapestry. It was shaped by and in response to American Protestantism; it was formed to ease our ancestors’ transition from Jewish immigrants to American Jews. It did that job incredibly well, and yet, it didn’t carry - and couldn’t possibly have carried - any more than a small fraction of the diversity of pre-war European Judaism.  

Judaism survived because of the strength of that narrow sliver, and because of the transplants we received. As with my wife, those transplants saved Judaism and also changed it. Judaism is stronger today because of the diversity of our inheritances.

My own spiritual life is shaped by the gifts of those transplants as fully as it is shaped by the rabbis of the Talmud. When I take my tallis and tefillin into the woods for prayer, I’m responding to the power of Jewish tradition and the inheritance of American transcendentalists, such as Henry Thoreau and Mary Oliver, who find the holy in the natural world. When I sit on my meditation cushion and focus on my breath while I chant the Shema, I’m responding to the power of the liturgy and the teachings of American Buddhists, such as Sylvia Boorstein and Norman Fischer, who cultivate contemplative practices based on Buddhism. 

These might seem like new practices, but they aren’t. They only seem that way when viewed from that thin sliver of post-war American Judaism. We have strong transcendentalist and contemplative traditions in our own Jewish lineage as well - I easily imagine that Reb Nachman of Bratslav would have been quite at home at Walden and the Rambam would have comfortably sat a silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society. It seems foreign to many of us because the flesh and blood teachers who might have passed on those traditions were murdered in Europe, but thanks in part to these transplants, we have other ways of accessing their power.


The Judaism we practice is the product of the long 20th century, easily one of the most tumultuous and cataclysmic periods of Jewish history. The end of European Judaism, the birth of the state of Israel and the resurgence of Judaism in America mark changes no less transformative than the destruction of the Second Temple and the birth of rabbinic Judaism. 

Rabbinic Judaism, which is to say, Judaism as we know it, with its emphasis on learning, verbal prayer and on Shabbat - was radically different from the Temple’s cult of animal sacrifice. So too, post-Holocaust Judaism is and will continue to be radically different from what preceded it. We have gone through periods of transformation and reinvention before, and we are living through one now. 

The future of American Judaism cannot look like the past. As scholars like Jonathan Sarna have pointed out, most of us are far removed from the immigrant experience and our relations with the gentile world are intimate in ways that prior generations could not imagine. Beyond that, as scholars like Robert Wunthnow and Arnie Eisen have pointed out, the entire framework for how Americans of all backgrounds think about religion has shifted radically in recent decades.

Unlike the past, with its pictures and memories, the future is unknown and unknowable. Yet a synagogue that hopes to survive must hold onto the past, and hold onto the future even more tightly. To paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, what got us here will not get us there. We cannot treat Judaism like a precious heirloom we are afraid of breaking, but rather as living waters in which we swim, or perhaps as a laboratory in which we experiment with new and powerful ways of connecting with each other and with the Divine. 


So, why do synagogues need to exist? Because we need the traditions and wisdom of Judaism - augmented by other sources of wisdom - to help us be better people. We need Judaism to help us grow into better friends and citizens, parents and partners, and we need synagogues so Judaism has a home not only in our hearts, but in our community. We need synagogues so that people who are trying to mobilize the Jewish tradition to facilitate personal, communal, and societal growth have a place to connect with each other, and to the Source of all Life. The Judaism I learn and teach makes me a better person than I might be otherwise. I trust it can do the same for all of us. 

Wed, May 25 2022 24 Iyyar 5782