How We Can Build the Synagogue of the Future

Terumah By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Feb 13, 2013 / 5773 | Torah Commentary | Prayer

For the 2013 Graduating Class of JTS Rabbis and Cantors

If you care deeply about the present and future state of the synagogue, as I do, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to draw lessons from the remarkable vision of communal worship set forth in this week’s Torah portion. I do not intend to resist. Three aspects of the divine plan for the Tabernacle strike me as particularly relevant to our contemporary situation.

First, as commentators have noted for centuries, God does not promise to dwell in the sanctuary that the Israelites will construct, but to dwell betokham: in them or among them. The point of the Mishkan was to enable the Children of Israel to sense God’s presence in their midst while they wandered the wilderness; to bring them together in what Martin Buber called a “living Center;” to raise them above the mundane concerns of daily life; to assist them in infusing their days with holiness.

That is still the point of the sanctuary, I believe. If worship services in synagogues today do not achieve these ends—if the words do not inspire us, the music does not elevate us, the processions and ceremony do not move us—something is seriously wrong. Like the Israelites of old, we devote enormous resources to building sanctuaries, and do so in the hope that we too will feel, when we walk through their doors, that we have entered the precincts of the Holy One. Some synagogues of my acquaintance succeed to a remarkable extent in doing those things. It is a joy to be part of their worship services. One is uplifted on a regular basis by the music, the words, and the silences. That is not true of other synagogues, however—and all too often it seems that the members or clergy of those institutions have reconciled themselves to settling for much less. This is sad. The mission of the synagogue is too important to compromise on quality. Our ancestors worked hard to endow routine service in the sanctuary with such power, majesty, and holiness that God’s presence became palpable. This should be our objective also. We too should work hard at it.

God’s promise to dwell “in them” or “among them” points to a second key requirement of communal worship: that it take place in a community, a word which I (like the Torah) take to mean far more than an assemblage of individuals. Communities share a common language, practice, and commitment. Their members come together for purposes that are central to their lives. They are not just consumers of various services for which they pay a fee. Members of a community bring themselves to the endeavor. The ancient Israelites were free to decide what they would contribute to the building of the Tabernacle, but everyone had to bring something. These gifts were not trivial. They could be material: gold or silver, precious gems, or beautiful cloth. Other contributions could take the form of skills, artistry, or design. Soon, when the Tabernacle was completed, they would bring offerings of well-being, thanksgiving, or atonement. They would pour out their hearts and afflict their souls.

It is (or should be) the same with contemporary synagogues. If members of the synagogue community are joined together in networks of shared activities and relationships—if they are not simply present (as opposed to absent), but what we call “fully present” to one another—the communal whole becomes far more than the sum of individual parts. Every prayer is raised higher and penetrates deeper thanks to the prayer of others. The spirit swells. Grief is more easily borne. I have been fortunate enough to be part of such synagogue services. I hope you have as well.

A third requirement for achieving the sort of synagogues we desire is found in the commandment to do “ke-khol asher ani mareh otkha” (Exod. 25:9). Some translators, including JPS, follow commentators who understand the word ke-khol to mean “exactly as.” In this reading, God says that the boards should be X cubits long, and Moses makes sure the carpenters saw them to that exact length. Other readers, including me, take ke-khol to mean “in accordance with.” God gives the blueprint. The People of Israel figure out—using skill and creativity in faithful obedience to the divine directives—how to translate the plan into reality.

This notion of the building process is consistent with the larger divine-human partnership set forth at Sinai. God needs artisans with the skill of Bezalel (and prophets such as Moses and Isaiah, or jurists and teachers like our Sages) because the matter of bringing Torah to life is not as simple as sawing boards to a certain length, or looking up a particular situation in a divinely revealed instruction manual and doing what is specified there. God relies upon the creativity, intelligence, and will of the human beings created in His image. That is why God calls Bezalel, calls Moses, and calls the Sages. Through them and their work, God calls the rest of us. Indeed, as complex and detailed as the instructions given for building the Mishkan and performing the sacrifices are, careful reading indicates that many necessary details are not supplied in the Torah. “Oral law” is required to complement and complete “written law.” Human initiative is valued by God, Who is the source and model of that initiative.

About 25 years ago, an art show in New York featured drawings by master artists such as Michelangelo that were copies of drawings done by other great artists. Inevitably, the copies differed from the originals in significant ways that revealed the particular talents, styles, and perspectives of their makers. Adam Gopnik, reviewing the show for the New Yorker (July 4, 1988), put the questions raised by the exhibit this way: “How can copying lead to change? Looking more closely at the Michelangelo drawing, we discover that what had seemed at first a faithful, even dutiful replication—an act of filial piety—is in certain crucial ways not faithful at all.”

The religious language here is striking—and, if one follows my reading of ke-khol, Gopnik’s use of it is utterly mistaken, as we learn in subsequent pages of his review. “Filial piety” does not mean doing exactly as our parents did. “Faithfulness” in art or performance does not mean copying in detail an earlier work or performance (including one’s own). Is Pacino’s Shylock “unfaithful” to Shakespeare because it differs from Olivier’s? When Isaac Stern played a Beethoven violin concerto one evening, should it have been judged by its exact likeness to the performance of the piece he gave the night before, or to some ideal that existed in the head of the composer?

The answer of course is “no.” Gopnik is clear on the point: “The show demonstrates with beautiful clarity that every copy, no matter how faithful, produces subtle variations, and that it is the readiness to take advantage of those variations, created in the act of making, which has been one engine of change in art.” The artist or performer does not set out to depart from the original. He or she feels obligated to make it live in and through his or her own work—through that artist’s self, that artist’s life. Art is far more than mechanical reproduction. So is life. So is piety. Tradition, as Conservative Jews have long taught, means change through continuity, and continuity through change. Our aim is to conserve and, by doing so, to serve. Our means require bringing all we have to the task, and all we are.

Synagogues today need honest and thoughtful discussion of what this sort of faithfulness means for communal worship. Parashat Terumah reminds us that sincere desire to stand before God and one another is required. So is the creation of communities that are far more than assemblages of individual consumers. And there is artistry: copies made holy by dedication to the task of being present and coming near to the Source of all Creation. The ancient Israelites, who were far from perfect in character—and so like us in many respects, including this one—can inspire us to work at the task of sanctuary building until we get it right.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.