Jewish Spirituality: Far More than Prayer

Take BJ from its Rabbis’ Point of View, For Instance 

By Rabbis J. Rolando Matalon, Marcelo R. Bronstein and Felicia L. Sol

We appreciate Synagogue 3000 asking us to offer our understanding of BJ.  After the privilege of serving 23, 14, and 8 years respectively as BJ’s rabbis we have seen BJ grow, change, and meet challenges—sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. We have witnessed the power of a synagogue to transform the lives of its members. While BJ will always be a work in progress, we want to share our understanding of the Jewish spirituality which has been at the core of making BJ central to the lives of so many contemporary Jews.

Jewish spirituality at BJ is about creating a community in which modern Jews can, through the tradition, reach into their souls emotionally and intellectually to find their unique purpose, and be inspired to live lives that reflect that purpose. It is not a slightly different twist on a therapeutic model for finding happiness. And it is far from the me-centered self fulfillment of contemporary consumer culture. It is the self fulfillment that comes from discovering our distinct responsibility in the world, of asking ourselves what God demands of each one of us, personally and as a community.

We wish we could fill the remainder of this space with a description of the formula we have discovered for creating this kind of spirituality at BJ and then give all those who so admire BJ’s success a recipe to follow. But we can’t.  BJ is not about a formula.

Some may be disappointed by this conclusion.  We hope that you find it liberating.  It means that there is no prescribed technique you have to apply if you want to be “like BJ.” BJ is not about the clapping, the choice of one particular melody for Lekha Dodi, the dancing, or a specific combination of musicians. You don’t even need rabbis and a hazzan with exotic Argentine accents to have a vital, dynamic synagogue community. (You might have noticed that one of us was born and raised in the United States. If she has any accent at all, it’s from Connecticut, and BJ is still going strong!)

What you do need is a passionate vision of Jewish life and what it means to live as a Jew in this world. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—the teacher of our teacher, Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer and the new BJ’s founding rabbi—is our guide in everything we do. Like Rabbi Meyer, we look to Heschel for our approach to prayer, our relationship with ritual and Jewish observance, and our engagement in social justice. We study Heschel’s writings and the way he combined faith and activism in his own life and try to combine both into a vision of a dynamic, vibrant, compelling Judaism that finds its home in the synagogue, but whose message is lived inside and outside the synagogue walls.

Heschel was a theologian and a social activist. He was not a congregational rabbi. We are, and our aspiration has been to translate Heschel’s vision of Judaism into the language and life of a contemporary synagogue. When we talk about “spirituality,” we are simply using a shorthand expression for the kind of Judaism Heschel espoused: a Judaism in which we live our lives as a response to the question “what does God ask of us?”

The key to understanding how Jewish spirituality manifests itself at BJ cannot be found by narrowly focusing on BJ’s Shabbat services. Typically, when visitors come to our synagogue on Shabbat they comment on the intensity and beauty of the prayer services and the number of people.

But what they don’t know, what they don’t see, is that this experience is created by the myriad of deeds that take place daily, building and strengthening the fabric of the community and feeding back into the vitality of the service.

Much like BJ’s famed dancing in the aisles on Friday night, hundreds of people are connected to each other— every day—and engaged in mitzvot such as bikkur holim (visiting the sick), taharah (washing the body of the deceased), nihum avelim (comforting the bereaved), literacy programs, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, participating in the daily morning minyan, engaging in study, organizing Shabbat dinners, welcoming new members, and more.

Shabbat could not exist without this connection of what goes on in between services. Services become the culmination and the celebration of our week as a participatory community. At the same time, on Shabbat we seek inspiration and renewed vision for the week ahead.

Our experience at BJ has shown us that no one cares about a Judaism that reflects just a habit or some pale version of the past. What contemporary Jews long for is a Judaism that claims the authority to shape their consciousness and instills in them its values, as it has for centuries. Only a Judaism that has something deep, meaningful and relevant to say about life—that challenges the mind and soul, that is open and tolerant—can have a chance.

And this Judaism cannot just be about Jews nor can it be contained within the walls of the synagogue. It must have something to say about the world in which we live and is not afraid to build bridges with other faiths and cultures.

Heschel believed that “religion declined not because it was refuted but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive and insipid.” “The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions,” Heschel wrote, “religion becomes irrelevant.” To be the home of the relevant, passionate Judaism Heschel advocates the synagogue cannot remain the place of moderation, docility and tamed emotions it has become. Instead, it must be the place where we confront the most profound questions of existence:

Who am I called to be, and what am I called to do? When I am weak, where do I find strength?

When my vision is dim, where do I find insight?

How do I maintain my integrity in a world where power, success and money seem valued above all else?

How do I cultivate a sense of gratitude in my life?

How do I integrate the prophetic call for social justice—the demand to redress human suffering—into my life?

How do I keep the relevant questions of life perpetually before me?

What are the essential values that need to animate my existence so that I can be a Jew and act as a Jew in the world?

What is the Jewish people’s role in humanity?

Discarding the distractions of day-to-day existence and looking honestly into our souls is not easy. And so Shabbat services are designed to be much more than a retreat from the world, which would only serve to shield us from Heschel’s pointed calls for spiritual accounting. Rather, the synagogue should be a place where we learn how to live as our best and unique selves. Like the juxtaposition of Lekha Dodi’s joyous welcoming of Shabbat immediately followed by welcoming the week’s bereaved families into the sanctuary, we come to synagogue to face life: to celebrate but also be disturbed and unsettled; to find solace but also be shaken from our complacency and wrestle with our fate; to be comforted by our tradition but also to question it. As rabbis, our job is to make sure that happens—to court controversy and to raise the disturbing questions many would be more content to leave in the background—and certainly outside the synagogue.

Prayer cannot be a ritual we perform merely out of habit or by rote. Prayer must be engaged in with kavannah—deep intention and inner devotion—as a way for us to feel the full intensity of life that Heschel spoke of. Through this kind of prayer we can feel wonder, joy, comfort and gratitude.  But we will also feel revulsion, outrage and righteous indignation about our lives and the world. These powerful feelings are unleashed when we pray with kavannah, which we call for in the service, whether by challenging words or sweet or discordant melodies. By making every effort to pray with kavannah from the bima ourselves (rather than merely “leading services”) and by pushing congregants to reach inward towards a genuine intention, people are moved in often unexpected ways. Only this spiritual intention can take melody to such heights and prayer so deeply within. This is why many people at BJ cry or sing or dance, or clap with every fiber of their being.

Unfortunately, many observers of BJ have over-emphasized what has been described as the “ecstatic” elements of our service. Careful observation shows that that is just one part of a purposeful balance.  We have designed services to be anchored by time for quiet reflection, especially at the beginning of Shabbat evening and during Shabbat morning’s Shaharit and then again with quiet niggunim at the end of many climactic melodies. And a BJ service would not be complete without specific teaching of Torah by one of us or a visiting scholar or social activist to provoke the very explicit consideration of difficult personal and social issues.

But allowing ourselves to feel or be provoked, whether during contemplation, Torah study, or passionate prayer, is only the beginning. By itself, emotion risks becoming just another form of egotism. Always our feelings must awaken us to questions: What do we do with the feelings? Who are we in response to those feelings? How do we transform great joy into gratitude, and gratitude into an overwhelming desire to care and give back? How do we transform dismay into the uncontainable urge to redress and repair? How do we transform anger into the righteous indignation that propels each of us to take a stand? These are the questions whose absence from modern Jewish and secular life leaves a void in our souls. And they are exactly the ones that we continually ask ourselves and put before our congregants.

To live a life of meaning is to give ourselves over to these intense feelings, not for their own sake but for the purpose of being pulled out of slumber into action. The synagogue must infuse us with a vision of the world as it ought to be and propel us into action to change the world as it is. The service of God continues when the prayer service ends and begins before the prayer service starts.

Justice is therefore a religious issue that belongs in the synagogue, at the center of our religious concern. “Social action” cannot be just another item on the menu of synagogue programs, nor can it be outsourced to the Jewish community’s many fine institutions dedicated to innumerable good causes and of which we are justly proud. The same intensity and passion we bring to prayer and study must be brought to social justice. At BJ we explicitly raise troubling issues of social justice from the bima. And at the end of each service is an extensive (some might say tedious) description of social action opportunities for the coming week. No one dances. No one sings. But many hundreds are moved towards spiritually informed action in their lives.

Nor can the study of Torah be just another item on the menu. Our tradition, by placing the text and its interpretation at its center, has sanctified critical thinking, analysis, and argumentation as a religious experience. Torah study is central to the life of our community and to our communal worship.  At Shabbat morning services, for example, we have eschewed the conventional sermon. Instead, we offer a d’var torah strictly based on the parasha of the week, in which we analyze classical and modern sources which we frequently distribute to the congregation. But even taking these sources into account, our ancient texts sometimes contradict our modern sensibilities.  In the tradition of Judaism’s intellectual rigor, we neither ignore the disturbing aspects of our tradition nor apologize for them.  Instead, we confront them in light of the sources and make every effort to learn from them. Even b’nai mitzvah are encouraged to grapple with their Torah portions and question honestly, sometimes with cynical but always hopeful hearts.

These are not programmatic decisions, nor are they are some new interpretation of Jewish values.  Rather, they reflect the ancient, well known teaching of Shimon HaTzaddik in Pirkei Avot that “the world stands on three things: on Torah, on the service of God, and on acts of loving kindness.” Torah study, prayer, and acts of loving kindness are indivisible. They inform and nurture one another.  The moment we remove one of them from the equation, the integrity of the whole collapses.  One cannot be privileged above the others because it happens to be more popular, more likely to be met with enthusiasm. There is no BJ without the three pursued together.

We believe none of these values—Shabbat, learning, social justice, community—can be fully realized absent spiritual discipline. Contemporary Jews who are fully at home in the modern world need to freely embrace a system of religious duty—halakha—because meaning cannot be sustained without a consistent practice.  In these days in which we are all Jews by choice, we challenge our congregants to choose the spiritual discipline of observance.

But we emphasize that halakha cannot be practice for its own sake. It must be a path that keeps the things that matter constantly before us. Halakha is not about what we do but how we live, and we challenge people to increase their observance from this perspective. So, for example, we stress that Shabbat is not just a set of arbitrary prohibitions and rules. It is about setting boundaries that help us transition from doing to simply being. Shabbat is about letting go of our usual weekday mode of working, acquiring and consuming, of power, control and domination. It is a day of contemplation and gratitude for what we have and a day for recalibrating our vision.

Similarly, we ask our members to practice kashrut because Jewish dietary laws are not simply about permitted and forbidden animals, separating milk and meat and the minutiae of dishes and utensils. On a deeper level, kashrut teaches us to be mindful of what we consume and how we consume it. It regulates our instincts and puts limits on our appetites.  And it is about the conditions in which our food is grown, how the animals are raised and slaughtered, as well as the treatment of the workers who process our food.

We know that not all, or even most, BJ members are leading lives entirely guided by halakha.  But they are choosing to be part of a community that takes halakha seriously and that is constantly pushing them to grapple with issues of observance. And, crucial to understanding BJ, this idea that we can strive to meaningfully increase our observance without feeling that observance “doesn’t count” unless it is total is emphasized regularly in all areas of community life. Through this approach to halakha as a spiritual path that one can move along rather than an all-or-nothing decision, we have seen many, many BJ members move toward greater observance.

As BJ’s rabbis we foster the type of community that we want to be a part of and that we want to daven with. The rabbinate can be a lonely place and we, too, crave community.  Indeed, we are dues paying members of our own synagogue. We have deliberately created a model of leadership based on a spiritual partnership among ourselves, ourselves and the hazzan, the staff, and the members of our board of trustees, and finally our community. In those partnerships, which are based on trust instead of the all-too-typical competiveness and conflict, we work hard to relate to one another and work together in the model of hevruta—supporting each other, challenging each other to grow, to risk, and to give the best of what we have to offer.

Even our communal understanding of what it means to be a “member” of BJ reflects this commitment to the importance of partnership. A prominent feature of BJ’s new member orientation meetings is the explicit rejection of the popular consumer definition of membership as paying dues in order to be entitled to certain benefits. Instead, being a member of BJ is defined as belonging to a community and having the privilege to serve. And, in fact, many people who attend BJ services regularly are not even dues-paying members, though we invite them to become part of our community and many eventually do. We go to great logistical effort and quite a bit of expense to offer two services on Friday night and an adult and a variety of children’s services on Saturday morning that are open to and attended by many who are not ready to join a synagogue but who want to explore their commitment to Jewish life.

Creating synagogues that are homes for a Judaism that passionately combines faith and activism, emotion and intellect, meaning and duty is neither simple nor quick. And, unfortunately, we in the Jewish community are too often obsessed with trying to figure out the next “sexy” answer to the continuity problem, the lack of affiliation, and the tricks that will deliver more people into our synagogues’ services. At our peril, we ignore the real issue—the irrelevance and the vacuity of most of Jewish life.

Contemporary Jews are indeed “spiritual seekers.” They are seeking places where there is something meaningful going on, where God’s Presence can be felt, where one can laugh and celebrate for real, cry real tears, where there is a compelling vision for a just and peaceful world that is inclusive and tolerant.  And where each person matters and is called to serve.

Nothing more and nothing less explains what fills our seats, expands our membership, and has made BJ a spiritual home for so many.

1.  Special thanks to Sara Moore Litt, a past president of BJ, and Ron Taffel, a former board member, for their help in preparing this paper.