by Rabbi Wendy Spears
(“Red Canna” by Georgia O’Keefe. Owned by University of Arizona Museum of Art)
In the recently published study from the Pew Research Group, it’s been found that two-thirds of American Jews are not synagogue members and 25% don’t believe in God. I think these two statistics are related. It’s likely that Jews who don’t believe in God would have a very difficult time being synagogue members when much of synagogue activities continue to revolve around worship.
As a community rabbi, I don’t work for a synagogue. I am, however, a member of a synagogue. My colleague who is the rabbi of this synagogue is one of the warmest, kindest, social justice minded, communally oriented Jews I am privileged to know. At the synagogue, we rarely speak about God. The activity that holds pride of place on the synagogue calendar is worship. Using the current prayerbook is very difficult for me. The prayers of supplication and praise are directed to a God in whom I do not believe.
This is not to say I don’t believe in God. For me, that would be like saying I don’t believe in love. I believe in God with all my being. My authentic Jewish God is the unifying force in the universe, and the still, small voice of conscience and comfort in my mind. My God is that which connects us, one to the other, and my sense of being. My God is also the sense of awe and reverence I feel out in the world and in nature, that there is something bigger than myself of which I am a part.
My understanding of God is not the dominant image I see in the prayerbook. That God is a military commander, a harsh judge, an angry parent, a distant royal personage. The God of the prayerbook needs to be complimented before being asked for support. It is short-tempered and taciturn. It is male. I have an extremely difficult time reciting those prayers to a God in whom I don’t believe.
When I speak to couples planning their wedding or families experiencing the death of a loved one, nearly all of them say they believe in God. However, in 22 years as a rabbi, I’ve yet to meet any who believe in the God of the prayerbook. Admittedly, my clients are not members of synagogues. Perhaps they believe in God as I do, or some other permutation of Jewish theology. They are less Jewishly educated than I am, and often don’t relate their faith to anything Jewish. I imagine they’d have the same struggle with the prayerbook as I do.
If we changed the main focus of synagogue life from worship to meaningful conversation, I wonder if more Jews would want to become members. I think we, as a Jewish community, need to rethink the mission of synagogue life. As a community, we need common activities to help bind us together, to relate to one another on a more personal level, to support each other through challenging times, and rejoice with one another on holidays and in celebrations of life. Worship doesn’t need to be the primary activity any longer. I propose putting heartfelt and intellectual study in its place, accompanied by communal song, and snacks. Then we will be able to more effectively bring God amongst us, however we image that spiritual presence.
Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.