Commentary Magazine

Relevance in the Synagogue

Everyone, especially the young, seems to agree that the synagogue is irrelevant. When Jewish college students (and youthful or wishfully youthful college teachers) are asked whether the synagogue is relevant, they answer no. In all that interests them—peace, race, poverty, the meaning of morality, freedom—the synagogue says and does little that seems to them useful or important. It isn't unexpected that they should say this. Most of them are uncommitted or, as they are sometimes called, un Jewish.

What may be unexpected is that even those young people who consider themselves to be committed Jews are apt to say the same thing. In effect, they say they are committed Jews, synagogue Jews, not because of the synagogue but in spite of it. They are disappointed when they turn to it for encouragement, help, or advice in those things that to them are most important—which aren't greatly different from the important things of the uncommitted. Members of a self-conscious youth generation tend to have similar ideas about what is important; and particularly now, when you don't have to be young to be convinced of the importance of peace, race, poverty and the rest.

There is a certain ambiguity in this criticism of the synagogue. Are the young people saying that the synagogue is as irrelevant as the church, or that it is more irrelevant? If the critics wanted to, they could argue, plausibly, that the synagogue is more irrelevant. They could point to the far-out nuns and priests, the new-morality and secular-city theologians, the community activism of the mainline Protestant denominations, the traditional peace and service activities of the Quakers. In image, at least, and probably also to some extent in deed, the synagogue is substantially to the rear of the churches in these matters. Yet the critics of the synagogue generally avoid the comparison. I think they avoid it because they want to make believe that a big, obvious fact doesn't exist: that America, though it is a secular society and has more separation of church and state than practically any other country in the world, is also a Christian society. I shall come back to this later.

Provisionally, let us regard the criticism of the synagogue as a criticism of religion generally—that is, one which assumes an equal unsatisfactoriness of church and synagogue. What is new about this is that it is made at all. Criticism arises from expectation. In the entre deux guerres, enlightened, progressive people didn't make the criticism. They didn't have the expectation. They simply took it for granted that religion was so thoroughly stupid and out of the question that it needn't be thought about at all. We all say and believe that the world is more secular than it has ever been. Simultaneously, enlightened, progressive people are more disillusioned with irreligion and more expectant of religion than they have ever been. If a New Leftist can bring himself to think of coalition at all, he will include not the trade unions but the churches.

As for the synagogue, it may be less relevant than it used to be, but I'm not sure. The social-justice phase of Reform Judaism in the 1930's seems to have been chiefly a matter of resolutions by the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of a certain idea that the Reform rabbinate, or part of it, had of itself. It doesn't seem to have had much effect on the Jewish consciousness, let alone on the social reality. Looking back, some are inclined to think social justice was emphasized then not only because that was what America was thinking about but also to help the rabbis feel they weren't superfluous. A friend of mine, ordained at a Reform seminary in the 1950's, has told me that a professor once explained to his students: “In those days we had rabbis of two sorts: there were the social-justice ones, and then there were the ones who knew Hebrew.” (My friend speaks Hebrew with his children; and he was jailed in the South when jail wasn't yet fashionable.)


As it happens, the synagogue did have serious and important things to say then to Jews about social questions, but those were Jewish—notably anti-Semitism. We are thankful to have fewer such problems now, but we still have some: anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and Poland, the incomplete disappearance of anti-Semitism in the United States, the curious rise of an anti-Semitism on the American Left. About these, most young Jews aren't greatly concerned. They are likely to deny, impatiently, that such things exist. That is all so parochial, they say; so limited, so—so Jewy.


I have read to Jewish college students poems by LeRoi Jones which mutatis mutandis are Nazi, and have asked the students what they think. They look at me with bewilderment and incomprehension. What am I talking about? Why do I want to talk about anti-Semitism? What has it to do with them? Besides, Jones isn't really an anti-Semite. If he hates Jews who exploit, they deserve to be hated.

It is as though Hitler were no more recent than Haman.

For a universalist, anti-Semitism isn't an important problem. There are few Jews in the world, and a universalist will worry about the problems of the many. Yet if you're a Jew, anti-Semitism can kill you though you're also a universalist. It killed Jewish universalists on the other side of the ocean in the other half of the century. If you think anti-Semitism unworthy of your notice, think again.

Much has changed, but here little has changed. Thirty years ago the fathers and uncles of the young critics were equally impatient. For them, anti-Semitism was a symptom, a by-product, of capitalism. To abolish anti-Semitism, you had first to abolish capitalism. You had first to institute socialism. Anti-Semitism was rampant in Germany, where capitalism had attained its pure or ultimate form of Nazism, and in the United States. In the Soviet Union anti-Semitism had been uprooted and had disappeared. Worrying about anti-Semitism only distracted you from what was really needed, the struggle against capitalism.

As we can see now, that reasoning wasn't exactly scientific. It proceeded from essence, or from definition: capitalism was wicked, producing wicked things, and socialism was good, producing good things. The logic was scholastic—decadent scholastic at that, not greatly different from the logic of decadent scholastic medicine that Molière allows us to overhear: Quare opium facit dormire?—Quia habet quandam virtutem dormitivam.—Op-time! Why does opium make people sleep?—Because it has a certain power that causes sleep.—Very good!

Today in the United States students wonder what you're talking about when you talk about anti-Semitism, but in the Soviet Union and Poland they know. In capitalist-Nazi Germany 600,000 Jews were held to be at the same time Bolsheviks and bankers, assuming those roles in a fearsome Jewish conspiracy to subvert the German nation and the Aryan race. In socialist-Marxist Poland 25,000 Jews are held to be at the same time Zionists, cosmopolitans, and Stalinists, assuming those roles in a fearsome Jewish conspiracy to subvert the Polish nation and its socialist order.

So the synagogue didn't talk too much about anti-Semitism (Nazi and fascist) then. Maybe it isn't talking enough about anti-Semitism (Soviet and leftist, and generally contemporary) now. But that is hardly the sort of thing that universalist critics normally mean by relevance.

Actually, are the critics saying that they're perplexed, that they don't know what to think or do about peace, race, poverty, and that they want the synagogue to advise and lead them? Not usually. They are saying that the synagogue should tell them what they want to hear, that it should support and strengthen them in what they are already doing. And they want the synagogue to transmit the truths understood by the enlightened to its members, so deficient in enlightenment.

A year or two ago I heard a scholar describe the typical sermon in an up-to-date American synagogue as the rabbi's review of a best-seller. He didn't know what he was talking about, probably not. having been in a synagogue in thirty years. The book-review sermon isn't typical any more. When it was typical, that was because rabbi and congregation wanted to be relevant.

Can there be any similarity between social-action deeds and sermons, on the one hand, and popular book reviews, on the other? It may be said that popular book reviews are only an expression of what religionists themselves, especially such Christian theologians as H. Richard Niebuhr, condemn as culture religion (the anthropologists' culture, not Matthew Arnold's). Such religion, whatever it may call itself, is a tribal idolatry, echoing the prejudices and self-love of the secular community, whereas the duty of true religion is to stand apart and judge. Those who agree that book-review sermons were out of place in the 30's but insist that social-action sermons are needed in the 60's would transpose to the sphere of society and politics the distinction often made in literature and art between high culture (Arnold's) and popular culture: book-review sermons are bad, belonging to popular culture; social-action sermons are good, belonging to high social thought.

But escape isn't that easy. Lionel Trilling has shown us how blurred the old distinctions have become. In the old days high culture was for the happy few, and the man who adhered to high culture could realistically see himself as set apart from the vulgar. That is no longer so. The adversary culture, as Trilling calls it, is now as established as what used to be the official, established culture: in that New Yorker cartoon the artist's girlfriend asks him, “Why must you be a nonconformist like everyone else?” Niebuhr's judgment can apply equally to religion that affirms what used to be the established culture and to religion that affirms what used to be the adversary culture; equally to religion that affirms popular politics and to religion that affirms adversary politics.

With Jews, what's more, adversary has long been as popular as popular. Fifteen years ago how much courage did a rabbi really need, or how much distinctive moral leadership did he exercise, when he criticized Senator Joseph McCarthy to his congregation? This year how much courage does he need, and how much leadership does he exercise, when he praises Senator Eugene McCarthy?


The advice to be relevant comes most vocally from students and teachers. From them, is it good advice? Professor Leonard J. Fein of M.I.T. has written (Judaism, Winter 1968) :

Around the country, rabbinic groups and individual rabbis have spoken and speak vigorously on social issues. I applaud their vigor. I believe the community cries out for that sort of leadership. But . . . I do not believe that the image of the rabbi as a social-protest activist or as a literary critic is going to inspire either the students or the academic community. The rabbi, as he moves from his specific field of competence—which was, of course, always . . . Torah . . .—becomes a dilettante. . . . He must be au courant with literature, politics, psychology, sociology, history, anthropology . . . and necessarily dilettantish.

A sermon on Black Power . . . may be all the information a rabbi's congregants will get . . . and therefore he is obliged to give it. . . . If a student of mine came to me to find out about Black Power, I would either send him up to Tom Pettigrew at Harvard or I would urge him to take my seminar on race in America.

. . . the rabbi, in ministering to the needs of the pants manufacturers, is boring the academic. If he were to minister to the needs of the academic, he would violate his responsibility to the pants manufacturers. That is what makes this a dilemma. . . .

But it may be worth suggesting what my conception of ministry to academics by rabbis might mean. . . . The rabbi as Judaic scholar becomes the peer of the academic, and only as Judaic scholar . . . whether by Judaic studies one means biblical exegesis or Jewish demography. . . . I would more readily attend a sermon on historical analogies to Old Testament literature, perhaps, than a sermon in which a rabbi purported to inform me about Black Power or, I might add, about Vietnam.

Professor Fein implies, but it remains to be said explicitly, that a rabbi speaking about or from Torah can also say something significant about Black Power or Vietnam—something that only he can say, and therefore that we must hear from him rather than from Pettigrew or Fein. No rabbi imagines that the Torah gives unequivocal commands about Black Power or Vietnam; yet, struggling with the problems or demands of this day, he can be helped by what the Torah says that is not of this day.

Once rabbis weren't skeptical enough about the usefulness of sermons. Now they're too skeptical.

The synagogues I go to aren't extraordinary. The rabbis who preach there aren't the most famous, but they are good rabbis, and I hear good sermons from them. Usually the sermons instruct me, sometimes they stir me, and sometimes they move me to do what I might otherwise not want to do or lack the will to do.

One such sermon was about Negroes and Jews, and was taken seriously because the congregation knew that the rabbi takes anti-Semitism seriously, including the anti-Semitism of black nationalist intellectuals. The rabbi told us our attitude toward Negroes was wrong. It was like that line from My Fair Lady, Why can't a woman be more like a man? We ask, Why can't Negroes be more like Jews? We should remember, he said, that in the Passover Haggadah the answer to the questions asked by the child begins, “We were slaves in Egypt.” It is easier for slavery to produce a rabble than a people: the Torah tells us that many who left Egypt with Moses were 'erev rav and asafsuf. Our ancestors had a revelation at Mount Sinai, and Ten Commandments. After having been so uniquely favored, they went on to the golden calf. If we insist on criticism of the Negroes, the rabbi concluded, it should be not that they are too little like the Jews, but too much.

Another sermon, by another rabbi, related even more directly to Passover. On the face of it, the sermon was unworldly, half ritual detail and half eschatology. The Prophetical lesson on the last day of Passover, from Isaiah, sees a transformation:

. . . There shall come forth a shoot from the stock of Jesse,/and a branch shall grow out of his root./And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him . . . /with righteousness he shall judge the poor,/and decide with equity for the humble of the earth . . . /The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,/and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,/and the calf and the lion and the fading together,/and a little child shall lead them./The cow and the bear shall graze;/their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox./The suckling child shall play over the hole of the asp,/and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den./ They shall not hurt nor destroy/in all My holy mountain;/for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord/as the waters cover the sea./ . . . and there will be a highway for the remnant of His people/that remains from Assyria,/as there was for Israel/when they came up from the land of Egypt./ . . . with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation./And you will say in that day:/“Give thanks to the Lord,/call upon His name;/make known His deeds among the nations,/proclaim that His name is exalted . . . /Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,/for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

The rabbi told us that there is a link between that prophecy and a kabbalistic usage in the Seder. When we break the middle matzah we put aside the larger half for the afikoman: first we eat the smaller half and only later do we eat the larger. This is to signify that the future redemption will be greater than the redemption Passover celebrates, of the Jews from Egyptian slavery. There is yet to come the redemption of all men, and of nature itself, from the slavery of hurting, destroying, and ignorance of the Lord. Our Past Passover (Pesah de-'avar) is of the lesser redemption. The Future Passover (Pesah de-'atid) will be of the greater redemption. Celebrating the Past Passover, we long for the Future Passover. Prefiguring the Future Passover, we do the little we can—which is all we can—to lessen hurting, destroying, and ignorance.

The third rabbi has a sermon he repeats from time to time, with variations, about America, the Jews, and Jewish education. In America, he says, more than in any other country where Jews have lived as a minority, we enjoy freedom and opportunity without having to pay the price of abandoning Judaism. What we shall make of ourselves depends entirely on us. Precisely because America is so accepting, many are tempted to forget about Judaism—to want the best colleges for their children while being content wth a few years of Sunday school, or not even that. In quality and quantity, Jewish education must begin to match our ever-rising general education. Our responsibility, he concludes, is to assure Jewish education for our children (and ourselves).

None of these sermons is irrelevant. All, in different propositions of universalism and particularism, speak directly to us. They are relevant in the synagogue for the very reason that they wouldn't be relevant anywhere else. If we didn't hear them there, we wouldn't hear them anywhere. The synagogue in which they are preached and the rabbi who preaches them aren't irrelevant.


Now to return to what I mentioned earlier: on the whole, the critics ignore the simple, big fact that America is a Christian country. What it amounts to is that they ask the synagogue to behave as if most Americans were Jews. Asking synagogues to pretend they are the majority church doesn't mean asking them to be more relevant. It means asking them to be more irrelevant. (Now, in Israel it would be different.)

Whether as individuals or through our institutions, we enter into programs for dealing with racial inequities as if the relation of white Jews to Negroes were the same as of white Christians to Negroes. But most Negroes are, or have been, Christians. That must be our starting point. What would a Jewish congregation's remedial-reading program for Christian Negro children amount to? Wouldn't Negroes see it as Lady Bountiful's condescension? Of that they have had all they want. But might they not feel differently if they were members of the congregation, or invited to become members?

People have been asking why there aren't more black faces in insurance offices, or in TV commercials. The synagogue's critics ought to be asking why there aren't more black faces in Jewish congregations. And if that is for the future, right now there is a real problem that we aren't dealing with as we should be. There are some black Jews in the United States. On the whole, the overwhelmingly white synagogue hasn't done nearly enough to welcome them. If there are black Jews who are also black nationalists, the synagogue hasn't done nearly enough to talk with them.

The coin has two sides. It is true, as the critics say, that the synagogue should do more to condemn the exploitation of Negroes by Jewish merchants (or landlords, or employers). It is also true, as the critics usually don't say, that the synagogue should be indignant about having merchants identified as Jews. Granted, arguendo, that those merchants are exploiters and that they are Jews. Are they merchants who exploit or Jews who exploit? And in fact, is everyone an exploiter who is so accused? Everyone? Is everything done against him justified? Everything? The synagogue would ask these questions if the accusers, or those in whose name the accusation was made, were white. It must ask these questions if the accusers are black.

Provincialism can be of time as well as of geographic space or life space. In that sense, some of the synagogue's critics are provincial. They want it to be relevant to our time, but its time isn't ours alone. The synagogue's time is also liturgical time. It corresponds in a way to “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night”—which “shall not cease,” we have been promised, “so long as the earth endures.” If one wishes, it is cyclical time rather than linear. (The cycles are short: daily, weekly, yearly.) In the synagogue's rhythm of liturgical time, it is being relevant to non-linear needs. Not that the synagogue's time isn't linear or contemporary at all; just that it also consists of Sabbath and weekday, feast and fast, morning and evening, before eating and after.

The critics' objections to the synagogue are temporally provincial, too, in making the assumptions of our time. For us these are axioms. We assume that only innovation and “creativity” count, forgetting that most of what we do isn't that sort of thing at all. Mostly, we work to hold the wilderness at bay, to preserve a clearing in the woods, to keep things going: making the beds, stopping the leak, mowing the lawn, delivering the mail and milk. Eric Hoffer calls this maintenance, and can be lyrical about it. Without maintenance, what would happen to our houses, schools, buildings, factories, stores, farms? The cyclical time of the synagogue is something like maintenance. It isn't innovative, it is merely sustaining—and altogether necessary, and worthy of honor and respect. If maintenance may be said to be feminine, and innovation (like adventure) masculine, then the synagogue, though classically it has been an institution of men, may be said to be in part a feminine institution. Is that wrong?

A girl says, “You go to the synagogue for a dance or to pray, but you never consider going there [for] social action. . . .” No Hebrew school when you were a child; no adult education (including lectures about civil rights); no meetings to protest Soviet anti-Semitism? And why equate prayer and a dance? If your grandfather and his grandfather hadn't prayed in a synagogue, what makes you so sure you would be so zealous for social action? Young Jews are a small fraction of all young Americans, but an appreciably bigger one of all young Americans who worry about and do social action. The synagogue—Judaism—isn't a sufficient explanation of that; but neither is any explanation sufficient which disregards the synagogue. And the social action of Jews doesn't have to take place in a synagogue building.


There is another way in which the synagogue could fail us by being too much of our time. We would love democracy shallowly if we didn't realize how problematic it is. If we took democracy as self-evidently best, we couldn't hope to understand what Churchill meant when he said that democracy is the worst of all forms of government—except any other form that has ever been tried. We couldn't understand Bishop Stubbs saying that feudalism would be best, if men were angels and archangels. We couldn't respond to the Shakespeare who says:

. . . O! when degree is shak'd,/Which is the ladder to all high designs,/The enterprise is sick. How could communities,/ . . . But by degree, stand in authentic place?/Take but degree away, untune that string,/And, hark! what discord follows; each thing meets/In mere oppugnancy. . . .

Shakespeare our contemporary, yes. And our ancestor. The synagogue is, it has to be, our contemporary and our ancestor.

Perhaps because of the season, Passover is on my mind; or perhaps because Passover is central to the Jewish experience and imagination. At the time of the revolution of 1848, the leading Jewish educator in Germany was Samuel Ehrenberg (the great-grandfather of Franz Rosenzweig and of his Lutheran cousins). Exulting in the emancipations decreed by the revolution, Ehrenberg wanted to remove fom the Haggadah the passage which reads, “Now we are slaves, next year may we be free men.” He was trying to make the synagogue relevant. Could anyone have been more irrelevant?

Even politically, it is still too soon for us to stop saying, “Now we are slaves.” And beyond politics, not until the Future Passover will we stop being slaves (or enslaved, or slavish). Despite Israeli independence, for which God be thanked, those Orthodox are right who say that only the Future Passover will abolish the fast of the Ninth of Av, which laments exile. The Jews' physical or political exile may be passing—let us hope so—but the passing of the exile of the children of Adam from Eden is not yet on the horizon. Until then, on Passover let us say that now we are slaves and on the Ninth of Av let us lament exile, and let contemporaries think all that to be irrelevant.

On Shabbat Ha-gadol, the Sabbath before Passover, we read the last verses of the last Prophet, Malachi: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the heart of the fathers back to the sons, and the heart of the sons back to their fathers, in order that I may not come and smite the land with a curse. (Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.)” Elijah is the forerunner of the Messiah. Only Elijah or the Messiah can bring about a full reconciliation of fathers with sons; only the Future Passover. In the meantime, hoping for as much reconciliation as we are capable of, we are resigned to some separation.

If the fathers are also taken to represent history (the past, tradition), and the sons to represent contemporaneity (the present, relevance), we must conclude that until the Messiah comes we have to live, uneasily, with both. Since it isn't the characteristic temptation of our generations to slight the present in favor of the past, for us a call to present relevance may not be the needful thing. For us the needful thing may be to remember that relevance, unlike ripeness, isn't all.

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