I wasn’t surprised to read in The New York Times that Rick Warren, mega-church pastor and best-selling author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” is advising Jewish religious leaders on how to draw more Jews into synagogue life. It’s very Jewish to apply and adapt the best of wider society to Judaism. That is what the early rabbinic sages did when they modeled the structure of the Passover seder upon the Roman banquet and symposium. Their model stuck, as so many of us will re-experience next week when we sit down to celebrate the holiday.
Warren has hit on something, though. I have found that when I translate what he teaches into a Jewish idiom, putting God and Torah back at the center of our experience as Jews, people really respond favorably. They really want to find answers for how to live a more meaningful life through Torah.
I can do the scientific-text critical thing with the best of them, but that is Torah for the academy, not the pews. For a small group of folks, such learning is spiritually satisfying. But, particularly in the Conservative movement, which was founded upon the scientific method of textual study, we all too often lose the essential point that God gave us Torah to inform how we can live better lives.
Shabbat is part of that better life, but most contemporary Jews never get a chance to really experience it. So if meditation, yoga, or cooking will open the doors of the synagogue to those who might not otherwise enter, I say go for it.
We have a lot of boring memories to overcome. But we will miss the boat if we do not also offer engaging classes and painless parallel parent/child education that builds Hebrew literacy, comprehension, and the tools of prayer competency as a way to open modern Jews to the power and transcendence of the traditional Sabbath liturgy. Sure I would be happy with folks being in the building, some for a study group, others for our family programs, others for the fellowship in the kitchen, while still others are engaged in the main worship service. Nine tenths of community is about showing up. But a purpose-driven community is about more than just showing up. It is about sharing values and living those values in and outside the sanctuary.
That’s what has been missing in most of our congregations; it is high time we honestly face that and do the hard work to get back on track by defining our core Torah-based values, like truth (emet) and kindness (hesed) to name just two, and start living them in and out of the synagogue.
We need to put the “purpose” back into our synagogues. That means instead of seeking growth for growth’s sake (i.e., for institutional solvency or sustainability) we need to seek to serve God and spread the word of living Torah. We need to reach out and engage other Jews because that is what God expects of us, whether in inviting a stranger for Shabbat dinner or lunch, being there for people in pain, or being God’s hands in the world to help those in need in our communities or in far away Darfur.
We could argue that Jews today, perhaps more than previous generations, want to know what Judaism can do for them, rather than what they can do for Judaism. Rebbe Nahman taught that one must meet someone where he (or she) is, not where you may want that person to be.
The brilliance of Warren’s approach, and why he has sold so many books, is that he shows how doing something for a higher purpose is doing something for oneself on the deepest and simplest level. That is what Judaism has always been about. The key is realizing that we Jews can have a purpose-driven life, as individuals and as members of congregational communities, by serving God through Torah. Now all that’s left is to go and learn.