Jews and synagogues are synonymous, right? Wrong!
Though the synagogue is more than 2,000 years old, with rabbis holding sway for approximately the same amount of time, we were not always organized this way. According to the Torah, we began as a single family that grew into 12 tribes that ultimately settled the land today known as Israel. Back then, like every other recognized group of people on the planet, for all sorts of reasons, we brought sacrificial offerings to a Temple where we handed them to a priest who offered them up to God on our behalf.
The synagogue itself was an innovation, created by a group of individuals collectively known as the Pharisees (later, called rabbis, literally “my master/teacher”) who were attempting to adapt to a changing environment and belief system. The popular misnomer is that the synagogue came about only after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE. But archeological evidence has shown that the original synagogues were built as early as 200 BCE. In other words, long before the Temple’s demise, a radical change was already taking root. A paradigm shift, if you will.
Had they not come up with the notion that the synagogue would become a tripartite house of gathering, study, and prayer, and that each private home would become a mikdash m’aht (a small sanctuary) with our kitchen table the new altar and the challah the new symbolic sacrificial offering, perhaps Judaism would have died out altogether. The Pharisees radically altered the way we “do Jewish” while making it look like it was the Torah’s intention all along. Prayer with a minyan in a synagogue three times a day replaced the Temple offerings; and rabbis, who spent years of learning, were ordained to replace the hereditary kohanim/priests as authorities over Jewish law and life. The rabbinic revolution was complete.
So it was, and so it has been for almost two millennia.
However, beginning with the Enlightenment and the rise of the middle class, accelerated by the collapse of the ghetto in Western Europe, the erosion of rabbinic authority began to shift the structure crafted by those Pharisees. Numerous options, both secular and religious, were later created to keep the system alive. For several hundred years that seemed to have worked.
But today, the synagogue (and one might say all Jewish institutions) are under siege, and not doing all that well. Synagogue membership and attendance are in decline; mergers and closings no longer surprise us; and leadership is aging and not being replaced. In addition, surveys reveal that more and more Jews describe themselves as “just Jewish” or JNRs — Jews of no religion. Hence, there is little need in their lives for organized prayer, especially to a God they are not sure they believe in, with a prayer book replete with images of hierarchy and kingship that does not speak to them.
Yes, there are exceptions, thankfully. But I would argue, if not for the stubborn connection to the rite known as bar/bat mitzvah, with its incumbent requirement of years at the often-despised Hebrew school, the situation would be much worse.
I firmly believe that there is a human need for community, spirituality, and ritual. But today, more young Jews are likely to find that at their favorite Happy Hour or yoga class. Alternatives to the synagogue are cropping up and need to be encouraged. Entrepreneurial rabbis and ritualists, unencumbered by the structure of organized religion, are doing some very creative work, but it’s hard to predict whether their efforts be enough.
The synagogue is not dead yet, but its health is in real jeopardy. I have been a lifelong “shul Jew,” and I regularly daven at a lovely minyan in my neighborhood. But those of us who consider themselves committed Jews have to recognize that the communal, economic, sociological and political realities that gave rise to and sustained the synagogue are no longer operative in this post-modern era.
We have to ask ourselves the painful question, “Do the Jewish people still need us?” I am certain that the kohanim in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem thought that Judaism itself would collapse without them. After all, the Temple was the largest and wealthiest institution of its time. It inspired awe and obedience for more than a millennium. Insiders always think we are indispensable. But history and life should teach us that we are not. Unless significant changes are made, the end of the synagogue is not so far into the horizon.
Rabbi Terry Bookman who retired from the pulpit in 2015, is co-founder of Eitzah, Inc. His latest book is “Beyond Survival: How Judaism Can Thrive in the 21st Century” (Rowman & Littlefield). Website: https://terrybookman.com.