There are no statistics about how many Israelis go to a synagogue on the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, although well over 80 percent say they fast on Yom Kippur. Those who don’t go to services tend to say, “I’m not religious, so why should I go to shul?” Of course it all depends on what “not religious” means. In many cases those who claim to be “not religious” have a warped view of religiosity. One possibility is that they aren’t frum – they don’t keep Shabbat or kashrut strictly. That may be a pity, but it doesn’t prevent a person from being religious or having spiritual feelings.
It could have something to do with a particular synagogue.
Some synagogues are cold and unfriendly. Maybe there is a buzz of incessant chatter with people walking in and out. Maybe the conventional liturgy focuses on words that have no relevance to people’s real lives, maybe there’s a blast from the past that takes people back decades or centuries and pays no heed to the changing spiritual needs of a modern community.
Yet even in the synagogue, any synagogue, we can all make spiritual discoveries.
The fact is that we all have our moments of sheer breathtaking spirituality. We all know people of true piety and goodness, and places of genuine awe and reverence.
Being in that company and that ambiance is almost addictive.
The whole of creation breathes religiosity. We look above and instinctively say with the Psalmist, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalms 19:2). We see the trees shaking in the wind and imagine that they could be shaking in worship. Even the birds seem to be spiritual when – in the language of the prayer book – b’tziftzuf metzaftzefim, “they chirp a song to God.”
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was spiritually moved when he gazed at the artworks in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Echoing the Kabbala, he said, “When God created light, it was so strong that one could see from one end of the world to the other. But lest the wicked abuse it, what did God do? He preserved the light for the righteous in the time of the Messiah. But now and then there are great people who are privileged to see it. I think Rembrandt was one of them. The light in his pictures is the very light that was created at the beginning of history.”
Not only is art spiritually uplifting, but Rav Kook also said that music, geometry and even law are a source of poetry and spirituality. Albert Einstein said it was a religious experience “when a man has a true idea [and] something within him drives him on.” Theodor Herzl, in The Jewish State, said a similar thing about a person seized with passion for a great idea. He thought he had never felt such exaltation; he recalled Heinrich Heine, who “heard the flapping of eagles’ wings above his head when he wrote certain stanzas.”
It is not only famous people who think grand thoughts, do great deeds and create powerful works that inspire the minds and hearts of others. The so-called little people can also raise themselves from dust to destiny.
The moving Unetanneh Tokef prayer has an epilogue that says, “Man’s origin is dust and his end is dust.” These words moved countless generations to weep. One wonders why, when the poetic words are simply telling the truth. But from a spiritual point of view, there is ample reason to weep if a person begins in the dust and never tries to raise himself or herself out of it and reach for the heavens.
It’s religiosity when one’s inner being is shaken, moved and directed upwards. It’s religiosity when we ask the ultimate questions and search for the answers. It’s religiosity when we put the moment into words and find ourselves praying.
Look into the face of your child; nothing moves you so profoundly. Contemplate your parents and wonder what gave them the strength to support you and give you standards. Think of your grandparents and the struggle and sacrifice that life required of them. Spare a thought for love, friendship, being together and working together.
That’s religiosity too.
Leaf through the prayer book and see what the key words are – love, truth, justice, peace, compassion and beauty. Isn’t that religiosity? In my long career as a pulpit rabbi in Britain and Australia, I regularly entreated my High Holy Days congregation to “switch off” from the service (though very few realized I was perfectly serious). Let the hazzan go on with his davening, I used to say, but as for you, well, let the service go on without you. Don’t look at your neighbor and start a conversation; no – look inward at your own heart and soul and think about who you are, what you are, where you are, where you’re going.
On the bus, my cellphone goes off. Usually it’s one of my children. Their first question is, “Where are you?” Though they want to know why I’m not at home and where I’m off to, I feel tempted to be philosophical and imagine that it’s God calling with the question He addressed to Adam – “Ayecha?” Where are you? I feel like summing up how I view my life, but I know that’s not what my daughter wants to know, and that kind of soliloquy is probably not appropriate on a bus anyway. In the synagogue it certainly is appropriate, and that’s sometimes more important than davening a certain number of pages in a certain number of minutes, like an Eastern prayer wheel.
What’s religiosity? Not just ritual but symbols, melody and mood. Not just davening, but loving people (even those who seem unlovable) and upholding their dignity.
Not just reading a prayer book, but telling the truth even when it costs you. Grappling with ideas and ideals, broad issues and narrow ones. Pride in the past, faith in the future. Feeling, thinking, hoping, courage.
Sorry, my friend, I simply don’t know what you mean when you tell me you’re not religious. I suspect you really are religious after all. I apologize if this gives you a shock, because you’ll have to face your family when they accuse you of having caught religion. But on the other hand, according to my definition they’ll discover they’re religious too.
Last attempt – you tell me you hear what I am saying, but you don’t really believe in God. Classical Judaism had a lot to say about God, but it didn’t seem to need to argue out or prove His existence. God was the great axiom of the Bible and rabbinic literature. It was unthinkable that He should not exist. True, the Torah said, “They believed in God and in Moses His servant” (Exodus 14:31). The Targum Onkelos expands the verse to read, “They believed in the word of the Lord and in the prophecy of Moses, His servant.” Others examined the verb vaya’aminu (they believed) and pointed out that it was not talking of belief in the later, Christian sense, but of affirmation, deriving from the word amen. The reality of God’s existence was so evident that it was a given.
Alternatively, vaya’aminu indicated, “They trusted in the Lord.” He made promises and could be trusted to fulfill them, even though human beings did not and could not comprehend His timetable or methods of operation.
You don’t believe in God? Judaism would counter-reason: how can you not believe in God? You don’t believe in God? Tell me what God it is you don’t believe in and the odds are that I don’t believe in that God either. That’s one of the debates that were part of the early part of my career when I was religious director of the Association for Jewish Youth in Britain. Recalling those days, let me quote another piece of advice I used to give my congregants: do what the Bible says, “Seek the Lord where He may be found” (Isaiah 55:6) – come to the synagogue because that’s one of the best places to seek God’s presence and build a relationship with Him.
Do you really need the synagogue for that to happen? Ecology and the Jewish Spirit, edited by Ellen Bernstein, says, “When you ask someone where they have experienced the presence of God, they invariably say on a mountain top or by water, rarely in a modern synagogue.” Mountain tops and by water are certainly places to encounter the Divine presence, as are forests and even city streets... but don’t minimize the possibilities of the synagogue.
The author served as the senior rabbi of the Great Synagogue of Sydney between 1972 and 2005.