The Temple & the Future of Judaism
An hour before sunrise Shabbat morning Eli woke up with a mixture of nervousness and excitement about the upcoming day. Tip-toeing across the house to avoid waking his young children, he grabbed his towel and headed straight to the Mikvah down the street.
While this was a day he had repeated every week for the last seven years, today was fundamentally different. Turning 20 only a few days back, Eli was suddenly eligible to participate in the weekly Shabbat sacrificial service; a rite that his family had enjoyed from time immemorial.
The crowd of a couple hundred was small but relatively average for a Saturday morning in the year 154 BCE - nothing like the good old days. Eli, however, had never known anything else. Occasionally the older priests would delve into stories about crowds of tens of thousands of people who would gather each week in those halcyon times when the Jerusalem temple was truly the cornerstone of Jewish life. Given the current reality, Eli and his friends simply found this hard to imagine. There was just no way that this Temple was ever truly the center of Jewish life.
Even centuries before Jerusalem was sacked by the Roman Empire the prominence of a centralized Temple was quickly becoming obsolete. With the advent of the early synagogues (the oldest ones date back to 3rd century BCE, but historians estimate they are much older), Jewish life began to revolve around the neighborhood synagogue, which created small tight-knit communities in whichever location Jews found themselves throughout history.
There were, of course, a number of advantages that the synagogue held over its Jerusalem Temple predecessor. For one, people didn’t need to travel for days, enduring difficult trips across the country to reach their spiritual home. Second, communal synagogues fit in much better with the dominant Greek culture at a time when every locale hosted their own amphitheater and bathhouse. In fact, it is partially for this reason that many scholars posit that the synagogues’ origin can be traced to Greek influence. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, having communal synagogues allowed Judaism to continue, barely skipping a beat, after the destruction of the second Temple. For already at that time, the Temple was seen as an archaic relic of the past, dominated by an upper class that was out of touch with reality.
While the move from Temple to synagogue was a slow one, spread throughout many generations, today even the most devout Jew cannot really imagine a centralized Temple being the true center of Jewish life.
Roughly 2000 years later it seems like we are going through a parallel process in the Jewish world. Study after study tells us that synagogue membership and attendance is at an all-time low, and, as much as Jewish leaders attempt to fight this phenomenon, it seems unlikely to stop anytime soon. Even personally, as committed as I am to Jewish life, history, and people, there are a number of mediums through which I would rather express and practice my Judaism than a synagogue. And I would bet that I am not alone in feeling that sentiment.
In the early 20th century, a young rabbi with the name Mordecai Kaplan began to notice this same trend. Young American Jews, Kaplan argued, are just not interested in the religious and dogmatic ideas ubiquitous within the synagogue, but that doesn’t mean they should lose touch with the communal, cultural, and historical aspects of Judaism.
To mitigate this problem Kaplan came up with an idea that he called “Shul with a pool”. Rather than have a Shul, or synagogue, be the center of Jewish (religious) life - we should open up Jewish cultural or social centers that relax the theological rigidness of their synagogue counterparts. Following this idea, Kaplan was instrumental in the proliferation of Jewish Community Centers, American Jewish youth groups, and summer camps.
Kaplan’s idea worked out a bit too well, with hundreds of different Jewish organizations popping up in the past century, offering an array of different types of social and educational programming. The only problem for synagogues was that suddenly, for the first time in Jewish history, they had serious competition for Jewish attention. With this sudden competition for Jewish membership, many Jews opted for the more social, fun, educational, or informal experiences that an ordinary synagogue often lacks. And the problem for synagogues will only get worse.
Now I want to make it very clear that I am not making a normative statement here. By that I mean that I am not commenting on whether or not this sociological change is positive, but that it is happening, and we should therefore plan accordingly. Furthermore, while this process will (and has) hit the non-Orthodox denominations the hardest, I can’t imagine that Orthodox Judaism will be impermeable to the phenomenon.
We need to start thinking about non-synagogue Jewish organizations being more than a supplement to synagogues, and more the future of Jewish communal life. What exactly that will look like is anyone’s guess, but, just like the Jerusalem Temple, there will soon arise a day when future Jews will not be able to imagine that the synagogue was once the center of Jewish life.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
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I live in the US southwest, where there are not a lot of Jews. I was raised in a place where it was the total opposite, and there were synagogues within walking distance. What are some suggestions for developing a closer relationship with G-d in my circumstances? In my opinion, everyone needs to work on their relationship with G-d. What does Judaism tell us about this?
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