Orthodox: Imbue Ritual With Spirituality

By Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

Published March 14, 2003, issue of March 14, 2003.
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There is hardly an Orthodox Jewish community of any size in this country that does not have a day school, a Jewish high school and often a kollel of advanced scholars who are teaching and doing outreach in the community. The study of traditional texts is more widespread in American Orthodox Jewish communities today than ever before, and arguably than ever before in Jewish history anywhere in the world. Most importantly, mitzvot are being observed with a meticulousness that can’t help but leave all of us impressed.

Nevertheless, in visits to more than 30 communities around the country during the last year I have found a sense of dissatisfaction among the observant. It often takes the form of, “Rabbi, I think I’ve been doing everything right, but I’m just not getting a sense of meaning in what I am doing.”

These expressions of frustration reflect a deeper search for meaning and purpose, a search, as often expressed these days, for spirituality. Many Orthodox Jews respect the moral and ritual obligations of a life lived in accordance with the Torah, but are at a loss as to how to comprehend the larger values expressed by their faith, let alone its overarching visions.

What they are missing, they say, is a sense of the emotional power that should ideally accompany observance of rabbinic law. They feel arid and numb.

In order to put emotional satisfaction back into our faith — to emphasize neshama as well as Halacha — we need to start thinking of the resources in the Jewish community through which values can be rediscovered and reinvigorated. Which of our institutions can generate the spirituality, if that is the proper word, that is being sought so widely and so urgently?

Our search for spirituality-generating institutions, I believe, must begin with a candid acknowledgement of the limitations of the Jewish educational system. I recall a provocative essay written long ago by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, titled “The Partnership Between the School and the Home.” He makes the clear case for limiting schooling to the formal aspects of Jewish education, arguing that things such as character development and moral training are the province of the home.

While I take issue with Hirsch’s extreme separation of responsibilities, I do believe that the school has excelled and can continue to take upon itself training in the understanding of the ritual obligations of rabbinic law. But I feel strongly that the values and visions, and the components of feeling and spirit, are the province of the family and the home. It is around the Shabbat table, and not in the classroom, that the idea of what it means to be a mentsh should be cultivated.

Many Orthodox Jews have reasonably argued that the home and family are no longer equipped to do what they have historically done. Parents are busy, often less educated than their growing children, and there is generally a resistance by our children — whether for better or for worse — to accept the authority of parents.

Given the limitations of the Jewish educational system and the home, the role of the synagogue must begin to assume a more prominent role in communal life. Simply put, the synagogue can no longer be just a place of prayer and Torah study.

The synagogue must become a place where all Jews, young and old, observant and nonobservant, feel comfortable. It must be “home.” It must be the place where Jews can feel accepted, even when they fail at school or in the outside world. The synagogue must be, as it was for ages, a sanctuary.

The Orthodox Union, as a coordinating organization for Orthodox synagogues across the spectrum, must broaden the programs it offers to synagogues to allow them to assist the Jewish family in doing its traditional tasks. Synagogues must be assisted in developing programs that can help parents deal with their children’s needs, and accomplish the development of character, the appreciation of Jewish values and the sense of joy and inspiration that comes with religious observance.

William James wrote a century ago in “The Varieties of Religious Experience” that “for religion, the service of the highest is never felt as a yoke. Dull submission is left far behind, and a mood of welcome, which may fill any place on the scale between serenity and enthusiastic gladness, has taken its place.”

Lest living life in accordance with the Torah be felt as a yoke, rabbis and congregants alike must confront the growing spirituality crisis in our community by emphasizing the synagogue’s role as home and sanctuary in Modern Orthodox life.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the nation’s largest association of Orthodox congregations.

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