Orthodox: Imbue Ritual With Spirituality

By Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

Published March 14, 2003, issue of March 14, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.