Sermon Parshat Pinchas 5779
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
July 25, 2019
The latest Pew Research Center Survey on religion in America came out last week, and it again shows that Judaism was ranked as the religion Americans liked the most. This has now become an ongoing theme, and our surprise at this should be diminishing after years of such reports. Still, we Jews spend a lot of time worrying about Anti-Semitism in America, and we have reason to be concerned after the two fatal synagogue attacks in the past year. Yet every survey that comes out shows that Americans, on balance, like Jews better than they like any other religious group, including Christians. Amazing.
Still, while the Pew Study shows that Americans like Jews and Judaism, that doesn't mean they know anything about us or it. Fully 7 out of 10 Americans don’t know that Shabbat begins on Friday night. Less than 25% of Americans know that Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. And about one in ten Americans knows that Maimonides was Jewish. 80% of Americans think there are far more Jews in America than there actually are—we represent less than 5% of the US population, but our fellow Americans think we are much more populous than that.
In other words, Americans generally have a very favorable view of Judaism and Jews, they just don’t know anything about it or us. They obviously haven’t been listening to the Too Jewish Radio Show often enough…
The questions on this new Pew survey should be pretty easy to answer if you know anything about religion: is Mecca the holiest place on earth for Muslims, what does Easter celebrate in Christianity, what religion is associated with Kabbalah, and so on. People who know the most about religion tend to have the most favorable impression of religious groups, including Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus. Interestingly, Atheists, Jews and Evangelical Christians scored the highest on knowledge of religion. And the more you know about religion, the more tolerant you are likely to be, with some exceptions.
Still, there were 32 pretty easy multiple-choice questions on this survey, and most people couldn’t correctly answer half of them. Not surprisingly, young people know the least about religion, including basic facts. In fact, young adults, millennials and generation Z, answered most of the questions incorrectly, including basic Biblical facts. Which brings up a problem.
Contemporary Judaism faces a great challenge in finding religious motivation for its people, that is, making prayer and communal observances—you know, Shabbat services—into something that draws people in and motivates them. The truth is that while the Chasidic Orthodoxy of Chabad has continued to grow and extend its tentacles—er, influence—into many new areas of Jewish identity, the mainstream Jewish movements, Reform, Conservative and even Reconstructionist Judaism, haven’t really been able to retain the regular participation and commitment of their own members in recent years. This trend has been going on for decades and in spite of the religious innovations introduced in recent years, that trend hasn’t changed.
The same kind of problem exists for mainstream Protestant denominations in America, by the way, and for English-speaking Catholic churches, too; they have experienced a national decline. In fact, while Americans remain the most religious of all modern nations, the only groups that have experienced substantial growth in attendance and involvement are Muslims and Hindus, but they are increasing from a relatively small base. Evangelical Christian membership, identification and involvement has been more or less stable over the past decade or so.
For us Jews, the challenge has been the erosion of what was once a steady commitment to attend and participate in Shabbat observance in the synagogue. For Reform Jews, this was typically Friday night, while for Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews this was Saturday morning. Those main services retain some of their appeal, of course, but the notion that people will come to services every week has largely disappeared among younger generations. That means that instead of a more-or-less expected Shabbat congregation that shows up regularly, each week becomes a kind of unique experience of a few regulars with whoever you happened to attract through special events, prominent guest speakers or music. Synagogues today on Friday and Saturday are essentially competing with other forms of potential entertainment or activity. And mostly they are not winning.
And the problem is particularly acute among young adult Jews. It’s not that they necessarily have any bias against services—although of course some do. It is that they have other things to do that are more interesting or exciting or enticing, and there is no developed habit of attending Shabbat services to compel them to come, especially if the service isn’t interesting.
Which means that all of us who care and are active in the world of Jewish ritual creation—that is rabbis, cantors and synagogue leaders—end up being engaged in a process of trying to create experiences that keep the buzz going and bring people in the door.
That’s why music has become so varied and, sometimes, high quality in successful synagogues in recent years and even decades. That’s why temples try to bring people in with special events and speakers, or try to make their sanctuaries into multiplexes, or into camp experiences, or add collective dance and other attractions. And all of that has some impact; I have been part of that process for over twenty years. It’s always worthwhile to try to do things well, and to innovate in positive, authentic ways.
But the truth is that what actually grows congregations and adds meaning and purpose and beauty to people’s lives is not the latest speaker on Jewish subjects or the coolest melody or arrangement or musician, although these are nice and can be very helpful and inspiring. What draws people to attend initially is the quality of the service itself, the beauty and appropriateness of the setting and the relationship with the clergy. A good cantor with a nice voice and an intelligent, sensitive rabbi who prepares and connects with his or her congregation, these matter very much when people first attend.
But what transforms a synagogue into a successful congregation is the atmosphere of caring, community, and joy that is established, the way people find a place in a group that offers them belonging and meaning. And one more thing, perhaps most important: it is finding people there that they like, and who treat each other lovingly and well.
Of course, every congregation thinks it is creating community successfully. “We are a warm and welcoming community” is such a common text on every synagogue website that it has become a cliché. The truth is that most temple communities are not really either warm or welcoming, because most of the time people are pretty occupied with their own ego needs, either collectively or individually, more so than with the real purpose of their community of prayer, study, religious action and caring. What people often are saying, in actions or words or simply attitude, is “I am more important than you are,” or “I matter more here than you do,” or “Our congregation is great and I don’t want to admit we could do some things better,” or even, “My way is the only, proper way to do things and nothing else will work.” As Rabbi Eric Yoffie once said, “Change that light bulb? My grandmother donated that light bulb.”
But real congregations, committed people who respect and care about one another, are much better about seeing the good of the whole as the real goal. They understand that an atmosphere of joy, love, community, caring and consideration make a congregation that will flourish, grow and develop, and deepen human relationships in remarkable Jewish ways.
I’m not sure if the Pew Research Center can find a way to quantify these values, which are at the heart of successful congregations and religious communities. But I do know that when we provide these things in our synagogues, when we live together in these ways, we have no need to worry about the disturbing national trends, because we will—and do—bring people in with love and joy and real community.
And those things never go out of fashion. If I were asked what I felt most proud about in our young Congregation Beit Simcha it would be the incredible atmosphere we have created of participation, voluntarism, caring and respect. We are about as hands-on as you can get, of course, but we are also, at least almost all the time, respectful and caring. People are here because they want to be here, not because their parents were here or because it is a mark of social importance or because they have to be here. We are extraordinary because people give so much all the time, often before being asked, because people care and show it in pragmatic, tangible Jewish ways. We do, truly, serve God with joy, and we all want it to stay that way.
I thought a lot about these questions this past week, a week in which we read of the dramatic covenant of peace that is given to Pinchas. Actually, we might say it is forced upon him, since the one thing you can say about a zealot who runs people through with a spear is that peace is probably not much on his mind. But after ending the apostasy and the plague, after demonstrating righteous religious passion in the most basic way imaginable, Pinchas was commanded by God to become a priest, a person who could never again pick up an implement of war and must instead serve the spiritual needs of the people.
Perhaps the lesson is that after dramatic acts and changes, even after violent responses that cause damage, real peace must be established. And that peace is based on creating commitment, caring, respect, tolerance and love.
This is a great lesson for us as a congregation, a lesson we have so far internalized and made real in our own community and are committed to continuing. But perhaps it is also a great lesson for us to take with us into our own homes, as well, and into the world at large.
I pray that we will each of us continue to choose to create, each day, in each interaction, the love, energy, respect and joy that our synagogue was created to model. And then we, too, may be blessed with the Brit Shalom, the eternal covenant of peace.