There is an old joke about Jake, the socialist freethinker who rails against religion and the rabbinic establishment, but who is caught by his nephew attending Shabbat services. "Why," his nephew asks, "would you possibly be caught dead in that place after all the bad things you have told me about religion?" Jake explains to his nephew that his good friend Moshe the butcher, works hard all week long so they seldom have a chance to visit. Moshe is a very religious man and never misses a chance to go to shul to talk with God. "I go to shul," Jake explains, "to talk with Moshe."
There are lots of reasons why people attend shul; some more compelling than others. Not surprisingly the Talmud discusses communal prayer, going to the synagogue, early on; after all, there is no shul in the TaNAKH. Nowhere in Torah does one find a direct command to pray three times a day, or in a collective manner; the focus is entirely on the korbanot, the offerings brought to the Temple. The sages found allusions to the daily prayers in the actions of the patriarchs, but, honestly, they are forced readings -- clever, but not convincing.
While it might seem too stereotypic for a pulpit rabbi to discuss why one should go to shul, the comments offered in the Talmud lead to some surprising insights that make the discussion worth considering, even given the source.
In tractate Berachot, Blessings, one finds a rich collection of teachings about the value and the rationale for communal prayer. The most surprising to me is found at Berachot 8a:
Says the Holy Blessing One, Whoever busies themselves with Torah, acts of kindness, and prays with the community, I will consider it as if he redeemed Me and My children from among the nations of the world.
Over many years I have heard lots of reasons for attending services, and many more explanations of why people stay away. Jews, it seems, are very eager to tell rabbis of their complaints about synagogues and the multiple ways they may not meet their current needs. I do not ever recall, however, being told that I needed to go to shul to help redeem God. No one ever came up to me after services to ask, “Rabbi, do you think we really helped God get by today?” Yet this teaching suggests that we need to attend communal prayer for God’s sake more than for our own.
It seems so incongruous. We are frail and in need of support. God, we are taught, is all-powerful. We can be easily confused, not knowing which way to turn; while God is all-knowing. We need help to know how to get by, God wrote the owner’s manual. Unless, of course, we don’t fully understand who God is. Perhaps our partnership with God is more involved than we think.
Rabbi Bradley Shavitt Artson is teaching about Process Theology these days; you can find his series of podcasts on the topic at (http://web.me.com/aaaron12/Aaron_Alexander/Process_Theology_/Process_Theology_.html) In one of his talks Artson suggests that God, who is invisible and without a body, is actually embodied in us -- we are God’s hands and feet, so to speak. Our actions can carry forward God’s actions in the world, even to the point of redemption. There it is; our actions redeem God and the world.
Look back at the short list included in our teaching and consider those particular actions through this lens. If we are God’s hands and feet in this world, then we need to learn something of God’s intentions by occupying ourselves with Torah. We certainly enact God’s kindness when we extend that kindness to others through acts of Gimelut Hasadim, acts which move us toward brotherhood and peace according to Rashi’s definition on this same page. And finally prayer. Perhaps it is that daily or weekly moment wherein we present ourselves for a regular check-in, reporting to ourselves and to the Holy Blessing One on our progress toward our common redemption.
I don’t yet know if this new understanding will change the way I enter the synagogue or stand for prayer. But perhaps Moshe and Jake were both right. We need to be in shul for ourselves and for God.
(c) 2009 by Rabbi Louis Rieser