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The Synagogue as a Therapeutic Community

The real questions, the hard questions of life, the questions of ultimacy are not questions about who or where or what or when but questions of what for, questions of purpose. That is true not only of individuals but it is also true of institutions like synagogues. The question is not how do you make a menorah; the question is not what is prayer; the question is not where is a mitzvah to be performed? The question is what do you need it for? What's a temple for? What's a menorah for? What is study for? What's a building for?

Very early in the prophetic, rabbinic and philosophical tradition of our people, there was a struggle with the anomaly of building. Very early when God says to the people, "Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell amidst them,” the question is, “what for?” Very early in the tradition, when Solomon the wise was asked to build a house for God he said, "Will God indeed dwell on earth? Behold the heavens and the earth cannot contain Thee. How much less this house that I have built?”

And that question persists in the prophetic tradition. The book of Isaiah says it, "The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is the house you have built for Me? Where is the place of My rest?” God says, "I don't need your sacrifices and I don't need your prayers and I don't need your light and I don't need the burnt offering of the rams and I don't need the fat of the fed beasts. Do I depend upon your animal sacrifices for My meals, for My life? Do I need your menoroth, your candles for My light? I have no need neither of eating nor of drinking. I have no need of light for the sun and the moon give light to the whole world and I created them.”

Why then the vestments, the oil, the sanctuary, the ark and everything else?

One of the great philosophers is a man by the name of Adar Banal, who lived in the fifteenth century. He explained it in a very interesting fashion. He said the sanctuary and the synagogue is needed to combat the idea that God is in the heavens. You have heard it said that God is a transcendent being, but I want you to understand that God dwells on earth and He is concerned with history. This is the Jewish focus on the theology of imminence. Not the imminence of incarnation in which God invests Himself in the body of a person, but the imminence in which God invests Himself in persons in community. The means that I will dwell with you. And with that preposition is the critical preposition in the Bible because out of this word "in” which means with is derived the noun "am” which means people.

Why do I need this? Hosea says, "I need to live in your midst because I want certain things of You.” Says Hosea, "For I desire mercy and not sacrifice. I desire knowledge of God. I do not desire burnt offerings. What do I look for? “What am I looking for?” says God, "I am not looking for your alabaster or your marble or your gold or your silver.” Isaiah says, "What do I, God, seek? What do I look for? I look on the poor and I look on those who are broken of spirit.” And we, you and I, are the inheritors of the prophets and the synagogue is the successor of the temple. You should know that the purpose of the sanctuary is not for God. God does not need our praise, and God does not need our supplication. The synagogue is not the house of God. If the synagogue was the house of God you would call it the House of God. You would call it Beth Elohim, but no Jew goes around saying, "this is the house of God.” This is called Beth HaKnesset, which means “the house for the assembly of the people.” The synagogue is called many things. It's called "shul” because it is a school for adults. It is not called God's house. Even the word synagogue, which is not a Hebrew word but a Greek word, comes from the root which means synagaen, which means to bring together. That is the function of the synagogue, to bring all of us together.

Why is it important that we are brought together? Why is it important that we pray together? Because when you pray together, you don't pray the same way as when you pray by yourself. When you come together you think differently and you feel differently. The reason why it is important to pray together to have a minyan is that the function of prayer is to liberate us from the conceits of narcissism, from selfishness which is destructive of the world and of the self. It is the interesting thing in the Gemarrah that I quoted before. It says, “What happens if there is no synagogue where you live and you want to pray? When should you pray? And the answer is significant. You pray at the same time that the people in the nearest synagogue pray because if there cannot be a synchronization of space, let there at least be a synchronization of time."

In Judaism, the synagogue is meant to be a place for meeting and Buber correctly said, "All real life is meeting.” It is found in a hundred different ways, this notion of meeting. You remember of the story of Levine, who was an atheist. He did not believe in God or the synagogue. He has a friend by the name of Schwartz. Schwartz was a believer and he would go to shul. Very often, Levine would go to shul. And they would make fun of Levine and say, "Levine, you don't believe in God. What are you doing here?” And Levine said, "Look, Schwartz, my friend, believes in God and he talks to God. I come to the synagogue to talk to Schwartz.” A very interesting point. I think that Levine is not right and yet there is something of truth. I want Levine in this congregation because I want Levine to come to shul and I want him to see Schwartz. If he sees Schwartz, he already has begun a process of prayer because Schwartz may say to him, "My God I feel terrible. I am so sad, I am so hurt, I am so lonely.” That is the beginning of opening Levine to God. You cannot pray in front of a mirror. That is a ritual liturgical law. The synagogue should have not mirrors, the synagogue should have windows. It has to have a window so that you can look out and see what the world is really like.

Why do you want to pray and why do you need a synagogue? Because the synagogue is to open up your eyes to the world. Synagogue is to make you feel.

In all of the discussions on the definition of what it is to be a Jew, whether it is matrilineal or patrilineal, I think the wisest and most important definition that came out was the one in which someone gave an existential definition of a Jew. A Jew is defined by what hurts him. And I would add to that that a Jewish institution is defined by what it does to alleviate the hurt. It is in this sense that I call the synagogue a “therapeutic community.” Every great synagogue is a therapeutic community. And if you ask me what kind of a synagogue is it and you give me an answer like it is Orthodox or Chabad or Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist, that's not the existential definition that I am looking for. I am looking for a definition which points to the way in which the synagogue extends itself to its fellow human beings and its fellow Jews.

Therapeutic is a good word. In Greek it means to support, to sustain and to serve. That is what we are here for as a synagogue. One of the important dimensions, not the only one but most assuredly an indispensable one, we are supposed to be concerned with God's children. And who are God's children? God's children are the fatherless and the motherless and the orphaned and the alienated, the stranger in our midst and the lonely and the homeless and the hungry. You have to point to something to define the synagogue. Don't tell me that this is a synagogue and that is Conservative. That doesn't tell me much - not enough. Whether you have an orphan or don't have an orphan, whether or not you have a mechitza or you don't have a mechitza doesn't tell me anything. You want to find out what a synagogue is, I tell you what you do: Listen to the announcements by the president. Don't listen to the sermon of the Rabbi, it's not enough. Don't listen to the rhetoric of ideology. Listen to what is being done by a congregation. Open up your literature.

I know that you complain about the fact that you get a lot of literature from the shul. Well it's too bad, but you've got to be literate to be a member of Valley Beth Shalom. You've got to be able to read because if you listen and see what is being written, you will see what this synagogue is. You'll understand it's theology, you'll understand its metaphysics, you'll understand its teleology - what its purpose is. For example, I mention just a few things but it's something that you have got to go out and explain to yourselves, your families and to your friends. This synagogue can point to a counseling center that takes care of over 125 human beings every single week. That's Jewish life. That's religious life because people come to this synagogue and go to the counseling center and to the para-professional counselors who are comprised of members of our congregation who have worked and studied and who give countless amounts of time and energy and heart and a sustained ear to help people who are in trouble. There is a developmentally disabled program which Steve Klatzker is in charge of. Since I mentioned the counseling center, I am delighted that Marcia Halperin is here, who is the incumbent president of a counseling center, and I trust you will have a chance to meet with her. We have a developmentally disabled program which should give you a tremendous sense of Jewish pride. This is a program which is housed in our congregation of young people and older people who suffer from all kinds of illnesses who are not quick and are not coordinated, who are slow and suffer sometimes from Downs Syndrome. But you have got to come to the Bar Mitzvah and to the Bat Mitzvah of these developmentally disabled youngsters and to see the triumph of the Jewish spirit.

In this congregation you can point to a thing called H.O.P.E. and I hope all of you know about it. It's an acronym for hospice, oncology, palliative in education, and here, every single week, there are dozens upon dozens of human beings who have members of their family who are terminally ill and who come to receive support, advice and counsel from oncologists, nurses, aides and from people who suffer from these illnesses. This congregation has a blood bank, which is now led by Gwen Gertz. That means that when people in our congregation are in trouble and they need blood, they know that there are people who care and who have concern and have given blood for their recuperation. That's therapy.

There is a food bank in this congregation. You should know about it. It is run by Claire Schall. It is filled with cans and packages of food which are then distributed to people who are hungry. There are lots of people who are hungry right here in the midst of this valley.

We started here G.A., a “Gambler's Anonymous” program. It is for people who are in trouble, people who said to me, "The only place I can find any kind of sucker would be in some basement of some church.” They meet here and they are helped and help themselves.

We have opened a program under the inspired leadership of Toni Shy called Bikkur Cholim which is to visit the sick people. That is a blessing.

We have a havurah program whose function it is to unite people who are estranged from each other to break down the walls of privatism. Our havurah leaders have done a remarkable job.

We have an outreach program for the intermarried and for the Jews by choice. This evening there will be a table where the Outreach Coordinator can tell you about this program. There are many other things because the synagogue is a real world and it requires all kinds of help: fiscal responsibility, financial responsibility, ways and means, membership retention, a variety of things.

I have deleted other things because I want to leave this particular part to another evening. On Friday, December 14, we will be talking about the needs of singles, of the divorced, and the widowed. A new conception of family has emerged. I hope you will be able to come and join us at that particular time.

I want to conclude by telling you that there are a lot of people who think we are wrong. I know that there are colleagues of mine who think we are wrong. They say this is all secular world work. This all has to do with health, mental hygiene, therapeutic things. What does that have to do with real Judaism? That's not a new question, it's an old question. It wasn't discovered just in our time. If you look at the Gemarrah Shabbat, there is a wonderful discussion which begins like so: Rabhuna asks his son, "How come you don't attend the lectures of Rabbi Hisda?” And the son says, "Rabbi Hisda talks about hygiene, he talks about worldly things, he talks about health and I don't want to go to him. I don't want to hear. I want to hear somebody whose going to talk to me about Shabbat.” And Rabhuna who is one of the great Rabbis of the Talmudic period says, "You call that secular? You call that worldly? All the more reason for going. You cannot separate the street from the sanctuary.”

Judaism understands the sanctity of the secular. This is from Midrash: “He who says, ‘Torah is one thing and the affairs of the world are another thing,’ is as if he has denied God.” What is the purpose of the synagogue? Is it to study Torah and only Torah? Then read the Talmud. He who studies Torah exclusively and is only concerned with the study of Torah, only concerned with prayer, is considered as if he has no God. That's atheism. Atheism is that practice in which you neglect God's imminence, the world in which God lives and you concentrate upon study or prayer.

The function of the synagogue is to make God beloved. You know that prayer that we recited today? You shall love the Lord your God. "Well", say the Rabbis, "don't read it that way. Make God beloved, make God loved.” How do you make people love God? If you yourself act in a fashion that brings dignity to God. This is what Sheila Alperstein and Rhoda Barnhart and Bob Mirisch are involved in doing. It's much more than volunteerism. It is love. It is the love of a live vibrant community.

What does it mean to love the Lord thy God? Said Rabbi Bunham, "I have never understood what it means to love.” And so he did what all good Hassidic Rabbis did. He went into the streets to find the definition. In fact, he went into an inn and he saw two Polish peasants at the bar drinking themselves into stupor and intoxication. He listened to the conversation. One said to the other, "Hey, do you love me? Do you really love me"? And the other said, "Of course I love you.” Then he said, "Well if you love me, tell me where it hurts me.” And the other person said, "I don't know where it hurts you.” And he said, "Then you don't love me.” And Rabbi Bunham came and told his Hassidim that is the definition of love when you know what hurts the other human being and you do something about it.

That's what this synagogue is about and that's what this program is. Not volunteers, not doing people a favor. It is essentially a deeply Jewish and religious concern to teach the community to love. And I ask of you, all of you, and those of you who are not here well go and talk to them. I can't talk to them obviously. What do you talk about to your friends? What do you say to them, "How are you?” Why don't you say to them, "Look, I was in the synagogue and the synagogue is open to programs and you have some time and I have some time. Let's live Jewishly. Let's help other people.” This is a place that is concerned them. If you go into the other room at the end of the service you will see that. You will be able to volunteer. Everybody contributes. The choir contributes tremendously to the joy and exhilaration of the synagogue. And I hope, Ami that you'll be sitting out there, because it is important that people join the choir. A congregation of this size and prestige should have five times the number of choir members. I know that you look good when you sing and you're all healthy when you sing.

I want to ask all of you to take this seriously because it is one of the ways in which you will find meaning in your life. 

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Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784