What is the most important institution in Jewish life?
Judaism has existed for 3,800 years, and over the centuries we’ve had a variety of organizations that have effectively served God and the Jewish people. Each has played an important role in the continual evolution of our religion and our identity. But there is no doubt that the single most important institution in Jewish history is the synagogue.
We began as desert nomads, wandering a wilderness far more barren than the Sonoran Desert, tribes coalescing around charismatic patriarchs and matriarchs. We followed a great, innovative leader, Moses, and formed into a people focused on a Tabernacle and its priesthood. We came into our own Promised Land, followed judges and set up courts of justice, appointed war leaders in times of crisis, and eventually become a monarchy with kings joining priests in leadership. We built a great ritual Temple for the priests and the kings. Prophets arose and steered us towards righteousness and belief. Scribes and scholars created the legal and ethical basis for a new, portable Judaism.
The literary legacy of Judaism in Bible and Talmud was preserved permanently. But an odd little general-purpose entity was created over the late stages of antiquity, beginning about 2,300 years ago: the synagogue, a place of assembly, study, prayer, and communal life. The synagogue — or temple, or shul, or congregation — was the institution that had both the integrity and the flexibility to provide essential services for the Jewish people while changing and evolving with the times. The great Temple was a grander building with a highly celebrated priesthood, the king had more power and influence, the prophet spoke with God’s own voice, the Sanhedrin was the judicial authority — yet all disappeared, while the humble synagogue remained the center of Jewish life.
In every era, new Jewish institutions arose. Some seemed destined to be greater than the synagogue. Communal leadership organizations, fundraising groups, Jewish community centers, Jewish political organizations, social groups, bustling yeshivot and other schools arose and grew. All served important roles in the Jewish world. Yet each, after periods of centrality or even predominance, receded. Even those that became permanent parts of the Jewish world changed so dramatically that they were unrecognizable.
But in every era, and for each new generation, the essential role of the synagogue remained. Jews, in order to remain Jews, must have a place for prayer, spirituality, Jewish learning, life-cycle celebrations, memorials, festival observances, social justice, and true community. Jews, in order to continue Judaism through each new generation, need a temple to cultivate and model values, meaning, and holiness. Jews, in order to bring new entrants into our people, need a congregation that teaches, prays, celebrates, welcomes, and remembers.
It is the synagogue — in every generation, it is always the synagogue, for more than 23 centuries and counting — that has proven to be our most important, living link to God and to each other.
For reasons that are understandable but wrong, contemporary Jews are always looking for replacements for the synagogue: I don’t need to send my kid to a synagogue religious school for bar mitzvah training, I can just find a rabbi online; I don’t have to come to services, I can pray on my own, or not pray or have any spirituality; I can send money to support Israel and feel I have done my part for Jewish continuity; I have Jewish values, or cultural preferences, I eat bagels and lox, and that’s enough. It is not.
Inevitably, the only place where Judaism is really preserved, taught, grown, and revitalized is the temple. The synagogue is the heart of our Jewish communal life.
So if you are Jewish, go visit a temple for Shabbat this week. Come for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur — our Be Our Guest program at Temple Emanu-El requires no financial commitment. Take a Taste of Judaism class, or come for Torah study. Experience the many incredible offerings of a congregation, kehillah, shul, or temple. Call and make arrangements to come in and see what your local synagogue has to offer. You will be pleasantly surprised, and gratified. And it will make a very positive difference in your life.
May you, and your family, be blessed with a L’shana Tova u’Metukah, a good and sweet New Year 5777.
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El and host of “The Too Jewish Radio Show with Rabbi Sam Cohon and Friends.”