An old joke tells of a man who had no interest in being a member of a synagogue. He didn’t believe in God and had no desire to pray or practice Judaism. His business partner, on the other hand, was a devout Jew.
One Rosh Hashana, the atheist came rushing to the synagogue to talk to his partner about an urgent business matter that had suddenly come up. At the door, the usher asked for his ticket, but the man had none. “I just need to speak to my partner for a couple of minutes,” he said frantically. “Okay, I’ll let you in for five minutes,” said the usher. “But don’t let me catch you praying!”
Each one of us probably knows someone who seems to have no need for a synagogue. While synagogues remain the gateway through which most people enter the Jewish community, it remains a challenge to persuade people of the importance of lifelong affiliation with a synagogue. So it’s worth asking, and answering, the question of why we need synagogues.
Of course, we’re not the first to ask this question. The talmudic sages read the Book of Exodus, a full third of which is dedicated to a description of the building of the Mishkan, the portable synagogue built by the Israelites while trekking in the Sinai Desert, and wondered why it was necessary for our ancestors to build such a structure. They offer many answers, including this one: The Mishkan was built not because God needed it, but because the people had a need for a physical space in which to reach for the sacred.
To this day, synagogues play that important role in our lives. We need sacred spaces, places where we can discover holiness because what happens in those places ignites a spark within our soul. For some, no doubt, the great outdoors is a vast, natural sacred space. For others, a place specially created by our own hands for the purpose of seeking holiness is important to have.
The talmudic rabbis offered more reasons for the existence of synagogues. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, quoted in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 7b), says: “When is an acceptable time for prayer? When the congregation prays…. For God does not despise the prayers of the multitude.” In other words, the sages taught that while a Jew can certainly pray alone, we need to pray together in a synagogue, a natural gathering place for Jews.
Our sages believed that God listens to our prayers when we pray together as a congregation. Why? Because when we are in the presence of others we are reminded to pray for each other and for the welfare of others, not solely for our own needs.
So it is that a synagogue must be built with windows, not to let in light but to enable us to look out at the world around us and see the vast needs of the poor and destitute that must be met.
To extend Shimon bar Yochai’s teaching, we might say that synagogues serve the vital function of inspiring acts of gemilut hasadim, acts of loving-kindness. At their best, synagogues remind us to help our fellow human beings, to reach beyond the narrow confines of self-interest and find meaning in life by expressing concern for and helping others.
We need synagogues today, just as we have needed them for as long as we have been a people, for they bring us together as a community and charge us to help those who need our strength and our compassion and, in so doing, find God.
Rabbi Mark Cooper is religious leader of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange.