Moving Beyond Stones and Concrete to Worship of the Heart

by Beni Wajnberg

A story in Avot de’Rabbi Natan, a midrashic text, illustrates perhaps one of the most important events that determined the future of Judaism following the destruction of the Temple. In it, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is walking together with Rabbi Yehoshua. When they pass the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem, Yehoshua exclaims, “Oy to us, whose Temple is destroyed, where our sins were atoned through sacrifices!” Yochanan Ben Zakkai answers, “Don’t worry my son, because we have another way of atoning for our misdeeds: gemilut chassadim (acts of loving-kindness).”

With the loss of the Temple, would the connection between God and humans be gone forever? To ensure that this tragic event did not signal the end of the Jewish spiritual quest, the rabbis got creative, developing the concept of avodah shebalev (worship of the heart) – prayers. According to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, acts of loving-kindness are yet another way to substitute for the sacrifices and the role of the Temple.

Such thinking exemplifies a change in perspective. The Temple was programmatic, offering local services that could not be offered anywhere else. In its absence, the personal search for meaning became central. In their wisdom, the rabbis created rituals, including prayer services, to resemble Temple worship. Instead of merely bringing animals to sacrifice, worshippers became responsible for actively performing rituals and, therefore, had to feel personally compelled to do so. Worship morphed into being about people, not “programs” implemented by clergy; self-awareness, responsibility, and relationship-building, then, became additional ways to worship God.

The same is true today. In our modern communities – just as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Yehoshua, and all of the sages of their generation did in their day – we, too, ponder how to bring people to synagogue programming and keep our institutions running. We ask endless questions about how to get worshipers through our doors: How can we get twenty- and thirty-something Jews engaged in our congregations? How many happy hours do we need to offer? What does it take to ensure a strong Jewish identity in our children? How much Jewish summer camping is the right amount?

But wait! If the future of our communities depends on people, not on programs, then we are asking the wrong questions.

How different things might be if, instead of asking “how?” and “what?,” we instead focused on building relationships and asking “Why?” In such a scenario, we wouldn’t evaluate success based on how many congregants attend our programs. Instead, we’d judge our success by how deeply we engage with and relate to those whom we meet and serve, working to establish genuine, meaningful partnerships with them.

I believe that programs and buildings play an important role in any community, but we would be well-served to restructure the way we envision these spaces. Rather than creating programs in the hopes that we will establish some relationships along the way, we must begin by developing and nurturing meaningful and deep relationships.

The only way we can protect our institutions and ensure they remain relevant is to engage with others, building strong relationships and fostering sacred partnerships so that each of our temple buildings becomes a true beit ha’knesset (a house of assembly). Only when people come to us because of their connections with others – and stay for the programs – will we have succeeded in our task. Indeed, only through our actions and our relationships will our communities flourish and grow, and only in this way will we be able to engage with the Torah of Rabbi Yohanan be Zakkai – continually reinventing Judaism.

Beni Wajnberg is a fifth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he has served congregations in CA, MT, OH, TN, and Argentina as a student rabbi. Beni enjoys cooking with his wife, Miriam, painting, and watching waves break in the ocean.

Photo by Flickr user @anuntrainedeye/CC.

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