We Jews who live outside of Israel just went through a three-day Passover holiday. For many it felt like punishment for being Diaspora Jews. Three nonstop days of Synagogue. Man. It's supposed to feel like prayer. Not purgatory.
All too many Jews avoid going to Synagogue for fear it will leave them in a deep and irreversible coma. The time has come, therefore, to examine what can be done to reinvent it.
First, there are the sermons. Many of them are utterly predictable, the kind of stuff we've heard every single year until it's coming out of our ears. Others are utterly simplistic and constitute nothing more than stating the obvious. Still others are delivered in a deadening monotone making the Rabbi seem as bored with his own message as the congregants.
There should be a new rule in Synagogues. If the Rabbi feels he has nothing new or interesting to say, then he should not say it. A sermon should be like a newspaper editorial page. If the writer has nothing novel to add or if what he says is obvious, it's just not printed.
A sermon is not meant to be a time-filler. Want to teach your congregants but feel you have nothing deep share? No problem. Have a discussion instead. Read out an insightful author's take on the Parsha of the week and ask the congregants to react. But to put your congregants to sleep is to lose credibility. The next time you may have something really interesting to say but they'll shut their eyes and snore before you even begin.
And Rabbis should not be afraid to share their pulpits. Go ahead. Invite visitors to speak. Have scholars in residence. Your own standing will not be compromised if they give a better speech than you. On the contrary, your community will see you as a master organizer who has made the Shule into a vibrant marketplace of ideas.
And it's not just sermons that need to change. Too many of us find the Synagogue services oppressive and stultifying. They're too formal, too long, too boring. That less observant Jews feel that way is evidenced by the fact that they turn up at Shule twice a year on the High Holy Days. That even the observant and orthodox feel that way is evidenced by how painful a three-day holiday sometimes feels. If we loved going to Shule we'd look forward to the marathon.
Shule services can and should be somewhat shorter and should invite greater audience participation. I, for one, would downplay the role of the Cantor and the choir. Is the Synagogue supposed to be a concert hall? And all of that yodeling means less time for the kinds of discussion that can take place between each of the sections of the Torah reading, bring the weekly Parsha to life. Shule should be a thought-provoking rather than a mind-deadening experience. And it should be a participatory rather than a passive experience. Much better to have the Rabbi insert short explanations during the prayers as to what we're saying and its meaning than have a Cantor go off with his favorite melody. And if Rabbis would limit their sermons to fifteen minutes and make the sermon more of a discussion, congregants would not mind staying longer because they would be engaged by the ideas.
And the time for building new Synagogues with the women's section overlooking the men's sections has passed forever. The two separate sections should be built alongside each other. No, I do not believing in mixing the sexes in Shule, and not just because I'm orthodox. Rather, I believe we approach G-d as individuals and not as couples. Prayer is a solitary experience and to an extent being deprived of the comfort of your spouse is the whole point. Loneliness rather than contentment is what leads us to seek a relationship with G-d. Besides, why should single or divorced men and women immediately feel uncomfortable because of their solitary status?
And the formality of the Synagogue. My gosh. That's the most oppressive part of all. Can we stop staying things like, 'Will the congregation please rise?' Can the people who announce the pages occasionally crack a joke? Why is everyone so serious? Did somebody die? I don't even believe we have to dress so formally. Respectfully, yes. Formally no. We've made the Synagogue into a place where people feel they can't just be. They always feel like they're being judged and like they did something wrong. I'm convinced this is the reason that people end up talking so much at Shule. Not only because they're bored out of their box but because they're trying to break the nervous tension. And they wouldn't talk so much about stocks and bonds if there was time for them to offer their opinions on the issues raised by the Torah reading.
And let's be rid of the separate children's services. Your kid should not be treated as a nuisance in Shule who is shoved into some room where he is given pretzels and sings Adon Olam. He's one of the main reasons you're there, to teach him how to pray and build a relationship with G-d. At the excellent Chabad Shule where I prayed at over Passover in Miami Beach (where I grew up and where I'm visiting), the first three rows of the Synagogue are reserved for the kids. They have a counselor that sings most of the prayers with them. The rest of the congregation follows their pace. It doesn't take much longer and it really works. Most of the prayers are said out loud thereby avoiding the nonsensical bumble-bee hum that is to be found in many Shules there the prayers are ploughed through to get to the end. Most effectively, the children are given tickets every few minutes for praying nicely and following the Torah. A the end of the service there is a raffle of great toys they can win. It's amazing to see how beautifully the children participate, and it's done right there in the main Shule as part of the service.
And there ought to be a reward for the parents as well. It's called a great Kiddush where people nibble and speak. So trade in the wine that passes for a strong adhesive with a fine single malt. Be gone you stale crackers and give way to piping hot kugel. Because nobody said that there shouldn't be a stimulating and satisfying social portion of a Synagogue as well.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year competition, is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He has just published his newest best-seller, The Kosher Sutra.