02/21/2013 01:42 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Making Worship Live

If you care deeply about the present and future state of synagogues and churches, as I do (and as the next Pope surely will), it's instructive to draw lessons from the remarkable vision of communal worship set forth in last week's Torah portion, Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:29). Three aspects of the divine plan for the Israelites' wilderness Tabernacle strike me as particularly relevant to our contemporary situation.

First, as Jewish commentators have noted for centuries, God does not promise to dwell in the sanctuary that the Israelites will construct, but to dwell betokham, in them or among them. The point of worship then, as now, was to enable human beings to sense God's presence in their midst; to bring them together around what Martin Buber called a "living Center"; to raise them above the mundane concerns of daily life; to assist them in infusing their days with holiness.

If contemporary worship services do not achieve these ends -- if the words do not inspire us, the music does not elevate us, the processions and ceremony do not move us -- something is seriously wrong. Like the Israelites of old, we devote enormous resources to building sanctuaries in the hope that we too will feel, when we walk through their doors, that we have entered the precincts of the Holy One. Some synagogues and churches of my acquaintance succeed to a remarkable extent in doing those things. It is a joy to be part of them. Others do not. Their members or clergy seem reconciled to settling for much less than vitality. This is sad. Our ancestors worked hard to endow ritual moments in the sanctuary with such power, majesty and holiness that God's presence became palpable. This should be our objective also. We too should work hard at it.

God's promise to dwell in them or among them points to a second key requirement of communal worship: that it take place in a community, a word which I (like the Bible) take to mean far more than an assemblage of individuals. Communities share a common language, practice and commitment. Their members are not mere consumers of a service (much less an entertainment) for which they pay a fee. Rather, they come together for purposes that are central to their lives, give of themselves, bring all they are to the endeavor. The ancient Israelites were free to decide what they would contribute to the building of the Tabernacle, but everyone had to bring something, whether offerings such as gold or silver or skills such as weaving, artistry or design. Soon, when the Tabernacle was completed, they would bring sacrifices of well-being, thanksgiving or atonement. They would pour out their hearts and afflict their souls.

It is (or should be) the same with contemporary synagogues and churches. If members of the synagogue community are joined together in networks of shared activities and relationships, fully present to one another, the communal whole becomes far more than the sum of individual parts. The spirit swells. Grief is more easily borne. People accept challenges of service to the larger community that they would never have undertaken otherwise.

A third requirement for achieving the sort of sanctuary is found in God's command to do "ke-khol that I show to you" (Exodus 25:9). Some translators understand the word ke-khol to mean "exactly as." In this reading, God says to Moses that the boards should be X cubits long, and Moses makes sure the carpenters saw them to that exact length. Other readers, including me, take ke-khol to mean "in accordance with." God gives the blueprint. The people figure out -- using God-given skill and creativity in faithful obedience to the divine directives -- how to translate the plan into reality.

This notion of the building process is consistent with the larger divine-human partnership set forth at Sinai. God needs artisans with the skill of Bezalel (and prophets such as Moses and Isaiah) because the matter of bringing Torah to life is not as simple as sawing boards to a certain length, or looking up a particular situation in a divinely revealed instruction manual and doing only what is specified there. God relies upon the creativity, intelligence, and will of the human beings created in God's image. Careful reading of these chapters indicates that many necessary details are not supplied. In traditional Jewish terms, "Oral Law" is required to complement and complete "Written Law." Human initiative is valued by God, Who is the source and model of that initiative.

About 25 years ago, a show in New York featured drawings by master artists such as Michelangelo that were copies of drawings done by other great artists. Inevitably, the copies differed from the originals in significant ways that betrayed the particular talents, styles and perspectives of their makers. Adam Gopnik, reviewing the show for the New Yorker (July 4, 1988), put the questions raised by the exhibit this way: "How can copying lead to change? Looking more closely at the Michelangelo drawing, we discover that what had seemed at first a faithful, even dutiful replication -- an act of filial piety -- is in certain crucial ways not faithful at all."

The religious language here is striking -- and, if one follows my reading of ke-khol, Gopnik's use of it is utterly mistaken, as we learn in subsequent pages of his review. "Filial piety" does not mean doing exactly as our parents did. "Faithfulness" in art or performance does not mean copying in detail an earlier work or performance (including one's own). Is Pacino's Shylock "unfaithful" to Shakespeare because it differs from Olivier's? When Isaac Stern played a Beethoven violin concerto one evening, was it judged by its exact likeness to the performance of the piece he gave the night before, or to some ideal that existed in the head of the composer?

The answer of course is no. Gopnik is clear on the point: "The show demonstrates with beautiful clarity that every copy, no matter how faithful, produces subtle variations, and that it is the readiness to take advantage of those variations, created in the act of making, which has been one engine of change in art." The artist or performer does not set out to depart from the original. She feels obligated to make it live in and through her own work -- through her self, her life. Art is far more than mechanical reproduction. So is life. So is piety. Tradition means change through continuity, and continuity through change. One aims to conserve -- to get the notes right, as it were -- and by doing so to serve God, community, the world.

I hope the Pope, and all religious leaders, will promote honest and thoughtful discussion of what this sort of faithfulness means for communal worship. Parshat Terumah reminds us that sincere desire to stand before God and one another is required. So is the creation of communities that are far more than assemblages of individual consumers. And we must have artistry: copies made holy, and made new, by dedication to being present and coming near to the Source of all Creation. The ancient Israelites, who were far from perfect in character -- as are we -- can inspire us to work at the task of sanctuary building until we get it right.