Open Your Heart to Me

Rabbi Ben Goldstein
April 2, 2014
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I don’t like to go to the gym.

I exercise about five times a week, but I cannot remember the last time I got to the gym or the pool, and felt excited to spend the next 45 minutes to an hour there. The only thing that compels me to go to the gym[1] is the knowledge that after my workout, I will feel better and have more energy throughout my day. I know I will be fit, I know that regular exercise is important to lead a healthier and happier life.

I have often compared praying to going to the gym. Most of us don’t go to the gym simply for the sake of going to the gym; we go for the results we get from working out. Just as we have to keep going to the gym to be healthy and in good shape, I believe that a regular spiritual practice is important to keep in good spiritual shape, to be spiritually fit. Unlike many others, I do not believe that we are required from God to pray three times a day[2]. However, I do believe that the only way to retain our spiritual awareness is to be in the habit of having a regular spiritual practice. And for millennia, the normative Jewish way to practice spirituality was through prayer.

Unfortunately, whereas when I am done with my workout, I feel a great deal better about myself, when I leave a Saturday morning service, I often feel worse.[3]  Personally, I find it hard to feel anything spiritual about Shabbat morning services, not only in my congregation, but in the vast majority of the congregations I’ve attended[4].

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “You’re the rabbi! If you don’t like services, why don’t you do something to change them?” It’s a great question, and there are a number of reasons why I haven’t set out to radically change Shabbat morning services. The first is that it’s difficult to know where to begin or where to end. For example, I see how people react during the Torah reading. Except for a very few, most people look completely bored and disinterested.[5] At times, I wonder if it might be better to do away with the Torah reading altogether and replace it with Torah study. I’m sure that would work for some people, but I know that for others it wouldn’t be a Shabbat morning without a Torah service.

I am not sure exactly what draws people to Shabbat morning services in the first place. For most of the people with whom I’ve spoken, the reasons for attendance are anything but spiritual. Often people come to services either because they are accustomed to coming on Shabbat (tradition!) or they look forward to socializing with their friends.[6] Let me stress that there are no invalid reasons to attend services; in my view, whatever draws people is a good thing. [7] At the same time however, we must acknowledge that the people who are looking for spirituality, who are looking for their heart and souls to be awakened, aren’t coming to regular Shabbat morning services. They are finding their spirituality in yoga classes or on spiritual hikes; they are chanting or meditating or doing almost anything other than reading the words of the siddur and sitting in the pews on Saturday morning.

This brings me to the other reason why I haven’t changed services too drastically and why, while I might aspire to have alternative services with a more spiritual bent, I don’t imagine that I’ll ever attempt to replace our central Shabbat morning services entirely. I truly believe that the future of the non-orthodox synagogue will be found outside of the sanctuary.[8] And that’s a good thing.

Judaism, as we practice it, was never meant to revolve around prayer or worship. It is not a religion whose focus is a sacrificial cult centered in Jerusalem. As I’ve mentioned in these posts before, when the Temple was destroyed, the leaders of the Jewish community were compelled to reimagine what Judaism could look like. After a bit of a struggle for authority, the rabbinic class, or Pharisees, reshaped Judaism so that, “The study of Torah is equal to all [of the other commandments].”[9] For the rabbis, and for centuries of normative Judaism, the focus of the community was not a synagogue, it was not a minyan. Rather, it was the study and advancement of the religious thinking behind Judaism.

When we think of spirituality, some of us think of beautifully musical Friday night services or profoundly moving spiritual retreats focused on silence and breathing.[10] However, in my life I have found another way to engage spiritually, in an environment that provides stark contrast to the silent retreats of meditation.

When I think of spirituality, I picture silent meditation and beautiful vistas, but I also think of noise and of argument. When I think of opening my heart to God and Judaism, I hear debates and see people pacing the room trying to think. That’s because one of the most spiritual places I’ve ever experienced is a beis midrash, or a bet midrash.[11]

I have found great sanctity in breaking down rabbinic and biblical texts. There are some rabbinic stories and discussions that make me feel, like I’m “at home.[12]” When I study Talmud, Torah or philosophy, I feel my soul engaged. When I pour over a problematic text, I find myself spiritually wrestling with God as my ancestor Jacob did before me. I see myself continuing the tradition of struggling to find God in the words, as Moses yearned to see God from the cleft in the rocks.[13]

The future of Judaism might not be found in the sanctuary. Just as we once had to leave The Temple to find spirituality, the day might come when we have to leave our temples to fully engage our hearts and souls. I recognize that for some, davening is still the primary way to connect to God, and that is great. In fact, I am somewhat envious of their ability to engage so fully with the prayers.  I only hope that we can find a time when we can pour over text together; when we can cling to the cadence of the rabbis in the way that we love and appreciate the Adon Olam. I smile when I think of the day when Torah study will become as prevalent as sitting in pews, listening and practicing by rote. I long for a time when the classes will be fuller than the services, when people will pace and stand, not because they’re bored by the prayers, but because they are actively engaging with a piece of text.

Israel Knohl referred the Torah as a Divine Symphony. In our almost singular focus on prayer, our expression of Judaism has become a musical solo. We need to widen our focus, and see the importance of Talmud Torah, of learning and engaging with our rich history of text. Then, with the combination of beautiful music, armed with our biblical and rabbinic libretto, and active and engaged souls, we can finally begin to appreciate the symphony that Judaism has to offer.


[1] Aside from obsession and compulsion.

[2] In mishnaic times the rabbis instituted set prayers to be said in the morning, afternoon and evening (this does not count special holiday prayers, and other blessings that are said on a daily basis).

[3] Not to mention tired, and in need of a nap.

[4] In fact, I’m actually hard pressed to think of one Shabbat morning service that I found spiritually fulfilling or uplifting. I know they’re out there, but they are the exception, and not the rule.

[5] That is, if they’re not engrossed in conversations with their friends.

[6] There’s the old joke about the man who, in explaining why he is in synagogue, mentions that while Goldberg comes to talk to God, “I come to talk to Goldberg.”

[7] Especially guilt.  Without that, I don’t know that anyone would ever get a minyan. Ever.

[8] The reason that I say “non-Orthodox,” is because I believe that there is a dividing line between those who feel compelled to pray  according to a halachic obligation and those choose to pray for reasons other than Jewish Law. While some Jews who identify with the

[9] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 127a

[10] This is not to put those disciplines down at all. I happen to love mediation and participatory singing in services.

[11] In my lifetime, I’ve had the privilege to learn in both.

[12] Thank you to my teacher for helping me put that feeling into words.

[13] Exodus Chapter 33

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Rabbi Ben Goldstein was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in May of 2010. Since that time he has been working as the rabbi for a congregation in suburban New Jersey (yes, that’s right, I said New Jersey). He has been watching television and movies ever since he was old enough to have the core strength to sit up without falling over. Goldstein's love for the performing arts led him to pursue it as a career and he even managed to star in such cinematic triumphs as Jewz N The Hood. After a number of Signs from our Creator (and more than a few casting directors) he realized that actors don’t take themselves nearly serious enough so he needed to find something else to do. Taking a look at the job description of a rabbi (writer, counselor, teacher, performer, student) he thought it sounded like a really great way to spend his life. In addition to being trained as a rabbi, Goldstein has an encyclopedic knowledge of television and movies from the mid-80s to today. That makes him either a fantastic Jeopardy contestant or the world’s most boring cocktail party guest. You can reach Rabbi Goldstein at rabbi@tbemc.org.

1 Comment

  1. Great post! I have different conclusions, but agree with the premises, and love the footnotes.

    Posted by
    Rabbi Alon C Ferency
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