Reform Jews must refashion Shabbat

The following remarks are edited from an hourlong sermon delivered at the biennial of the Union of Reform Judaism held in San Diego on Dec. 15.

…. In the last half century, working patterns have changed. Not everyone works on Saturday now, and Jews, more than ever before, crave spiritual sustenance and meaningful ritual.

With members returning to the synagogue on Friday nights, we had hoped that some of them would also be drawn to our Shabbat morning prayer and to a serious conversation about the meaning of Shabbat.

But this has not happened, and we all know one reason why that is so: the character of the Shabbat morning service. With the morning worship appropriated by the bar and bat mitzvah families, our members who come to pray with the community often sit in the back of the sanctuary and feel like interlopers in their own congregation.

On erev Shabbat, we invite our members in, but on Shabbat morning, we drive them away. On Friday night, we entice them with exuberant prayer and a community of celebration and song. But on Shabbat morning, we leave them turned off and disappointed.

…. The bar mitzvah, like other significant moments in Jewish life, is meant to occur within the context of an open and caring community. But our members now feel that they are entitled to a private, individual bar mitzvah. And this means that what should be public and inclusive has become private and exclusive, with the focus more on the child than on the community.

The results are tragic. We lose young families, whose children cannot stay up late on Friday. We lose seniors, who avoid nighttime driving and prefer to pray during the day. We lose those wanting to say Kaddish and those who are simply looking to join their community in prayer. And not only that, we are also sending a message about bar mitzvah that we do not want to send.

Bar mitzvah is the occasion, symbolically at least, when a young person joins an adult community of Jews. But you cannot join what does not exist. A regular community of worshippers, who would be best suited to mentor the child, is not even present. At the average bar mitzvah, what you almost always get is a one-time assemblage of well-wishers, with nothing in common but an invitation.

And worst of all, absent a knowledgeable congregation, worship of God gives way to worship of the child — and self-serving worship is a contradiction in terms. Rabbis, cantors, educators and presidents all told me how painful it is to sit in a service where the child is the star and the theme is “Steven Schwartz, King for a Day” or, “Sarah Goldstein, Queen for a Day.” Inevitably, this leads to speeches in which every boy or girl is smarter than Einstein, a better soccer play than Mia Hamm, more of a computer whiz than Bill Gates and more of an activist than Bono.

Let’s be honest. There is something profoundly wrong here. On every Shabbat of the year, there are hundreds and hundreds of bar and bat mitzvahs in Reform congregations. But rarely does anyone walk out of those worship services saying: “That was so spiritually fulfilling that I can’t wait to come back next week.”

…. What I am hearing from our rabbis and cantors is that the time has come to say: If it’s not working, let’s not do it anymore. If I want to go to temple on Shabbat morning but I won’t presume to do so without an invitation from the bar mitzvah family, the time has come to try new things.

We all recognize that this will not be easy…. The best answer is an integrated service — a service in which the child joins the congregation and the congregation does not merely watch the child; a service in which the child’s obligation is not to perform but to lead the congregation in prayer; a service in which parents are encouraged to reshape their speeches as blessings; a service that remains truly meaningful for the bar mitzvah family without feeling like a private family event.

The best answer is public, communal worship that all of us, and not just the bar mitzvah family, want to attend.

….This discussion in the Reform movement is part of something larger — and that is a readiness to look seriously at the broader question of Shabbat observance…. Because we now understand that Shabbat was always central to Reform Judaism.

Isaac Mayer Wise was a firm proponent of a traditional Shabbat. And for classical Reform Jews, Shabbat was a serious matter. True, they significantly reduced both the duties and the prohibitions of the day, but what remained was observed with scrupulous dedication.

Also, other approaches to enhancing Jewish life have failed. Communal leaders outside of the synagogue love to talk the language of corporate strategy. They engage in endless debates on the latest demographic study. They plan elaborate conferences and demand new ideas. But sometimes we don’t need new ideas; we need old ideas.

We need less corporate planning and more text and tradition, less strategic thinking and more mitzvot, less demographic data and more Shabbat. Because we know in our hearts that in the absence of Shabbat, Judaism withers.

But most important of all, Reform Jews are considering Shabbat because they need Shabbat. In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been swept away, and the results are devastating…. But families take the worst hit. The average parent spends twice as long dealing with e-mail as playing with his children.

For our stressed-out, sleep-deprived families, the Torah’s mandate to rest looks relevant and sensible…. We are asked to put aside those BlackBerrys and stop gathering information, just as the ancient Israelites stopped gathering wood. We are asked to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.

And this most of all: In synagogue and at home, we are asked to give our kids, our spouse and our friends the undivided attention that they did not get from us the rest of the week. On Shabbat, we speak to our children of their hopes and dreams. We show them that we value them for who they are and not for the grades they get or the prizes they win. During the week, we pursue our goals; on Shabbat, we learn simply to be.