In the article linked above, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo poetically shares his conclusion that God has "hired movers" and left the Synagogue and other places of established religion. His points are basically threefold: 1) God desires true seekers, and they are now largely found elsewhere, be it cafes, non-traditional minyanim (prayer quoroms) and batei midrash (study halls), and elsewhere. 2) Traditional Jews continue to flock to God's old address, so to speak, but our prayer and service of God is (on the whole) absolutely and totally devoid of anything meaningful or experiential. 3) Observant Jews are basically in a state of denial, focusing far too much energy on contrived questions and legal quandaries while willfully ignoring big-picture items that ought to form the loci of our observance.
As a Synagogue Rabbi, I've written about many of these themes in the past, and think that this article is a must-read for all people of faith. Practically every sermon I give includes a different impassioned plea for meaningful prayer and substantive religious encounter with the trans-formative awe of the divine; our observance is meant to serve that encounter, the encounter in return designed to radically alter our actions in this world for the good. Whether it's had any affect good bad or otherwise I cannot say, though I know it has had an impact on my life in profound ways. Personally, creating a meaningful observance and prayer space has been the primary function of my rabbinate and even this blog; it also happens to be one of the central points of our mesorah (tradition).
The next several blog posts will dwell on different aspects of this theme, but there's one I'd like to share today. It is widely known that Lag Baomer (the 33rd day of the omer count) is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the great mystic and possible author of the Zohar. Often ignored is that it's also the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known affectionately as the Rema, the great mystic (yes, he also spent most of his time delving into kaballah) and authority of Ashkenazic Jewish law and custom. In light of this article, I thought that the beginning of the legal code he authored are instructive. We'll comment how he chose to open his great legal encyclopedia.
"שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד - I am ever mindful of the Lord's Presence" (Psalms 16:8). He goes on to write that this is the most important rule of the Torah, because a person who lives with God-consciousness does not act the same way as one who lives without such consciousness. Such a person will be humble, kind, and eager to serve God.
Why did the Rema begin a legal work with ostensibly non legal advice? The answer is obvious. Judaism and Jewish law represent a religious legal system, and the aim of that system is to foster a constant awareness of God and the resulting behavioral affects. It's an easy question whether we're doing any of these well - we're not. We certainly fixate on the law, even obsess, and in the modern day, seek new strictures and creative legal arguments all in a well-meaning effort to safeguard God's commands. In all of this, the point is missed, masses leave or are uninspired, and the religious experience becomes dry and loses its efficacy.
It's easy to say "woah unto us." The harder question, though, is what bold solutions and adjustments are needed to preserve and advance our tradition, one that teaches that the center of it all is an awareness of God's presence in our lives so deep that it affects all of our interactions profoundly.