What’s Past is Prologue?

Volume 48, Issue 3

Shakespeare used it. John Toynbee used it. It’s engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. “What is Past is Prologue” is a phrase that commonly refers to the influence history has on creating a context for understanding and maybe even shaping current events. I experienced an interesting twist on this expression while in conversation with 100 new presidents of Reform Jewish congregations from across the US and Canada at the Scheidt Seminar, sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism. The focus on successful synagogue building projects was tempered with a more pressing question: “What does it mean to be Jewish in the 21st century?” As a Christian I was fascinated by the stories told by these leaders of some of the most progressive Jewish cohorts in North America. Recent trends in religious behavior affecting all mainstream Christian churches present the same challenges for Jews. The big question was not about whether Judaism would survive but “how” Judaism would survive.

The now ubiquitous claim that one can be spiritual without being religious has led to a rise in the numbers of Jews who celebrate Jewish-ness but are not affiliated with a congregation. In general, the increase in disenfranchised members is due, in part, to the worn out prayers and music, the delivery of uninspiring sermons, and dissatisfaction with the way organized religions deal with real-time issues. These factors, plus aging congregations, dated infrastructures, and unreliable sources of revenue create an immense challenge for any religion, which is why religion has become a marketable commodity today. The competition is keen.

I was curious whether these leaders thought that returning to the past, that is, to a more traditional practice of Jewish rituals in conventional synagogue buildings, might be the way to attract younger generations. The answer I heard was a loud “no!”

The solutions were more about taking risks and “thinking outside the box.” The key word was “relationships.” Pining for the “good old days” and thinking that if it worked “for past generations” it will work today was not on the agenda. Instead, the strategy focused on challenging the assumptions of the congregation, making connections with other religions and other Jewish traditions, seeing Judaism in new refreshing ways, and recognizing patterns of behavior especially among younger generations.

What role does the synagogue building play in this period of religious transformation? Having a place set aside for praising and thanking God is still a high priority in most religions. The sacred space does not have to be palatial but functional. What matters most is not the edifice but the inclusive and diverse relationships that are fostered within the congregation and with others in the larger community. More Jews and Christians alike are gathering with youthful, non-conforming, charismatic leaders in ordinary places as well as by means of social media.

Jewish programs and worship will undoubtedly change. This might alter the way synagogue buildings look. The aphorism “what is past is prologue” is no longer a sufficient panacea for maintaining relevance in societies that are changing faster than you can Tweet your followers. What might work is to learn to be open to change.

The author, a Catholic priest and sacred space consultant, is a member of the Faith & Form Editorial Advisory Board.