Can A Modern Orthodox Shul Import A Religious Experience?

Feeling close to God was relatively easy in Christianity. A good sermon, a good song, a good movie, and you started feeling very spiritual.

I remember going to a Billy Graham crusade in Sacramento around 1984. Only the hardest of hearts could not have been moved.

Spiritual highs are much harder to come by in Judaism. And most of them seem like cheap grace. I hear that feeling spiritual is pretty easy at the Kabbalah Centre. Because of the use of musical instruments on the Sabbath, I’ve usually found it easier to feel spiritual at a non-Orthodox synagogue.

The type of synagogue I am most familiar with is the Modern Orthodox one. They have all sorts of trouble with spirituality. Go to a minyan there and you rarely see many people outside of the rabbi who are into their prayers.

So the M.O. shul tries all sorts of tricks. They have their "Daven With Kavannah" specials. They bring in Eli Kranzler. They use some Carlebach tunes. They import their spirituality by bringing in some blacks.

No, I don’t mean negros. I mean the black-hatted ultra-Orthodox, particularly the Hasidim. These guys often have a genuine relationship with God and it’s infectious. Other times it does not work and I feel like I am at Sea World paying to  watch the trained seals perform.

With few exceptions, the only reason Haredim come around Modern Orthodox shuls is to collect donations, which tends to reduce my capacity to kvell over their presence.

I don’t mean to say that my shul experience is a bleak one. I almost always leave feeling better than I came. I often get to spend time with friends and to learn a thing or two.

These days when I set foot in shul, I no longer feel like a whore in a church. But I still have a major problem. I’m not sure I want my behavior outside of shul to match up with my behavior inside of shul.  I’m not sure I want to repent, that I want to clean up my writing, that I want to be pure and holy and acknowledge God in all that I do.

For instance, I completely skipped Yom Kippur this year. Yeah, I went to shul, but I didn’t ask anyone for forgiveness and I didn’t resolve to change anything about my life.

I like to take vacations from God. When I watch The Sopranos and the like, I tell myself to pretend for an hour that God does not exist. When I meet a hot chick who I want to play with, I tell myself to forget about God for a few hours. When I want to write some raunchy or vicious, I turn up the stereo and turn off God.

I have an amazingly flexible conscience. And if you point out to me that I did a sin, I always have an answer — I’m not at that spiritual level yet to give a damn.

Joe emails: "As Ernst Simon said: ‘The people I talk to, I can’t daven with. The people I daven with, I can’t talk to.’ At my MO shul, I love talking to people but don’t feel like I ever fully get immersed in the davening. It is superficial and thin for me.  On the other hand, in a chasidic shtibl with an intensity of davening, I may not be able to have a meaningful conversation with anyone, but the davening is real.  It’s visceral.  People are davening like they mean it."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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