When Houses of Worship Lose their Way
Why do we actually have synagogues or churches, what are their purposes, and what is antithetical to those actual purposes? Do orgies and drag queens belong in houses of worship?
In these challenging times when religiosity is being attacked by the secular through politics and media, it may be more important than ever to evaluate these questions, look at how so many houses of worship are acting, and whether their behavior is actually consonant with God and religion, or if they are just trying to appeal to the lowest common denominators of humanity in order to increase membership and finances. As a Rabbi, the majority of this examination will be in the Jewish world, although we find parallels in both the traditional teachings and current practices in the Christian world as well.
Although there are examples earlier, synagogues truly grew to prevalence after the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century. Local houses of worship were needed to replace the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. Called “temples”, “synagogues”, or “shuls”, they were created so that Jewish communities would be able to worship and study together in a sacred space.
As time went on, temples became social gathering places as well, but always with the intent of maintaining a holy space. The Union for Reform Judaism, the official organization for Reform Judaism, the most liberal denomination of Jewish practices, defines a temple’s purpose as a place “to make God’s presence noticeable.” It is to be holy and consecrated to God’s teachings as found in the Torah and subsequent universally accepted texts such as the Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, and Mishneh Torah. A temple is to be a physical place that embraces Jewish values such as ritual observance, Torah study, charity, and religious practices that inspire the congregation to live those values.
And yet, here are some recent examples of programming being offered by temples in Southern California, some of which are actually financially sponsored through grants given by longstanding philanthropic organizations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. (However shocking, these are the actual names of some of the programs recently offered.)
- Boobies and Blowjobs, a Purim celebration
- Tu b’Av: Tantric Judaism and Polyamory
- Clothing Optional Co-Ed Pre-Yom Kippur Mikvah (a mikvah is the traditional cleansing bath done by observant Jews, and never with members of the opposite sex present)
- Tantric Counting the Omer and The Big O: Spiritual Foreplay to Sinai
- Drag Queen Bingo
These disturbing programs revolving around sex -- (tantra is sexual techniques from the East, and have nothing to do with Judaism, which prohibits polyamory) and drag queens -- are not being offered by fringe synagogues, but by mainstream congregations that are often funded through grants. Similar programming is being offered by churches nationwide, and it is equally inappropriate there.
Why would any house of worship offer programs that are clearly antithetical to Jewish law and practices? There is a simple two-part answer, and both parts are equally disturbing.
While our synagogue never closed its doors during the pandemic, we were, sadly, unique in California in that respect. And for those temples that did close, many of their congregants did not return to temple, having been told that streaming online was just as good as live services. As a result, more synagogues have closed or merged in the last two years than any time in American history.
The first part of the answer to this outrageous programming described above is financial fear. These temples are willing to prostitute themselves, literally and figuratively, in hopes of raising more funds for their financial survival. They are willing to try anything, no matter how distasteful, in order to try to acquire more funds.
The second part of the answer is even more disturbing. The rabbis and leaders of these congregations have lost all sense of boundaries and religious ethics, and have chosen to reject Judaism in favor of the secular craziness of drag queens, orgies (a co-ed naked bath?), ugly public sexuality, etc. What someone does in their own home or at an adult cabaret is their right but pushing drag queens and co-ed nudity are inappropriate as public activities in a house of worship. This is especially true where minors may be present. To quote Gays Against Groomers, a pro-LGBT organization opposed to sexual grooming of any type that affects children, “there is no such thing as an all ages drag event”.
No matter what any secular Jew or extremist liberal “rabbi” may say, drag queens are forbidden in Judaism. Not only is a man forbidden from wearing a woman’s garment (Deut. 22:5), but he is forbidden from any of the “adorning” practices of women (Talmud, Shabbat 94b, Targum Onkelos). This prohibition is unquestionable and repeated for centuries. Public nudity and sexuality are also forbidden, as is anything that might lead to sexual relations outside of marriage.
And yet, there are progressively more temples (and churches) offering programs that include open sexuality and drag queens. Programming that is expressly forbidden by Jewish law, and especially in a house of worship that is supposedly dedicated to Jewish (or Christian) values and practices.
But what can we do? We live in a “free” nation, and each person’s individual rights should be protected. But an individual’s rights should not be able to determine practices in the public forum, and certainly not in houses of worship that are to hold the ethical standards of a religion.
Our hands are not tied, and we can and must act. For the survival of our religions, and the preservation of our culture.
Dr. King famously said that religion is “the conscience of the state.” Just because it is not a violation of secular law does not mean that unethical behavior should be permitted, let alone propagated in a house of worship. And so, there are a few basic things that we need to do in response to this outrageous behavior being found in temples and churches.
First, we need to make sure that this type of behavior is not welcomed in our personal houses of worship. If your temple or church leaders insist on having these types of programs, then leave that institution and find one that takes religious values more seriously. Let the organization know why you are leaving, and that you are taking your donations with you. Clergy often work within an echo chamber, and only are aware of the loudest voices. We need to make our voices heard by clergy and church leadership that we are unwilling to compromise religious ethics in favor of inappropriate programming.
We also need to publicly expose any temple or church that is prostituting itself out with this type of programming. Let everyone know (especially people you personally know that may be members of that temple or church) that their organization has chosen to embrace values that are directly antithetical to any interpretation of religious practices, even as defined by the most liberal of religious organizations. Go to the philanthropic foundations that may be supporting this type of congregational programming and let them know that you are withdrawing your donations if they continue to support congregations that offer these types of activities. Foundations don’t like bad publicity, so let them know that you will go to the local press if they continue to financially support congregations that offer open sexual behavior or family events with drag queens.
Most importantly, and for our own souls’ benefit, we must get as far away as possible from any temple or church that offers these types of activities. The great Rabbi and philosopher Maimonides taught almost one thousand years ago (Mishneh Torah, Ishut 15:18) that we should distance ourselves from that which is ugly (the Hebrew word means indecent, ugly, and/or scandalous), and from that which is even somewhat like indecency. Few things can be thought of that are more indecent than a house of worship becoming a house of polyamory, open sexuality, or drag queens.
King Solomon wrote, “He who walks with the wise will become wise, while one who associates with fools will suffer”. (Prov. 13:20) We all know what is wise and what is dangerous for a temple or church in these matters. Let us all have the courage and strength to stand up and help houses of worship return to ethical behavior and reject the ugliness that has pervaded secular society.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village, CA. (www.NerSimcha.org) and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together”. He can be reached directly at Rabbi@NerSimcha.org