After praising the scene in Susan Messer’s novel Grand River and Joy in which the main character finds “release” during an accidental visit to shul, I was struck by the fact that I had enjoyed a similar scene in Zoë Heller’s remarkable novel The Believers. As I wrote in my review:
The locus classicus of the “turning” event is the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s sudden reversal of his decision to become a Christian. Nahum Glatzer explains what happened. A non-believing Jew, Rosenzweig
Oddly, Rosenzweig never wrote about the experience. He never even discussed it with friends. His mother guessed what had happened, and told Glatzer about it years later, after her son’s death in 1929. Since Glatzer’s book on the philosopher’s life first appeared in 1953, however, Rosenzweig’s decisive turnabout has become one of the defining motifs of modern Judaism.
I expect that more and more uses of the convention will crop up in American Jewish fiction in the years to come, especially since hostility to Orthodoxy is out of fashion among younger Jews. Even so, I must admit, speaking not as a literary critic but as a practicing Jew, the revelation in shul is foreign to my experience. I might even argue, in fact, that the original and originating event in “Jewish” literature is Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9.3–9).
For the regular shul-goer, like me, there are no blinding revelations. Now and then there are skin-prickling sensations of God’s presence, but for the most part, being in shul is like being in a close friend’s living room. You can relax and spread out—the capaciousness of the long Jewish worship service encourages you to spread out—in the comfortable knowledge that you are not intruding. Unlike the church’s liturgy, which means to inspire awe, the purpose of Jewish liturgy is to make conversation with God a common and familiar act. Often, in truth, it is only afterwards that the marveling arrives.
In an essay in the Sewanee Review, I criticized Michael Chabon because “[h]is characters are strangers to the synagogue, and it no longer even occurs to them to wonder if there is any warmth to be found inside.” (That last phrase is a blatant allusion to Bialik’s poem “Al Saf Bet Hamidrash,” which is discussed briefly here.) By comparison, any Jewish novelists who find any warmth at all in shul are to be welcomed like guests.
 Nahum N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought, 2nd ed. (New York: Schocken, 1962), pp. xvii–xix. First edition was published in 1953.