Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Don't Meet Them Where They Are

So if you read the Huffington Post (or follow pretty much any liberal rabbi on any social media) you've probably seen Shmuley Boteach's op-ed enthusing over the idea of Rabbi as advocate and nudge. To wit:

Rabbis must begin broadening their roles away from the ceremonial and toward the provocative. You're given a pulpit. Use it. Get up there on Saturday morning and belt out a sermon about the high rates of divorce in your synagogue and how you expect husbands to be gentlemen who compliment their wives daily. Tell the women that dignified dress has always been the hallmark of the classy Jewish woman. Announce that outrageously lavish weddings violate Jewish values since they make those who can't afford one feel like they've let their children down.

Stop being merely a rabbi and become an organizational entrepreneur. Put on world-class debates in your synagogue that make people take a side on intermarriage, women's roles, and softening support for Israel.

Now, this is all well and good, and I don't entirely disagree. In fact, I agree in spirit: I've always understood my role as rabbi to be an advocate for the tradition (yes, even in a Reform setting), and as one whose duty is to bring Jewish meaning to people's lives. And, as you have seen, I have no problem saying things that I find provocative in some way.

However, it's not exactly as easy at it looks. For one thing, this is not a new issue: David Einhorn was run out of his pulpit in Baltimore for preaching against racism--in the 1860s. Likewise, plenty of rabbis of an older generation (and congregants who remember) have talked about the great social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s--especially regarding race relations, like school busing--and describe the efforts of social justice rabbis as largely unheeded. The rabbi could preach against white flight and for supporting the black community all he wanted, it seems, but his congregants were going to move to the suburbs and enroll the kids in private school regardless. It would seem to me that we often see the social action successes through rose colored glasses; the efforts best remembered were "safe" choices (rallies in support of Soviet Jewry or Israel) or "easy" (volunteering at soup kitchens). The rabbis who were truly successful as social justice advocates, provocateurs, and voices of justice--let's use Jack Stern as an example--were those who had earned the implicit and explicit trust of their congregations and memberships, and were just as capable in their 'ceremonial' and pastoral roles as they were at speaking prophetically.

So then I stumble upon this article at Zeek. Truth be told, I somehow sent it to myself but am not sure how (which means I either have learned how to send myself articles from the future or this was a kind of update I don't recognize. Or, you know, someone's hacked my gmail). Nevertheless, this happened to approach the subject of advocacy from a similar vein; that is, how do we engage as a Jewish community? Social Justice and Advocacy seem to be where young Jews find a great deal of meaning (big surprise there; the Religious Action Center was only conceived on that idea back in the late 50s, so, you know). Do we meet people 'where they are' and create programs for engagement that happen to be social justice in nature, or do we create meaningful social justice programming (through, say, community organizing) and let people come to it?

This is especially relevant in terms of Rabbi Boteach's op-ed. For one, are we missing something by being 'too' welcoming to our congregants, failing to challenge them in some meaningful way? Likewise, how much social action programming is fluff at worst, or doesn't actually move the chains in any meaningful way? Finally, who decides what is meaningful? Is it the rabbi advocating from on high, or the committee that chooses to do what is easy and sustainable, or is there another way?

I happen to be a big fan of community organizing, at least in theory. To define 'on one foot', the idea that, rather than have a person or community impose their values and set an agenda, to create a venue where needs can be shared and realistically responded to by the community. What's especially great about it is that it can be used in politically diverse settings so it doesn't become about pushing a 'liberal' or 'conservative' agenda; it also creates the opportunity for the most buy-in (those in need get what they really need and are empowered by the process, while the providers make a significant, measurable difference in the community), and while it requires much more work, has a bigger payoff. And, even better, it gets us out of the trope of doing what is personally satisfying only.

Because Rabbi Boteach is right in his diagnosis of the problem; our focus is too much on ourselves and our materialism and not enough on creating meaning in our own lives. And as an overall Jewish community, we're too quick to latch onto pseudo-needs and quick-fix programs than do the hard work of building lasting relationships and creating a framework for engagement. However, the solution that he advocates--provocation--is the wrong one. Rather, we're called to connect and inspire those who would participate and encourage them to find meaning in Judaism and put it into practice.

1 comment:

  1. Jan 3, 2011
    Rabbi Schmuley Boteach's article of Dec 27th which you cite encourages rabbis to not be afraid to polarize their audience and raise uncomfortable "controversial issues" as opposed to trying to be "nice guys" and play it "safe." His argument is that otherwise rabbis becomes marginalized and largely left to exist to do life cycle events.

    Whether this is right or wrong I want to point out that Beth Emeth clearly is not in favor of Rabbi Schmuley's views on this. Beth Emeth seems to seek to avoid controversy at high costs.

    Two local examples come to mind.

    1. As regards the issue of intermarriage, the decision to permit it (under certain restrictions) by Beth Emeth clergy was not debated in the congregation in advance. It was not even debated pre-decision in the ritual committee (which is chaired by a former Beth Emeth President.) It was announced by you the rabbi via letter for the congregation to absorb. It was a "fait accompli." Some discussion after the fact indeed ensued but everyone knew the decision was a "done deal" so the debate was muted. The board may have been consulted about that but they are not the congregation but rather appointed individuals by a nominating committee and who are ratified but not truly chosen by the congregation. Would a debate at the Congregational level been valuable? I think very much so but I think Beth Emeth may have viewed it as "too divisive", "too risky" and "too controversial. Intermarriage goes to the heart of who and what a Jew is and what our future will be.

    2. When the synagogue was faced with a substantial cost increase (roughly by 50%)above the large amount of funds raised and budgeted for an expansion/refurbishment, the congregations was not asked what to do with this dilemma-- ie go on and deficit spend or trim back the plan? The board made the decision which we now have to live with and is being paid for out of endowment. Should not the people giving the money decide? Again subjecting this to open debate for the rank and file may be viewed as "too divisive" but it is the rank and file that donated. Personally I would have have preferred spending part of such a large dollar sum on something that better promoted Beth Emeth and Judaism in the community. I can envision a "Sholom House" built in an area of need in our county that served the needy of our community and which would be funded by an endowment and staffed mostly by volunteers from all 4 differently denominated synagogues in our community. Think of how the secular and non Jewish community would see Jews if we did that not for a day or a week but as a permanent self sustaining fixture in the community! Maybe a lofty idea but a bold one that may draw a large number of people in as active participants as you suggest is needed. Until we recoup financially from our deficit spending that project will have to be a future thought for now.


    Joel Chodos, MD congregant