Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sometimes business is good, too.

So it's been a while since I blogged, and not because I haven't been chewing on stuff. There's actually a blog on b'nai mitzvah on deck...eventually...I hope.

But I'm posting now because I've been seeing a lot of talk about the 'real' role of rabbis, and the many distractions that come from synagogue life. Rebecca Sirbu guest post on my teacher Hayim Herring's site on Disrupting the rabbinate; Joel Alperson's Op-Ed in JTA on our love affair with buildings (or, as many a rabbi has referred to it, our 'Edifice Complex"; Nina Badzin's post at Kveller on dues not being the only obstacle to affiliation, and Noa Kushner's fabulous update of her father Larry's manifesto The Tent Peg Business, all are raising a hue and cry that we have heard, now, for decades in one form or another. For years, we have been anticipating the death, disruption, defeat or otherwise demise of the synagogue. And, like the joke about the dying man who emerges from his deathbed to have a taste of mandelbrot only to have his hand swatted away by his wife declaring 'these are for shiva!', the synagogue just refuses to die.

None of these are new issues. None of these should surprise us. The role of the rabbi has been shifting since there were rabbis, and as David Ruderman points out in his book, this has been especially true since the 1600s, and certainly increasing since the 19th century, as communities sought rabbis less as halakhic experts and community adjudicators and more as teachers, role-models, and 'ministers'. So in one generation the rabbi is the Ph.D, the next the social worker. Then the programmer, the CEO, the guru, the rebbe. This is just as true as for the synagogue. The shteibel becomes the grand hall, then the Jewish Center, or the "shul with the pool", followed by the converted house with beanbag chairs, the rented space, and back to the shteibel again (perhaps).

And in each generation, we shake our heads, we gnash our teeth, we rend our clothes as the old model fades away against the luster of the new, which itself is destined, eventually, to fade.

So here's the deal. I'm in the Judaism business. That means I need to engage with those who are interested in Judaism. Historically the people who were interested enough in Judaism to do Jewish were called "Jews". Historically these Jews tended to congregate amongst themselves: to learn, to share, to be with each other, and to pray. These sharing spaces were called synagogues. It didn't matter how many, or how big, or what size or shape they took (both the "Jews" and their "synagogues"). The rabbi (the person in the Judaism business) was compelled to serve them.

Sounds simple, right? Of course, it's not.

Sometimes we get bogged down and focus on the wrong stuff; we spend too much time talking about the personalities of the Women's Club, the leaky roof, how this or that program is or is not serving my needs. We forget that the Women's Club does important tzedakah work, that the building is here to provide us a space to worship, study, and celebrate; that the Torah, not the budget, is our sacred document; that those programs keep people together and help build relationships.

And sometimes the acquaintances specifically sit together because they're both saying kaddish, and hold each others' hands. And sometimes the building is filled with laughter and joy and dancing. And sometimes the rabbi has the blessing of consecrating a child, then being present at the bat mitzvah, then standing with her under the chuppah, and many years later, standing again, with her child. Sometimes the person with an idea finds a voice and a role in leadership and it transforms their experience and their family for the good. Sometimes the donor gets to kvell over the good work being done in their name.


Look, the easiest thing in the world with any relationship--familial, professional, marital, and Jewish--is to look for the exits. To vanish. To walk out the door when things get hard and complicated or worst, boring. That's the easy thing. And lord knows, we Jews aren't good at easy relationships; we're too nosy, too expert in everything (or so we think), too negative, too MUCH. How good it would feel to walk away from talk of dues and budgets and carpeting and programs and calendars and service times and on and on and on. But hands need to touch hands. And Jews need to express gratitude, and explore, and delve, and express pain, and be surrounded by others who get it, without need of explanation. Without justification. Without embarrassment. But with love and humor and real JOY.

So fine, let's do the Timewarp again. Let's deconstruct the synagogue--and the rabbi--again.  But let's also not give up--on it or each other. And let's remember that the opposite of not giving up is commitment--full throated, unrepentant, unhesitating, enthusiastic commitment. To be 'all in'.

Remember what the Baal Shem Tov taught: "Your fellow human being is a mirror for you. If there is love and compassion in your soul, you will see the goodness in others. If you see a blemish in another, it is your own imperfection you encounter. Take careful note of the flaws you perceive in others. This is a lesson for you: they are your own flaws set before you, a reminder of your own spiritual work."

And remember: none of us can do that work alone.

1 comment:

  1. My last blog entry gives a somewhat pointed analysis of this presentation and your Friday 13th dvar Torah themes on trying be constructive, to say nothing of the themes of Ron Wolfson's Relational Judaism.
    To a very large extent the decline in formal Jewish institutions, for which I might be the Pew Study Poster Child, have a certain amount of Leadership Generated Attrition built into them. As these institutions mature and move from entrepreneurial to mature, the people who run them become less receptive to challenges and as I can personally attest from a very severe adverse experience some 20 years back, very insensitive to people that a person of title might actually victimize. I've not been to my own shul in 2015 because I find some of the experience distasteful and need of change but when I convey the thoughts I am not important enough to merit an email response from the baalebatim I've tried to contact. Now if the baalebatim are going to treat people in a way that would be conceptually foreign to me as a physician responsible for the entire cross section of the population, at least target me because I have ample compensatory options to replace adverse experience. To that to vulnerable people, and you've diminished what Judaism is about and probably deserve the institutional decline that many of these staid bastions of Judaism are trying to reverse now.

    As for being destructive unnecessarily, I'll draw on a few elements of classical Judaism and the Rabbis can correct my misconceptions. We have an entire segment of Nevi'im who are studied today because they pointed out faults that were in there Sphere of Concern with consequences in their Sphere of Concern but not within their Sphere of Influence to correct. That belonged to the Keter Malchut, a little less to the Keter Torah of that era, and to those very baalebatim who Amos accused of selling vulnerable people down the river for a pair of shoes. We also have a tradition of making the needed corrections with a cycle of Tochacha-T'shuvah-Selicha-Mechila. Much like the baseball diamond, you cannot expect to get to home plate of mechilah without getting to first base of tochacha first. And you are more likely to get stranded on base than to score. But you still have to try, and it always starts with Tochacha. However, if you get stymied enough or abused like Jeremiah was in his process, you can expect people to take their gloves and checkbooks back to the car and head home. In that regard, I think there's been an abject Jewish leadership failure, much of it probably the way the generation before my tried to create leadership clones out of mine and writing off talent that resisted or judging people who posed an element of skepticism as threats rather than resources, or perhaps even worse, as inferior. I don't expect it to improve, I cannot honestly say that my knowledge and candor has been welcome by my baalebatim any more than Jeremiah's was at his. So like the observers of the past, I salvage my measure of Jewish satisfaction more as an astute chronicler than as a welcome participant. And there are a lot of us, enough to be be transforming.