There has been another op-ed published about how expensive it is to be a Jew in America. I agree with the general assessment, but the circumstances that provoked the author’s complaint – finding a bar mitzvah tutor and feeling the sticker shock – require a little closer look.
We have a tendency to think of synagogue membership as a right rather than a choice, even though we treat it as a choice rather than an obligation. We also have a notion that, unlike college tuition, milk, gasoline, denim jeans and a cup of coffee, synagogue membership should cost closer to what it did in 1975. (In 1975, people complained that it was too expensive, by the way.)
But blaming the perceptions of the consumer does not help us with the situation. Neither, by the way, does pointing out that the synagogue has floated downstream in American Jewish priorities, including for the author. At the end of the column comes the admission that baseball and sleep-away camp have spoken for discretionary funds that might have been put toward a more comprehensive Jewish involvement.
Synagogues are the victims of Jewish success in America. As we have climbed from immigrant status to middle class to closer to the one-percent, the institutions of our lives have kept pace. It is not a new phenomenon. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, of blessed memory, proposed three generations ago that the synagogue needed to expand its role from house of prayer and study to cultural and activity center. The modern exodus from compact urban neighborhoods to more expansive areas of the cities and then the suburbs brought with it a need for a building that reflected the community. And the staff of the congregation – especially rabbis, cantors and educators whose educational accomplishments and professional status matched the upwardly mobile members of the congregations – needed to earn what was necessary to maintain a comparable lifestyle with easy access to their pulpits and classrooms.
In the neighborhood where I live outside of Washington, DC, it is impossible to buy a home for less than $650,000. More likely, a comfortable home for a family of four will approach a million dollars. That’s more than twice the average home price in the same neighborhood when we moved in thirty years ago (and began living in the parsonage because we could not afford a home). The synagogue facility expanded during my tenure to accommodate the increased membership and bursting classrooms. More than twenty years later, it still carries a mortgage even as membership and revenue has declined.
The synagogue has been priced out of the housing market for young families looking for a long-time home. A tight-knit local community like the one that built on our current site in the 1950s eventually dispersed to larger homes farther away. The families that took their place, some of whom I helped to recruit during my tenure, have (like me) aged out of large homes and moved to smaller quarters, often in distant cities. Like the author of the op-ed, it is hard live where you want to pray…and that’s before the cost of maintaining an institution nestled among million-dollar homes.
I applaud the innovators who are looking for a way to make comprehensive Jewish life more affordable. The answer partly rests with relying on the commitments of Jews to maintain communities and their functions. And it is here that I wish to defend prioritizing synagogue involvement over discretionary spending of money and time.
It costs a lot to belong to the synagogue where I used to be the rabbi. Like the op-ed columnist’s former congregation, there are dues and tuition to pay, fundraisers to support and contributions to make if you want a soft seat near the front on the High Holy Days. And there is a bar/bat mitzvah fee. At the moment it is about $700.
The disgruntled parent balked at tutoring fees of up to $175 an hour to train her son to recite a few incomprehensible words in Hebrew. Once again, I agree. That’s a lot of money to pay each week for an event that will last for 26 hours, from L’kha Dodi to “That’s What Friends are For.”
But one of the reasons our synagogue has maintained itself (and charges only (!) $700) is that the comprehensive and long-term commitments that members develop as part of an intentional community. The students who study for bar and bat mitzvah, one event on a continuum that can begin in preschool and include regular instruction, youth groups, participation in age-appropriate worship and spiritual development, service projects, high school-level instruction and classroom aide opportunities, get the benefit of three months of tutoring from adult members who themselves developed a skill set (not just a performance proficiency) and three more months of attention from the cantor, who is salaried and not paid a la carte. (By the way, our tutors are paid a small honorarium for their time.)
In the process, those students, and the families that choose to involve themselves as full participants, come away with the proverbial roots and branches – a planting of perennials, if you will, rather than a spectacular but short-lived annual. Like music lessons, gymnastics, robotics clubs, soccer and other activities that nurture the incremental achievement of long-term goals, preparation for bar or bat mitzvah ought to be the reason for larger life lessons. Like algebra, chemistry, grammar and social studies, the value is not in a single test or a grade, but in the development of a comprehensive knowledge of the world that may never draw on a particular equation or Fiji custom, but better prepares a student to live up to the best that he or she can be. For a Jewish kid, that especially means being a knowledgeable Jew.
My small heresy here is that one need not participate in a ceremony at age 13 to be a competent Jew, and lots of people who do not or did not belong to a synagogue of any kind are nonetheless perfectly capable Jews. But if the ceremony and the synagogue are what you want for your kid, then it makes sense to prioritize the depth of the experience over its affordability.
I plead guilty to spending 35 years persuading people to spend more than they think they can afford on synagogue, summer camp, day school, kosher food, homes near the shul and, on top of all that, the charitable obligations of tzedakah (and not just for Jewish causes). It has cost people vacations, newer cars, larger homes, dining experiences and an active life on buy-me-dot-com. That is my personal experience, too, not just reportage.
It is too expensive to be an active Jew in a Jewish community that has schlepped its activities and institutions into the more expensive strata of society. We are not going back to being poorer, and we should not turn to minimalist experiences in the hopes of reducing the overall costs. Rather, taking a comprehensive look at the values we want to inculcate in our kids and then living them will make our approach to this dilemma more necessary, more creative and more fruitful.
Once again, we are debating intermarriage as if there is a debate. Intermarriage is a fact. The only question we can debate is whether officiants will participate in the ceremony and surrounding festivities.
I have long believed that marriage is the purview of the state. In a country like ours, this legal arrangement is subject to the prevailing laws of the secular authority. The state has a vested interest in defining such relationships, which I do not challenge. These same interests protect my ability to live my life as a practicing Jew, subject only to the restrictions that protect similar rights of others regarding their faith or philosophy.
As such, I accept grudgingly the courtesy extended to me as a rabbi to act on behalf of the state when I solemnize a marriage. I do not think that clergy should be authorized as agents of the secular authorities, unless that authorization is separate and distinct from their ordination. Were those functions separate, I would not seek such authority because I do not wish to be in the position of devout county clerks who believe that they have the right to limit access to civil rights and privileges.
When I officiate at a wedding, I do so in the context of the “religious society” to which I belong and my personal religious convictions. I believe that my role is to solemnize a ceremony according to the requirements of “Moses and the people Israel,” and I believe that my rabbinic association – in my case, the Rabbinical Assembly – is the arbiter of that standard.
If you gather that it is all about me and not the couple, you are mostly correct. Any couple that is unencumbered by the laws of their state may enter into marriage. I celebrate their love in my heart. But the mandates of my own convictions govern my actions.
Many years ago, I was approached by two couples in a single week. Couple number one was a middle-aged Jewish man and his decidedly younger (and pregnant) fiancée. She had blonde hair, blue eyes and an Irish surname, and was raised on a farm among people of good Christian stock. She discovered, as a result of her relationship with her then-boyfriend, that her mother was a Jew.
Couple number two was a young man from a modern orthodox family and his fiancée with a Jewish surname and a Jewish upbringing from a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. She never thought of herself as anything other than Jewish. She discovered, as a result of her relationship with her then-boyfriend, that her mother was not Jewish, ever – a detail shared with her only because mom knew enough about orthodoxy to know it would make a difference.
I asked my rabbi – a respected Talmudist – how to respond to the two couples. He sighed and told me I had no reason to deny the wedding canopy to the first couple, but absent a conversion, I had no reason to offer it to the second couple. Couple two accepted the conversion option, not without frustration, and I officiated at both weddings.
For very different reasons, I felt uncomfortable at both weddings. But my feelings of discomfort did not compromise my sense of personal integrity as a Conservative rabbi. An Orthodox rabbi would not have agreed to a formal conversion on the basis of upbringing, and a Reform rabbi would not have agreed to the first wedding because the bride had neither education in nor commitment to the Judaism her mother abandoned to marry her father.
Many years later, I responded positively to a request from a friend and colleague to ask about revisiting a restriction on all members of the Rabbinical Assembly; at penalty of expulsion, we are (still) prohibited from attending an intermarriage, including the celebration. Read that carefully – attending, not just officiating. My very understanding family has accepted my absence from such events involving people I love. I observe the restriction because I agreed to. I don’t like it, so I asked about reconsideration.
Just the asking produced an extreme and defensive reaction. The rationale, I was told many times, was to protect rabbis whose personal convictions were at odds with demanding congregants and who could therefore claim that they would be present except for this binding rule. I was importuned to remove my very request. Since I was a supporting actor in this drama, I recognized that the moment was not mine. Even after I agreed to un-ask the question, I was contacted regularly to be certain I would stick to my withdrawal.
Now, dear reader, you have one of two reactions thus far. Either you understand entirely (even if you disagree) or you are filled with some sense of disdain.
I can’t help you if you are disdainful, even if I get it. The culture of our society emphasizes inclusiveness and self-fulfillment, and as people saturated with America we are easily outraged if two people who want to share their love are denied because of what appear to be arbitrary and repressive rules. I have championed marriage equality, and I have a carefully cultivated intolerance of those who would deny the benefits of marriage validated by the secular government to any citizen.
But the standard I maintain as a Jew (who is also a rabbi) is a different standard, which is why I prefer not to be an officiant on behalf of the secular government. If you want my participation, then my declared principles about personal identity, freedom from previous marital obligations, day-and-time of the ceremony and more are part of my protected civil rights. I do not need an association to enact sanctions on my behalf if I have the courage of my convictions. But, likewise, I am ready to challenge rules and regulations that seem arbitrary and of dubious principle.
But, hey, that’s me. Some people believe laws without enforcement are ineffective. Some believe in building a fence around our principles to prevent encroachment. Some believe their autonomy supersedes existing standards. Bless them all.
One of these days I will ask the forbidden question again, along with others who have provoked a “blue ribbon panel” to consider it. And when the answer comes I will decide if I am in or out of the community of rabbis, and that will determine my behavior. But I sure wish the state would take back the gift of public agency. It’s none of my business.
(This past week marked the 35th anniversary of my ordination. It happened that I also was asked to reflect on the impact of one of my teachers, and it brought to mind a midrash that changed my theology and allowed it to evolve. That midrash came from the collection Sifrei Devarim section 313 and the relevant piece is below. What follows are the remarks I delivered at Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, VA, where I hold the title of Rabbi Emeritus.)
"He built Him" (Deut 32:10): Before Abraham came to the world, it seemed (as it were, kiv'yakhol) as if the Holy One Blessed be He were king of the heavens alone, viz. (Gen. 24:7) "O L-rd, G-d of the heavens, who took me, etc." But when Abraham came to the world, he enthroned Him over heaven and earth, viz. (Ibid. 3) "And I will have you swear by the L-rd, G-d of heaven and G-d of earth."
I just came back from a wonderful trip to Israel with an interfaith group. I was approached by Rev. Larry Hayward from Westminster Presbyterian to repeat the success of our first trip together 5 years ago. The timing did not seem right for Agudas Achim, so Beth El Hebrew Congregation agreed to partner with Westminster and I came along for the ride. A few members of this congregation participated. We had a great and meaningful time.
Among the questions that were raised in the evening we all sat together in Jerusalem to process our experiences was one about the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. If you have been there, you know that the reported site of the manger has been embellished and expanded. At least three different Christian traditions claim to mark the official location of the holiest site, and they are not the same as the others. Which one is the right one, the questioner wanted to know.
In a different context, I had been thinking about the authenticity of holy sites. Jewish, Christian or Muslim, all of the sites we visited were dependent on some received tradition that was passed along and modified by word of mouth for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. The Bible, the Gospels, the Qur’an and various historical documents made many claims. Some of them have evidence discovered by archaeologists, but there is no definitive proof of any of them.
So I offered my answer, not just about the Church of the Nativity, but about all the holy sites, and this was it:
Nothing happened there. No matter what anyone says, nothing happened there. It is the same at every holy spot. Nothing happened there.
Yet, the world depends on you believing the sacred lies we tell each other. Just as our ancestor rabbis radically affirmed, God is not present in this world without our belief – kiv’yakhol.
But you have to ask, what makes our sacred lies different from the falsehoods we deride and the stories we insist are fiction? Why does our belief in God mean something holy rather than merely a version of clapping to save Tinkerbell’s life in a play?
And the answer is that we cannot live without truth. And let me tell you a truth. There is no reason we should be here in a universe of ten billion billion galaxies. The existence of this world is a statistical impossibility. The existence of the human race is a statistical impossibility within that that impossibility. And the existence of you? You would finish reciting every digit of Pi before writing all of the zeroes after the decimal point of that possibility.
Plain lies are an insult. Pretending and contrived magic tricks are a diversion from the reality of our world. But faith, the suspension of disbelief, is necessary to give the impossibility of our life meaning. Without meaning, the literal miracle of our lives is of no more significance than a fruit fly.
And we are more significant than a fruit fly. How much more?
How much faith do you have?
So which sacred fabrication, which holy lie should you believe of the many we encounter? It is the one that insists you love the other impossible miracles among whom you live, your fellow human beings. It is the one that makes you recognize that you are part of something larger – your family, your community, your religion and, ultimately, your universe, the universe from which you impossibly appeared and to which you will most certainly return.
Annie Dillard is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author who wrote these words in her beautiful book For the Time Being, a title I encourage you to say in as many ways as you can. This is what she said, slightly edited:
"There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death.
“It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time—or even knew selflessness or courage or literature—but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree. There is no whit less might in heaven or on earth than there was the day Jesus said ‘Maid, arise’ to the centurion’s daughter, or the day Peter walked on water, or the night Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture...
“‘Each and every day the Divine Voice issues from Sinai,’ says the Talmud. Of eternal fulfillment, Tillich said, ‘If it is not seen in the present, it cannot be seen at all.’… ‘God’ is the awareness of the infinite in each of us. “
Before Abraham, it was as if God was not present in this world – kiv’yakhol.
I wrote to offer comfort in the midst of the epidemic of bomb threats when they landed locally, and now I write again. The apparent perpetrator has been apprehended, and he is American, Israeli and a Jew. It is almost incomprehensible, of course. Not since Son of Sam terrorized New York forty summers ago have Jews been more surprised to hear someone Jewish attached to such terror – and David Berkowitz, crazy though he was, did not target Jews or lay claim to his Jewishness.
Let’s keep a couple of things in perspective. Most important, the children and senior adults who spend their days at JCCs or day schools will not be subjected to this young man’s tactics any more. They were always safe from him, but now they (and we) know it.
Next, the government and private agencies tasked with protecting us did their job. I am not the only one who criticized the tone-deafness of the President throughout this nightmare, but his Attorney General and FBI Director deserve the credit for pursuing this matter beyond the borders of their jurisdiction and bringing it to successful resolution.
And finally, no one got hurt. The psychological damage may need to be addressed, but no life or well-being was compromised. I made that point in the midst of all of this tumult to distinguish the wave of terror we experienced from the attacks on other religious minorities.
At this writing, we know very little about the teenager who seems to be responsible, but we know some things about ourselves.
Let us take the time we need to learn the facts and process them. Please be suspicious of anyone (including me!) who thinks he or she can wrap this up in a bow and walk away. And anyone who solicits money on the emotions generated by these discoveries should be considered reprehensible. We need to learn, to cocoon, to grieve
And then we need to go back to our lives.
DON’T BE AFRAID
I know I have written about this before, but the time has come again. My readers in and around Northern Virginia have just been touched by what has occurred in so many other communities over the last month: Gesher Jewish Day School (the original Jewish day school in Northern Virginia) was evacuated this morning following a bomb threat. There was no bomb. After a well-planned response, the children returned to their classes and activities. A similar occurrence took place at Charles E Smith Jewish Day School’s upper campus in Rockville, MD. The JCC in Rockville was targeted in a previous hoax.
My kids are long past the age of school and not yet at the age of having family members at a JCC during the day. But I have been where parents and staff members are. With apologies for repetition, here is my story.
The Jewish Community Center in Annandale, Virginia was completed in 1993. It was the first new JCC constructed in a long time and the excitement in the community – including from my in-laws, who had been on the ground floor of founding the institution a generation earlier – was unbounded. Of course, it did not take long before someone (teenaged vandals, as it turns out) defaced the new building with symbols of racism and anti-semitism, including mistakes in their spray-painting that confirmed that they were as ignorant as they were bigoted.
The community, Jew and non-Jew alike, rallied a couple of nights later in support of the JCC and in the middle of the program, as our representative to Congress held forth, a bomb threat was phoned into the JCC. Of course. The building was evacuated to the parking lot where the program continued. (The same idiots who sprayed the building made the call. They were caught.)
With me that evening were my two daughters and my wife’s parents. My wife was home with our preschooler. When the rally ended, we got into our car and drove off, headed home on the Capital Beltway. A safe distance from the JCC, but traveling 55 mph, my eight-year-old burst into tears and cried out, “Why would anyone want to hurt us?”
I had been pretty philosophical about the events to that point. But now I felt the rage in my toes travel all the way my body until it was ready to explode through the top of my head. How dare these cowardly dunderheads steal the innocence of my child!
The police were great. The press was diligent. The non-Jewish community was outraged and sympathetic. But I had to look up a lot of details about this event 23 years later. My rage on that night, on the other hand, is immediately and viscerally accessible.
Parents of day school and preschool students, I know what you are feeling. Most of us have never experienced the virulent Jew-hatred that is so much a part of our history. But the fear of it has been inculcated in us so that our wariness is never far from the surface. And because the brand of anti-semitism most usual in this country is addressed by well-established non-profits filled with lawyers and scholars who speak to sympathetic police, press and community leaders, we are unfamiliar with the need to defend ourselves directly – or flee – that our family ancestors knew first-hand when that history was being lived. So we are furious and we are casting about for what to do beyond the security briefings and the statements by our defense organizations.
This recent spate of anti-semitic terrorizing has been enabled by the campaign season just concluded and by some of the people who have attached themselves to the current President of the United States. If you are a Trump supporter, read that sentence again so that you do not misrepresent what I wrote. Here is fact – not alternate fact, not fake news, not “lying” – the current administration has done precious little to distance themselves from overt and subtle threats to non-Christian minorities in this country. What more could they do? Well, in 1993, the President of the United States sent a letter of solidarity to the JCC that was read at the ill-fated rally. The current President took a month to answer a direct question about anti-semitism.
The bomb threats and the cemetery vandalism and the alt-right and the understatement of support from the federal government may make you worry that Jewish life in the United States has reached the end of the road. Do not be afraid. A very small minority of people with proximity to power may wish us ill, but the vast majority of Americans, including almost all of them who voted for the current President, do not. Evangelical Christians, Muslims, Protestants, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists (to name a few) are not having any of it, just as we Jews are having none of the discrimination directed against them. The good news is that when it comes to standing up for others, as good as our community can be, we are not better than everyone else. You do not need to be a Jew to recognize prejudice.
But please let me not sound too sanguine. The threats we are experiencing are not because of a new wave of anti-semitism. This bigotry has been contained under a layer of permafrost that prevented it from poking its ugly shoots above the surface. When political climate change thawed the surface, the seeds of prejudice took first advantage to sprout like invasive species in an ecosystem where natural predators have been eliminated. Few as these dangerous morons are, if the weeds are not pulled, they will flourish. And this administration is out of the weed-pulling business.
And your anger, your fury, your protective rage for the stolen innocence of our children is real and it should be maintained. Don’t calm down. Don’t rationalize it. Don’t wish it way. Don’t repress it. What is indeed in your hands is the ability to prevent more of the same. Eventually, we will have better gardeners, but only thanks to you.
That’s what I did. I was always ready for a good cause, but that experience at the JCC rekindled my passion on behalf of justice and kindness and every version of the Golden Rule. It led me to where I sit today: leading Interfaith Alliance, a national organization seeking to preserve faith and freedom and the positive role of religion in society.
But more important than what that rage about my sweet little girl did to me is what that evening did to her. Somewhere in her heart a switch was thrown. She has devoted her life to preventing people from suffering. If she was afraid that night, she caught some of the rage the next morning and it has animated the choices she has made at every stage of her life.
So at the risk of sounding like the baby boomer that I am, don’t be afraid. By temperament and example, teach your children well.
The Johnson Amendment to the IRS code prohibits 501c(3) non-profits from participating substantially in campaign activities. The price such an organization – including synagogues – must pay for accepting donations that are tax exempt is that they will not use them to support candidates who would benefit them or their concerns. I support the Johnson Amendment, and as an American, you should too. If public endorsements from the pulpit became protected speech, the flow of tax-deductible campaign money to religious institutions would make the Citizens United decision look like a good alternative.
But a rabbi who refrains from discussing current events (in Talmudic Aramaic, inyanei d’yoma) from the pulpit ought to be ashamed.
I understand the struggle. First of all, people come to synagogue for worship. It is why I always tried to avoid teaching or preaching in the middle of any segment of the service on Shabbat or the holidays. If someone wanted to step out before I offered a challenge, they could fulfill their need to pray or say kaddish without interference from me.
And secondly, my conclusions about public policy and values, if they represented only my opinions, were bound to conflict with the considered opinions of some segment of a diverse congregation. What gave me the right to offer twenty minutes of self-indulgence to a captive audience? Only if I had something to offer that was grounded in the tradition.
And that’s where I understand the responsibility to originate. With more than 2000 years of recorded scholarly deliberations behind us, contemporary rabbis could spend any amount of time exploring the intricacies of Biblical verses or Talmudic passages. It is the responsibility of any Jew to know about charging interest on loans, visiting the sick, how much time to wait between meat and dairy, the mandate to rise before a white-haired elder and how to check for mixtures of linen and wool. The peculiar way a word is used in a scriptural passage can fill an entire lesson. There are thousands of stories and rulings that reveal fascinating details about times past and how our forebears understood commandments, customs and conduct.
But Jewish tradition, as we so often say, is not just about preserving the past. It is about living in the present. And we sometimes overlook that all – and I will defend the word “all” – of our past scholarship is about contending with the contemporaneous circumstances of the scholars’ lives. The rabbis of the Mishnaic period didn’t talk about government in general – they talked about the Romans. The decisors of the Middle Ages weren’t merely wondering about the status of a wife whose husband disappeared on a journey – they were answering questions about actual occurrences. Even Rashi, the “plain-meaning” commentator on the Bible and Talmud, put some of his concepts into French so that students would understand them in their own context. (And never mind that his rulings on whether certain wines were kosher might have had something to do with his business as a producer of kosher wine.)
The rabbi of any community has a responsibility to speak to the people who put their trust in her or him in a manner that makes Torah crucially relevant to their lives. To neglect “current events” on the basis that they are political – that is, that they deal with the process of making decisions applying to all members of society – is to compartmentalize Jewish consciousness and imprison Torah in the classroom.
The resistance of some people to hearing a message of Jewish values that challenges their own commitments is nothing new. In contemporary times, just discussing Shabbat, kashrut, tzedakah, Jewish learning and Hebrew language skills is enough to generate resentment and pushback. Public policy is neither sacred nor trefe in that regard – it is part of the stuff that surrounds us just as much as art, science, commerce and every other venue in which we interact as Jews and as Americans.
The resistance of some rabbis to presenting a message of Jewish values that challenges his or her listeners is an abrogation of duty. In my experience, people came to shul with all sorts of yearnings, some personal and some global, some practical and some existential. They all deserve their moments. But what was true when the pews filled to capacity after the 9/11 attacks is just as true when a smaller crowd is living through a policy debate on taxes, foreign policy, social concerns or homeland security: people want to know what my tradition has to say to me about these issues. If the rabbi says nothing, then the impression is: nothing.
Rabbis are not pundits with pulpits. But they are presumed to be fully-formed human beings whose lives are guided by their learning and their piety. To be sure, some few of my colleagues have understood that presumption to be a license to pontificate, but most of them recognize their responsibility to share their own struggles with the often-conflicting demands of our traditions and our society. We have a mandate to be exemplars, not just of ritual rectitude or spiritual sophistication or academic aptitude, but also of navigators of the body politic.
Not to tell people how to cast a vote. Not to tell people how to affiliate with a political party. But indeed to remind people that the authentic Jewish life is one to which the critical issues of current events are as important as what time to light shabbes candles.
Every now and then a rabbi gets expelled from my professional organization. Sometimes it is because of criminal conduct, unfortunately. Sometimes it is because of a serious breach of ethics. And sometimes it is because the rabbi has broken the non-negotiable rules of our association which include a respect for certain administrative norms that make all of our members secure and a very few ritual commitments.
Most recently, a long-time colleague lost his standing in our organization because he breached one of those ritual commitments. I don’t want to litigate his decision here. It provokes me, however, to consider again the question of who or what a rabbi serves.
There are three possible answers and only one of them is wrong. The rabbi who holds the title and position in service of him- or herself is no rabbi. But the other two possibilities are sometimes in tension. The first is that the rabbi serves God’s will, a sort of manufacturer’s rep. The second is that the rabbi serves the (Jewish) people in some smaller or larger sense, more a concierge than an authority figure.
My colleagues with a more traditional theology most often put God’s will first. By “God’s will,” they mean the teachings of the Bible as understood and applied by a hundred generations of scholars. Some (including me) call it halakha, Jewish law. Though the literalists among us believe that God revealed every detail to Moses atop Mount Sinai, the less literal and more liberal subset of us believe that human experience and deliberation is part of the revelatory experience, something that God actually factored into the process of divine decision-making.
Others – including those who wonder if attributing the notion of “will” to God is anything other than anthropomorphism – put people first. As recognized experts in the Jewish endeavor, they see their task as escorts into the meaningfulness of belonging to this diverse community with common concerns. Every encounter is a teachable moment and an opportunity to share the wisdom that has sustained this evolving civilization in its various iterations. The people who embrace Jewish life will sustain it, and therefore they see their sacred work as strengthening the ties that bind.
Of course, most of the time these two perspectives are entirely compatible. From the Passover seder to activism on behalf of social causes to interfaith engagement (my own current work), rabbis have found multiple avenues to promote contemporary expressions of ancient practices while welcoming individuals seeking a place in the jigsaw of Jewish life.
But sometimes, a rabbi has to choose. Sometimes, the answer to a question asked in one context is completely different when asked in the other context.
Here is an example that has nothing to do with the colleague mentioned above. Jewish law prescribes that a minyan, a quorum of ten, must be present for the recitation of Mourners’ Kaddish, a liturgical declaration that the bereaved recite during the initial mourning period and then on the anniversary of the death of a near relative. But what happens when less than ten are present when the time comes to recite? The law-centered rabbi omits the prayer, perhaps disappointing the grieving worshipper. The people-centered rabbi recites the prayer, perhaps disappointing the “traditionalist” worshippers. There is no way to uphold the legal requirement and to allow the individual to practice the personally meaningful ritual.
Believe me, I know that first-hand. In my earliest days in my congregation of many years, I discovered that the practice at daily worship was to recite Kaddish even in the absence of the quorum by opening the doors of the ark containing the Torah scroll and “counting the Torah” in place of the missing people – sometimes four or five of them. Not having a poker face, my discomfort with the practice was immediately noticed by an older (and not very diplomatic) member who summarily announced one morning that, per the rabbi, we were no longer observing that custom. A dear woman who had arrived on the first anniversary of her mother’s death burst into tears and ran out the door as I stood flabbergasted that a “solution” had been invoked in my name.
Those whose commitment to the obligations of Jewish law is unbreakable understand the painful decisions that are sometimes necessary when you can’t give people what they want. Those whose love for the people is primary understand that they may indeed be fraying some of the strands that (we assume) have been holding together our sacred tradition. If this sounds to you like the plot of “Fiddler on the Roof,” then you understand the soundtrack that plays in every rabbi’s heart.
As I said, I do not want to weigh in on the decisions made by my (former?) colleague. He was not the first and he will not be the last to make the choice in question. And the consequence of his actions was no surprise; it was not innovated on the spot the way my congregant proclaimed. This tension will always exist, even if/when the fierce disagreement that provoked this incident has been resolved. There will always be another frontier.
Congregations, communities and individuals choose a rabbi whom they believe will give dominant weight to the side of this fulcrum they favor – sometimes for philosophical reasons and sometimes for self-satisfaction. But the rabbi, unless she or he wrongly serves a personal agenda, will always struggle to consider the side of lesser weight. And sometimes, despite the consequence, will disappoint those on the other side.
I was once a guest at a synagogue in a town distant from mine. The rabbi there had a reputation for a very stern demeanor, on and off the pulpit. So I was surprised to notice a good deal of commotion from children in the very formal sanctuary. I mentioned it to the friend who hosted me who responded, “The rabbi never allowed children in the sanctuary unless they were silent. If a baby made noise during his sermon, he would stop until the child was removed by one or both parents. And then one Shabbat morning, his grandson bolted away from his parents and went running up to the pulpit yelling, ‘Grandpa!!’ From that day on, children were welcome to be children here.”
I know that ambience well. One of my rabbis (never mind which) once began a sermon very dramatically, only to be interrupted by a baby’s yelp. He stared down the mother until she slunk out of the sanctuary with her little one. I don’t think I ever saw them again. And clearly, I never forgot it either.
I love kids of all ages, but especially little ones. Each age has its special delights, but the tiny ones are the most delicious. During my first Yom Kippur as a congregational rabbi, I picked up a little girl from her frustrated mother just before the afternoon prayers and she promptly fell asleep in my arms as I conducted the service. (I did not beat my breast during the confessional for fear of disturbing her.) For all my years in the pulpit, when parents brought their babies to Saturday services for the first time, I would carry them in the Torah procession and up to the open ark as the congregation sang “all its path are peace.” I whispered into uncomprehending ears, “All of this is for you, and I will teach you anything you want to know.” When I had the chance to bring my own granddaughter to that place…well…
The noises of little children never disturbed me in the pulpit, even when I was speaking. I know it frustrated some members of the congregation to no end that I could ignore the babble and occasional crying. I not only tolerated but celebrated the ones who would toddle up to the bima, jump off the stairs, run around the place behind the ark or come to sit in the big chairs where the clergy and officers would sit. I could even mostly ignore the yellers. I meant what I said to them when they were tiny: all of this is for you. Only once in 34 years did I ask parents to remove a child; it was time for the Yom Kippur sermon and the topic was very difficult; it required my full concentration just to get through the words I had written. As I began, a child began to yell. The little one was not crying or complaining, just yelling as kids sometimes do. I could not focus. Stammering my apologies, I asked that the child be taken outside so that I did not have to outshout the yelling.
The only problem with babies is that we do not have enough of them. My father’s generation had 48 first cousins. Mine has 15. My kids’ has 11. There are all sorts of reasons for that decline, and I judge no one for the lack of desire, ability or opportunity to raise children. All the more reason to treasure the ones we have and to make them feel as comfortable as possible in the places we want them to frequent as they get older.
(Do they need instruction on respectful behavior? Yes. More on that at a later time, other than to say that my experience is that the ones who learn to love synagogue at an early age are the easiest ones to educate on the special nature of the place.)
I read a brief essay by a man who claimed he was “banned from synagogue” because of his baby. It made me very sad, though he wasn’t exactly banned and it wasn’t exactly his synagogue (I understand why he felt that way). What he described – a rule against children in the sanctuary before noon – excludes two generations from the community, so-called family services in a segregated location notwithstanding. I just don’t get it, and I never tolerated it.
Parents or designated caregivers have a responsibility to consider the people around them if a child’s behavior interferes with the ability of others to pray or learn. And congregants, with a little forethought and practice, can learn how to say, “Your little one is adorable, but I am having trouble hearing the cantor clearly. I am sorry to ask you this, but might you take her outside for a little while? Please bring her back when she is happier.”
But it is the rabbinic ego that insists that pronouncements from the pulpit carry more enlightenment and joy that the sound of a child being a child. Not every rabbi shares my interest is tuning out pint-sized competition. Yet, however long the rabbi toiled over a sermon or page announcements, the very people she or he wants to reach are the ones raising that organic noisemaker.
And neither is the rabbi the enforcer for impatient congregants. I think the rabbi should stick up for the kids.
When I am asked if I miss being in the pulpit, my answer is that I do not. I don’t avoid it, but my life remains full without the weekly need to present ideas and encourage prayer. But truth be told, here is what I do miss: escorting those infants to their first encounter with the Torah. I only wish I had done it more.
Bullying is a serious problem and it is wrong. I want to go on record with that statement because without making it explicit, you might think I believe otherwise.
A colleague of mine wrote a column in The Forward in which he discusses being bullied by his congregants. There was probably a sad smile of recognition on the part of every rabbi who read that essay because there are such people in every congregation.
(There are also devoted acolytes, sycophants, humble saints, deeply needy people, sociopaths, paragons of compassion and more in every congregation. Sometimes they are all the same person.)
Most rabbis, certainly this one, want to be loved. It comes as a shock when someone seems to be personally antagonistic or even downright cruel instead of appreciative and respectful. And when confronted by congregants who are aggressive or enraged, the dissonance a rabbi feels can be disabling.
Professional training and collective wisdom encourage conciliation and understanding. The rabbinic amygdala demands fight or flight. And even if the rabbi, certainly this one, could overcome the sense that “a rabbi ought to be wise enough to deal with these things alone,” there is never a guarantee that effective and reliable allies can be mustered.
I faced difficult congregants throughout my career. I came to two insights the hard way – that is, by ignoring the good counsel of others and taking much longer to come to the same conclusion myself. I actually wrote about this a little in a previous column, and the take-away is that my own inadequacies are always magnified by the history of previous rabbis (and other authority figures) with my challengers.
But it can be hard to remember that. A particularly forbidding member, used to getting her way with a predecessor of mine, sent me into a funk when she told me, “You are a cold person. Lots of people feel that way.” Another member accused me of “oppressing widows and orphans” (she was both) when the synagogue raised dues – and made a formal complaint to my professional organization that, ridiculous as it was, I had to answer. A third congregant kept track of how many lights were on in the (synagogue-owned) house we occupied for a few years, and reported it to the board. (By the way, all those people have been called to their eternal reward, so they are not you.)
So the first insight is that most people, seeing these interactions, recognize them for what they are: bad behavior. Synagogues are notoriously forgiving communities, accommodating difficult personalities and even enabling them out of love and compassion – no different than most religious institutions. If you need proof, compare the numbers of people who quit synagogues with the number who are disaffiliated. But just because you love someone does not mean you like them. I almost always discovered that lots and lots of people shared my frustration with these contentious folks.
And my second insight is that, except for the sociopaths (and there are a few), when bad behavior is pointed out to the offenders they are shocked at themselves. I should know it from personal experience, but when I am on the receiving end, it is hard to remember that my own excesses are usually unintentional. I remember speaking to a congregant about bad behavior and, after he shamefacedly owned it, hearing him say, “That’s not who I am.” I guess that’s what Yom Kippur and its preceding days of repentance are all about.
So I am not sure that clergy bullying per se is as prevalent as rabbis think it is. Sometimes we smack a label on something that helps us get a handle on it, but the complexities can disappear behind the generic category.
But to return to the beginning, bullying is a serious problem, and it is wrong. Even with all of the insight my decades in the pulpit inspired, there were times when I knew I was being pushed around by someone with personal animosities. The behavior was reprehensible; even so, I felt like a crybaby when I complained. And the gulf between the expectation that the rabbi will always be the adult in the room and the attempt by a bully to infantilize the rabbi can be impossible to straddle.
Any rabbi will also smile knowingly when you mention that there are friends of rabbis, too. They may have the best of motivations or some of the same pathologies, but they are quietly beloved by those of us deeply grateful for their support. It’s not all bad.
What is the solution to clergy bullying? Well, no different than on the playground or the campaign trail: good people need to stand up for what is right.
I never much liked preparing for the High Holy Days, but I loved them when they arrived. Especially as I became more adept at managing the long services with the flow of so many dear people in, out and through, there was a poetry to the days that was independent of the liturgy and the sacred tasks at hand.
I had the privilege to work with some terrific partners in the pulpit over the years (none better than hazzan who is yet at the synagogue I served) and a few people whose sincerity may have exceeded their talent. But it was the crowd before me that made the real difference. Each person came with two agendas – the official orders of the day, printed in the prayer book, and the personal priorities that impelled them to the synagogue. The list of items was limited: penitence, reflection, fashion, gossip, musical inspiration, display of (grand)children, and so on. The combination was unique in every congregant and part of the symphony of the day.
To succeed, I needed three things: services that provided ample opportunity for prayer, an inspirational set of messages and an eye on the clock. The first years in my most recent pulpit were not successful in that last item. The later years, thanks to pre-labeled post-it notes, allowed me to plan for the following season by tracking the actual amount of time it took to, say, do the full introductory service until the Torah service. (1:20, by the way). And even though the services for the first and second days of Rosh HaShanah are virtually identical, the scriptural readings for the second day are actually about twenty minutes shorter. Now you know.
The year after I stepped away from the pulpit was an emotionally difficult time. In my opinion, the transition was poorly handled all around. But my family knew we needed to be somewhere else for the High Holy Days, so we wound up with a short term rental on the Upper West Side in New York. We spent those holidays at the services of the Jewish Theological Seminary among a relatively intimate group of less than 400. After all, most of the rabbis and not-yet-rabbis were off conducting services in parts unknown. I was among a few friends and a lot of strangers.
The experience was like none I ever had. I credit the leaders – Julia Andelman, Alan Cooper, Danny Nevins and Lauren Henderson – with presence that was both gentle and intense. But I credit myself with letting go of my role as manager. And when I did, the liturgy flowed through me like a river. It washed over me like first love. It infiltrated my body – head and heart, eyes and ears, limbs and lips. Words and phrases jumped off the page and danced for me. Ideas I had considered aloud 100 times or more climbed into my tear ducts and baled streams down my cheeks. Freed of the responsibility to beat the clock, maintain (Jewish) law and order and keep everyone on the same page (literally), I became just a Jew in the pew.
I was grateful. Absolutely, I was grateful to JTS for the experience of worship, but at least as much I was grateful to the decades of preparation for those moments. Without the engagement from the pulpit, I likely would not have had such engagement off the pulpit.
Judging from the size of my long-time congregation, only one in a thousand people has my experience. I am that one. But over the years, I heard expressions of gratitude from lots of the other 999. They were grateful for lots of different things, flowing from those unique agendas. (I heard complaints, too, but fewer than you might imagine).
So I have come to understand that this annual pageant, lauded and lampooned, is a collective conspiracy. It has a stated purpose: to get individuals and the community right with God. But whether or not any or all of us believe that literally, High Holy Day services are also the Walmart of Judaism. (Ouch. Macy’s? Harrod’s? Amazon?) They are the place for certain business to be conducted that serves the local franchise and the larger endeavor, but does so only if they can provide what every individual comes looking to find.
Congregants pretend to come for the purpose of prayer, and rabbis and cantors are complicit in that pretense. But the fact is that prayer is most the excuse for people to come together; it is the one thing they all have in common. However, it is not necessarily the primary reason for anyone…except maybe the rabbi.
Accidentally, I guess I became the enabler of all of those private agendas. In the process, my High Holy Day experience became not so much prayerful devotion as it was managing the prayer experience for others. I had my few moments, tucking myself into a less-visible nook and creating private space with my large tallit pulled over my head, or free-falling into the chanting of “Avinu Malkeinu,” broken-heartedly aware that we need charity and love because our good deeds fall so short of our potential.
But once I relinquished that role to others, I rediscovered what I probably knew before page numbers and post-it notes – I was happy to be present for the collective endeavor as long as I got what I needed in the process. That’s as it should be, and not just for the pious of Israel, but for the co-conspirators from all aspects of Jewish life, too.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession