Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Baby and the Bathwater Part I: Pseudo-community

It is no secret that the Engineering Geek and I have been questioning the value of our temple synagogue membership in the past two years. There are many issues, some of which are big on their own, and some of which are niggling little problems that annoy--like an itch that no amount of scratching will relieve. For us, the list of concerns spans numerous areas of temple synagogue life, including education, religious practices, and communication. I had thought that the overall issue was our loss of a sense of ownership in the institution; the experience of being discounted as decisions are made that affect the quality of our membership with little regard to our concerns. I still think this is true. However, I also has a moment of clarity last week during Rosh Hashanah. The dawning of clarity began with the rabbi's Rosh Hashanah sermon.

The rabbi used Martin Buber's I and Thou psychology to posit that most of us were coming at our membership from the standpoint of commerce; that is, our approach is to pay our dues as if we are paying for services, and we are disappointed if we do not get quality for our money. This he said, is equvalent to Buber's I - It relationship, in which we enter into a fleeting relationship (?) with another person for the purpose of the transaction. Such a relationship does not require any sharing of the self at all, and no energy is expended by either party on more than a formal and passing recognition of the personhood of the other.

The rabbi then jumped to Buber's I - Thou relationship, suggesting that this most intimate and holy of ways of relating is appropriate to the relationship of a Jew to her religious institution. According to Buber, the I - Thou relationship requires each person to view the other's unity of being; that is as a whole and complete individual; as a subject rather than an object. And it was at this point in the sermon that the whole metaphor began to fall apart for me.

Perhaps I am flawed in some way, but I really have difficulty imagining myself relating to an institution as if it were a dear friend or lover. And, try as I might, I do not see this particular institution operating as a community. I think such an equation as this is a great example of Mark Twain's aphorism, "saying so don't make it so."

The politically correct notion is that if you change the name of something, you change it's nature. Thus we have had a whole string of politically correct name changes at our Temple Congregation. Starting with the name of the organization. We also no longer have rabbis and cantors, we have clergy. We no longer have a Director of Education, we have a Director of Life-Long Learning. But the changes must go deeper than the cosmetic name change if they are to be taken seriously by the membership. Buy-in requires a more intimate and closely argued discussion in which all members have a voice and consensus is reached at the grass-roots level. As it stands, the politically correct changes do not even scratch the surface of what has become a monument to certain egos to which the membership is expected to acquiesce without question or complaint.

One example: Reform Judaism has a well-developed set of traditions. (I will discuss this issue more thoroughly in a future post). One is that the religious services require a certain formality. But that formality is balanced by brevity. Adults are expected to sit through the entire service, something that is not true for other expressions of Judaism. However, at the High Holy Day evening services in recent years, the stark beauty of the anthem following the sermon has been tampered with, and schlock rock songs, an additional sermon by the president of the congregation, and a 'kum-ba-ya' hand-holding encounter have been added. These additions of questionable taste add at least half-an-hour to an already long (for Reform) service. But the membership, many of whom have already worked a full day prior to services, is expected to remain awake and in their seats. When too many people either take a break, bail-out completely, or go to sleep, we are subjected to much finger-shaking from the bimah (pulpit). (This temple synagogue seems to have problems allowing people to meet the most basic need of a bathroom).

Even in the most holy and intimate of I - Thou relationships, marriage, a contract is made and it is expected that something of value is exchanged. The covenant--the brit--requires the participation of both "thou's." Such a covenant involves the exchange of both material and spiritual goods and services between and among the parties. Commerce-in the form of material value such as money--is not foreign to such a relationship; it is simply not the exclusive form of value exchanged. A contract is considered null and void if one of the parties reneges on such an exchange. (For example, a marriage is not a marriage if there is no intimacy between the partners and lack of such is grounds for divorce). Thus, it seems entirely proper for the membership to withhold money if they feel that the institution is not returning something of value in the exchange. It seems to me that the rabbi's scolding is an attempt to distract the membership from the institutional side of the bargain. It is an evasion of the contractual responsibility of the temple congregation towards the membership.

And this is where the metaphor completely falls apart for me. The I - Thou relationship requires a deep level of responsibility from both (or all) parties. There must be give-and-take happening at all levels. I - Thou is not a completely different way of relating to another, rather, it adds additional layers of complexity to the relationship.

I do not, and cannot imagine something of this nature happening between an institution and an individual. And this is one, but only one, of my objections to the rabbi's attack on what he calls "radical" individualism. I will discuss this more another time, but I find it rather frightening that he equates Jewish identity with the subsuming of one's individual identity into a collective. Certainly, the Israelite religion of the Bible was based on such an ideology, but modern Judaism, and especially Reform, recognizes the voluntary nature of the relationship between the Jew, Torah and the people Israel. It is a contradiction of the concept of intimacy, and of the I - Thou nature of intimacy, to demand that individuality be lost. (I am NOT talking about ecstasy. In ecstacy, the temporary nature of the loss of boundaries is necessary to the experience).

Rather, I once heard a teacher who suggested that an intermediary form of relationship be added to Buber's construct: I - You. Such a relationship is more like an acquaintanceship; the individuals acknowledge one another's humanity on a deeper level than in the fleeting moments of a commercial encounter, but the kind of intimacy required for the I - Thou relationship is not expected. Encounters with others in this intermediary relationship do require a commonality of purpose for particular endeavors, but it does not extend to all areas of each individual's life. Such a relationship sets limits on expectations from all involved.

I believe that such a relationship is possible between individuals and their respective institutions, precisely because the limitations stress the voluntary nature of the association. Everyone expects to receive something of value from the association and understands that demands among the parties cannot be infinite or unqualified. The powers that govern such an institution understand that they have a responsibility towards all members that is equal to that demanded of the members towards the institution. The members of the board of directors understand that they are to represent not only their own wants and needs, but also those of different individuals in the institution.

Frankly, Rabbi, I am not about to give up the "I" in the I - Thou relationship you propose. And I am not even sure I want to deal with the temple synagogue in this manner. At this point in the history of this congregation, I would be happy overjoyed to see an evolution towards an equal exchange of goods and services in a more bounded I - You relationship.

Maybe this would work better if we go at it step-by-step. I don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but I am not at all comfortable drowning the little darling, either.


Crimson Wife said...

I'm sorry that you're having difficulties with your rabbi and his way of running the synagogue/temple. I'm not Jewish, but I can definitely sympathize as I've experienced similar issues in some of the Catholic parishes to which I've belonged (we've moved around quite a bit in the past decade).

Is there another reform synagogue/temple in your area? If so, you may want to consider visiting it to see if it is a better "fit" for you.

Good luck and mazel tov for the holidays :-)

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Crimson Wife!

It's great to hear from you again.
Unfortunately, there is no other Reform synagogue within a reasonable distance. So, for reasons I will discuss in another post, we are stuck with this one--at least until the Boychick is done with Religious School.
Also, like my people have been for nearly four millenia--I am stiffnecked. I hate to give it up without trying to get some recognition of the problem.
It is primarily the crop of boomer rabbis we've gotten. They are the not the rabbi's rabbis of old. They are far more self-involved. It is all about them--and far longer than that sort of nonsense should last.

christinemm said...


What a situation you have there...

Crimson Wife said...

Oh, yeah, I can *DEFINITELY* relate to dissatisfaction with Boomer-age clergy! They seem to be the main impetus behind the introduction of schmaltzy music and questionable worship practices (do we *REALLY* need to hold hands with each other while reciting traditional prayers like we're at some sort of encounter group?)

At least on the Catholic side, the younger clergy seem to have a healthier respect for tradition- here's hoping that the younger generation of rabbis do as well :-)