It is no secret that the Engineering Geek and I have been questioning the value of our
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
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
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
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
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.