Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Baby and the Bathwater Part II: Both Sides Now

Last week I began writing about our ongoing concerns with how we fit into our current religious institution. In The Baby and the Bathwater Part I, I talked about the idea of naming an institution a "community" even though it does not function like a community. It is likely that to those who are in the rabbi's inner circle, and those who spend a great deal of time there, it does feel like a community. I was more deeply involved when we had a different rabbi and power structure and I remember thinking of it as a community of sorts, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional one.

When the rabbi changed, the power structure changed, and many of us who had been deeply involved found ourselves on the outside. Much was done to create factions and circles within circles, that in my estimation has reduced the sense of community. For example, levels of membership based on the absolute amount of dues paid were established. Those who paid the most got certain perks and privileges--such as celebrating Channukah at the rabbi's house, or high tea with the muckety-mucks of the Reform movement. This is, by definition, Country Club Judaism.

This change was very painful to those of us who had more time and skill than money to give at that time. (Synagogue dues are a big-ticket item on most family budgets, costing well over a thousand dollars a year, not including religious education fees, the required building fund contribution, additional fees for youth group membership, brotherhood and sisterhood, life-cycle event fees, etc.) The relative value placed on my contributions in kind and in skill was made plain. For example, I was and am a skilled Hebrew teacher and I have given my services free of charge for many years. No high teas for me!
I have not seen the silver sisterhood tea service grace a table I have been invited to sit at since the days of the former rabbi.

I remember being introduced by the current rabbi to a well-known rabbi and speaker at the annual Jewish Book Week Book Fair. He was to speak about his book, which was about dealing with catastrophic illness. I was undergoing treatment for cancer at the time, and I would have loved to have heard his take on this subject. The guest speaker asked me if I would be coming to the talk. But it was one of those aforementioned perks. Along with high tea. I was embarrassed to say that no, I would be sitting outside with the rest of the erev rav*.
I admit that I used the derogatory term intentionally. It had the intended effect.

*Hebrew idiom that means the same thing as hoi polloi in the derogatory sense.

This is not community.
Certainly it was not in the I-Thou sense the rabbi was pushing this Rosh Hashanah. And even in a limited I - You institutional model or a straightforward commercial transaction (I -It), the congregation could have offered the lecture to the erev rav for a fee. Although I was not able to pay above and beyond the minimum dues, I could have skipped lunch a few days and bought a ticket.

In fact, I'd prefer the straightforward individual commercial transaction. The color of my money would have been the same as that of the hoi olgoi.

And when Bruce and I married, and we began to make the kind of contributions that put us in one of those highly valued circles, we chose to boycott the special perks and privileges, precisely because both of us still think that they are divisive. Thus I stand outside the favored faction, and having been critical of it, there is no way that I will be invited into it. I want to be clear that this was my choice.

And that's why I have never been to the current rabbi's house.
And I still have not sat at a high tea. At least, not at our temple err, congregation.

So I have been on both sides of the issue now.
I have known what it was like to experience my religious institution as a community.
And I know what it is like to see it as a place to obtain specific services.
And to be completely fair to the rabbi, these are very different experiences, indeed.

When I experienced the inside, I felt that my life was bound up with the temple; I was there a lot because I wanted to be. I was proud to be a part of this something great that we were building together. I understood that each person so involved was bringing the offering of his or her heart, her voluntary best, her own piece of Torah, to build up the community. I understood that we were exchanging values that included material things, as well as mutual aid and support in times of trouble.

Now that I am on the outside, I see that I live much of my life elsewhere. I pay for the educational programs for the Boychick and complain about the quality--actually, lack thereof--of the education he is getting, because I do view it as fee-for-service. I contribute my time to specific programs, such as the Interfaith Hospitality Network, but I ration my involvement.

Why do I ration my involvement?
Precisely because I learned a painful but valuable lesson from experience.
It does not matter how much of my money, my time and myself that I give, it will not be enough to make any difference should my circumstances change.

Communities have memory.
They look at each other, as the machzor says, and know who they are.
Individuals and their unique contributions are important.
A person's value is based on what they have done in the community over time.

Institutions have no memory.
There are no individuals, people are interchangable.
And if your circumstances change, then it is as if what you have been and done within the institution never was.
A person's value is based on the expediency of the moment.

On that day that I was embarrassed before the visiting rabbi, I learned exactly what determined my value to this institution.
It was not about every unique thing that I contributed over time.
I had become an "it."

At a congregational meeting, I heard myself being excoriated, along with the other "its," for not taking financial responsibility to support the synagogue.
Never mind the other ways we made our contributions.
The rabbi--the moral authority of the congregation--did not rise in our defense.
Instead all of us "its" received a letter that began with the following line:

"Im ein kemach, ein Torah."
"If there is no flour, there is no Torah."

But if a person falls upon hard times and has no flour to give, surely if she bakes the bread made from the flour given by others, surely that has value? Is that not also Torah?

Quite conveniently to someone, I suppose, the letter left off the second half of this saying from Pirke Avot--The Widsom of the Fathers:

"Im ein Torah, ein kemach."
"If there is no Torah, there is no flour."

If Jews do not follow the precepts of Torah, then we are no longer Jews.
And if we lose our identity, we lose our values, and then we lose the community that that identity and those values forge.
The synagogue becomes just another country club.
In Torah we are commanded to take care of our own, to look at each other and see who we are, to affirm our identity in how we treat each other.
The Holiness Code read on Yom Kippur afternoon affirms this.
"Be Holy, as I Adonai, your G-d am Holy."
It means: Be different. Be separate. Be unique.
Don't give in to the values of the moment. Be Torah.

Im ein Torah...

There is no Torah when some of us are "it."

So why am I still here?
Because rabbis come and rabbis go.
I live here.
I became Bat Mitzvah at this Bimah.
My children were named here. They became Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah here. I was married at this Bimah.
I expect I will be buried from it.

And there are Jews--mostly the old ones--with whom I can share a gaze and know who I am.
They are here.
And I am here. Stiff-necked. Willful. WIldly in love with who we are. And who we are meant to be.

I stubbornly hold onto the fact that I am not and never was an "it."
Not when I was comfortable, not when I was poor, not when I was sick, and not now that I have wealth and health.
And none of the rest of us are "it" either.
And though I am on the outside, I am still responsible to Torah.
Even if I am standing opposite to the Bimah.

We need four kinds of Jews: Those with Torah. Those with Righteous Acts. Those with neither. Those with both.
We need both sides of the perek:
"Im ein kemach, ein Torah,
Im ein Torah, ein kemach."

I am still here.
I am the Jew with none of the above. I can be the Jew who can use the flour and bake the bread so that there can be Torah. Which in turn means there can be flour. I think that's called lifting sparks.


Crimson Wife said...

Hmm, those kinds of policies don't seem to be in the spirit of the Bible. I'm particularly reminded of Proverbs 19:4 & 6, "Wealth brings many friends, but the poor are left friendless...Many seek the favor of the wealthy and everyone is a friend to a giver of gifts."

Yes, we are called to share generously of what we have. But we are not all equally blessed with material riches. Sharing one's time and talents ought to be recognized and valued just as much as monetary contributions.

My current church does offer special recognition to its most generous donors. But it's based on contributing at a certain percent of the family's income rather than an absolute dollar amount. That strikes me as much fairer policy than the one you describe in your post.

Susan Ryan said...

Lovely piece of writing, Elisheva. You're stronger than I was. I couldn't abide the previous minister's behavior around my kids and those who were 'inferior' in her eyes. I didn't want to be represented by her.I really wanted to tell her a thing or two and it wouldn't have been helpful in the big picture.
We came back to our little church when she was gone for good.

So why am I still here?
Because rabbis come and rabbis go.
I live here.
I became Bat Mitzvah at this Bimah.
My children were named here. They became Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah here. I was married at this Bimah.
I expect I will be buried from it.
And there are Jews--mostly the old ones--with whom I can share a gaze and know who I am.
They are here.
And I am here. Stiff-necked. Willful. WIldly in love with who we are. And who we are meant to be.

Love that. I love the older folk who know and understand and even stiff-necked, they give great hugs. :-)

Lori said...

beautiful post

Sarah said...

I'm sorry for your experience, Elisheva.

It's common for churches, too, to change according to the personality and interests of the pastor. And sometimes, the pastor is not the woman she should be. Money issues have a way of exposing personality and character flaws.

Our denomination has a policy of moving pastors frequently (every three to five years), in order to prevent this "cult-of-the-pastor" phenomenon. But that, too, has its problems.

I hope that you are able to be a community again soon.

Gem said...

OK, and now from the etymological side of my personality -- "erev rav" almost so sounds as if it could have been an ancient root of the colloquialism "riff-raff", which if I read the context correctly, has about the same derogatory connotation.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Gem, you've got it. Riff-raff is an excellent translation. The JPS Torah translates it as "mixed multitude."