Tag Archives: synagogues

Parashat Sh’mini: The Holy Power of Hands

I have two tales about hands.

The first concerns the hands of my college president. When we ordain our rabbis and cantors at the Hebrew Union College — an annual event, scheduled this year in just a few weeks’ time — our president lays his hands on each candidate’s head or shoulders.

In theory, the idea goes back to Deuteronomy 34:9, where we hear of Moses laying hands on Joshua, Moses’s successor. In actuality, rabbinic ordination with the laying on of hands is altogether a modern innovation. But never mind. That’s what we do. The idea is sound, the practice unforgettable.

We call it s’michah, a word also used for sacrifices. The priests of old practiced s’michah — laying hands on the sacrifices before offering them to God. Moses tells Aaron, “This is the thing that God commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear” (Lev.9:6). But the Torah does not say what “thing” Moses has in mind, so Italian commentator Obadiah Sforno (1475-1550) explains, “It is the laying on of hands.” Hand-laying is as central to Temple sacrifice of old as it is to my college’s ordination today: and for the same reason — not that rabbis and cantors are “sacrifices,” God forbid, but because the touch of human hands is how “God’s presence may appear.”

The second tale of hands comes from a sign I saw the other day: “Need a Handyman? Call me!” As someone who fixes nothing without making it worse, I always need people who are “handy.” Yes, “handy”! They too lay hands on things — hands, however, that mysteriously comprehend the inner life of gaskets, cams, cogs, and cranks. They unmake and remake complex machinery — make the old look like new.

By contrast, my college president’s hands — like the hands of the Temple priest — do absolutely nothing. They just sit there, utterly inert, untrained and unmoving. They are mere vessels for the work that God does through them.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy is insistent on that point: “God reaches out a hand” it says. But God has no actual hands, for God has no body at all. When priests or seminary presidents lay on hands, they do so on behalf of God, that God may reach out through them.

So too, Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim of today, reach out hands to offer the priestly benediction. Many people bless their children that way, too — or, nowadays, increasingly, even one another. In all these cases, the “hands” are not what we call “handy.” They are untrained. They accomplish nothing on their own. The people being blessed do not get put together differently; they are exactly the same as they were before. But there is this difference (a big one): they may sense they have been visited, through those outstretched hands, by the hand of God.

God visits the earth through the magic of human touch, as sacred a thing as there is. Like all things holy, it too is open to misuse — as when we warn, “Hands off,” or feel violated when someone touches us against our will. But also like all things holy, nothing bestows the certainty of hope and comfort better than the human touch, properly applied, by those we love: a friend at our bedside, their hand on our own; a soft embrace when words cannot assuage our pain.

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo captured the magic of creation by the hint of two hands touching: the hand of God from whom life flows, and the hand of Adam, the first human being to receive God’s life-giving force. We humans, ever after, can do “what God commanded… so that God’s presence may appear.” We too can lay on hands for blessing.

When explanations only make things worse, when words ring hollow, when we have nothing to say, we can reach out, God-like, feeling hope’s promise flow to those in need. God shows up best in the warming touch where two hands meet.

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Congregational Algebra

Are you interested in launching a thoughtful conversation on what your congregation should be doing better? Most people are. But they don’t know how to begin. If you open the conversation with, “How can we do better?” you get everyone’s favorite complaint – something you have probably heard before. The conversation goes nowhere new. Conversations depend on the conversational frames that introduce them!

General Rule # 1:

Conversations require conversational frames, a way to think about the issue at hand.

We all use such frames, usually just by asking, “What do you think of X” or, ”The agenda now calls for a discussion of Y.” These straightforward frames can be disastrous because they invite people to say the same things they always do. The people who feel strongly (pro or con) reiterate what you knew they would say in advance; the whiners whine all over again; most people have nothing new to say.

General Rule #2:

Inviting conversations but ignoring the frames with which we introduce them is disastrous.

As we just saw, conversations poorly framed invite redundancy. Information theory measures information as ”the extent to which a communication cannot be predicted in advance.” By that measure, most meetings on “what we ought to do about X” elicit little or no information at all. Everyone leaves frustrated and worn out, and the meeting chair is left with copious notes on virtually nothing that could not have been predicted without the meeting even having occurred.

General Rule #3:

Conversational frames should be intriguing, inviting, unthreatening, and compelling

Intriguing: They should shed new light on the way the topic is to be               approached.

Inviting: They should get people to lean in, suspecting they have                               something to say; not sit back waiting for others who are “smarter” or            more expert” to talk.

Unthreatening: They should avoid pressing hot buttons that put people on          the defensive or suggest they should keep quiet lest they sound stupid.

Compelling: They should make the issue sound both interesting and           important – worthy of attention and requiring action.

Not all topics require such careful consideration of frames. Some issues are just “technical”; they call for “fixes” that are pretty straightforward. If the roof is leaking, you don’t need a philosophical introduction about the theological implications of water damage!

But the question of how to make the congregation a better place is not technical. It is what Ronald Heifetz calls “adaptive” – the answer will emerge only from engaging conversation that determines the actual nature of the problem. That’s where congregational algebra comes in.

I am not sure where the equation comes from (it is cited everywhere, in books and on line), and it occurs in several different forms, but I use the following version as a frame to prompt “How can we do things better” conversations. (My colleagues -Isa Aron, Steven Cohen, and Ari Kelman – and I used it in our book, Sacred Strategies, 2010]). Here it is.

C = D x V x F x B x S > R.

Or, spelled out: Change = Dissatisfaction x Vision x First Steps x Belief in ourselves x System, all of which must be greater than Resistance.

Next time you have a general conversation about doing things better, frame the discussion by asking, “What gets in our way when we try to improve what we do?”

  • Some congregations are satisfied with mediocrity; they will never feel challenged to change.
  • Others have no large Vision of where they should go. Without vision of something better, they will be leery of voicing Dissatisfaction, even if they feel it. Or, if they do voice it, they will leave dispirited, with no clear vision to guide their way beyond it.
  • Some congregations never manage to take the necessary First steps. They make plans that never even get off the ground.
  • Others lack Belief in their own ability to succeed. They have an institutional inferiority complex. When it comes to thinking big, it doesn’t even pay to try!
  • And many congregations lack efficient Systems, so that bold initiatives get started, but fizzle out and die. By System, I mean such things as good professional personnel; effective communications; mutual accountability, proper support staff; and the like.

My own experience suggests that the two most common problems are lack of vision (and, therefore, fear of acknowledging dissatisfaction) and systemic dysfunction.

Whatever the case, try some congregational algebra the next time your board meets to think through “how we can do things better.” Frame the conversation with an algebraic equation that is actually fun to discuss. Ask them what will most prevent them from succeeding at whatever it is they decide to do: Dissatisfaction? Vision? Taking First Steps? Belief in Themselves? or the System (and if, the latter, what part of the system is broken)?

It will help you generate later conversations that will target your congregation’s weakness and move you to a new level of conversation and problem solving.

Why High Holiday Serivces Matter More Than You Might Think

“…Jews are baffled by [services] … Especially on the high holidays, they really don’t know what to make of this great big thick book that everyone is going through rather slowly, often for hours at a time.”

“The High Holidays are the unique message of … the human dream.”

“One should rise at the end of the High Holiday service committed to the proposition that … we are historical moments in the making.”

Why We Need Synagogues, or, What Synagogues Need to Be

The core problem with synagogues is that they have no raison d’etre, no obvious reason to continue. It is not that they do not work. Most of them work quite well – at what they do. It is just not clear to a lot of people why they should keep on doing it. There are obvious exceptions — synagogues that focus single-mindedly on purpose. But most synagogue boards, professionals and rabbis would be hard put to say in a sentence what their purpose is.  They know what they do, but they have no compelling rationale by with which to judge it and no correspondingly convincing rhetoric to enroll the loyalty of people whose needs run deeper than life-cycle celebrations and high holiday tickets.

To the extent that there is any rationale at all, it is likely to be captured in the word “community.” But what kind of community, and community to what end? The usual response, “sacred community,” does not get us very far because as little as we commonly know what synagogues are for, even less do we commonly know what the sacred is.

Until relatively recently, the absence of a transcendent reason for synagogues to exist could easily be overlooked. “Proper” Americans automatically affiliated with a “church of their choice” and synagogues were our “churches.” Besides, we needed our own places to pursue a Jewish agenda: fighting anti-Semitism, hearing about Israel, passing on our heritage, and the like. Those reasons are still valid, more or less, especially if you add the goal of playing out the prophetic commitment to correcting the world’s ills.

But that agenda rings true only for Jews already committed to Judaism’s mission and to pursuing it in the traditional synagogue setting. More and more Jews have discovered they can change the world faster and better outside the synagogue context: Habitat for Humanity, The American Jewish World Service, Mazon, Hazon, or any number of like-minded addresses that focus attention and funding on good causes. As for education and lobbying, few synagogues can compete with organizations like AJC, JNF, UJA, and Federations, which specialize in matters that synagogues only dabble at. JCCs provide preschools and have long aspired to running full scale religious schools as well – not to mention High Holiday services. Entrepreneurial rabbis now hang out shingles promising privately planned bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, burial, and even catering during shivah.  So why synagogues, which are generalists in an age of specialization and which cost a fortune and require affiliation, to boot?

The answer must lie in synagogues becoming what they alone can be: deeply rooted Jewish responses to the human condition in our time.

One approach comes from philosopher Charles Taylor’s recognition that human nature demands judgments of “admiration and contempt,” two polar extremes by which we measure moral worth. We assume the existence of something we call “the good,” and pursue it for no other reason than that we should. For starters, then, synagogues can be the singular place where community forms to direct attention to the good. A vision of the good is central to religion in general, certainly to Judaism. Think of the synagogue as a moral center for the 21st century.

This polar judgment of “admiration or contempt” transcends the moral, however. It encompasses also the sense that life should matter; that we live not just from moment to moment but to create an identity whose whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We are authors of our own life’s project, the part of us that gets reported as our eulogy someday — the praise we earn because of the dignity of a life well led. Call this spirituality, the soaring of the human spirit to encompass a mission beyond the gritty needs of daily existence. We see it even in the hell of war-time destruction, when some combatants rise above the fray to display a higher self than we have reason to expect. All the more do we expect it of ourselves, given the privileged conditions in which we live.

More than just being moral, then, we have the sense that we should better ourselves, develop life projects, build a business, make a home, stand for something. We believe in the right – indeed, the obligation — to be true to the best that is in us, not to squander our potential in self-centered gluttony, laziness, or hedonism.

Humanity at its best seeks out the good and leads fulfilling lives that matter. The synagogue is the community that engages Jews in that twin endeavor. All else follows from this, the synagogue’s mission: to be a moral and spiritual center for the 21st century.

Rule Makers or Rule Breakers? An Iron Cage of Our Own Making

After a hiatus of about four years, I’ve returned to my course on Ritual Studies. I love this course, which has grown to become a synoptic understanding of the major currents in western thought since the nineteenth century. Every time I teach it, I become enamored anew of the geniuses who dissected the realities of modern life so brilliantly. This time round, I have rediscovered Max Weber, who so trenchantly predicted the institutional malaise that threatens the quality of Jewish life today.

This malaise substitutes managers for leaders. Weber predicted it as part of modernity’s transition from traditional and charismatic authority to authority that is rooted in the calculus of institutional rationality.

Traditional authority is best illustrated by royalty, where rule passes automatically from father to first-born son. You get what you get: monarchs whose competence varies with chance. Charismatic authority depends on the gift of personal magnetism: Ghandi or Churchill (on one hand), Hitler or Stalin (on the other). Again, you get what you get, a “great man” cult, but no guarantee of what the “great man” will represent.

By contrast, said Weber, the modern world seeks rational predictability. Financial markets thrive on “no surprises.” Corporate efficiency requires process and protection from tyrannical whim.  People move up systematically to inhabit roles that are hedged with rules. To be role-defined and rule-driven, institutions expand bureaucracies and bureaucracies spawn managers.

Bureaucracies abhor novelty; they like rule makers, not rule breakers; they squeeze out individualism and chase out eccentrics. The managers risk imprisonment in what Weber called an “iron cage” of their own bureaucratic making. They mistake rules for reality, and then, seeing the intricate interplay of one rule with another, they live in mortal fear of precedents that might plague them later. They play it safe by multiplying meetings and erecting committees to make choices which they then merely implement.

While market-based organizations have a bottom line — sleepy bureaucracies get put out of business — not-for-profits survive as long as they retain monopolies on basic services that people require. But how long will monopolies last? How long will people still want what their parents and grandparents did? How long will they settle for services that are not spectacularly delivered?

All our institutions face these questions. As I said in my last blog, for example, synagogues that collect dues through the primary promise of life-cycle moments and pastoral care are discovering that they cannot maintain the monopoly. Granted, they usually promise community too — but in practice, that sense of community reaches only a tiny proportion of the members who are insiders: the people who like study and prayer but who generally have no exceptionally high standards for what study and prayer should become.

I may seem unduly harsh because I overlook synagogues that do much more (and do it much better), but the synagogues that I describe do exist, and they exist in large numbers — run by managerial rabbis who care deeply for people and for Jewish tradition, but who substitute management for leadership. Overworked and undersupported by institutions that barely make their threadbare budgets, these rabbis have little time to grow, to study, or to think.

Their synagogues remain stable, orderly, and predictable. The small coterie of regulars come and go to services, classes and meetings, complaining on occasion about their inability to interest more people, develop new leaders and raise more money. They are congregations in stasis – managed well and smoothly run, but limited, because managers rarely shake up well oiled systems. Congregational greatness requires rabbis with enough dissatisfaction to risk change. They need rabbis who are more than managers.

Appreciating bureaucracies for what they can do but knowing their limitations, Weber himself wondered how leaders might push management into being less risk averse. He put his faith in holdovers from charismatic authority. Charismatics dislike stasis. They thrive outside the system. They champion visions of alternatives.

These visions arise from what Weber called “ends derived from values” rather than assessments dictated by purely managerial reasoning. Only leaders who are value-driven will risk challenging bureaucratic steadiness despite the uncertainty attendant upon unsettling the status quo. Boards need to be challenged to go beyond custodial and fiduciary responsibility and develop what has been called “generative thinking” about the mission that makes what they do worth doing.

What goes for congregations goes elsewhere as well. The days of monopoly rule are over. Our institutions need to know more than how to do business with fiscal probity and managerial efficiency. They need to make sure the business they are in is responsive to a new era; and then do it creatively, nimbly, and with excellence that questions the rules as much as it honors them.

The Myth of Denominational Demise

The world is filled with certainties that aren’t – like the myth that religious denominations are dead. We will eventually have three inchoate pools of people, it is said: Orthodox, “Other,” and Unaffiliated. Already Orthodoxy is less a denomination than a way of life rooted in halakhic observance, community consciousness, and synagogue centrality. “Other,” presumably, will feature the very opposite, synagogues as “limited liability communities” that collect dues in exchange for rabbis on call, life-cycle ceremonies, and occasional events like High Holidays. The growth market will be “a pox on both your houses” — the unaffiliated altogether.

Evidence for this sorry denouement includes the documented decline in religious affiliation generally, the generational replacement of the baby boomers (who joined things) with their children (who don’t); economic conditions that allow little luxury for supporting synagogue movements; an internet era that provides programming for free; the declining numbers of Conservative Jews, once the majority denomination; and the stagnation of Reform Jews who maintain their numbers only because of the in-migration of Jews by choice.

So why are denominations not necessarily on their way out?

Denominational obituaries assume that organized religion in general is a thing of the past, but it is equally arguable that religion is just changing, not disappearing. Religion, as we know it, is a post-World- War-II response to the Cold War era, baby-boomer children, and suburbia. Synagogues insulated Jews against latent anti-Semitism, and provided safe spaces to rehearse ethnic identity and support of Israel. Plenty of post-war money paid denominational offices to provide the programs that a synagogue needed to ramp up and reach out.

Denominations back then had bureaucracies that churned out personnel and services; what they did not have is a clear ideological mandate to justify the personnel and services they churned out.

No one will join that kind of denomination. But denominations are what we make of them. They can define what religion is becoming not reflect what it used to be.

Precisely this ability to evolve with the times is what makes religion in America so exceptional. Indeed, one explanation for its robustness, relative to the anemic state of religion in Europe, is America’s separation of church and state, which has prevented state support and conditioned religion instead to fend for itself. Static churches, sociologists say, die out; creative ones succeed. Denominations that hunker down with old ways of thinking are indeed doomed. But denominations that think differently have a future.

This different denominational thinking must acknowledge the fact that, unlike the Cold War era, ours is a time of spiritual search. The limited liability synagogue that trades dues for services will find competitors who offer bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and even funerals (not to mention high holidays) for a whole lot less than what it costs to be a member. And who needs denominations just for that?

But assume our synagogues respond to the spirituality surge and urge us on to be our better selves. Assume they deliver purpose, meaning, and a reason to be alive. Assume further that they ritualize these higher human goals by connecting people to each other, to their past, and to God. Assume also the existence of rabbis who have something deep to say – rabbis, that is, whose intellectual acumen is equal to whatever society offers elsewhere at its thoughtful best. Assume, in a word, that synagogues manage to ennoble the human condition in communities of commitment, where the scar tissue of entrenched routine is replaced by an intentional response to the human yearning to matter.

Suppose all this, and you get synagogues that need denominations.

A single synagogue has but limited reach while denominations unify a thousand synagogues to influence policy round the globe. Denominations can run seminaries that invest in visionaries who compete in the marketplace of big ideas. Only denominations can galvanize large scale investment for a Jewish future; rally opinion world-wide; or have a voice that must be taken seriously far away in Israel and in circles of power everywhere. Only denominations can argue our way to a viable vision of religion for the vast mass of Americans who yearn for a form of religion that is not Orthodox but is equally authentic and equally deep.

I write this after attending the latest biennial of the Reform Movement, which certainly didn’t look dead or dying. It reaffirmed its commitment to the marriage of modernity and tradition; the courage to take moral stands; an inclusive vision for Jewish Peoplehood; and a compelling portrait of Judaism at its moral and spiritual best. It was religion as it just might be, religion that only denominational greatness can provide.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books is now available.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

I’m happy to announce that my latest book, One Hundred Great Jewish Books, is now available. The full title, One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation, reflects an idea I have been playing with for about a decade now. What is Judaism, if not an identity that is portrayed through a rolling conversation across the centuries! The book is a running record of the conversation as portrayed through every variety of Jewish book: classical texts and medieval responsa, but also modern fiction, short stories, histories, biographies, and even comic books, encyclopedias, and cook books. I read over 200 books to make the selection, but here it is at last: my running guide to the Jewish conversational record.

I hope you enjoy it, so we can continue the conversation here.