Nourishing Congregations: Principles for a Shared Future
One of my primary goals in the past 15 years at Congregation Beth Israel, a shul of 400 families, has been to foster a deeper commitment to Jewish observance and a deeper appreciation of the inner beauty of the mitzvot bayn adam la-makom--the ritual mitzvot.
It's been my assumption that the ritual mitzvot have an image problem that we have to overcome. Even after 50 years of educating Jews of the suburbs, it remains true that many Jews associate ritual with heaviness, restrictiveness, arbitrariness, rigidity, and punctiliousness, instead of with the idea that ceremony can expand your consciousness and add poetry to your life.
A lot of what I have done revolves around trying to change the image or perception our people have of Shabbat, yom tov, tefilah, and what it means to lead a religious/spiritual lifestyle. Here are some of the principles I have tried to live by:
Detoxify With Humor
For anyone who has never done it before, shaking a lulav is scary. It looks "very religious." Furthermore, Jews get their back up easily when it is suggested they ought to do a mitzvah they aren't doing. So, coming at the mitzvah of
lulav and etrog through the back door was the principle behind the "Lulav Shake" program. "Bensch Lulav Today" posters might have seemed offensively evangelistic, but people got a kick out of wearing the "Make a Lulav Shake Buttons." Gentle self-parody took the edge off of preaching, and enabled us to be assertive without sounding obnoxious.
Reversal of Expectation
Yom Kippur is a very serious holiday. Wearing canvas shoes to shul on Yom Kippur has been associated by many of our members as "extremely religious," if not downright fanatical. The truth is, it's a beautiful tradition, but how do you get people's attention, so they are even willing to look? The "Sneak into Shul" campaign caught people off guard because it said that it's OK to be a little lighthearted even about such a serious holiday. The underlying message is a kind of kal va-homer: if we Rabbis are willing to be a little light about Yom Kippur, then maybe Judaism is "lighter" than we thought. There is always a risk of trivialization. But the "heaviness" factor is so powerful, that I think we have to hammer away at it in any way we can. Anything that can undermine that negative perception lays the groundwork for a different kind of receptivity to ritual mitzvot.
Creative Mischief and the Element of Surprise
One of my goals has been to shake up perceptions of what Judaism is/could be. So, whenever I could surprise people, do the unexpected, even be a little outrageous, yet still be true to tradition, I took advantage of it. Some examples:
· People knew that Purim was fun, but they didn't know that it was in the spirit of the holiday for a home-grown rock band to sing Purim lyrics to 60's songs. When we began doing this ten years ago, people were bowled over (now they take it for granted). What I wanted people to think somewhere in the back of their mind was: if this is being Jewish, what else do I not know about what being "religious" means?
· Several years ago, we held a Minyan Marathon. For a week in March, we asked 50 people a day to come to the 7:00 a.m. minyan and 150 on Friday. The air was festive. The singing was joyous. What I was after was breaking the image of a morning prayer service as a sober,
kaddish-saying affair for a few people who could barely keep their eyes open.
Something I have drilled into my congregation over the years (and I still have plenty more work to do) is this message: Jewish ritual and ceremony are poetic, romantic, exuberant, and beautiful--not ponderous, onerous, melancholy, and meaningless. Some examples of how I've tried to get this message across:
If You Burn It, They Will Come. I once suggested to members of my congregation that they just try for one year to observe the ritual mitzvot involving fire. That would include: hadlakat nerot, Havdalah, bi'ur chamaytz, and a
Lag B'Omer Medurah, as well as Chanukah candles which people already do. Why? Fire is mysterious and alluring. So, it's a good strategy to start with something that adults and kids are likely to find inherently attractive.
The Tallit Meets Northern Exposure. My own association of
tallit for many years had been with old men, with sad eyes. But, I said to a group, suppose I told you there were a Native American ritual of greeting each day by wrapping yourself in a sacred blanket that represented the light and sky. A self-confessed religious skeptic said to me: "If I could feel heaven on my shoulder in the morning, I just might be tempted (to wear a tallit)."
A Vision of the Whole
I have tried over the years to paint a picture of what a whole day, a whole week, a whole year looks like from a spiritual point of view. When you pick out the compelling spiritual moments in each holiday and add them up over the year, it's pretty impressive. Once a year we read the Book of Ruth. Once a year we read Kohelet. Once a week we light a blazing candle symbolizing the dawn of civilization. Once a year we act out our Revolutionary War. Once a year we parody ourselves and our own most sacred texts and traditions. Once a year we hold a mystical meal in which the rebirth of Nature is a stimulus for our own rebirth. Once a week, we put aside ambition, and work on relationships. Once a month, the rebirth of the moon's light gives us hope that we can overcome any darkness in our lives and in human history.
Small changes can make a big difference, if they are focused changes. I try to avoid generalities when I am talking about ritual mitzvot. I'll pick first the mitzvah that I think has the following qualities:
· There is something inherently attractive (usually sensual) about it (like a bonfire).
· You can challenge people to do it together in significant numbers all at the same time (Hoshanah Rabbah looks more impressive if there is a parade of 100 lulavim than if there are 10).
· There is reason to believe that by doing this one mitzvah, you will get a big return. (A hundred lulavim creates a forest effect and transforms the whole holiday. Three minutes of Havdalah added to candlelighting frames Shabbat and creates a suggestive mood for the whole day.)
Simplicity in a Demanding, Fast-Paced World
A lot of Jewish ritual has a kind of child-like quality to it.
Tefillah asks of us to adopt a posture of wonder and humility that can be a refreshing change in a hyper-assertive world. We did a "Great Men's Kugel Bakefest," where I taught men how to bake kugel for their families. Part of the attraction and the humor was the opportunity for men to do something with each other where we didn't have to outperform each other, and no one was measuring us on the achievement index. One can build a sense of community around Shabbat as a haven from competitiveness, a day when we don't take ourselves, and our ambitions overly seriously.
These are beginning thoughts. I welcome your comments.
Jay Rosenbaum is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, MA.