Looking at Renewal, Rethinking the Rabbinate
Marc Boone Fitzerman
Synagogue transformation is the next big thing, marked already by the ubiquity and fever that accompanies any rapid rise in the temperature our culture. It's everywhere you go, like a popular song, insinuating itself into the Jewish public domain in the form of papers, conferences, and public pronouncements. In that it resembles its deflated predecessor, the continuity debate of the eighties and early nineties, now enfeebled by hype and overexposure. Big ideas always threaten to collapse on themselves, or become ripe for parody and the rolling of eyes. The Jews can be relied on for a kind of mocking restlessness that refuses nearly anything as a steady diet. We want what we want and we want it now, but then we are ready to go on to something else.
In the case of synagogue transformation (ST), that would be altogether too bad: the premature resolution of a contentious exchange about the place of the synagogue in various possible Jewish futures. I'd go further to say that it would be an act of self-strangulation, especially for those of us who do frontline work in congregations. It would be like puttering around with the color settings on a screen saver, while the rest of the world is debating operating systems. Like it or not, this is a debate that must concern us, if only because the debate is frequently about us. There's plenty of room here for a measure of enlightened self-interest that may translate into good things for American Jews and their synagogues.
Many Rabbis, of course, don't like this conversation at all. We have been resistant to the idea of synagogue transformation, and expend our energies in ironic contemptuousness. We're tetchy about the suggestion that we preside over institutions that are exhausted husks of powerful ideas that once gave structure to the notion of peoplehood. Our leadership is sometimes stinging on this point, claiming that proponents of synagogue transformation are insufficiently appreciative of our enduring strengths. Some undoubtedly wonder at this combativeness, particularly in view of its potential for polarization. The community of funders interested in ST is made up of some of the most productive and interesting philanthropists on the current scene.
But there is a better reason to engage in this dialogue, if only for the reason that it is an important exercise in self-evaluation. The transformation project implies considerable criticism of the efforts to which we have devoted our professional lives. It says that our synagogues remain, with a few notable exceptions, containers for Jewish forms and experiences that fail to move and motivate, to stir the soul. Whatever else we may achieve--and some of it is important--our synagogues are sluggish with routine prayer, middlebrow teaching, and a fundamental inattention to the very possibility of ecstatic engagement with the tradition we are charged to receive and transmit.
That does not mean that we have utterly failed. Not even our sternest critics would advocate for the dismemberment of the synagogue, or ask that we explore the possibilities of a radically different form. Some of us are truly marvelous at our work: gifted administrators, talented religious bureaucrats, crisp providers of constituent services. However well I may handle these responsibilities, much of my day is given over to this work, including letters of recommendation, notes of acknowledgement and thanks, logistics and arrangements, committee process and planning. Many of our colleagues manage sizable staffs who serve their congregations with skill and care within the framework of needs first articulated at mid-century when the modern suburban synagogue was giving birth to itself.
I myself could claim a modicum of "success." I have a nourishing relationship with the congregation I serve. I am fairly compensated, and treated respectfully. I could claim bragging rights for a program of classical text study that brings a substantial number of adults weekly to the synagogue. These are serious sessions of close-focus work in which I learn plenty from the people I profess to teach. On a different level, we just finished a concert (produced by the Synagogue in conjunction with NPR's Ellen Kushner), which explored the theme of "sacred love," as seen by diverse traditions and communities. It was a high-profile project which made me very proud that we can program for moments of gentle fellowship and understanding. All of this took place within a spanking new synagogue building, expressing millions of dollars of communal support.
And yet I am continually aware of what we do not typically generate, not at our synagogue and not at most synagogues I know: the thunderclap moment of spiritual self-realization; the transporting experience of mass rejoicing; the sweaty, marvelous, irrational exhilaration of being connected--with a sudden, mysterious force--to sources of meaning, clarity, and insight. Because we do much of our work too quickly, with insufficient attention to aesthetic considerations, we frequently fail to produce even moments of pleasure, marked by a measure of charm or an arresting vision of the beautiful. Ask yourself to remember the last time you looked out and saw something that could be described as rapt attention, a powerful wash of spiritual energy, a seizing of the soul in a moment of delight. I think that we do this rarely if at all.
This is what people mean when they criticize the synagogue. It doesn't mean that we are failing across the board. We continue to achieve many good things: expert training in the skill-set of the tradition; opportunities for recreation under Jewish auspices; meaningful moments of social activism. But when ST speaks, it always means something else. It begins with the hope that the Synagogue will do something that allows its members to hear what they have not heard; to feel coursing emotion and a new rush of the spirit, so that they can stand in the presence of the living God. They already know what it feels like to do good works. They know what it feels like to raise funds for the Hebrew School. They have--God bless them--done what their parents did, and they have frequently done it more adventurously and well, with a higher degree of imagination and energy. And now they are ready to rise to the next level.
What stands in the way is the large number of givens that we have failed to reckon with in a spirited way. My failure will differ slightly from the failure of others, based on location, history, and local circumstance. Ours is a mid-size congregation in a relatively isolated community where we are hampered by the demographic facts of local Jewish life. It takes a certain number of Jews to reach a critical mass where happy combustion feels natural and unforced. We have difficulty drawing the right number together and it forces me to work hard with room size and arrangement. This is all set in relief because we operate in a culture where Christian spirituality is powerfully embodied. The Synagogue is surrounded by dynamic institutions where the Word is projected with charismatic force. I continue to look with rapt fascination at the success of my colleagues in engaging their parishioners. The least successful of our downtown churches would make most synagogues look limping or moribund by comparison. We hate the idea that others can teach us something, but I look for my models in other denominations.
But the most important given has to do with the way we perceive ourselves, so that the rabbinate itself becomes an instrument of change. The most basic requirement is that we need to lower our defenses so that we can hear what the ST folks have to say about our work. They want the very same things we do and it is unproductive to say that they are misguided or foolish, or that they don't understand our strengths and successes. My sense is that they understand them just fine, but see the potential for something more powerful and lasting. They care that the board minutes are taken and distributed, but they'd trade it all for a memorable moment in the synagogue.
Next we need to get lean and radical--and ruthlessly honest--about ourselves, our work, the way we have shaped our professional lives, or allowed them to be shaped by well-meaning others. There are some things about the pulpit that are inescapable, however routine they may feel to many of us. But there is a great deal over which we have plenty of latitude. I think of the commissions, task forces, and committees I have been part of, all for worthwhile or at least defensible purposes. Some of this work has resulted in gain, either for the synagogue, the Jewish community, or the world at large.
At the risk of sounding hopelessly parochial and self-limiting, I have begun to jettison these responsibilities from my life to leave room for passionate teaching, thinking about ritual, re-framing of liturgy, and the education of adults and children. I haven't done nearly enough in this area, and I am not particularly enamored of my results to date (see the exception about small-group study above). But it's clear that we need to re-tool ourselves. I figure if it's administrative, someone else needs to be charged to do it, so that I am constantly doing what I am supposed to do. The same for financial matters. The same for nearly everything. None of us has more than a few years to work with, and I've already wasted plenty of time.
Next we need to create structures for experimentation so that others are involved with us in this meaningful work. For me, it's an extension of my own decision regularly to face the congregation in prayer. I never want to miss what I'm supposed to see, or fail to draw on the wisdom and experience of others. I think immediately of the Ritual Committee and its typical role as a guardian of the status quo: the place where ideas are exhausted by evaluation. I declare myself a bumbling naif and nevertheless ask the obvious question: Should it not be possible, through preparation and enthusiasm--with the delight we take in playing with ideas--to turn the Ritual Committee into a laboratory of possibilities? Whatever else happens at its scheduled sessions, the Rabbi should be there to stoke this fire, to demonstrate the possibilities of silence and speech in prayer, the guided meditation, the reconfigured ritual. S/he should always be auditioning the new and the untried.
And if it can't happen there, it can happen elsewhere. I once asked a study group to re-imagine Kapparot. Their suggestions spurred some re-thinking of my own and resulted in a marvelous new ritual involving the release of homing pigeons. Hundreds of them are brought to the Synagogue each year, held in hand, and then released into the heavens in a powerful gesture of self-liberation from sin. Look for an article soon on this project. I emphasize that while the idea was my own, it took shape in the context of ongoing conversation. One thing always leads to another.
Finally we need to bring all of this thinking together so that it is easily, readily, and powerfully accessible. There are plenty of program libraries and collections on all manner of projects and functions of the synagogue. I've seen a thousand descriptions of a Sefer Torah writing effort that reliably yields half a million dollars in revenue. But we do not have a library--I would strongly prefer a website--devoted to the project of activating the spirit. Let
this site be a "best practices" incubator, featuring bold strokes programming whose function would be to motivate, instill, and excite. I'd like to see a library of every great Tu B'Shevat seder, every symbolic addition to the seder table, every meditative retreat program, along with links to sites in this same general domain. This is the very least we should expect: that we would assemble the models so that they can be picked over and developed by our colleagues and congregants--anyone who has a taste for this endeavor.
All of this is the only the beginning of what we need and the smallest step in the right direction. Real transformation will take a substantial investment and remain a challenge for a very long time. It's very hard to turn the great ship of our estate, let alone remake the map at the very same time. There will also be criticism for our hubris in imagining that it is possible to create a kind of cultural revolution, where every service is a portal to the presence of God, or at very least touching and deeply felt. Plenty of people will speak about the supportive comforts of routine, or the idiocy of fetishizing novelty and innovation. We will be urged to be reasonable and come to our senses; to recognize the rhythms and limits of institutional life.
I don't imagine that any of us will be crowned with laurels, or that we can manufacture moments of joy as if they were widgets. The transformative moment will never be commonplace, but rather an intermittent grace note in the program of the synagogue. My point is that we have frequently failed to achieve even that. And we continue to lose ground and our claims on the future. Everyone knows the same dispiriting stats. We're in the unenviable position of people who grew up in the old world, facing a truly remarkable collapse of communal will to endure.
And at the same time, we are living in a time of great longing, where there are good people all around us who want the very best we can deliver. I think that we should take all of this very seriously and deliver ourselves to the project of transformation. This one calls for special imagination, for the subtlety and guidance of loving men and women who think of their Judaism as the great gift of their lives. I hope to say that we did our part when called.
Marc Boone Fitzerman is the Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Emunah, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the editor of RENEWAL.