Since the 1960s, community has been a buzz word evoking the deepest longings within us. Everyone wants it. But what exactly is the “it” that “everyone” wants?
Types of CommunityDiscussion of community has floundered because we have not specified what kind of community we are talking about. Educator Parker Palmer, for instance, distinguishes three communities: therapeutic, civic, and marketing. Therapeutic communities, such as the many twelve-step or self-help groups, feature a shared intimacy where love and support can blossom into healing. Civic community is the democratic model of small-town life, where excessive intimacy is avoided, but where citizens band together in mutual civility to build a better commonwealth. A marketing community knows neither intimacy nor civic virtue, but is organized around economic principles of maximizing profit, effectiveness, and a “bottom line.” Parker suggests yet a fourth community: an academic community, where the search for truth is supreme. A professor gives a paper and is immediately challenged by other professors giving responses. No one cares much about how the first professor feels. This is a community hunting for truth, not healing.Synagogues As CommunitiesWhat kind of community have synagogues usually been in the past? The synagogue was originally a civic community. The very term beit ha-k’nesset (House of Gathering) tells the tale. The word “synagogue” comes from Greek and means beit ha-k’nesset, or “gathering.” Though nowadays we think of synagogues also as pla ces for prayer and study, the very earliest synagogues were gathering places. In more recent times, people frequented synagogues the way small-town or semi-rural Americans in the late nineteenth century congregated at the general store. Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem depicts eastern European Jews coming to synagogue to have the newspaper read to them. Even in modern
America, as sociologist Samuel Heilman tells us, traditional worship has often been as much about shmoozing as about davening (praying).
Mostly, then, the synagogue was where one went to obtain the news of the day, to joke and to gossip, to get in touch with other Jews, to launch community programs, and even (in medieval Ashkenaz) to lodge legal complaints against fellow community members. These are functions of civic communities, and in our time, for most synagogue members who rarely even come, they have ceased.
Already in the early 1960s, a study of synagogues by Leonard Fein demonstrated that people did not usually make friends at synagogues. They dropped off children, attended special programs, but rarely just “hung out” to be part of a community.The synagogue remained an institution, obviously, but not a civic community. Instead, it evolved into a market community. The board meets to determine efficiency, which is defined as capturing the market share of members. The rabbi is the CEO, responsible to the board for effective management technique and for marketing and packaging the product: a Jewish line of services, for which people pay annual fees, called membership dues. People join to get what they need, and quit when they no longer need it. It may be that the American move toward a service economy has contributed to the synagogue’s becoming such a market “service” center. The ubiquitous “programming” in which synagogues engage are the services designed to attract the people. Busy is better. Given enough programs, people will consider their dues worthwhile. The synagogue as successful market community provides a host of services advertised in the bulletin. It successfully keeps people coming for lectures, special Shabbatot, child-centered events, youth groups, and meetings. Our essence as “spiritual” community now becomes problematic.As we shall presently see, civic, therapeutic, and academic communities contribute to the spiritual community. By contrast, marketing communities do not. We should understand why that is so.
The Spiritual and the SacredTo begin with, it is important to admit that “spiritual” is not inherently a Jewish word. That does not mean that Judaism has no spirituality, but just that Jews have never called it by that name. In many instances, we find that Christianity uses terms that initially sound foreign to Jews, but that turn out to be adequate representations of something Jews have as much as Christians. “Theology” is a nice example. The first obvious study of Jewish theology (that is, a book with the word “theology” in the title) was by Kaufman Kohler, a rabbi in New York, and then president of the Hebrew Union College around the turn of the twentieth century. Kohler’s work was virtually ignored. It didn’t look Jewish. It was Eugene Borowitz, in the 1960s who, virtually single-handedly and ultimately, successfully “invented” and mainstreamed the field of Jewish theology. He himself had no doctorate in the subject; no one did yet. The school where he taught eventually listed him as a professor in Jewish Thought, not “theology,” since “thought” sounded more Jewish at the time. Only recently have Jews begun recognizing that theology is simply a word for “doctrine of God,” and that, of course, Judaism does indeed have that. Yes, Judaism does have theology; it just took us a little while to get used to the word. And similarly, yes, Judaism does have spirituality. The word may not fall trippingly off our tongues yet, but it will; it will. As theology becomes acceptable for Jewish ears because we identify it with “doctrine of God,” a subject that we know we have, so spirituality may become acceptable if we identify it with something that is clearly Jewish. That identification is somewhat more difficult because, unlike “theology,” whose etymology clearly points us to a specific subject matter, “spirituality” has come to mean all sorts of things. Twelve-step programs use it for “connection to a higher power.” Catholics use it for connection to God. New Age religion uses it for connection to the earth. In therapeutic circles, it has come to mean a connectedness within, a sense of personal wholeness. Of course, Judaism recognizes all of these, and other sorts of connectedness also, but for now, we should fasten our attention on the common term, “connectedness.”
At the very least, spirituality is connection to something, as opposed to the opposite: a sense of being disconnected, alienated, fragmented; a solitar y cell in a vast impersonal universe, with no connection to anything beyond ourself. That sense of alienation is exactly what social thinkers from the turn of the twentieth century have predicted would become of a market community. Emil Durkheim, for instance (a Jew himself, who was slated from childhood to become a rabbi, but who became a secular scholar instead) studied alienation, calling it anomie, and predicting a higher rate of suicide because citizens of a mere market community have no experience of “organic solidarity”; they are loners. In 1889, German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies coined a new word for the marketplace society: not Gemeinschaft, a German word which implies inherent belongingness, as in a family, but Gesellschaft, a market term which stands for a community that exists only because of a market contract: exactly what the synagogue has become. The synagogue as civic center was the Jewish Gemeinschaft, the community as extended family. The synagogue as a place for programs in return for dues is the Jewish Gesellschaft, the community of the market, where members enter into limited liability contracts. No wonder Fein discovered by the 1960s that people no longer made their best friends in synagogue. British anthropologist Mary Douglas calls these entrepreneurial communities a necessary stage of the evolution into modernity. As modernity progresses, men and women are spun loose of commitments to other people and to simple rules of conduct that once were taken for granted. They become social isolates, entering into all relationships only by contract and then, predictably, discovering how lonely it is not to be connected to anything real and enduring beyond themselves.
So, the fascination with spirituality has arisen because of the entrepreneurial loneliness of the market community. Spirituality is an attempt to reconnect to something beyond ourselves. It asserts the very opposite of the disconnect that occurs when the only community we know is service-based and contractual. If we turn now to Judaism’s traditional word for Jewish community, we come immediately to the adjective kodesh (or the feminine, k’doshah)—“sacred.”
Durkheim knew that, and posited the need for the sacred in any social system that sought to escape anomie and loneliness. (Given his childhood rabbinic ambitions and the fact that his grandfather was a chief rabbi in Alsace-Lorraine, he may have learned this from Judaism originally.) Leviticus says over and over again, “You shall be sacred as I [God] am sacred.” We are am kadosh, a “sacred people.” A synagogue is a kehillah kedoshah, a “sacred community.”Being sacred, for us, is knowing a connection to each other, to Torah, and to God; a connection that has nothing to do with contract, but is received simply by virtue of being Jewish. True, the covenant is often described as a contract, entered into at Sinai, but the midrash knows it was much more. Being Jewish has always been the immediate knowledge of being part of something more: a people and a purpose, what Reform Jews called “the mission of
Israel” and, ultimately, part of history and part of a plan, with God at its center. Being Jewish is the opposite of social isolation, because being Jewish contains the certain truth that a person is intrinsic to an ultimate system of connection in time and space. The synagogue as civic community embodies that truth; the synagogue as market community obfuscates it. Jewish sources on the nature of the sacred demonstrate even more clearly how far removed sacred community is from marketplace calculation. The Mishnah, for instance, has almost nothing to say about synagogues, but it does say that one may not use synagogues for taking a shortcut—that is, one may not enter the front door in order to walk out the rear door and get somewhere faster. Our codes expand on this teaching. One may not go into a synagogue to do business. Synagogues are for sacred purposes only. We will return to that teaching in a moment, but first, let us look at three other rabbinic precepts: one on Torah, one on rabbis, and one on Chanukah lights.
Pirkei Avot says that we may not “use Torah as a spade to dig with.” The codes prohibit paying rabbis for teaching Torah. Technically, they get paid only for the work they would, but cannot, do because they are engaged in Torah instead. And, ever since at least the eighth century, we have been saying this prayer in the traditional ritual of lighting Chanukah tapers: “These lights are sacred, so we are not allowed to make use of them.” It is forbidden, for instance, to read by the light of Chanukah candles. The nature of the sacred is now evident: in all these cases, the sacred is defined as being non-utilitarian. Torah, which is sacred, cannot be used “like a spade to dig with.” Rabbis who teach it cannot treat the sacred act of teaching as a job. Chanukah lights cannot be used for illumination. Synagogues cannot be used for extraneous purposes—no short cuts, no conversations, even, if they are not about the sacred purposes for which the synagogue exists. Synagogues, then, as sacred communities are places where we eschew the merely utilitarian, which, by definition, is exactly what the market community features.If we are to remake the synagogue as a spiritual—that is, a sacred— community, we must begin by saying “No” to the market community as our model. Similarly, too, people are sacred, so that it is forbidden to use people.
Synagogue As Sacred CommunityLet us look again at the other models of community. If the synagogue must turn its back on its current status as market community, can it or should it strive to be a therapeutic or academic community? Can it or should it recapture the essence of civic community? And is that enough? In fact, synagogues in America today are already in the throes of experimenting with new community models. The idea that a synagogue should be a place of healing reflects the influence of the recent trend toward therapeutic communities. The more common designation is “caring community,” an idea that was in vogue by the last decade of the twentieth century, when synagogues wholeheartedly embraced the idea of learning how to care about members’ lives. That response to the perceived need to care, however, was symptomatic of synagogues that were still market communities: they formulated another committee for the purpose of caring. The “care committee” offered a new program alongside the old ones, thus honoring the goal of care, but using the old market structure to deliver that care. The idea of caring is a good one. However, if “care” is the job of a committee but not of all the synagogue members for each other, one wonders if the community is really a caring community or if, more likely, the community is what it always was, with a special group of care-givers added to the service structure. I mean no disservice to the wonderful people who make a difference because they adopt as their own mitzvah the care of synagogue members who need it. But we want to imagine a caring community entire, and as long as the synagogue is seen as a market community existing for the utilitarian advantages it offers to members who invest their dues, the community in its entirety cannot be “caring.” Transforming a synagogue into a healing, caring community is a question of synagogue cultural change; it requires transformative alterations in the way the community sees itself.Similarly, we have recently seen the synagogue take strides toward becoming an academic community. Given the centrality of learning in Jewish tradition, adult education has always been crucial to the mission of synagogues. But adults interested in learning have generally complained about the level of learning that the synagogue offers. Teaching is often the preserve of the rabbinic staff, which is overworked to the point of having little or no class preparation time. Once, when we were a civic community, Jewish adults were storeowners onMain Street
or home-makers a few blocks away. Now they are sophisticated city dwellers and suburbanites who are likely to have a postgraduate degree, and who can easily sign up for outreach classes taught by professors at the local university. The old idea of the rabbi as generalist but part-time educator requires reconsideration. In the model we now have, adult classes are just another program, and not the most important one at that: the rabbi adjusts his or her time to the needs of the moment, without much time to spend on satisfying any one need.Nonetheless, a change is underway. The first step was taken by Jewish Federation Continuity Commissions that raised our consciousness about the need for serious Jewish education. Non-synagogue responses came first, most notably, the initiatives of CLAL: The Center for Leadership and Learning and of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. These programs demonstrated the thirst for serious adult learning in the Jewish community but, simultaneously, threatened the learning hegemony of synagogues. Synagogues and rabbis saw both initiatives as draining them of serious adult learners. The conflict was typical of a market mentality where one store’s gain is a competing store’s loss. As long as the Jewish community at-large exists as an entrepreneurial enterprise, we will have a zero-sum game, and synagogues, which work with low budgets and stretched-thin human resources, will not win. What we need from a synagogue is not just more of the adult knowledge which can be accomplished in classes anywhere. We need more than a class Tuesday or Wednesday night in this or that subject. The larger goal is to develop learning everywhere in synagogues, even in committees. Synagogues should be the places where Jewish truths matter mightily. They should feature gatherings of people whose every association together is devoted to the search for Jewish truth.
Just as a therapeutic community (renamed, perhaps, a caring or healing community) is part of a spiritual community, so too is an academic community (renamed, for our purposes, as a learning or studying community). For good reason, S2K’s PISGAH acronym features both healing and study. Healing connects us with the lives of others; it makes us over into givers of care—a divine passion. According to the Talmud, healing is genuinely God’s work, not our own, but we are given permission by God to heal. When we do so, it is like “opening up a divine decree that has been hidden away.”
The case for study as a spiritual discipline is mo re obvious yet. Even Albert Einstein, a Jewish but thorough-going secularist, acknowledged the religious roots of scientific discovery: The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion, which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.
Einstein was only following Sir Isaac Newton who believed his every discovery was a step toward uncovering the mind of God. What, then, is learning in the Jewish tradition if not precisely what
Newton believed: a spiritual voyage into the mind of God to wrest the secrets of the universe? Learning in a Jewish mold is not just mastery of facts. It is the union of those facts to a universe where all things are part of a single entity emerging from the unity of the divine mind behind it. Study occurs in a group, a community, not just as an individual student who pays tuition and shows up for a lecture or two. As wonderful as extra-synagogue learning opportunities are, they cannot form the basis of genuine community: Parker’s academic community, engaged in a passionate search fortruths that matter. So, the synagogue as spiritual community needs to be partly a community of healing and partly a community of study, on the highest level. Alternatively,we can say that since healing and study must equally be pursued in a community, the synagogue needs to be the place where healing and study occur, not as isolated activities, but as communal ventures. We should similar ly revisit the promise of civic community. I said above that the synagogue as civic community has been replaced by the synagogue asmarket community, for the simple reason that the natural community of Jews who live in proximity to each other and who are socially isolated from other sources of companionship and information (like an old-time Iowan farm community) have disappeared. But the concept of civic community is still viable; more, it is desirable. A civic community is a community that comes together to create a viable civic entity, what the Romans called civitas, the word from which we derive our term “city.” That civitas featured two things: prayer as a communal people and civic virtue—performing good deeds for each other as communal members.
Synagogues, at best, therefore, are also civic communities, featuring prayer and good deeds. But they are no longer geographically natural ones, the way they were when we lived in ghettos, self-imposed or otherwise. Then, community was bestowed; we inherited it; it was a given that we never questioned.
Now we choose what community we call our own as we choose the responsibility we have within it. Here is where the S2K “spokes” of prayer and good deeds enter. Prayer isobvious. It arises because it summons Jewish community at its best; Jews come together in prayer to renew the covenant at Sinai. Good deeds, too, follow logically. They are the synagogue activities that arise from being a civitas, a “civic community,” in the religioussense. The synagogue celebrates its transcendent values in its worship and puts them into practice in the good that it does to the larger civic community of which it is a part. In antiquity, cities saw that larger community as the province, the kingdom, or the empire. Nowadays, synagogues see it as the larger civic entities without which they would disappear: the neighborhoods, cities, and country on which synagogues depend and according to whose laws they prosper. Good deeds are like liturgy; they are liturgia, avodah, “public works” that we enter into as our sacred—that is, non-utilitarian—recognition that we owe what we owe, regardless of payback.
Toward a Transcendent PurposeSpiritual community, then, is distinctly not a market community, where payback is everything. It is a combination of civic, therapeutic, and academic community, where we seek to do what is right, to support one another in our personal needs, and to arrive at ultimate truth together. These are not simply optional activities that members elect or not (according to utilitarian payoff). They arise as a matter of principle, because these are things that human beings at their best and at their core value most. Otherwise, our spiritual community falls by the wayside.
Yet, something is missing still. Ultimately, a spiritual community needs to grasp at transcendence. “I read somewhere,” says a character named Ouisa, in the play Six Degrees of Separation, “that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. . . . A native in the rain forest, a Tierra del Fuegan, an Eskimo. I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It’s a profound thought . . . how every person is a new door opening up onto other worlds.” Ouisa is right. The connection we sense between one person and another is a miracle. So, too, is the connection between two facts that make us say, “So that’s how it all hangs together.” And connecting ourselves through good works with the larger body politic is nothing to sneeze at either. But we should never forget that all of everything is connected into one. It is a glimpse of what we will never know: the “allness” of it all. It is a peek into the mind of God, the only mind that knows it. It is the beginning of what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “radical amazement,” the root of all spirituality. It is amazing how many of the world’s mystics build their system around the unity of the “allness.” Normally that vision is built on experience, not cognition, since it is impossible for us to grasp intellectually the reality of creation’s unity. The mystics, therefore, strive for what is called unio mystica, mystical union with God, whom they identify as an indwelling presence in all reality. The kabbalistic system favored in sixteenth-century Eretz Yisrael, and labeled Lurianic, after Isaac Luria, the most prominent kabbalistic leader there, saw the cosmos (and God within it) as having been fractured during the moments of creation, but existing as a single unfragmented entity in its essence.
Shabbat was seen as the weekly occasion when the reality of cosmic wholeness became momentarily evident, as it would eternally, some day, when history gives way to the world to come. Once again, in our time, mystical systems have reached out to touch modern men and women who know fragmentation in their lives but intuit a greater wholeness to creation.
Tomorrow’s SynagogueThe larger promise of tomorrow’s synagogue, then, transcends civic, therapeutic, and academic models of community. In Synagogue 2000’s lexicon, the activities of each of these communal models—prayer and good deeds, healing, and study—are not ends in themselves, but pathways into a larger realization: the certain insight that every human being matters, because we are part of infinite time and space, related in ways we will never know to a vast network of physical laws of nature, and to a profound purposethat gives life meaning. Who would believe that such a world could exist? And that we could be part of it? Who would predict, a million or billion millennia ago, when there was nothing, that there would some day be something, and that each of us would occupy it? Who could know that each of us, in our own way, could make a difference in such a massive cosmos? But we do.
Synagogue 2000 calls our making such a difference our “Jewish journey.” Synagogues, we say, are places where Jewish journeys happen, because synagogues are places where prayer and good deeds, healing, and study—the pathways to eternity—occur. A Synagogue 2000 congregation is a place for these activities, but even more, it is a place of profound mystery: the mystery that we can connect ourselves to the cosmos, to God, and to each other, day by day.
DiscussionA congregation functions as many communities, with individuals continually forming and re-forming around prayer, around healing, around study, around good deeds. What links these interdependent communities, making them into a unified spiritual community, into a congregation, is the common underlying sensibility of “grasping forthe transcendent.”
1. What is your reaction to this formulation?
2. Does this match your own ideas of how a synagogue community should be? To what extent is your synagogue already like this?
3. Synagogues are often made of several sub-communities: chavurot, a board that meets regularly, perhaps a Shabbat morning minyan crowd, and so forth. Which sub-communities function well in your synagogue? Given the categories outlined here (academic, civic, therapeutic, market, and sacred), what kind of communities are they? Which should be developed further, and why?
4. How can all these communities become part of one spiritual community?