The Tent-Peg Business

The Tent-Peg Business:
Some Truths About Congregations
By Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

1.    If synagogues were businesses, their product would be Jews.  The more Jews they could manufacture from otherwise illiterate, assimilated, and un-self aware members, the more successful they would be.  That is (to continue the metaphor) the bottom line.  Simply getting together with other Jews may be ancillary and even indispensable to this ultimate goal, but it can just as easily be — as is often the case when Jews get together to watch a movie, eat dinner, or play tennis — a pleasant way to pass time.

2.    Jews need one another, and therefore congregations, to do primary religious acts which they should not, and probably cannot, do alone.  Doing primary religious acts is the only way we have of growing as Jews.  Consequently, it is also the only justification for the existence of a congregation.  Everything else congregations do, Jews can always do cheaper, easier, and better somewhere else.

3.    There are three ancient kinds of primary Jewish acts: communal prayer, holy study, and good deeds, or in the classical language of Pirke Avot: Avoda, Torah, and G’milut Hasadim. This is not a capricious categorization.  Prayer is emotional: songs, candies, dance, meditation, and silence.  A matter of the heart.  Study is intellectual: reading, questions, discussion, rigorous logic, and argument.  A matter of the head.  And good deeds are public acts: helping, repairing, matching, fighting, and doing.  Matters of the hand.  Only rare individuals are able to do all three with equal fervor and skill.  And so our membership in a congregation and association with a broad spectrum of Jews will compensate for our personal deficiencies.

4.    In order to maintain their congregations, Jews must do many other things which are not inherently Jewish.  These secondary acts include building a building, raising money, and perhaps forming a Board of Trustees. (It should be here noted, however, that in the long history of our people there have been healthy, vibrant, and solvent congregations which had none of the above.)

5.    Congregations, unfortunately, often get so caught up in doing secondary acts that they actually begin to think that the building, raising money, or the Board of Trustees is the reason for the existence of the congregation.  Their members are busy at work, but because they have forgotten why they are at work, their efforts are hollow and come to naught.

6.    People decide, consciously or unconsciously, how many hours each week they will spend at the temple being Jewish.  Once there they assume that whatever they do, whether primary or secondary, is a primary Jewish activity. (There are many Jews today who sincerely believe that running a photocopier, attending committee meetings, and organizing bingo are primary Jewish acts.) It is in everyone’s mutually best interest, therefore, to encourage one another to spend at least half our “Jewish hours” doing primary Jewish acts.  Such a system, in addition to guaranteeing individual religious growth, invariably draws upon ever-widening circles of people who will in turn spend no more than half their time doing secondary congregational tasks.

7.    Members of a congregation ought to selfishly and routinely demand that the congregation provide them with the instruments (teachers, classes, books, colloquial services, programs, etc.) they need in order to grow as Jews.  In many congregations, unfortunately, this order is reversed.  Leaders who have not clarified their own religious goals are supposed to set policies for other members who themselves have not yet even determined that they need to come around at all.  Here is the proper sequence: first comes personal religious growing, then comes effective congregational policy.

8.    If people selfishly seek their own Jewish growth and do what they do because they want to (lishma, for its own sake), then there is no longer any need for the ritualized public displays of gratitude which threaten to suffocate virtually every arena of congregational life.  Such obeisance at services and banquets, in print and on the walls, invariably degenerates into a system in which people give gifts of time, money, and skill to the congregation not for the joy of giving itself but for the communal recognition.  If everyone is thanked, the only noteworthy events are the invariable omissions.

9.    If people are tricked into attending something they would not have come to otherwise, they will not know what to do once they are there.  They will soon grow bored, bitter and destructive.

10.    There is no evidence whatever to support the notion that people who are drawn into the congregation for an innocuous non-religious event, such as gourmet cooking, move on to activities of more primary religious worth any sooner than if they had been left alone to discover their own inevitable and personal religious agendas and timetables.  Indeed, there is substantial data to suggest that congregations which run many “basement” activities, in hopes of getting people from there onto upper floors, only wind up adding on to the basement.

11.    The quality of interpersonal transactions between the members of the congregation is the single most important factor in determining its health.  Do they bear witness to the piety the congregation claims to perpetuate?  Where the human relationships are self-righteous, deceitful, and toxic, congregational life is wretched.  Where they are tolerant, honest, and nurturing, congregational life can be a transforming joy.

12.    The way a congregation gets its money may be finally more important than how much it gets.  Consider the religious impact, for instance, between congregations getting, say, half their operating budgets from (a) bingo, (b) a few wealthy members, or (c) dues.  There is a widespread misconception that because the congregation is nonprofit and tax-exempt, it is therefore a charity.  Actually, even though the analogy makes us uncomfortable, a congregation is (with the possible exception of offering membership to anyone with a financial hardship) precisely like a country club.  And like all such clubs, you get what you pay for.

13.    Most forms of fundraising within a congregation might simply be understood as the establishment of a small business within the congregation which is staffed without charge by its members.  This little fundraising business allows the members of the congregation to think that since their dues were lowered they are getting something for nothing.  It works as long as the people who run the little business remain convinced that they are really doing primary Jewish acts.

14.    Any attempt to get someone other than the members of a congregation to pay for what they want only cheapens the institution.  Serious, quality, well-run organizations, with rare exceptions, do not solicit advertisements, sell cupcakes, or run raffles in order to meet their operating budgets.  They may, of course, do such things for people other than themselves, that is, for charity.

15.     Freud may have been correct in postulating that religion originated on account of some primal crime, the guilt for which continues to motivate and organize religious life to this day.  But any attempt to use guilt to motivate religious behavior in a community is certain to generate an equal amount of resentment.  People simply must be regarded as if they are wise and decent enough to do religious things and support congregational functions without manipulation.

16.    The amount of creativity within a congregation stands in inverse ratio to the number of people, groups, or levels in the institutional hierarchy empowered to prohibit anything.  With the exceptions of spending a congregation’s money or using its name, the members of a congregation should not need anyone’s permission to initiate anything — be it a letter in the bulletin or an alternate religious service.

17.    The price of congregational vitality is the frequent appearance of confusion and even anarchy.  The communal tolerance for such creative unpredictability is a learned skill.  There can never be too many people trying too many things.  If it’s a good idea, people will keep coming.  If it’s not so good, no one will come.  The committees, the board and the rabbi ought not get into the business of approving or disapproving anything; they should only help whomever and whenever they can.

18.    Since no one can be sure of what someone else must do to serve the Holy One, anyone who thinks he has a new idea or an old idea must be given a chance.  This also includes the rabbi.  Unqualified mutual support for one another is indispensable in a would-be community.

19.    The amount, quality, and intensity of adult study, perhaps more than other modes of congregational activity, will liberate its members to make wise decisions for themselves.

20.    The congregation, like an extended family, is a closed homeostatic organic system.  Any anger, guilt, or malice, and any nurture, kindness, or encouragement put into the system eventually (it may take years) returns to those who put it out.

21.    Rabbis, as Arnold Jacob Wolf has observed, do not own ‘their’ congregations.  Congregations belong to their members.  For this reason, congregants have ultimate decisionmaking power and rabbis are well advised to invest their egos in something less mercurial and over which they have more control than “their’ congregations.

22.    Rabbis should treat Jews more like rabbis.  Jews should treat rabbis more like Jews.

23.    The chief goal of a rabbi is to teach the members of the congregation how to run their congregation without rabbinic help.  The rabbi must tell them what he or she knows and then persuade, and even trick them into doing what they want to do with their congregation.  The congregation belongs to them; but only when they realize that their rabbi will not “do it” for them, can they (and it) begin to realize their full creative and religious potential.  In the imagery of Lurianic Kabbalah, as Eugene Borowitz has wisely suggested, this is called tzinazum or voluntary self-contraction, resulting in the creation of a space within which people have room to experiment, fail, learn, and grow.

24.    Rabbis ought to treat their congregants as members of an am kadosh, a holy people.  Neither judging nor scolding, the rabbi ought to give congregants permission, encouragement, and support as they try to discover for themselves what they must do to be Jews.

25.    Rabbis and congregants have it in their mutual best interests to encourage the rabbi to develop his or her own spiritual life, and to discourage the rabbi from serving as a communal surrogate for religiosity or as a skilled but hollow performer.  The leader of the prayers, in other words, must also pray.

26.    People must always feel free to establish mechanisms for telling one another the truth about their congregation.  Boring worship, irrelevant classes, or cowardly social action programs can change only if members can share their evaluations.  The bulletin ought to have its own independent (of the rabbi and the Board of Trustees) editor and be a forum for real and open debate.  Arguments are a necessary part of vitality.  The opposite of telling the truth here is not lying, but out of some misguided attempt to protect the congregation, ‘keeping it a secret.’ Nothing so paralyzes a social organism as secrets — especially those that are widely known yet never spoken.

27.    The reality of a congregation’s mood and vitality is a highly volatile, subtle, and even capricious creature.  Ultimately our evaluation of the reality of a congregation and indeed the very standard of evaluation we choose may tell us more about ourselves than the congregation.  Precisely because they are so amorphous, congregations tend to function as a kind of communal Rorschach for their members.

28.    Finally, the members of the congregation must nurture one another because they need one another.  They simply cannot do it alone.  Hermits and monasteries are noticeably absent from Jewish history; we are a hopelessly communal people.  When the wilderness tabernacle is completed, near the end of the Book of Exodus, we are told, ‘And it came to pass that the tabernacle was one’ (Exodus 36:13).  Commenting on this curious expression, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izbica (d. 1854) observes:

In the building of the tabernacle, all Israel were joined in their hearts: no one felt superior to his fellow.  At first, each skilled individual did his own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one, that his work was extraordinary. Afterwards, once they saw how their several contributions to the ‘service’ of the tabernacle were integrated — all the boards, the sockets, the curtains and the loops fit together as if one person had done it all — then they realized how each one of them had depended on the other.  They understood how what all they had accomplished was not virtue of their own skill alone but that the Holy One had guided the hands of everyone who had worked on the tabernacle. 77zey had only later merely joined in completing is master building plan — so that ‘it came to pass that the tabernacle was one’ (Exodus 36:13).  Moreover, the one who made the holy ark itself was unable to feel superior to the one who’d only make the courtyard tent pegs.

Source: Originally printed in New Traditions Magazine, Spring 1984.