Tent Peg Business Some Mischievous, Heretical, And Humorous
Truths About Surviving And Healing Congregational Life
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 that 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: avodah, torah, and gemilut hasadim. This is not
a capricious categorization. Prayer (avodah) is emotional: song,
candles, dance, meditation, and silence-a matter of the heart. Study (torah)
is intellectual reading, questioning, discussion, rigorous logic, and
argument-a matter of the head. And good deeds (gemilut hasadim) 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 that are not inherently Jewish. These secondary acts include
maintaining a building, raising money, and perhaps forming a board of
directors. (It should be here noted, however, that in the long history of our
people there have been healthy, vibrant, and solvent congregations that had none
of the above.)
5. Congregations, unfortunately, often get so caught up in
doing secondary acts that they actually begin to think that maintaining the
building, raising money, or electing the board of directors 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 mutual best interest, therefore, to
encourage one another to spend at least half of his or her "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
7. Members of a congregation ought to selfishly and routinely
demand that the congregation provide them with the instruments (teachers,
classes, books, colloquia, 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 that
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 whatsoever to support the notion that
people who are drawn into the congregation for an innocuous nonreligious event,
such as gourmet cooking, move onto 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 that run many "basement" activities in hopes
of getting people from there onto upper floors only wind up adding on to the
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
12. The way a congregation gets its money may be finally more important
than how much it gets. Consider the religious impact, for instance, for
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 as in all such clubs, you get what you pay for.
13. Most forms of fund-raising within a congregation might
simply be understood as the establishment of a small business within the
congregation that is staffed without charge by its members. This little
fund-raising business allows the members 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
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
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 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, or any nurture, kindness,
or encouragement put into the system eventually (it may take years) returns to
those who put it out. Sooner or later, it always comes back to you.
21. Rabbis, as Arnold Jacob Wolf has observed, do not own their
congregations. Congregations belong to their members. For this reason,
congregants have ultimate decision-making power and rabbis are well advised to
invest their egos in something less mercurial 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, cajole, 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 liberal Jewish
theologian Eugene Borowitz has wisely suggested, this is called tsimtsum 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
directors) 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 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
Mordecai Yosef Leiner 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. Then they understood
how what all they had accomplished was not by virtue of
their own skill alone but that the Holy One had guided the hands of
everyone who had worked on the tabernacle. They had only later
merely joined in completing its 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 had only made the courtyard tent pegs.