Thursday, January 19, 2012

Know Us by Our Names – and by Our Deeds

I have had a long-time fascination with synagogue names, how they came to be adopted, and how the name of the congregation and the values it reflects “play out” in the life of the congregation, if at all.  (I blogged about this three years ago on the Reform Judaism blog, at  

Here at Beth Emet, our founding story remains familiar and our founding principles are embedded in our congregational culture, where all are free to express the truth (emet) as they see it.  And the story is memorialized on our website, so that any visitor can know what we stand for and how we came to be in the place where we are.

But it must be said that openness to truth and freedom of speech are both relatively passive, the terrain across which our journey takes place.  The Beth Emet journey, over these sixty-plus years, has been one of action, and our action theme for the current year is tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice you shall pursue.  This theme provides us with programmatic focus, putting an even greater emphasis on what has long been integral to our congregational DNA. 

The instruction to pursue justice comes out of Parashat Shoftim, but the parasha also reminds us of other values, including rachamim, mercy, shalom, peace, emet, truth, and ometz, courage.  Hopefully these too are part of our genetic makeup. 

Fusing our Beth Emet stress on tzedek with my personal interest in what temples call themselves, I decided to take a specific look at congregations that incorporate tzedek in their names.  Given the distinct emphasis Reform Judaism has historically given to social justice, one would expect to find more than half a dozen on our roster of 900 congregations.  But that’s all there are.  (This compares, on the one hand, with 16 Reform “emet” congregations, and with 14 Conservative “tzedek” congregations.)

So what do the tzedek congregations of the Reform movement do about pursuing justice, and about featuring its pursuit?  Although all have active social action programs, with mitzvah days and interfaith programming and soup kitchens among their activities, only one of the six provides visible attention to its commitment to justice. 

B’nai Tzedek, in Fountain Valley, CA, reminds its congregants and its visitors every time they enter the sanctuary of where they are.  On the right side of their bimah wall are the words "Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof" – “Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue.” On the left side of the bimah wall are the words "Marbeh Tzedakah Marbeh Shalom" – “The More Justice, the More Peace.”  Their website goes on to explain “Congregation B'nai Tzedek is committed to pursuing justice in synagogue life as well as in society at large. B'nai Tzedek means ‘Children of Justice.’"

We read in Tanchuma Vayakkhel:  Every man has three names: one by which his parents call him; another, by which he is known to the outside world; and a third, the most important, the name which his own deeds have procured for him. 


As it with people, so too it should be for synagogues:  they should be known not only by their names but by their deeds.  Our congregational names need to be more than identifiers – they need to be a starting point for our identities.  We read in Pirke Avot 1:18, The world stands on three things – on truth, on justice,* and on peace.  Much as I hope that every congregation lives up to the value its institutional parents inscribed in its name, and hopefully stresses it in some manner, no single one of our core values can be the only thing we do.   

*Full disclosure:  The Hebrew here is din, not tzedek, emphasizing law without the overtone of compassion inherent in tzedek.

Larry Kaufman

1 comment:

Janet Reed said...

Now you've got me thinking about how big a difference there is between EMET--truth--and free speech, and wondering why the synagogue wasn't named something about freedom. Is it safe to say our founders were influenced by Rabbi Stephen Wise's Free Synagogue in New York?