Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Three Synagogues?

By Larry Kaufman

When I became a member of Beth Emet in 2007, I quickly learned that, most of the time, either Rabbi Knobel or Rabbi London would present the dvar Torah at Kabbalat Shabbat, while, most of the time, a lay member of the Kahal would lead the Shabbat morning Torah discussion. Thus I felt particularly honored, a year and a half into my membership, when Rabbi  Knobel called to ask if I would be willing on such and such a Kabbalat Shabbat to give the dvar Torah.  I said yes, without thinking, and only then did it occur to me to inquire, “What’s the parasha?” It was too late to back out when I learned he had saddled me with Vayikra, the first parasha in the problematic Book of Leviticus.

But in for a penny, in for a pound.  As long as I was going to prepare a drash on Vayikra, I could hardly say no when Leonard Nelson, the Dvar Torah coordinator for Kahal, asked me to do a repeat performance the next morning.  Leonard and I discussed the possibility of people having to hear the same material twice, but concluded that there are relatively few people who attend services both on Friday night and on Saturday morning.   

Similarly, in my short time at Beth Emet, I had observed that many people are regular participants in adult education but infrequent worshippers. And our current Tzedek tzedek tirdof theme puts a spotlight on the large contingent whose most visible activity lies in our manifold works of tikkun olam.  The JUF keeps reminding us that We Are One, but at Beth Emet, we seem to be at least three: a worship congregation, a study congregation, and a social justice congregation. Maybe the sign outside our shul should read Beth Emet – the Three Synagogues. 

Commenting on the variety of ways our activists identify with the congregation is particularly timely when we are reading Leviticus, as we were at the time of my Vayikra dvar, and are again now. In his analysis of the relevance of Leviticus to the modern reader, Professor Robert Alter identifies lehavdil, to divide, to set apart, to draw lines, as the thematic core of the book.  The parasha – in fact the whole book -- dwells on drawing lines among the roles of Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim, the other members of the tribe of Levi, and the Israelite civilian population.  The Reform movement long since dropped the hereditary distinctions among Cohen, Levi, Yisrael, but have we substituted a new tri-partite division, worshippers, studiers, and social activists?  

When we discussed this at Kahal, it turned out that the Cohen-Levi-Yisrael distinction may not be all that absent.  Someone pointed out that it is maintained for aliyot at the Beth Emet minyan.  Teddy Aronson told us she transitioned from her nominally Orthodox upbringing to Beth Emet and Reform when her traditional community refused to accept her status as a Levi.  She was willing to pray where that status was ignored, but not where it was denied. Another Kahalnik, while appreciating the idea of different strokes for different folks, expressed dismay at the idea that we be seen as other than a unified congregation, held together by a shared ethos, even though people follow divergent and often multiple paths in expressing themselves Jewishly.

Yes, some of our members favor one, others another, of the three major mission of any synagogue – Torah, Avodah, G’milut Hasadim – study, worship, good deeds.  All are encapsulated in the “obligations without measure” prayer, that lists the activities that can’t be overdone, but ends, talmud torah k’neged kulam, the study of Torah encompasses them all.  That might suggest that in the triad of study, worship, good deeds, study is paramount.   But I prefer another reading, which satisfies the call by my Kahal colleague that we be seen as a unified congregation, not as the Three Synagogues. 

Torah, Avodah, G’milut Hasadim.  Wherever we place our dominant attention, the bottom line is the idea that those are not three things, they are one!

1 comment:

Roger Price said...


The challenge to synagogues is not so much that interests are divided, its that they are nominal. Only about one-third of American Jews even belong to a synagogue. Attendance at services and adult education is sporadic at best. Congregations need to ask whether the problem is the medium or the message (or both).

Roger Price