Monday, April 08, 2013

Words Matter: Using Spiritual Vocabulary to Create Community

Words Matter:
Redefining A Spiritual Community
With a Vocabulary That Creates Connections

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom, Chevy Chase, MD

          Perhaps the whole of the Reform movement of Judaism can be summed up with the following phrases: history happens, continuity has always been balanced and blended with change – and the world is made up of the words we use to describe it.
          There is much to say about each of these phrases (the notion that evolution is a part of social development, that we interact with the world around us but maintain our own identity, and much more), but I want to concentrate, for now, on the implications of the third idea, that words matter.  Words work, to shape the reality around us.  That is why our movement changed a number of the prayers: there were some traditional phrases or ideas so at variance with either what we saw of the world, or what we wanted the world to be, that we could no longer say such things out loud.  When there were assertions that jumped out at us as primitive, problematic, or even offensive, these were things we amended, adjusted, or simply cut out of the service altogether.  (The fact that words work in emotional ways as well, that music moves the soul, and that this is not entirely an intellectual experience – in other words, that we might well “sing” something we would not “say,” or the rhythm of the ritual might convey something other than the apparent cognitive and surface meaning of the words -- that was an insight that came to our movement later in its development; it took us awhile to figure that out.)
          Just as the words of prayer matter, however, I also believe that the words we use to build, construct and maintain a community matter as well.  And in this regard, this is something I have been wondering, and worried about, for a long time.
          Let’s talk about the words we use, things like “membership” and “dues.”  What do the words convey?  What are we implying, and expecting, and promising with the use of such words?  And are there alternatives that might serve everyone’s needs in a holier, and more holistic way?
          “Membership,” of course, brings up images of clubs and cliques, of who is in and who is out, and, for those of a certain age, of bad tv commercials from previous decades (“Membership has its privileges!”)  It implies a fee for service, an almost commercial context. 
But we would not be here at all without those who view themselves as “in” and “part of” the community.  The community, as such, would not exist.
          What might an alternative be?  I am decent with words, but I have not found a satisfying English substitute.  “Builders” seems too focused on the physical even though it could mean more than that, “partners” implies a shared vision but echoes too closely the “making partner” of law firms and other business associations. 
          I do not always or automatically believe that a Hebrew term is superior to an English one just because of its origin rooted in a Jewish world view, but for this term and for “dues,” below, that is what I have come up with.  The best I can do in a short exploratory essay is the inexact but common translation of “member,” which is “chaver,” or (plural) “chaverim.”  The “ch” is the Hebrew one, like in “Chanukah,” not the English, as in “cheese.”   The term literally means “friend” (remember President Clinton’s farewell to Yitzchak Rabin and the Prime Minister’s funeral – “Shalom, Chaver?”)  The term is used for those who are part of a kibbutz, those who are “members” of the Knesset (“chevrai Knesset,”), of those who are associates of one another in a shared enterprise-- but it has the active implications of intimacy that, I think, the English “member” only possesses if you think about a “member” as a body part, and part of a larger whole.   And related words using the same root promote the same sense of connectivity.   Chevrei” are a group of friends, “chevra” means “society,” a chevruta is a study partner, and a chavurah is a small group -- often within a synagogue -- of people connected by common interest or a consciously constructed communal impulse. 
          Would it change anything to see ourselves as a sacred society, as intimate friends, as colleagues in a shared venture, study partners in our Jewish journeys, as connected parts, as chaverim of a kehilah kedosha (a holy community)?
          And what of “dues”?  The word implies something we “owe,” an expectation, almost a one-way kind of obligation.  Clearly, of course, we need the material support, even for the most spiritual of services.  But what word would work better, to get at the concept of a covenant, a partnership, or reflect a shared stake in a values-based vision?  Here, a Thesaurus was of no help at all.  “Fees” seems even worse, “subscriptions” reduces us to a cable network, “assessments” and “excises” and “levies” are all clearly something externally imposed, and “duties” has a variety of problems as a term.  “Responsibilities” or even “obligations” are not terrible terms – but I would never want the responsibilities or obligations we share towards one another to be reduced to the material and monetary level; clearly the time we give and the care and love we bring are even more important (although we still need the material support as well!)
So, here, too, I turn to Hebrew.  Tzedakah” is too broad and has many other implications (including that which we give that is purely for others – clearly in intent and hopefully in practice synagogue dues are something we derive some benefit from ourselves).  At the moment the term I am the most comfortable with is “terumah” (or, plural, “terumot.”)  It means “offering,” but it comes from the same root as “to lift up” (Rahm Emanuel’s first name is based on the same root, the Hebrew word meaning “lifting up.”)  It happens to have a historic echo, in that the portion describing the very first synagogue building fund (the construction of the Tabernacle in the Wildernes, described in the book of Exodus) is called “Terumah.” 
          The term itself contains a dance between the fact that everyone is expected to lend a hand, but that different people do what they can in different ways.  And, I hope, this it is a concept we can come together around – that the support we give to a spiritual community is something that lifts each other up – both others, and ourselves.
I can imagine alternative visions, other terms, different phrases which tease out the values we mean to express in better ways.  But for now, as a start, and in terms of an overall theme I want to repeat just this: that words matter.  That what we say reflects on who we are, and what we want to accomplish. 
          Let us, then, be chaverim, intimate friends of and with one another, in the building of a sacred community.  And let our terumot, our offerings, be something which lifts us all, together – and also each one of us, individually.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Passover: How Long and Who Cares?

Logic Versus Custom, Seven Versus Eight?
Reflections on the End of Pesach and
Reconsideration of Personal Practice

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom, Chevy Chase, MD

          I felt a tad sad as we marked the end of Passover this year, this past Monday night.  It wasn’t that I missed the matzah – on the contrary, I found the observance harder this year than on some previous occasions, even with a relaxed view of kitniyot (we followed the Sephardic practice, this year, of eating rice and beans and corn – as even the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi authorities who still insist on this restriction admit that it is “nonsense” based on a mistake.)
          No, I felt a bit sad because it felt too isolated, too lonely to end Passover after seven days.
          Seven days is the length of the holiday as ordained in the Torah.  It says it, in plain English, right there in the original!  (See, e.g., Exodus 12:15).  Seven days is the length of the holiday in Israel to this day, but Jews in the Diaspora had, several thousand years ago, added an “extra” day, to cover any irregularities or ambiguities in calculating the lunar calendar, and so the practice outside of Israel was to observe Passover for eight days.  At the outset of the Reform movement in the 19th century, arguing – with full logic – that the calendar had long since been calibrated with mathematic precision and no longer depended on witnesses showing up in the courtyard of the Temple reporting that they had seen the sliver of the new moon, our liberal branch of Judaism declared the “extra” day of all the holidays defunct, and returned Passover to its Biblically envisioned seven days.  (Why many Reform Jews now observe a Second Day of Rosh Hashanah is a complicated question for another time.)
          And so here I am, happily breaking bread and hauling boxes, last Monday night.  Seven is enough.  We’re done.  Passover is over.
          So why did we feel so all alone?
          I have written elsewhere (“Put Down That Bread,” of the importance, the centrality of the observance of Passover, and the prohibition on the eating of bread (and other leavened products) as a core marker of Jewish identity.  I don’t want to repeat that argument now.  But I continue to notice the trend… away from this observance.
          When I was growing up avoiding leaven during Passover was a quite widespread observance – even among marginally affiliated or tentatively connected Jews.  But it just… doesn’t seem to be that way anymore.  At least not in the circles in which I travel.
          Ending Passover last Monday night?   Three Reform colleagues I spoke with Tuesday said they were waiting until Tuesday night. 
And on Monday night there was no “buzz,” no added activity, no excitement in the bakeries or pizza places in our part of town.  Because, I think – liberal Jews are no longer keeping seven days.  They are keeping either eight days – or one/none.  This practice… people are perfectly willing to eat matzah.  They just are not keen on giving anything up.  They are fine with the positive commandment.  But no one is going to tell them not to do something.  And the hard “work” of Passover comes down to preparing a seder meal – not to an all-out, full-blown, otherwise-totally-worthwhile Spring Cleaning.  (Note that I did not grow up in a kosher home – but we still got rid of the bread, put the cereal in the basement, put the not-often-consumed-anyway bottles of beer somewhere else.)
So here is the question: am I missing something, or going to the wrong part of town, or are we a vanishing-breed, we seven-days-of-Pesach Jews?  Where do you stand on this, and does it matter to you at all?  Did you end Pesach last Monday night?  Last Tuesday night?  Or sometime after the first seder?
Personally, I believe that eight days of Passover is excessive, illogical, and inaccurate.  But I know that custom and community often trump logic… and I miss that sense of being in this boat together.  I would actually consider switching our practice, extending the holiday against my own rational instincts… to return to a sense of breaking (or, more literally, baking) bread together.
Is this the most pressing question in the world?  Gun control and capital punishment are on the front pages, the spectre of nuclear weapons extends from the Middle East to East Asia.  Economic issues press upon us. 
But yes, I do believe Jewish solidarity is an important issue – and practices which surround and protect and promote Jewish identity are worth weighing in our lives.  So, no apologies from this corner, for raising what may seem a small issue to some.  There is a word for that feeling of opening oneself up to obligation, to being pulled, or called, to a commitment that comes from outside the self.  That word is “holy.”  And that feeling of connection to my community, that feeling that was missing this year… that is something to which I am wholly committed.