Redefining A Spiritual Community
With a Vocabulary That Creates Connections
Temple Shalom, Chevy Chase, MD
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?
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)?
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.
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.