The Seventy Faces of a Congregation: Thoughts on Our Individual and Collective Role in 21st Century Organized Judaism
by Barry Camson
What does it take to be a member of or lead a 21st century Jewish congregation? I believe that this is different from what it took to be part of or lead a late 20th century congregation. 20th and 21st century Jewish congregations are different as are the needs of those who seek them out.
This difference was discussed in an article by Shawn Landres in “Sh’ma, A Journal of Jewish Ideas.” He comments:
“The past few years have witnessed a renaissance in Jewish religious life through the formation of new spiritual communities unbound by conventional expectations about the roles and parameters of a synagogue. These new groups – led mostly by Generation Xers (born 1965-83) and Millennials (born 1983-2000) – crave spirituality, but they aren’t interested in rote rules or in lightweight worship. Instead, they focus on devotional experiences that move beyond the walls of the synagogue, build community, and, perhaps most of all, create what they call an authentic connection to their traditions and to God.” (“The Emerging Spiritual Paradigm”)
In the 21st century, we need to find new ways for people to participate within congregations. Asking members or potential members to align and subsume their interests to those of a specific movement or congregation may not succeed as it has in the past. Many of these individuals have their own point of view about davening, spirituality, the role of women, tikun olam and responding to those in need. Though some may be totally comfortable with the congregation as it is, others may find it an uncomfortable fit and reflect their dissatisfaction through rote, inattentive or superficial participation in the congregation. Still others are perfectly willing to set out on their own with like-minded others to create a congregation, a minyan, a post-denominational place for worship or a new Jewish initiative.
These emergent initiatives are both creative and additive to the Jewish experience. Landres comments in a later article, “the Jewish emergent phenomenon reflects three large-scale transformations of identity and collectivity in 21st century Jewish life.” He continues, “the first is the unbundling and relocation of activities previously “packaged” in a given institution, such as the synagogue.” (“Emergence Unbound,” Shawn Landres)
In the late 20th century, we spoke of everyone becoming a leader. An often used term was distributed leadership. This was true in the business sector, the nonprofit sector and also in the congregational sector. We spoke of developing leadership skills, having individuals gain leadership experience. Formal leaders learned to share the stage with individual member leaders. In our congregations, we saw members lead davening, leyn Torah, give the Shabbos drash. We continued to see lay members lead different congregational committees.
The 21st century presents us with the added challenge of thinking about the “leader” of what. What are we to be the leader of? Leadership in the 21st century is not leadership of “your father’s Oldsmobile.” It is not as geared to the immutable bricks and mortar institution known as the synagogue or temple. Leadership in the 21st century may need to move beyond the bricks and mortar synagogue in order to sustain and even expand the kehillah.
I believe that the “what” of leadership is leadership of one’s own internal agenda to accomplish in immediate time what one sees needed in oneself, in the kehillah, the community, society or the world at large. It is to join together with others to allow creative Jewish enterprises of thought and action to emerge.
I think we can gain some guidance here from the idea of the Seventy Faces of Torah. This was an idea that according to Gershom Scholem was set out as early as the 12th century by Abraham Ibn Ezra who said with regard to Torah, “every word, indeed, every letter has seventy aspects, or literally, faces.” Scholem comments, “the number seventy stands here of course for the inexhaustible totality of the divine word.” (On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, Gershom Scholem, pg. 62-65.)
The Kabbalist Moses Cordovero commented,
“Each individual soul has its own peculiar way of understanding the Torah.
Each of these 600,000 holy souls has its own special portion of the Torah ‘and to none other than he, whose soul springs from thence, will it be given to understand it in this special and individual way that is reserved to him.’ (Ibid.)”
Each one of the members in a kehillah represents a different Face of Torah. Each individual has a unique understanding of what it means to be Jewish and a unique set of individual Jewish needs. They have their own views on how a kehillah should be, on the role of the kehillah in the community and the world, on how actions in a kehillah can be supportive of connecting to HaShem. One could see this as each creating an individual midrash.
These same individuals involve themselves in collective midrash-making as they look for like-minded others or at least interesting others with whom to further develop a collective midrash. They may seek others who wish to pursue Talmudic learning or initiatives of tikkun olam. They may seek others who have the same vision of Jewish communal life. They may seek others who have an expanded role for women in worship and Judaism or how everyone can be fully included in the Jewish community. They may seek others who have an expanded view of the role of ruach in worship. They band together to collectively construct their Judaic enterprise and to build it out both in reaching towards HaShem as well as to reaching out to their fellow human beings and to their communities and the world.
What does all of this say about how one goes about leading, maintaining, and sustaining, the synagogue congregation of the 21st century. Can a singularly-focused institution, part of a singularly-focused movement, hope to meet the myriad needs of many individual agents? Can the 20th century synagogue institution even survive? Will the 21st century synagogue become more of a building in which a variety of unrelated minyanim meet? Will the congregational institution of the 21st century break into a series of minyaneem spread throughout the community? These latter two effects are already happening?
How would one act as rabbi or member to ensure the survival of the collective Jewish entity known as the synagogue? Here are my suggestions on the subject.
- The rabbi and synagogue leadership must recognize that each person has his or her own path and set of needs which should be accorded respect.
- The rabbi must endeavor to build and maintain the container in which the congregation has chosen to live. This requires skills in creating psychological safety for each member. It requires skills in catalyzing and helping to facilitate in a highly constructive way those age old Judaic disputes that are in the service of HaShem. The rabbi helps to create ongoing dialogue about these important Jewish issues – not sweep them under the rug and not allow them to erupt in non-constructive actions. We can learn from Hillel and Shamai that the path to deeper learning and observance is through dialogue, debate (machlochit).
- The rabbi must lead by inspiration, by being a role model, and through facilitation rather than by being an enforcer of a congregational or movement game plan. E.g. The rabbi must demonstrate the value of the pursuit of learning, the excitement of learning, the spiritual and practical value of learning to one’s daily life. Each member must in turn lead by sharing their enthusiasm, and curiosity.
- The rabbi continues to meet his or her obligation to render decisions in accordance with Halacha as subscribed to by the rabbi and the congregation. This sets boundaries on the limits of divergence acceptable within the congregation and supports the customs and rituals of the congregation.
- Each individual should devote full energies to constructing a Jewish persona – to learn, to act in the congregation and in the community. The congregation should be supportive of each individual’s efforts. The congregation can be a meeting place where each person who is involved in further developing their individual Jewish persona can meet, share notes, ideas, provide support and in the end camaraderie in pursuing their individual Jewish enterprise. In that vein, the congregation becomes an incubator of the individual Jewish persona.
- Individuals within the congregation join together in constructing collective initiatives out of their similar and divergent perspectives. The congregation as a whole should be supportive of these endeavors. In this regard, the congregation serves as an incubator of these new collective initiatives. Ideally, the place for fulfillment of these activities will be within the kehillah. Where not possible, it would be beneficial if the connections of support and caring can be maintained with the kehillah. Rather than ending up with the break-off entity of the 20th century, we would end up with a network of second, third, and forth generation initiatives by people who seek to meet their own goals in the world while also maintaining a deep connection of trust and wholeness with those with whom they started.
- The rabbi acts as catalyst, facilitator and weaver of this larger fabric of connections. The rabbi’s role becomes that of catalyst of new thinking, new combinations of thinking, and new ways of organizing. It becomes that of facilitating and weaving the connections among both like-minded and diversely minded individuals. The rabbi creates constructive dialogue on important Jewish issues. The rabbi’s job becomes that of helping people within the congregation to tune into the deeper issues of being Jewish, of being a member of a family, community, society, world. The rabbi’s role becomes helping people take their thoughts and actions individually and collectively and put them into valuable actions in the world.
- In the end the congregation becomes a network of individual Jewish personae which the rabbi has played a role inspiring and facilitating and of collective initiatives which represent a connection among members. The kehillah becomes a network of those now living among the congregation and those who have left to further new and different collective initiatives.
- Seen from a higher perspective, each rabbi of each congregation is involved in building an interlacing network of members who interact with others within and outside of the formal congregation in pursuing key facets of Jewish endeavor. Each rabbi represents a specific point of inspiration in Jewish observance, worship, learning, tikkun olam, tzedakah, and caring for others. Each plays a role in catalyzing and facilitating. Each member of this larger Jewish collective has the responsibility to develop him/herself as an agent in developing their own Jewish identity and in taking leadership in and pursuing the many collective activities that will advance the larger kehillah.
Barry Camson is an organization development consultant and trainer in Boston, MA. He has consulted to NGO’s in Israel and Jewish congregations in the U.S. His current focus is on the effective use of networks and approaches for sharing knowledge across organizations and cultures. He can be reached at BCamson@aol.com. He blogs at barrycamson.com.