Last week I was in Chicago for a few days, at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis. Between sessions on ancient theology, medieval disputes about Jewish law, and the state of contemporary Judaism, we had some free time, so I took the L to the Art Institute of Chicago, and since I had limited time, I went directly to my favorite period, the French Impressionists. I saw a Renoir that brought tears to my eyes, ogled some Seurat, beheld several breathtaking Monets.
We read today in the Torah my favorite verse in the entire Torah (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:2):
קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
One of the ways in which we as humans are holy is by acting on the creative impulse within us, the Divine gift of art. When I look at beautiful works of art, I am reminded of the fantastic things that humans are capable of; that despite our many flaws and challenges and vulnerabilities, we often have the potential to create great beauty.
Unfortunately, I did not have time to visit other galleries: the American, African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Textiles, Photography, Prints and Drawings, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Film, Video, etc., etc. Pity. I paid $25 for entry, just to see the work of a few 19th-century Frenchmen. I could actually see those items on the Art Institute of Chicago’s website for free.
Nonetheless, I was moved. I am also grateful that this museum has so many things in its collection, among them Renoir and African fertility goddess dolls and ancient Egyptian stelae and Andy Warhol’s pop art. And I probably will not return there for a long time – I’m not in Chicago very often.
But imagine how weak a museum it would be if it only held one of those things. What makes a great museum wonderful is the range, the comprehensive nature of its offerings; the dedication to the entirety of the holiness in human creativity. Even if I could only have paid, let’s say, two dollars to only see the French Impressionists, the extra $23 in my pocket would represent a loss to me – my ability to take advantage of all that the museum offers – and a loss to the museum – its ability to provide all those other things.
The experience was, it occurred to me, relevant to something that I was planning to speak about today, and that is the so-called “unbundling” of Jewish life.
What is meant by “unbundling”? It’s going on all over the place right now. Show of hands: how many of us are still paying for cable? How many of us still buy CDs (or vinyl albums)? How many of us prefer AirBnB to a full-service hotel? We are in the process of unbundling our lives in many ways. Now, if you only want to watch ESPN, you don’t have to pay for CNN and BET and Lifetime. You don’t need to get the whole bundle.
Unbundling is a term that has come to the fore recently by people in the Jewish world who are advocating a different approach to living Jewishly: to separating the offerings of legacy institutions, particularly synagogues, from each other. That is, if you need a rabbi for a funeral, you hire a rabbi. If you want to learn Talmud, you can go online to find a Talmud class. If you have a 13-year-old child, you can rent an event space for a bar mitzvah. Why do we need big, full-service institutions? Can’t we just cobble together a few Jewish things by ourselves, DIY-style, and call it Jewish life?
The idea has been tossed around liberally by both hosts and guests of the Judaism Unbound podcast, which, for the last two years, has been examining the new ways in which people are engaging with Jewish living and learning today. And it also came up at a recent discussion hosted by Rodef Shalom Congregation about the Jewish future. The featured panel consisted of one of the hosts of Judaism Unbound, Dan Libenson, Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL: The Center for Learning and Leadership, Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom, and two members of Beth Shalom: Rabbi Amy Bardack of the Federation, and Danielle Kranjec, the senior Jewish educator at the Hillel Jewish University Center.
It may be that unbundling is the way we are moving as a society. But that presents a kind of dilemma for synagogues. If I only want High Holiday tickets, or I only want my 2-year-old in the ELC, or I only want JJEP, or to celebrate a bar mitzvah, I have to buy the whole membership. I am effectively paying a lot of money for services that I do not necessarily need or want.
Now, I am a big fan of Judaism Unbound, the podcast and the idea. It has been a forum for many good ideas, some of which I have happily appropriated.
But unbundling is short-sighted. It misses the fact that the synagogue is a home for the community. It’s an extension of your living room. It is, literally, a beit kenesset, a house of gathering, the Hebrew term for the Greek word synagogue. This is a place to gather. Not just for services. Not just for baby namings and dancing with the Torah and Shabbat dinners. It’s also a place where we learn about each other, where we share our stories, where we grow together spiritually as individuals, as families, as a community.
What makes us a qehillah qedoshah, a sacred community, is that we understand that in order to have this gorgeous building, in order to have the staff that keeps it open, the people to send our yahrzeit and birthday notices and new baby announcements, in order to be able to host Shabbat dinners or the Hod veHadar instrumental service that we had last night, we have to support it. Just like you cannot have Impressionists without Diego Rivera, Ai Weiwei, and Botticelli, you also cannot have a bar mitzvah or Ne’ilah without a community or an ark to open.
Still, there are skeptics who will say, “So tell me, Rabbi, what does a synagogue offer? Why do I need it?” (I am, in fact, asked variations on this question quite often.)
The synagogue is the place that offers you all the tools you need to thrive in today’s world. We offer you a framework to help you live a better life: one characterized
- by tzedakah, charity;
- by understanding and supporting the others in our midst – our family and friends but also the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the unprotected;
- by modeling what it means to be a family and to do familial things together in the context of community and Jewish life;
- by providing opportunities to gather, not in front of a screen, but in real time with real people across multiple generations and demographics;
- by bringing people together for a multitude of holy purposes, social, ritual, and otherwise;
- by highlighting the holy moments in our lives and giving us a framework of gratitude, of celebration, and of grief;
- by teaching ancient wisdom, translated into today’s context, which will:
- heighten your relationships,
- improve your understanding of yourself and the world around you, and
- make you feel more grounded.
We need this.
I am grateful that the Art Institute of Chicago has a solid collection of Impressionists; I am also grateful for the all the other parts of the museum that I did not take advantage of. But just as you cannot unbundle a museum, so too must the synagogue, as the communal center, include and highlight all the aspects of Jewish life.
As we unbundle ourselves, we grow more isolated; synagogues are on the front lines of fighting that isolation. That’s why we need at least 10 people for a minyan, a prayer quorum, and that sense pervades Jewish life. We are a beit kenesset, a house of gathering. That is what this building, this community is here for. We will continue to improve the model of how we bring people together, to connect our ancient traditions and wisdom with how we live today. And we need you to be a part of it to make it happen, and to help shape our future together.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/28/2018.)