Saturday, December 08, 2007


It has been said before in this quadrant of cyberspace that I have but one ultimate goal in life. On days like today, I have trouble believing that I could reach that goal, but quite a few people do, and my parents came close. They were married for 58 years when, on October 1, 2002, my father died. My goal is to beat them by two years. Kathy and I would nearly have to reach 90 in order to get there, and we have 39 years to go, but we’re going to give it our best shot. My sole concern is life expectancy. That other killer of marriages – divorce – is something I’ve rarely thought about happening to me.

Until this week.

Piqued your interest? Well don’t worry. If Kathy and I were having marital problems, I sure wouldn’t be talking about it here. No, the divorce I have in mind has nothing to do with my wife. We’re both getting divorced, to be sure, but not from each other. We’re getting divorced from our religious community. This past Sunday, our community filed for divorce with us … and dozens if not scores of others.

I’m not sure if this horrible situation is suitable for a blog post. Normally, I try to write about topics of broad philosophical or political interest and yet, on the surface, this topic seems to be both mundane and limited in interest. In fact, I could trivialize it very easily, as follows:

“My Reform Temple has two rabbis and a cantor. The Senior Rabbi doesn’t work well with the other rabbi or the cantor, and the Board of Trustees is sick and tired of the lack of harmony. So the Board decided that it had to choose between the Senior Rabbi, on the one hand, and the Cantor and Associate Rabbi, on the other. It chose the Senior Rabbi and told the membership last Sunday that the other two will have to leave when their contracts expire in June.”

Big whoop, right?

In my house, it is. You’ve seen me compare the situation to a divorce. My wife has compared it to a “death in the family.” My younger daughter is palpably depressed about it. And all of us recognize that the closest thing we had to a community is never again going to be a part of our life.

Well, not quite.

The question that has been plaguing me all week is not which community to join going forward, but whether I have any more obligations to take action in response to the divorce filing. I’ve already ripped up my dues check. I’ve already advised my older daughter to quit her job as the temple’s Saturday services song leader. But should I do more? Should I organize a petition? Should I organize a picket? That’s right, you heard me. Should I organize a picket? Or is there a way to annul the Board's action -- something that would allow the congregation as a whole to oust the Board after a vote of no confidence. That last alternative would be my preference, if it's an available option.

It is almost axiomatic that one of the more primitive forms of religiosity involves treating clergymen as if they are gods. I look at certain Hasidic communities, and I see the way they treat their rebbes, and it seems absurd to me. These people are only human, right? So why expect that they have supernatural wisdom? Why let them decide for us the meaning of right and wrong?

I’d like to think that my attachment to that cantor and that rabbi is altogether different. I didn’t look to them for supernatural anything – wisdom or otherwise. But they were the closest thing my family and I had to spiritual leaders in our midst. And we were hardly alone. Two years ago, the same Board tried to can the same cantor (the rabbi was spared the agony, temporarily), claiming that the issue was one of “money.” Well over 100 members responded with a petition, and the Board reconsidered and decided on a solution reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz. Instead of “Bring back the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West,’ it was “Raise $40,000 in permanent annual voluntary dues increases.” Well, we did. And they agreed to re-hire the cantor – for two more years.

Personally, my family upped our dues by $1,400 a year, and I have no doubt that some others were even more generous. That cantor was the heart of prayer at that synagogue. His voice, more than anything else, opened up the soul to the sublime. After he was re-hired, we heard from Board officials that they had recognized their failure to appreciate the views of the membership, and they would do a better job of listening to what we think. Their idea was to hold Parlor Meetings where temple members would share ideas. And so those meetings were held. In each case, the Senior Rabbi was present; the cantor and Associate Rabbi were not. Nevertheless, the results of the meetings – released in October of this year, or nine months after they were held -- were the Platonic Form of an inconclusive mishmash. It’s no wonder that the report on the meetings was prepared in April, but it took them half a year more to release it. The Board could have spent 60 months working on that report and it wouldn’t have made a difference. There was no way to utilize the results as a mandate to let ago of the Temple’s clergy.

Then again, there was no need to consider the Parlor Meetings in terms of such a mandate, because at the same time those meeting results were released, the Board had another meeting. Unlike the Parlor Meetings – which collectively were attended by only about 65 people – this one was attended by well over 100. For nearly two hours, congregants walked up to the front of the sanctuary and spoke about whether or not to retain the existing clergy. Overwhelmingly, the members voiced their support. In fact, other than past presidents or spouses of current vice presidents, there was scarcely a dissenting word heard. Slam dunk, right? Of course the Board would retain our cantor and Associate Rabbi. After all, at the June annual meeting, we were told that one of the purposes of this October meeting would be to listen to the membership about whether to retain these clergymen. And boy did the membership speak their mind. We want our cantor! We want our rabbi! Instead, we just got screwed.

I could go on to list even more facts, but you get the drift. The two clergy who were canned were brilliant, spiritual people who have huge legions of fans. But the Senior Rabbi wasn’t among those fans. Nor were many of the people on the Board. The Board's Kafkaesque letter to the membership reporting on its decision quoted from a Biblical Prophet and justified the decision on the need for “harmony.” That letter presumably meant that since the temple will be controlled by one man and one man only (the Senior Rabbi), we can now have unity ... and a choice – his way or the highway.

The more that I think about the situation, the more I realize how many issues of broad import really are at play. First and foremost, this tells you a lot about the level of apathy in modern Reform temples. The previous temple president explained that one of the reasons the Board was prepared to let the cantor go back in 2005 is that they figured most members were essentially two day a year Jews who really couldn’t care much about who was leading Friday night services in prayer. In other words, these temples exist like country clubs – they give people a sense of identity and a social network, but they don’t especially ground their spirituality or their values. We’ll see over the next several weeks whether that vision of the Temple’s membership is accurate, but I for one wouldn't be surprised if the ex-president spoke the truth.

Second, the situation points out the ethical “flexibility” of religious institutions. This temple, you see, promotes itself as a very progressive place – and progressive values presumably start with a commitment to democratic principles. But in fact, the Board’s conduct was governed by a corporatist, authoritarian model. They owed us the “procedural rights” of meetings where they physically sat quietly and listened to us. Yet they clearly didn’t give a damn about what we said. This sort of dynamic may well be played out in churches and synagogues all over the country. It’s easy to tell stories about religious ideals – generosity, justice, etc. – but that doesn’t for a second mean that our religious leaders feel obliged to follow these ideals. I guess the point is to know about them and proclaim their truth. Actually living according to them is above and beyond the call of duty.

Third, the situation points out how our society has become, to use a phrase coined by Abby Hoffman, a “hotbed of rest.” The Board learned back in 2005 that while hundreds of temple members are mired in some degree of apathy about fundamental synagogue issues, dozens of others are extremely passionate and will surely be enraged about the injustice of this situation. But the Board is counting on our ultimately deciding that there is nothing we can do to change things.

Forty years ago, people demonstrated publicly with respect to a variety of causes. They felt that if you didn’t demonstrate against injustice, you would ensure that it recurs over and over again, tormenting the lives of innocent people. Today, however, we pretty much tend to our own gardens – our kids, our jobs, etc. Somehow, we have adopted an Adam Smithian approach to justice – justice will be best furthered by feathering our own families’ nests 24/7.

Have we lost our religious soul? Have we truly forgotten why we admire the Prophets so much – or their modern descendents, like Martin Luther King or Abraham Joshua Heschel? To me, the temple Board has issued a challenge to my community. Are you serious about Jewish values, or have you simply joined a country club? I can’t wait to find out. I can’t wait to see how many people – how many families – are willing to fight for justice. I can’t wait to see how many are willing to decide, for example, that while a “religious education” is extremely important, children will learn more about religious values by picking up a picket sign than by hearing about the Prophets in a classroom.

Some things are best learned outside of books. Then again, sometimes, books will capture a point perfectly. As it is written in Ecclesiastes, “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven. … A time for keeping silent. A time for speaking. … A time for war. A time for peace.”

The Board is calling this a time for peace (i.e., harmony). I, respectively, must beg to disagree.

At the October meeting, we practically begged the Board to take this opportunity to make a statement that peace isn’t something you’re just handed but something you have to work for. I personally made the appeal that if we can’t peacefully come together at this temple, how can we possibly pray for peace in the Middle East? I also said that if, under the circumstances, there is any member of the clergy who wasn’t willing to work with the others, that was the person who should leave.

Well, the Board decided that it wanted peace – but on the cheap. It wanted peace by taking an action against the will of the majority and making a clear statement to anyone who dissents: don't let the door hit your ass on the way out. But it didn’t want to return the tens of thousands of dollars that it solicited in voluntary dues increases for the purported purpose of keeping our community intact.

To that, I have but one response: NO JUSTICE, NO SHALOM.


Anonymous said...

When parents divorce it can be hard for the children. Sometimes it feels like death. It shatters the sense of security children have. If Mom and Dad do not love each other anymore, what can we trust in this world? But sometimes it is better to end a dysfunctional relationship than to drag it on. If the rabbis do not love each other any more, let them separate! It will be hard for a while but hopefully they will be able to find a better fit for their personalities on their new jobs and to establish happier and healthier "homes." Clearly the head rabbi wants a divorce, it is his right. The question is how to divide the property. Who gets the "house/temple"? Who gets the "children/congregation"? What do the contracts say? What legal rights does each side have? The time for "therapy" might be over now, it might be the time for a lawyer.
No matter how disappointing it might be now, remember, it is just a divorce, not a death. The people you love are still there, you can follow them to their new destinations and, hopefully, see them reemerge from this ordeal happier and healthier. Your friendship is independent of the institution that fell apart. Take care.

Daniel Spiro said...


Thanks for your thoughts. We might have to agree to disagree, though, on some of what you said. For example, I dispute that a "senior rabbi" has an absolute (moral) right to call for a divorce at will and for no apparent reason. That same rabbi likes to tout the temple as an extremely progressive (left-leaning) place. Methinks, he can't have it both ways. Secondly, I question whether there are other options right now than simply getting "therapy" and leaving.

In any event, we have a big meeting tomorrow of folks are none too thrilled with the situation, and until then, I haven't clue what other steps can be taken. We agree on one main thing -- a divorce is better than a death, and the true friends that I made at the Temple will remain my friends even after all the kvetching is done.

Anonymous said...

What's new with the rabbis? Did the good win? Did they stay or did they go?

Daniel Spiro said...

So far, I can't report anything new. The group of people who are supposing religious authoritarianism met last Sunday and will meet again tomorrow. But so far, we don't have a firm plan of action yet.

Anonymous said...

How can you be sure it is an issue of religious authoritarianism rather than simple personal dislike?

Daniel Spiro said...

It may have stemmed from personal dislike. But the powers that be made a big deal of the notion that they would be making the decision based on the will of the congregation and yet, once that will was gleaned, they blatantly disregarded it. The justification? Whatever the Senior Rabbi says goes.

That is what I call authoritarianism -- and it is blatantly contradicted by so much of what we hear from the Senior Rabbi and others. Remember, this group holds itself out as extremely progressive politically. In short, they're trying to have their cake and eat it.