Saturday, February 16, 2008


You may remember from an earlier post that a couple of months ago, the Board at my synagogue decided against renewing the contract of our cantor and associate rabbi. That has sent me and some others looking for a new community. I found some synagogues that my family liked well enough, but none of them compare to the idea of starting our own community with the "dispossessed Jews" from our previous synagogue. We had our first meeting last night, and it was great.

What follows is a vision statement that I drafted for the new group, which we are now referring to alternatively as a Chavurah (literally, a "group of friends") or a Shul Without Walls. I thought you all might find this interesting -- maybe as an antidote to the authoritarian, chauvanistic, and dogmatic vision that has come to be associated with organized religion. I was also hoping that you might know people who live in D.C. or its Maryland suburbs and who might be interested in finding out more about this group and ultimately joining us (we can't succeed long term unless we broaden our base). If you do, have them e-mail me at


Principle 1 – The Primacy of Values in Forging a Community Identity

The Chavurah should associate itself above all else with certain values. The values form the bedrock of our community, and ground our interpersonal relationships within the community as well as our own individual searches for enlightenment and happiness. With the passage of time, it is hoped that we will manifest these values so strikingly that visitors will be struck by our commitment to them. The identity of those values we wish to emphasize is important, but no more important than the fact that we deeply commit ourselves to whichever values we choose.

Principle 2 – Independence from the Various Jewish Denominations

The Chavurah should not identify itself with one Jewish denomination as opposed to others. It is enough of a concession to organized religion that we proudly adopt the name “Jewish” to refer to our community. Let us not go further and associate ourselves with a particular brand of Judaism, lest we lose the ability to pick and choose from among the best features of all Jewish denominations.

Principle 3 – Faith in Democracy as our Preferred Form of Community Governance

This Chavurah owes its existence to a decision on the part of a local synagogue to treat some members as more equal than others. In this Chavurah, decisions of fundamental importance to the community shall be made by the entire community, as manifested in the will of its majority. We shall have faith in the principle, set forth by Spinoza, that “it is almost impossible that the majority of a people, especially if it be a large one, should agree in an irrational design.”

Principle 4 – The Pursuit of Truth is More Important than Its Possession

In the past, spiritual communities have become irreligious when they become too deferential to those in their midst who are the most knowledgeable about Scripture or other revered texts. This has led a small number of voices to dominate the communities. This Chavurah, however, subscribes to the view that the love of the search for wisdom is far more important than the possession of knowledge. In the immortal words of Gotthold Lessing, “The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. … If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth … I would with all humility take the left hand.”

Principle 5 -- Maintaining an Ecumenical, and not a Chauvinistic, Spirit

The Lessing quotation in the last paragraph illustrates our willingness to honor the wisdom of Gentiles, as well as Jews. While we associate ourselves with the faith tradition known as Judaism, this does not mean that we wish to proclaim Jewish superiority, ignore the best that the non-Jewish world has to offer, or somehow view ourselves as part of an exclusive “club.” Our approach to Judaism is ecumenical, universalistic, and respectful. We are as open to Gentiles as we would want Gentiles to be open to us. While we recognize that historically Jewish paranoia has often been well founded, living as we do in 21st century America we wish to put aside any vestiges of racial paranoia and embrace the diversity in our midst. Never in our community will a dues-paying gentile be treated as a second-class citizen when it comes to the governance of the Chavurah.

Principle 6 – Becoming a Community that Wrestles with God

Today, “Israel” is typically associated with a particular piece of land in the Middle East, but the word originated instead with Jacob, the Patriarch. Jacob became “Israel” when he wrestled deep into the night with an angel of God. Consistent with the spirit of our Patriarch, we must embrace the idea that to be a man and woman of Israel is to be a God-wrestler – a passionate intellectual who struggles with the meaning and relevance of divinity.

Living as we do at a time after Darwin and Hitler, we cannot help but notice the high fraction of Jews today who have lost any semblance of faith in God. We do not mandate such faith for the members of our community; indeed, mandating faith is antithetical to the notion of God-wrestling. But nor do we wash our hands of the whole topic. We encourage each other to look for conceptions of God, even non-traditional ones, which hold meaning for ourselves as individuals. We also encourage discussions of these conceptions to enable us to wrestle with God as a community, and not merely as individuals.

Principle 7 – The Wisdom of the Three Torahs

This Chavurah emerged from a large synagogue whose sanctuary had three Torahs. One bore the name “Truth,” the second “Justice,” and the third “Peace.” We can think of few more important words than these. As referenced above, we wish to devote ourselves to the pursuit of truth wherever it leads, and to create an open, inquiring atmosphere conducive to that pursuit. We also wish to associate ourselves with those who view fighting for justice not as something to read or pine about, but as an activity in which we ourselves must participate whenever the opportunity arises. As for “peace,” this is perhaps the most important goal of the three. Without it, our antenna for truth will be compromised and our search for justice will remain elusive. We wish to work for peace within our community, the people of Israel, the United States of America, and perhaps above all else, within our world.

Principle 8 – The Centrality of Tikkun Olam

Our community must become a place for serious Jewish learning; in other words, as it is said in the Torah, we must become “a people of priests.” Still, this cannot be our highest goal. To paraphrase Marx, it is one thing to interpret the world, but something still greater to change it. Marx was merely echoing the Talmudic statement of Rabbi Elazar, who compared a person whose wisdom exceeds his deeds to a “tree that has many branches and few roots, so that when the wind comes, it plucks it up and turns it over.”

We wish to be a community of dynamic, courageous change agents who dare to look at the world beyond the prisms of cynicism and self-interest. Devoted as we are to “tikkun olam” – the Kabbalistic notion of repairing or perfecting the world – we hope that our community can become a springboard for community activism, just as much if not more than private prayer or intellectual learning.

Principle 9 – The Centrality of the Shabbat Service

We do not believe in compelling or coercing attendance at our group functions, for religious activities should be a joy, and not a chore. Nevertheless, we lament the fact that for a high percentage of Jews today, attendance at worship services have become a two or three day a year proposition. We wish to create a community in which a significant fraction of the members choose to attend Shabbat Services at least once or twice a month. These are the services in which we remind ourselves that we are a truly connected community, and not merely an aggregate of atomized families. These are also the services in which we demonstrate the importance of Judaism as a focal point of communal worship.

As Jews, we have many opportunities to involve ourselves in tikkun olam activities. We could find such opportunities through our jobs, by attending political rallies, or by volunteering with community organizations. Similarly, we have a variety of communal opportunities to broaden and deepen our wisdom about Judaism. We can attend classes at local universities or at Jewish study centers, or attend book talks whenever Jewish writers visit stores like Politics and Prose. By contrast, holidays aside, there is only a single forum available to us to pray communally with other Jews, and that is during Shabbat Services. It is difficult to imagine a holier task than somehow turning our Shabbat Service into the most spiritual and inviting environment possible for members of our community and their guests. We want visitors to leave our services impressed with both the depth of our prayer and the breath of our participation in prayerful activities.

Principle 10 – Embracing Diversity

One of the best features of the community that spawned this Chavurah was its diversity. We wish to continue in that same vein. We shall accept diversity in all its forms, including but hardly limited to ideological diversity. People who have the courage to challenge conventional wisdom should be applauded, not mocked.

Principle 11 – Affirming Patrilineal and Matrilineal Descent

We believe that all children with either a Jewish father or Jewish mother can properly call themselves Jewish by opting to associate themselves with the Jewish people. The principle of matrilineal-only descent is an antiquated vestige of a by-gone era. Just as we no longer sacrifice animals simply because our ancestors did it, nor are we willing to sacrifice the identities of legions of Jewish people – many of whom have been Bar or Bat Mitzvahed – simply because their Gentile parent happens to be a woman. This is inherently sexist, not to mention insensitive to those whose Jewish identities are being denied. Insensitivity is not one of our core values.

Principle 12 – Balancing Familiarity and Experimentation

Regarding the type of rituals we practice at our services, we do not see the need to choose between affirming the values of experimentation and familiarity. Stated simply, spiritual communities need to do both. We need to embrace liturgy that is said with sufficient regularity that members of the community may feel at home. But if we only embrace such liturgy, we will not allow ourselves to grow adequately as Jews. This isn’t an either-or proposition. This is an area that calls for balance.

Principle 13 – Creating a Community Marked by Warmth

We have affirmed many values in the above discussion, but we have saved perhaps the most important for Principle 13. We wish to be known as a community marked by warmth – both to fellow members of the community and to those outside of it. We have heard this word misused before to refer to the expression of polite pleasantries. But that does not begin to convey our meaning.

The warmth we require of our members is actually quite challenging, and “Hi, good to meet you,” doesn’t exactly do it justice. We must be open about who we are. We must be empathic. And above all else, we must treat all people with honor.


For those of us who come from a Reform Jewish background, it is difficult to avoid seeing the Shabbat Service as one that is led by a rabbi. Even now that we are forming a new Chavurah, we recognize the value to a Jewish service of listening to rabbis inspire us by applying the fruits of their scholarship in provocative and profound ways.

Still, it is one thing for rabbis to deliver d’var Torahs and other sermons. It is something else for them to punctuate a service simply by reading from prayer books. To be blunt, the latter simply invades the province of a cantor. When a rabbi enunciates the words from a prayer book, it sounds like someone is reading; when a trained cantor enunciates the same words, it sounds like someone is praying. Accordingly, when rabbis are not gracing us with the fruits of their unique wisdom and knowledge, they should step back and allow cantors to create a prayerful mood.

To the extent that our services are generally led by the chanting and singing of cantors, the membership at large will become more familiar with that chanting and singing and come to participate more and more in the music of the service. If, on the other hand, the cantor is given only one or two opportunities to lead the community in prayer, the membership will inevitably quiet down and listen to the “performance” in their midst.

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