My wife met a pastor’s wife on a plane. Every few months now, we have Darren, an evangelical pastor, and his wife, Amy, over to our Shabbat lunch table.
I talk about how our Shabbat sometimes feels too regulated, and he talks about how their Sabbath sometimes lacks enough structure to be meaningful. We share with each other about the rewards and challenges of the ministry and the rabbinate.
A few weeks ago, as we talked about the difficult economy, I realized I know little about how an evangelical church structures its finances, so I asked him, “How do churches make ends meet? How does membership work in your congregation?”
“To be a member, one needs to accept Jesus as one’s personal savior, and then there are ways for people to participate in the community,” the pastor replied. “For making ends meet, we ask members to tithe. There’s not much about tithing in the New Testament, but it’s in the Old Testament pretty clearly.”
I was struck by two things: First, membership is about your faith, not dues. Second, here was a modern church without minimum fees.
Tithing may be an important biblical concept, but can a congregation rely upon its members to voluntarily give 10 percent of their income to pay for things like utilities, salaries and health insurance for its employees, much less programming and worship services? I was skeptical whether such a voluntary system really provides for the ongoing financial needs of a modern congregation.
“Does it work?” I asked.
“Some people give 3 or 5 percent, but yes, we make ends meet,” he replied. “How does it work in the Jewish community?”
I was almost embarrassed to tell him.
“We have membership and dues to join. It’s anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 to join a synagogue. For the wealthy, there are mailings and special solicitations to ask them for more. For people who can’t afford it, we hope they will come forward and ask for special consideration. When they do, of course, we make it work for them to give whatever they can.”
“Is it embarrassing for people to need to ask to pay less?” Amy asked innocently.
“Yes,” I said. “At any one time, fewer than 50 percent of Jews affiliate with a synagogue. I think it’s hard for people to ask for a discount, so they just don’t join because it costs too much, and they don’t want to go through the humiliation of needing to ask.”
The first chapter of Leviticus offers three options for how we can give a sacrifice for God: a bull (Leviticus 1:3), a male sheep or goat (Leviticus 1:10) or turtledoves or young pigeons (Leviticus 1:14). It is safe to assume that the Torah offers three different levels of giving because not everyone can afford a bull, or a sheep, or a goat, but turtledoves and pigeons are plentiful (they are at my local park). It is a sliding scale.
What matters most to God is not how much one can give — the fire of each offering is described as “a sweet fragrance to Adonai” — but that one gives what one can. The rich, the middle class, the poor — each are equal because each does his/her share by giving what she/he can.
It saddens me how foreign this approach feels when I think about modern synagogue life. Darren didn’t need to point out to me the irony: Jewish texts gave the world tithing and a sliding scale; his church uses it, while our synagogues don’t.
Rashi asks about the smell of the poor person’s offering. The Torah says the smell from the burning feathers of a bird is “sweet.” “Really?” he asks. “Its feathers? Is it not true that there is no person who smells the odor of burning wings who is not disgusted? So why did the Torah say, ‘Burn it as incense?’ So that the altar will be satisfied and glorified by the offering of a poor person.”
In his book, “Da’at Torah,” Rabbi Yerucham Lebovitz explains we feel good being in the company of those who are rich and dress well and who are clean, and we feel the opposite in the company of one who is dirty and whose clothes are torn. Our instinct is to move away.
Lebovitz writes, “The words of Rashi teach us that we need to move closer to dafka [just such] a person, to help his hand and to show him a joyful face. Of course, one is not permitted to show him even a bit of repugnance at what caused others to move away. Even more, we are obligated to honor him, because the Shechinah of God’s honor is with him as it says, ‘I will dwell, with the oppressed and low of spirit’ (Isaiah 57:15).”
God’s altar must be glorified by the offering of the poor. Is our altar glorified?
As a community, do we move toward, not away, from those most in need? Does God’s presence dwell in our synagogues amid the oppressed and low of spirit? How many of the 50 percent of American Jews unaffiliated with synagogues stay away because to join, they must ask to give less and explain themselves?
Cynicism has its place — if people were allowed to pay dues according to a sliding scale and we trusted them to pay according to their income level, it is sad but true that many would pay less than what they should. But should our synagogue membership structures be built on skepticism? Can we trust ourselves and God to implement (or even try) a sliding scale?
How do we close the gap between the current structure of modern synagogue life and the vision of religious life offered by our own Jewish texts? If Darren and Amy can do it, why can’t we?
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah in California (ramah.org) and the Zimmer Conference Center of American Jewish University.