February 22, 2020

Dear Rabbi

Wants Religion, Hates Pomposity

Dear Rabbi:

Since I moved out to my new, rural home, I have become much more connected with nature. As a consequence, I felt a reawakening to observe Jewish rituals. I began lighting candles, not working on Shabbat and attending Friday night services at the local synagogue, a Reform-affiliated congregation that tends to blur the distinctions.

I like going, I like participating in communal rituals, I like the cantor, and I’ve met some interesting people. However, the chief rabbi sees the pulpit as a podium for political punditry and pretentious self-promotion. The sad part is that the young assistant rabbi, who I like, seems to mimic him. The sermons are devoid of any solid preparation and just tend to be rambling dissertations that wouldn’t even make it to the slush pile at the New Republic or Commentary.

While I can tolerate a bad 20-minute “sermon” in return for the pleasure of being part of a kehillah, I feel an obligation to join, but resent subsidizing the rabbi’s self-promoting lifestyle. This is a very wealthy congregation, extremely well-endowed, and yet the pressure is on me to pay a very high membership fee and the building fund fee.

I want to be with Jews on Shabbat, but I don’t want to validate vulgarity and ineptitude. What should I do?

Shuckling Seeker

Dear Shuckling:

The dilemma you face is one that pervades much of contemporary life.

God and spirit are immediately accessible through proximity to natural beauty. Walking in nature with a sense of kavanah (intention) helps awaken a spiritual sense that leads back to synagogue and a need for organized faith, yet sometimes the buildings that house that organized tradition seem sterile, grandiose and somehow missing the point.

Decide what your core needs are from a synagogue. Sounds like at the core is a community and a connection to the masorah (tradition), and that you are, indeed getting that. If you are getting those, then you should pay your dues and then try to find ways to compensate for those pieces you cannot get at present.

If you find yourself sufficiently disturbed by the rabbi’s style or content, then perhaps you need to consider a more traditional congregation. My sense is that often the more traditional shuls (Conservative or Orthodox) are more grounded in text and might be more satisfying to you, even if the politics of the community is a bit more centrist or right.

I don’t think it’s fair to pick and choose pieces of the whole. In paying taxes, you don’t get to pay for only those parts of government budgets that you personally support. You do get to vote, mobilize, lobby and organize, but only the duly elected representatives get to apportion funds. We citizens get to try to influence them in a variety of ways, but to have the right to a voice, we have to pay our taxes. That is true for the synagogue too: if you want to be able to influence the Jewish community, you have to be a dues-paying member (a voluntary form of Jewish self-taxation).

Bearing the responsibility of good Jewish citizenship confers the prerogative of electing representatives (contracts for rabbis, cantor, etc., voting for board officers, serving on committees, etc.).

Good luck in sorting out where you stand.

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