Building Community With Soul

Monday, 9 September 2013
Finding Meaning within Jewish Community – just published on The Jewish Writing Project

Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

I can no longer live a meaningful life without my Jewish community. My teenage son calls it an addiction. But my love for my community does not stem from mere habit, nor am I guided by compulsive need or blind infatuation. On the contrary, it has taken years of soul searching and trial and error to find the appropriate community where my family has been able to take root, grow and contribute.
Since ancient times, philosophers like Aristotle (Politics, 1.1253a) and more recently, Spinoza (Ethics, IV, prop 35) have argued that we are social animals. As Rabbi Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:14) In other words, “All Israel are responsible for one another” (Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39A, Sifra Bechukotai 7:5).
The Talmud actually defined the type of society where scholars were allowed to live: The chosen city had to include a beit din (law court), an honest charity fund, a synagogue, public baths and toilet facilities, a mohel (circumciser) and a surgeon, a notary, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and a teacher (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b). As Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has explained, “in order to be a suitable place to live, a community must provide for all its members’ spiritual and physical needs” (www.myjewishlearning.com).
Yet, it was not until my own father’s death ten years ago that my longing for such community became so urgent. I had once asked him whether he would wish to be buried in the same cemetery as his parents and extended family in Toronto, Canada. “We should be buried within the community where we live,” was my father’s reply. By that time, he had been residing in Melbourne, Australia, for more than 30 years.
He was espousing the teachings of both Rabbis Hillel and Tzaddok, who urged us not to separate ourselves from the community (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5, 4:7). Indeed, Judaism teaches that those who are not prepared to feel their community’s pain and help out when the going gets tough, will not enjoy comfort in the good times either. As the Talmud warns, “The man who secludes himself from the community, which is in distress, shall not see the prosperity of the community” (Ta’anit, chapter 1).
A midrash goes even further, maintaining that removing yourself from the community is like overthrowing the world. It tells the story of the dying Rabbi Assi, who was depressed because although he had been a great scholar and kind and generous man, he had not been involved in communal matters or disputes. As he told his nephew, “I might perhaps have been able to render some service, had I not kept to myself but taken upon me the burden of communal affairs” (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2).
When my father died, I did not know where to turn. Although we had belonged to various Orthodox synagogues in the past, my husband and I had not been able to find a spiritual home since moving to a new city some years earlier. As a result, we had flitted from one synagogue to the next, sampling a different one on each Jewish holiday but not feeling “at home” in any of them.
Nevertheless, I was touched when one of the rabbis, whom I had met in the course of my search, rang several times to see how I was faring. When upon my father’s first yahrzeit (anniversary after death), the same rabbi offered me his synagogue for a memorial service, we finally made up our minds to join his congregation – after such generosity on his part, we believed it was the least we could do.
That sense of welcome, warmth and support through both tough and good times remain major factors in why we renew our membership each year. Judaism ensures that mourners do not grieve alone, stipulating that Kaddish, the prayer for the dead in which God’s name is sanctified, only be recited publicly in the presence of a minyan (ten Jewish adults – the minimum number required for community). Celebrations also become more meaningful when enjoyed together in community.
As our sons have grown older and undertaken preparation for their Bar Mitzvah, our family has come to attend synagogue every Shabbat. Our shule of choice is Conservative (Masorti): Integrating tradition with modernity, it allows us to sit together as a family instead of banishing me behind a mechitza (partition to separate men and women).
This egalitarian ethos is particularly important to me as I do not have any daughters and would otherwise be sitting apart from my husband and sons. Nevertheless, it was several years before I felt comfortable being counted in aminyan and agreed to be called up to the Torah. Not that there was ever any pressure on me to do so – our synagogue accepts a certain variety of Jewish practice.
It also gives us the freedom to question and acknowledges our right to consider different interpretations and viewpoints. As Robert Gordis, chairman of the Commission on the Philosophy of Conservative Judaism, has explained: “Pluralism is a characteristic not only of Judaism as a whole, but of every Jewish school of thought that is nurtured by the spirit of freedom” (JTS: Emet Ve’Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, 1988, Introduction p14).
In addition to my synagogue, the Jewish day school my children attend is another pillar of my community. Pluralistic and egalitarian too, it welcomes students of all backgrounds, who come together in mutual respect and are encouraged to work for tikkun olam, making the world a better place. So committed have I become to this philosophy that I decided to volunteer for the School Board when my oldest son was in first grade and have remained actively involved ever since.
According to Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi, “Those who work for the community should do so for the sake of heaven” (Ethics of Our Fathers2:2). In other words, the early rabbis were urging us to be ethical when we undertake communal work. As Rabbi Yehudah Prero explains, “We must act with pure intentions, with no ulterior motives” (“Community – Then, Now, and Forever, http://www.torah.org/learning/yomtov/holocaust/no3.html).
Humility is also an important factor: The Talmud not only regards leaders as the “servants” of the community (Horayot 10a), but also stresses that they should always carry “a basket of reptiles” on their back so that if they “became arrogant”, they could be told to “Turn around!” (Yoma 22b). In other words, never forget that family skeleton hidden in your closet!
Recognizing the frailties of human nature, the ancient rabbis resorted to divine reward and punishment as a means of encouraging ethical communal leadership: those who cause others to do wrong will not be “given the opportunity to repent”, while those who lead others to do good will be credited with their community’s merit (Ethics of Our Fathers, 5:18).
Sure, as Rabbi Yitzchak Blau has pointed out, the rabbis did not think it fair that communal leaders should enjoy heaven while their followers rotted in hell, but is there really no hope of redemption for those who lead others down the wrong path? Here scholars disagreed, with some arguing that while God would not help the wrongdoers, they were still free to repent on their own. In contrast, the medieval scholar and physician Moses Maimonides is much more damning in his assessment: for him, there is truly no hope of salvation for such wicked leaders (Hilchot Teshuva 4:1, http://blog.webyeshiva.org/teshuva/inights-in-pirkei-avot-the-implications-of-causing-others-to-sin).
Admittedly, such threats have little effect in this day and age when many of us don’t even know whether we believe in God. Nevertheless, it is still possible to contribute altruistically to and derive meaning from community based on religious civilization. Conservative (Masorti) Judaism recognizes this position as valid: “One can live fully and authentically as a Jew without having a single satisfactory answer to such doubts; one cannot, however, live a thoughtful Jewish life without having asked the questions” (Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, p17).
My oldest son has commented that without faith, a prayer service is just “a group of strangers singing together”. Yet, I have certainly discovered a sense of inner peace, spiritual uplift and intellectual stimulation through regular attendance at synagogue services and communal celebrations like the Pesach Seder.
To quote the writer Alain de Botton: The “relevance” of such religions as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism “to the problems of community are arguably never greater than when they … remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together … or in sitting at a table with neighbors and partaking of lamb stew and conversation, the kinds of rituals which, as much as the deliberations inside parliaments and law courts, are what help to hold our fractious and fragile societies together” (2012, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, London: Penguin Books, p50).
De Botton – who was born Jewish but describes himself as a committed atheist – argues for the removal of religion’s “supernatural structure” before it can help solve “many of the problems of the modern soul” (pp311-312).
My soul, however, does not need to be quarantined from the full gamut of my religion in order to thrive. Indeed, I am quite happy to keep on exploring the laws and customs of my heritage and culture, practicing rituals and contemplating ideas from within Judaism. All I need is my community.
Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She also serves as vice-president on the board of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. You can read more of her work at: http://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/category/australian-jewry/ http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13636 and at http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/

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Author: Shira Sebban

I am a writer and editor who is passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through my writing. A former journalist, I previously worked in publishing and taught French to university students. I am also vice-president of my children’s school. My work has appeared in online and print publications including Eureka Street, Jewish Literary Journal, The Forward, Alzheimer's Reading Room and Online Opinion.

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