In Search of Klei Kodesh

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September 1, 2001
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Harold Schulweis

A few months ago I was asked to speak at a national convention of synagogue executives. Arriving early, I found the assembly participating in mincha-maariv services. I was taken aback by the competence and seriousness of the executives at prayer. Why was I surprised? Because I had not understood them as klei kodesh.

I had a similar experience speaking at a national convention of cantors last year. The cantors, I discovered, did more than sing. They spoke and not just to the choir. They spoke about issues pertaining to the life of the synagogue and the community. I had not understood them as klei kodesh either.

These moments of surprise made me realize that I, and perhaps others, have structured the contemporary synagogue on the model of the corporation. The very nomenclature within the structure of the synagogue betrays the mimicry of corporate culture. There are Boards of Directors, Boards of Trustees and a hierarchy of functionaries: cantor, executive director, ritual director, principal, teacher, secretary, custodian, and primus inter pares, the rabbi as ecclesiastical CEO. Everyone has his or her assigned jurisdiction and designated agenda. The rabbi speaks, the cantor sings, the executive watches the budget.

This mismodeling of the synagogue is detrimental to its character and aspirations. The synagogue is not a profit-making corporation. Its success ought not to be measured quantitatively and its staff ought not to be seen as functionaries. The synagogue is not a commodity-producing factory.

Those who have tied their vocation to the synagogue are klei kodesh, instruments of holiness. They each share the common agenda of the synagogue – to transmit the wisdom, ethics, beliefs, and practices of Judaism to a variety of seekers. How the receptionist responds to the inquiries of a human being teaches Jewish ethics. How the executive helps a person register as a member explicates Jewish theology. Klei kodesh are to be “humanly holy.”

Mine then, is a vidui, a confession and a resolution, before the Yamim Noraim.

There ought not be a division of labor in the synagogue. The rabbi cannot pretend to hide behind the pulpit of ideas and programs without concerning himself or herself with the fiscal responsibility of implementing programs. The executive cannot hide behind the desk and leave to others the intellectual or religious character of the synagogue’s projects. The compartmentalization of the synagogue and its personnel threatens the collegiality of its workers and the organicity of the synagogue’s aspiration. To segregate those who serve the kehilla kedosha is to distort the uniqueness of its sacred teleology.

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Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a contributing Editor of Sh'ma, is the Spiritual Leader of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom. His book, Finding Each Other in Judaism: Meditations on the Rites of Passage from Birth to Immortality, has just been published by the UAHC Press.

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