As peak moments go, the Israelites’ encounter with God at Mount Sinai ranks high on the biblical narrative scale. In their encounter with the power that freed them from slavery, the Israelites receive instructions for how to become an am kadosh, a holy people. Yet, almost as soon as they’ve received their assignment, the Israelites blow it — agitated at Moses’ prolonged absence on top of Mount Sinai, they create and worship a golden calf. This is the first crisis in the people’s relationship with God. In response, God is ready to entirely destroy the Israelites and begin again. In the book of Exodus, chapter 32, God says to Moses: “Let my anger flare against them, so that I may destroy them — and I will make you into a great nation!” But Moses refuses.
Perhaps Moses turns down God’s offer because he understands that in this project of creating an am kadosh, a sacred people, God needs the Israelite people, just as they need the Holy One. Perhaps Moses is challenging God: Where would You be without these people who are struggling to come into right-relation with one another and with You?
As a congregational rabbi in America in the early 21st century, I feel that my work is a continuation of Moses’ challenge, both to God and to the people. My project — our Jewish project — is to create holy communities, covenantal communities, in which godliness can become manifest in this world. And just as our foundational narrative suggests, this project is far from easy for all concerned.
What, exactly, is a covenantal community? I would differentiate it from two other types of communities with which most of us are familiar. The first, an intimate community, is made up of those people closest to us, whether friends or family, with whom we choose to share our lives. What characterizes this type of community is the level of emotional connection between its members and the extent to which they can count on one another for support.
The second type of community is a situational community. This is the community we find ourselves in because of location or other life choices — our neighborhood, our workplace, or the school where we send our children. In situational communities, we don’t choose who belongs; they more or less come with the territory. But because the members of a situational community share some fundamental life experiences, real relationships are built, although they may look different from those in an intimate community. Situational communities last as long as the situation or context is relevant.
Unlike either intimate or situational communities, a covenantal community is a group of people who come together through a mutual agreement about what the purposes of the community are and what its members owe one another. While covenantal communities share features with the other two types of communities, they differ in some important ways. In contrast to intimate communities, members are not necessarily close friends, and they may include people with whom we disagree or whom we don’t even like. While participation in a covenantal community can and, it is hoped, does lead to close connections, its primary goal is not that everyone be in a primary emotional relationship with one another.
And, in contrast to situational communities, a covenantal community is not about where we happen to be, but rather about where we are trying to go. A meaningful purpose is always at the heart of covenantal community. It is about building something new, or trying to transform what already is into something better. It is about the Israelites journeying from Mitzrayim, Egypt, the place of constriction and oppression, to a promised land. Or, in another biblical metaphor, it is about creating the mishkan — a humanly built structure through which godliness can dwell among us.
Although I wear many hats in my rabbinic role — spiritual leader, community organizer, teacher, pastoral guide, administrator, and more — my primary task is working with my congregants to create a meaningful covenantal community. Guiding us in this work is a set of values and principles that define our mission.
When conceptualized as covenantal community, congregational life can be both compelling and transformative. And this shift in perspective is perhaps nowhere as obvious as in the realm of synagogue life that has taken the most heat in recent years — dues.
While we hope synagogue membership is good for one’s spiritual health, it is not like belonging to a gym or a health club. Congregational dues should not be seen as the equivalent of a gym membership, where what I pay gives me access to classes and equipment. If it were, then I would judge my synagogue membership in terms of how much I “used” the facilities. But if our model is not a gym, but the mishkan, the sanctuary that the Israelites created in the desert — both the physical structure and the larger social structure that the Israelites were instructed to create — then our financial contributions take on a very different cast.
In Exodus 30, every adult Israelite is instructed to give a half-shekel contribution for the upkeep of the sanctuary, with the explicit instruction that “the rich shall give no more, and the poor shall pay no less.” Each person is to be counted and taxed. Later, in chapter 35, we learn that every Israelite is to bring a freewill offering to the construction of the mishkan. Although the nature and amount of the gift are left up to the individual, the instruction to bring the offerings maintains the element of obligation. From these texts, we learn the importance of each member being counted equally, with accessibility to all regardless of status, and community as a place where we can share our gifts.
Later in our history, Jewish communities determined how to fund the structures that undergird Jewish communal life — from city walls to tzedakah funds — by imposing a variety of taxes on their members. These taxes have traditionally combined a sense of individual obligation to the community, a commitment to fairness, and a recognition that some in the community are able to give more than others.
When it was time for my congregation to radically revamp its dues structure to pay for a full-time rabbi and a school, we spent eighteen months studying Jewish texts and traditions. In this “Torah of Money” process,1 we articulated a set of values to guide our financial decisions, and then created a financial structure that would promote those values. In brief, we have a three-tiered system, in which every adult member pays a “half-shekel” (currently, $125 a year). This sum guarantees full membership in the synagogue. Above that, every household is asked to self-assess dues on a sliding scale, from about .09 percent to 1.6 percent of household income (with a cap at the upper end). Above that, once a year, we ask our members to give a “nediv lev” offering, a voluntary gift from the heart. These gifts range in size from $18 to $5,000, and about 80 percent of the membership contributes to this fund each year.
I have learned that this process works. Without relying on any major donors, our congregation is financially stable, and it has rarely had an operating deficit. The sliding scale has allowed those who may have felt they could not afford synagogue life to join the community without shame. And, as a covenantal community, we live our values — not just in our educational programming or social action work, but in our financial obligations to one another. By creating and living an economic model based on the mishkan instead of the golden calf, our community has taken one small step toward realizing the promise of that moment on Sinai.
1 This phrase was coined by Jeffrey Dekro, president of the Tzedec Economic Development Fund of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.email print