Radio Free … Judaism?

I’ve been up since about 3:30 (autistic kid FTW!), and so I’ve been reading blogs, Twitter, etc., since about 5:30 this morning. I’ve recently begun looking through the Chabad Sociologist blog here on WordPress (thanks for the follow!), and read the most recent guest-post, which is about the power of a menorah lighting to bring the writer and her daughter more closely into the Jewish orbit, specifically through the Chabad movement.

One of the author’s great complaints about what she called the “reforming” congregation (with which she would ostensibly have been more comfortable) is its cost structure–and we need to face the fact that our synagogues have become very, very uncomfortable for many of us in this regard. I wouldn’t venture to guess whether more people would be affiliated if it didn’t at least feel as though synagogue attendance required some kind of payment. I understand the need for ongoing support, of course; but I don’t see why we need membership applications that require tax disclosures, sliding fee scales based on household income, “scholarships” for those who can’t afford the often-steep pricing of synagogue membership, etc.

Coincidentally, I’ve recently re-listened to a podcast sermon by Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, entitled “Free Judaism.” Rabbi Chalom discusses freedom both in terms of (here comes my techie past) “free as in beer” and “free as in speech”: that is, free of cost and free of constraint. I think we need to exercise both kinds of freedom to take control of Judaism for the future.

How would we do this? I think we could start by addressing how we view and do Jewish–both in terms of practice and in terms of picking leaders. I think these are both tied, at least in part, to the economics of being Jewish.

Simply put, it’s very, very expensive to train a rabbi. In the major “liberal” Jewish movements (Conservative and Reform Judaism, I’m looking at you), rabbinical training usually requires a college degree with significant background in Jewish studies (e.g., you already know Hebrew and you’ve probable done significant Talmud study at some point) and then you spend between four and six years of full-time graduate-level study before ordination.

What does that cost? (Use Google. I’m not going to tell you.) How much of that is necessary for the kinds of “services” the average “liberal” Jew requires in a lifetime? I can appreciate the value of extensive Talmud and codes study for the most traditionally-minded congregations. But if you don’t actually accept the normative authority of those documents, what the heck are you requiring that much Talmud study for when you’ve got people who really need the kind of pastoral care that Christian seminaries train students for?

I don’t wish to downplay the importance of solid grounding in using traditional texts and understanding Jewish history–I’m carrying around an M.A. in this stuff, after all–but I think we need a different focus to make Judaism affordable.

I think we also need that change in focus to make Judaism free as in speech. Rabbi Chalom’s sermon discusses the idea that Judaism is what the Jewish people have made of it. I think he’s right, but I think we need to train for that, as well. And we need to begin to recognize, at the level of Jewish community leadership, that not all rabbis are the same, and that’s okay. That’s what we want. Some of those leaders will innovate, some will conserve, and that’s what needs to happen to make Judaism interesting, dynamic, and (for crying out loud!) attractive!

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