In the weeds

I’ll be out of town and away from the blog for most of the rest of the week. I’m headed on Thursday to the Baltimore area to attend the Fall 2013 CLAL Rabbis Without Borders rabbinical student retreat.

But I wanted to put out a blog post about what I’ve read so far, and where my concerns lie.

Much of the reading material is on how to make effective, growing congregations with a clear sense of mission. And so, after I finished the reading materials, I decided to do a bit of extra reading; that’s how I ended up reading parts of Wolfson’s Relational Judaism.

Having read the first few chapters, however, I’m not overly impressed. Wolfson is committed, rightly or wrongly, to the community and synagogue structures we have. I understand this impulse, and it’s important to some extent to use the resources that exist to build the future. But I sense that, if the structures turned out to be unhelpful, Wolfson would not be willing to see them go away or at least be radically altered.

And so, I went sniffing around for other resources. Fortunately, I know someone who works in the realm of congregational consulting in the non-Jewish world and was able to point me to some good resources, including the work of Brian McLaren.

If you’re Jewish, you likely have exactly no clue who McLaren is. McLaren is one of the leading advocates of something called the emerging church movement. That movement is challenging much of the received orthodoxy of what it is churches are called to do, how they encounter social needs at large, and how they encounter changes in the world both at the congregational level and the theological level. It’s about mission, about meeting people where they are and making change in the world, allowing the ultimate mission of Christianity–which McLaren identifies as doing God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven to make earth more like heaven–to shine through, not the factional dogmas that are so easily identified with modern Christianity. (I first encountered McLaren eight or so years ago, when I picked up his book, Generous Orthodoxy, as part of an interfaith reading group a former student of mine had organized at her home.)

McLaren takes a lot of heat.

We need some of that in the Jewish world. Not just mission, but leaders willing to take some heat.

So I started to read McLaren’s Everything Must Change. I’m not far in–about five chapters (the chapters are quite short, about 10 pages each, and there are about 30 of them in the book). Even after that, I can see we’re in the weeds in the Jewish world. We’re not changing–we’re not, at the broadest levels, really thinking about change, except to wonder with perplexity on the fringes about why it is younger people won’t affiliate and other members are falling away.

I can’t imagine, yet, someone saying to, say, the General Assembly of the United Synagogue that “everything must change.” Why? Because all of these organizations–CCAR, United Synagogue, the OU, etc.–are focused on affiliation.

And while I am affiliated with a specific movement, I recognize the need for pluralism, to meet people where they are, and to make congregational life not about affiliation but about engagement.

For the most part, we don’t do this in the Jewish world. We need to–fast. I’m hopeful that what I learn at the CLAL retreat will contribute to that.

In the meantime, I think we have it exactly backward. We’re deep in the weeds.