Parashat T'rumah begins, "The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved. . . . And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:1-8). And eleven chapters later we read, " 'The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Eternal has commanded to be done.' Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: 'Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!' So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done" (36:5-7). The standard joke is that this was the first and last Jewish building project that was oversubscribed.
Two themes are central to this Torah portion:
- building of the Mikdash (the Holy Place), which is ultimately understood as the Temple in Jerusalem and a place where God will dwell among the people
- contributions that come from people whose hearts have been moved to give, that is, voluntary gifts
As we read about the building of the Mikdash, we also consider our modern sanctuaries – our synagogues – and their relationship with our present-day Jewish communities. Today, our community is consumed with analyses of the recent Pew Research Center study on Jewish Americans and concerned about some of its findings, such as this:
The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s. Meanwhile, the number of Americans with direct Jewish ancestry or upbringing who consider themselves Jewish, yet describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion, appears to be rising.1
Once again, doomsayers are projecting the end of the Jewish people, at least here in North America. The Pew study deserves careful examination because it reveals a great deal about the attitude of U.S. Jews toward Judaism. There is much handwringing and assigning of blame for the current state of affairs, which some perceive to be negative. One can be glib and respond with Simon Rawidowicz's2 concept of the ever-dying people or remind ourselves of the 1964 Look Magazine cover story "The Vanishing American Jew."3 But it strikes me that we are in a time of transition. Professor Michael L. Morgan, in his wonderful book Interim Judaism: Jewish Thought in a Century in Crisis,4 describes how the philosophies and theologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have run their course. At the same time, there is an explosion of Jewish activity and practice that has no clear philosophical or theological explanation.
If I read the Pew study correctly, our challenge today is precisely the challenge as presented in this week's Torah portion. It is the challenge of spirituality – a direct connection to the Divine and an inspiring Judaism that moves us to contribute. It is the building of sacred community (k'hilah k'doshah) wherever that community gathers to study, pray, or do deeds of loving-kindness or tikkun olam to create a sacred space (mikdash). Obviously, the logical place for a congregational rabbi to begin is the synagogue: but the synagogue must not be narrowly conceived as a bricks and mortar space with a corporate structure and membership fees.
The Jewish community is in a revolutionary stage that may be equivalent to our emerging from Egypt and creating the Israelite religion. It may be similar to our rebuilding, after the destruction of the Second Temple, a religion based on Torah and mitzvah with the synagogue becoming the replacement for the Temple. The Shoah, the rebirth of Israel, the unqualified freedom of North American Jewry, and the explosion of commutations and learning technology call for a reconstruction of our thinking about what it means to be a sacred community. The fact that the naysayers are predicting our imminent demise and a "hundred flowers are blooming" gives me great hope. Our problem, we are told, is that our neighbors "love us to death." I certainly do not long for the "good old days" of anti-Semitism restricted neighborhoods, college quotas, and limited career options. Freedom has its challenges, but wow isn't it great to be "free at last!" Another problem, we are told, is that we lack Jewish knowledge and do not perform enough mitzvot. This may be true, but not necessarily in the way the prophets of doom conceive of it. People want knowledge that both informs and inspires, and deeds that truly sanctify us in the context of truly engaged community.
We should look at successful experiments like independent minyanim that have grabbed hold of young Jews and Judaism in bars and coffee shops with rabbis whose goal is to inspire and encourage Jewish living – and not merely synagogue membership. The Union for Reform Judaism's community organizing model is bringing together like-minded Jews who want to improve the world. Funding models that encourage participation before giving have begun to take root in mainstream congregations. Jewish camping and early childhood programs create community and Jewish identity, but can we extend them to parents as well as children? Streaming religious services and online education connect people with busy schedules, as well as those with location or physical challenges, creating a synagogue without borders. What kind of cooperative models could we create if we allowed our imaginations to run wild and encouraged real religious entrepreneurship? The synagogue of the future must be a mikdash as well as the mishkan for God.
When I read this week's parashah, I am inspired by its lofty goal to create a holy space so that God can dwell among us, and my heart is moved by this beautiful invitation to want to make it happen. We know that our ancestors were so inspired and moved that Moses had to tell them to stop donating. We might want to dismiss this as fantasy or hyperbole, but I believe it presents us with a blueprint to reinvent Judaism. In Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life,5 Lawrence Hoffman says this is the time to "think theologically and not programmatically." It is time to reclaim the language of gifts, which according to Exodus 31:3 is wisdom, understanding, and skill. Then we can say, as Hoffman writes, "We reconceptualized synagogue membership as a sacred contract with a community where our gifts and our passions are recognized, nourished and directed to the enrichment of others."
- "A Portrait of Jewish Americans," (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, Oct. 1, 2013)
- Simon Rawidowicz, Israel: The Ever-Dying People and Other Essays (Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 1986)
- Thomas B. Morgan, "The Vanishing American Jew," Look 28 (May 5, 1964), pp. 42-46
- Michael L. Morgan, Interim Judasim: Jewish Thought in a Century of Crisis (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001)
- Lawrence Hoffman, Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006), pp. 19, 90
Rabbi Peter S. Knobel serves as interim rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida. He is rabbi emeritus at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.