The Potential of Pot-Luck Judaism – Rosh HaShanah Day 2

I love Congregation Beth Israel. My favorite feature is the door labeled “Potluck Kitchen.” This morning, I want to talk about why I like it and why I think it can inspire our vision and be our North Star. CBI is proudly “independent” as opposed to merely “unaffiliated.” Part of what that grants us is the mandate to define for ourselves what a Jewish congregational community should look like. I think we could start our own movement. We could call it “Potluck Judaism.”

“Potluck” signifies that everyone contributes toward the common good. But not into a “black hole” the way it can feel sometimes a gift of money does. In potluck, each participant’s contribution retains its identification with the giver even as its benefit is consumed by others. When I turn on the lights (okay, when Rochelle or Lee turns on the lights – they’re always on by the time I get here) they don’t think, “Oh, how nice the Goldstein’s made a donation to keep the lights on.” But if they go to a potluck kiddush they could certainly think, “what a delicious kugel the Goldstein’s brought us.” And a potluck isn’t a gift for others to use so much as an offering to be shared, giver and recipients alike. In this way, potluck is more like participating than simply giving away. That’s how I think of the act of participating in shul. It’s more about sharing than giving.

Potluck services are hamish and familial. If you hunger for a formal banquet try a fancy restaurant. Something more choreographed and high church. Participatory services place the emphasis on warmth more than polish. On including more voices rather than high standards for chanting every trope or singing every note on key. Except for the High Holidays, when we are blessed with and grateful for the beautiful voice of our cantor, potluck services feature home-cooked davening, not the product of a professional chef. It’s the charming and empowering lineup of lay volunteer prayer leaders and Torah chanters. Its value is that it’s from the heart. It can’t be measured as a performance.

Just as a greater quantity of choices enhances the potluck, our services are enriched by adding a multiplicity of voices. Herein lies a challenge. We have a steady cohort of participants joining us on zoom. I believe this is the new reality for Jewish prayer. It will not fade away simply because this pandemic eventually recedes. Its value will persist for those who can’t drive, or are caregivers for those who are bedridden, or for those who find themselves out of town or geographically distant but emotionally close to B’nei Mitzvah and other lifecycle events. It is an amazing blessing that such technology is even possible and that we are able to utilize it so effectively. Nevertheless, it’s not the same as being in “the room where it happens.” At present, our streamed services are a one-way street. Joining us via zoom right now really feels more like attending than participating. Zoom is designed for a meeting, where only one voice speaks up at a time (I know, not Jewish meetings). If we unmute ourselves all at once on zoom, all we will hear is chaos, not a dignified harmony of voices. Zoom-yiddin, not only do we miss your voices helping to lift our prayers, we can’t even see you standing beside us before the Holy One. So here’s what we need to do: We need to get a screen and install it on the wall of the sanctuary so that your faces are present with our faces. And we need to find a way to unmute you. I can scarcely think of a deed as unJewish as muting a fellow Jew. How do we allow such a thing to happen to ourselves!? We really need to add this to the Al Het: “Ashamnu, bogadnu, for the sin of muting ourselves…”

We need to invest in a sound system arrangement that will facilitate remote participation in the service. What am I talking about? I’m talking about someone on zoom or whatever, while yet at home, leading the prayer for Israel, or the prayer for the community while being broadcast here into our sanctuary. I’m looking forward to the day when we call Bob and Leslie to the bima for an aliyah and they recite the blessings at home while our Torah reader chants the verses on the bima. That would be so cool! I know, I know, some of us may have doubts as to the propriety of getting an aliyah several miles away from a Torah scroll. You’re supposed to read along with the Torah reader. Well, no synagogue is so orthodox that a blind man can’t get an aliyah. This alone proves that standing there following alongside the designated reader is not strictly necessary. Let’s have a class during the year on this.

I believe the Torah offers us two models for participatory Judaism. Both could be construed as potluck. The first is the Golden Calf. Everyone brought their own gold and jewelry and melted it together. Worshipping the calf didn’t work out so well. It proved to be a big mistake. The second is the mishkan, or tabernacle. Here, too, we’re told all the people brought donated items of their own accord. Much more than was even called for. This time it worked out wonderfully. The first potluck ended in idolatry. The second, in creating a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. What was the difference?

The commentators point out that, in regards to the mishkan, when more than enough has been collected, the people are told not to stop “donating,” but to stop the “work.” That is, the people were not merely donating the materials, they also rolled up their sleeves to contribute their labor. In potluck Judaism, it’s not just the food that matters but that the participants planned, cooked and served it. Whereas in the case of the golden calf, the donations themselves were melted down and worshipped, in the case of the mishkan the donations never became the object of worship. They were used to build a receptacle for the sacred. In potluck Judaism, it’s not the potluck that matters most, but the deep sense of community which it engenders.

Potluck lies at the essence of classical Jewish learning. The basic building block to the Jewish learning experience is the “chevruta,” learning in pairs, each partner responsible to contribute ideas and refine the proposals of the other through sustained critique. The culture of the yeshiva is the opposite of that of the library, that bastion of individual, private research. Whereas the librarian stereotypically raises a finger and says, “Shush!” to anyone who dares utter more than a whisper, the yeshiva is a rambunctious cacophony of noisy argument, the robust and insistent exchange of ideas. The Talmud likens Jewish learning to a grain hopper. Everything gets poured in and the communal learning process is trusted to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

I wonder what the next steps might look like. Perhaps it’s time for our sanctuary to adopt the model of our social hall. Just as we have a potluck kitchen adjacent to a kosher kitchen, what would it be like to have the small chapel room dedicated to more experimental services? What do we think about musical instruments once in a while for Kabbalat Shabbat? The main sanctuary could remain “kosher” so to speak. No musical instruments. Except for the bells on the Torah rimonim. We have to keep those – otherwise, we might get the no-bell prize! If guitars are going too far, how about a kabbalat Shabbat drum circle? In the main sanctuary we can restrict drumming to thumping our siddurim. In the small chapel, we could compete with that rather eccentric group dancing around and welcoming Shabbat every Friday evening in Pritchard Park.

Full-on participatory Judaism could mean breaking ground in any number of new ways. We could extend lay participation in areas presently left to the professionals. What if a volunteer congregant read a story to the kids during religious school, or told a story from their own Jewish childhood? What if a congregant played a soothing, mournful violin at a funeral or shiva? What if a subcommittee of the board partnered with the rabbi in setting expectations for conversion to Judaism?

Let’s take being a participatory shul to the next level. Let’s make CBI potluck Judaism an incubator for fresh ideas for even greater participation.


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