Organized Religion, Part II

February 15th: Tetzaveh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week, as we continue God’s instructions for the Mishkan, the portable tent temple that we carried with us in our wanderings, I would like to continue last week’s discussion of Organized Religion and why some people find it problematic. Our starting point was the original Jewish building fund, launched in Exodus 25, when God requests gifts from the Israelites—gifts for the sanctuary so that the Divine could dwell among us.

 We talked about spontaneity versus fixed forms in worship, the various administrative challenges that often arise in organized religion, and the imperfection of some of the people involved in religious institutions. These issues are serious, but I maintain, the goodness and purity of the religious message aspires to transcend these challenges. As this week’s Haftarah (Ezekiel 43.10-27) makes clear, moral contrition and repentance are essential to qualitative spirituality. We need to do religion right.

 Another issue, brought home by the Divine request for building materials, is the whole financial angle of religion. Money is necessary for organized religious institutions, but paying for religion is off-putting for many, so much so that they resist fundraising or simply do not affiliate.

 There was a time, in the ghetto paradigm of Jewish life, when individual Jews did not have the option of standing apart from communal institutions. The Jewish community was given the power to tax all ghetto residents, and this enforced financial support allowed it to sponsor synagogues, schools, infirmaries, mikva’ot, and charitable endeavors. However, when the gates of the ghetto were opened, this all changed. In our free society, participation is a matter of personal choice, and religious institutions have no enforcement power.

 It is hard to say whether the original building fund campaign in Exodus is voluntarily or forced. Though God specifically says, “Accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so inclined(Genesis 25.2), everybody know that God is the One Who is asking, and I wonder whether the individual Israelites feel autonomous or obligated. In any event, our ancestors respond enthusiastically, and the drive brings in much more gold, silver, copper, yarn, ram skins, etc. than is needed. When the artisans report, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done” (Exodus 36.5). Moses sends out an announcement to all the camp telling people to stop bringing gifts.

 In our congregation, we’re not quite there (yet!).

 How are we to regard the continual need for money in religion? Is it an intrusion into spirituality or an enhancement of spirituality? I think about this every year when we plan our Yom Kippur services. On Kol Nidre, do I place my sermon before the annual Kol Nidre Appeal—heightening the spiritual moment before we break it off and talk about money, or do I place my sermon after the annual Kol Nidre Appeal—seeing the appeal as a buildup to the spiritual message I bring to the congregation? In other words, is the appeal a part of the worship experience, or is it an interruption?

In Christian churches, there is a big emphasis on giving money, and they build it up sermonically, liturgically, and musically as a form of holiness. The ushers pass the baskets and then walk them up the aisle to present to God on the altar. As alien as this might seem to us, it is very close to the description of our ancient Temple worship. Look at Deuteronomy 26.1-10 and notice the beauty and sublime appropriateness of the ritual: “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish the Divine Name. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, ‘I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to assign to us.’ The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt small in number and dwelt there, but there he became a great and exceedingly populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us, forcing us to work at hard labor. We cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our pleas and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and awesome power—displaying signs and wonders. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.’”

 We do not pass baskets for money during our Sabbath services—as part of our traditional prohibition of commerce and carrying money on Shabbat, but this does not mean that our financial contributions cannot be touched by spirituality. When we write a check to the synagogue, we are participating in the religious work of God, continuing our ancestors’ commitment to a relationship with the Divine and keeping the light of Judaism burning brightly. It is also a way to give thanks to God for the blessings in our lives and to offer some back to God. 

Is giving money to religion a distraction or necessary evil? Or, is it a form of prayer? It’s all a matter of our kavannah—our spiritual intentions.