Spiritual Authority in a Participatory Congregation
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
In a world of individual empowerment, what is the place for authority? Is there one? Should there be?
Inherited faith traditions locate the source of religious authority in text, the heavens, or a religious leader. Something tangible and limited. That is likely not the way our communities views themselves (though implicit explorations of our internal senses of 'authority' do take place when new rabbinic leadership is sought, or when controversial policy/halakhic shifts are raised).
My sense is that our shuls’ authentic practices emerge from within the dynamic relationship between our living community and the sense of purpose we share with previous generations, stretching as far back as the Torah's earliest visions. In other words, we are in constant dialogue between the past and the present. Even for those in our community who believe that the Torah is Divinely revealed, mindful and participatory interpretation is the hallmark of the healthy Jewish communal decision-making practiced in our shared spiritual home. Authority, then, rests squarely in our hands. The holiness of our communal use of authority lives in the authentic and shared dialogue we conduct with our own roots. We do not forget who we are as we imagine who we might one day be. It is ultimately growth and not rebirth that retains the authenticity of our choices and gives depth to our dreams.
Due to this communal and evolutionary model, there are moments when we make mistakes. But would we have it any other way? The era of infallible authority is long past, as demonstrated all too often in the socio-political sphere. Mistakes are what make us human. That, I believe, is what secures our bearers of the Divine Image. Certainly God's creation, our world, is imperfect and calling out for fixing. Embracing mistakes is a crucial part of holy community because it reinforces accountability, accepting and learning from the consequences of choices made.
And then there are times when we get it so right that we might even hear the angels singing right next to (and within) us. When our voices join in harmony at shul, when our hands prepare food for shelter and support those in need, when both our colorful and most spiritual energies emerge within our safe and sacred spaces, there is something right in the air. When honest critiques are offered in love and with the hopes of building community together, it is simply very, very good.
Years ago, the Jewish Theological Seminary took out a full-page ad in the New York Times during the week before Rosh HaShannah, which read: "For every tough problem, there is usually a simple answer. Which is usually wrong." To the question of spiritual authority, be it a question of Jewish practice, volunteer or professional leadership, I believe we, as a Conservative Jewish movemental community have it so deeply right. There are fewer and fewer raised bimahs in our sanctuaries. No one voice matters than any other. But the absence of any one voice matters quite a lot. There are rarely simple answers to our deep questions. Which is good. And holy.
If "authority" exists in a real way in our communities, I believe it rests squarely within the trusting relationships we create, maintain, and cherish.
May we see the holiness in conversation, recognizing that what we comprise together are communities with souls.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor