By Shelley Cowan
Shelley Cowan is a communications strategist, anthropologist and writer in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is also a member and liturgy writer at Congregation Beth Adam.
Throughout America and Europe, temple membership continues to plummet. Rabbi Rami Shapiro explains it like this: today’s rabbis are trained to be curators of a museum fewer and fewer people visit.
The museum is temple-affiliated Judaism: You join. You do or don’t go to services, send kids to Sunday school, hold a Bat Mitzvah or light Sabbath candles. Shapiro sees this model as an end unto itself: to be more Jewish is to do more Jewish things. It may be great for some, but isn’t working for most.
Instead, Shapiro offers Judaism as a means, a way to fulfill the ‘go forth… to the land I will show you’ mission in Genesis. To do what Jews and others of many creeds have tried to do for millennia: live our lives so we enhance the well-being of all.
We know this compassionate Judaism from Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus. When asked to recite the meaning of the Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel supposedly said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go study!”
How we got from Compassionate Judaism to The Museum of Temples and Rabbis is a long story, but Shapiro suggests a way back.
Rami Shapiro is one of many contemporary rabbis who borrow from Reconstructionist and Humanistic Jewish theology. His ideas should sit well with those of us who ‘believe in God’ but not as an old man in the sky, or pray in a way that does not involve bargaining. He probably sits well with equally Jewish Jews who don’t consider God at all.
Shapiro reminds us of our heritage as challengers, and points to stories in the Torah for examples. In Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham tells God, ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should.’ Moses tells his following that God’s wisdom is not in the sky or over the ocean, ‘rather in your heart and in your mouth that you may do it.’
Shapiro’s Judaism is all about doing. He urges us to go forth by journeying within to find our Jewish essence. And the essential way to be Jewish? Simply try to be a mensch.
While the dictionary defines this Yiddish word as human being, a noun, Shapiro sees it as a verb: being human, acting with integrity and compassion.
While he is not explicit, I think Shapiro also sees verb-based Judaism as an alternative to the Museum business model: Judaism offers a unique proposition, something people need, want and are willing to buy. Just as Buddhism is marketed to the degree that many non-Buddhists buy Buddhist books, attend Buddhist workshops and post Buddhist quotes on Facebook, Jews could do the same.
Rabbi Shapiro suggests we no longer need to sell temple memberships as a way to be Jewish. We can offer Judaism as a way for anyone to live a more compassionate life in a world that desperately needs compassion.