By Chazan Jaclyn Chernett
Deuteronomy changes the worship practices of ancient Israel from local shrines to a centralised place. “You shall not act like we are all doing here now, everyone doing what they like!” (Deut 12:8)
The Deuteronomic text’s clear agenda was to eliminate idolatry where communities had autonomy and practised the cults of their regions. Of course, a centralised sanctuary didn’t work either – any more than it does today. And, notwithstanding the Yeshivot which are preparing for a third Temple, including its cultic rites, I would hazard a guess that not too many people would want to physically rebuild the Temple and cause a third world war.
At Kol Nefesh we recently enjoyed our annual Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, which ended (as it does every year) with Shacharit to the accompaniment of the birds in our hostess’s lovely garden. Each year under the guidance of Rabbi Joel Levy our studies follow a particular theme. This time it was “Finding Myself or Losing Myself” – individualism set against collective responsibility. When we ‘stood at Sinai’, who were we? Who are we now?
How do we tread the tightrope between individual and collective responsibility? As Judaism developed, far from reinstating the central sanctuary, Halacha became the guide to Jewish life; but the genius of the system is that it was and continues to be subject to interpretation by those who study and live it. The rabbi became the legal decision-maker for his – and now her – community.
Some communities like to create a central authority. In Anglo-Jewry over 150 years ago, the British Empire followed its own cultic norms, resulting in the appointment of a chief rabbi over its Jews, an office that later came under the rule of its Beth Din with its ever-increasing stringencies. And it hasn’t worked for the whole Anglo-Jewish community.
Masorti and other communities don’t follow this system, each community being autonomous within halachic parameters. As tradition has developed, Halacha has always been open to different interpretations. So it is not surprising when the rabbi of one community determines on its behalf something different from the rabbi of the next.
The notion of a central authority never worked for long. Leadership models changed through and beyond the biblical narrative with its prophets, judges, kings and priests to despotic and then democratic leadership of whatever kind. In the liberal world, democracy with its inevitable individualism has come to us as a product of the Enlightenment and the changing world order. Generally, in the West we treasure it and in the East they don’t.
How does this affect our attitudes today? With regard to Jewish communities, in the milieu of Western liberalism, we are free to choose how to live our lives and many, in this age of individualism, have chosen to discard any sense of responsibility for Jewish religious life altogether.
Whatever form of leadership humankind chooses for itself and whether we elect to live by autonomy or collective obligation to community, the message of the Torah narrative comes back loud and clear that everything passes and everything changes. Only God is the ultimate decision-maker of being.
What do you think?
Jaclyn Chernett is a founder member of, and Chazan at Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue, founder and director of the European Academy for Jewish Liturgy and Vice President of Masorti Judaism.