Does the perfect synagogue exist? In a word: no

This article originally appeared in the J-weekly in my Mixed and Match column on 8/8/19)

Dear Dawn: I saw your response in J. to someone in the Bay Area wanting a Conservative shul where the men wear kippahs and would accept his half-Jewish children. You said nowhere would fit every demand. But surely there are many places that would. Why not suggest that the man consider the matter more and seek a place that really fits his demands, even if he had to leave the Bay Area to do so? It sounded like you were trying to say “Hey, just … compromise.” But why compromise? Every little compromise seems to me to be a slippery slope away from the ideal. And as to men “calling the shots,” that is not my interpretation of the structure of men and women in Judaism. I see women as immensely important and powerful within the traditional structure. It’s only the outward misunderstanding that may look like men do “call the shots.” Why promote that unpleasant viewpoint? I was not born into a Jewish home and have not converted, but Judaism is my spiritual foundation, and issues about it and the Jewish people are very important to me. Let’s see the most positive in it all and always strive for the highest level! — Best Wishes



Dear Best: You are absolutely correct. I was recommending compromise. Compromise is not simply a core need and value for Judaism, but is also central to human happiness. Without compromise, no marriage will work, nor any government, school, workplace or even simple traffic laws.

In deciding to live in America, I have by default agreed to live by the laws of the land. In order to function here, I accept the currency that the government issues, I pay taxes, I respect my neighbors’ property lines and wait in line at the grocery store. I am quite confident that you and every person reading this make socially responsible compromises.

Religion in modern times is often conceived of as individualistic, and therefore not requiring social compromise. This is unfortunate because some of the best things about religion require a group. Religious groups will deliver meals when you are sick, lend you money in a crisis, drive you to appointments when needed, visit you when you are ill, comfort you in times of sorrow and rejoice with you in good times.

But to garner all this good social support, you must compromise.

You have to join with other people, each of whom has their own ideas, goals and desires. You must all agree to what you want. Will you raise money and buy a building? Will you hire a rabbi? Will you provide for the needs of your members? If yes, how?

I once belonged to a mothers’ group in which one of the outspoken members announced that the group was too big and she had ideas for how it should be divided and who should be “let go.” The rest of us didn’t agree with her vision of an ideal group. No problem, we said. We’ll all go form a new group of us. You can develop your own personal group.

You can imagine her surprise when her idea of ideal did not turn out to be ours.

You have to be careful of that “slippery slope away from the ideal,” as it may be a very solitary place.

You go so far as to suggest that the letter writer leave the Bay Area to find this perfect synagogue that will reflect his opinions precisely. But what if living in the Bay Area is one of his ideals? He must compromise between his own ideals.

Perhaps he should stay here and start his own shul, but then he would be imposing his ideas on those individuals that he allowed to join his shul. He would dictate that each man must wear a kippah at all times in shul. That might annoy some men who would not want to comply. Where do we go with this — every person starting their own private synagogue?

As for my comment that men are the ones “calling the shots” — I do see the value that Judaism, beginning with traditional Judaism, places on women. But I’m not going to dissemble; the role of men in Judaism, and the world, historically has been more dominant.

Yes, women are finding our own place and feeling more in charge of our lives, but we will only move forward by telling what’s true. Understanding that fact will help both men and women make Judaism the best it can be for all people — male, female and LGBTQ.