The Pain of Being in Community
Updated: Sep 13, 2022
The final fourth sermon from High Holy Days. How can we be in discomfort? How can we be alongside people when it can be so difficult? We'll lean on the teachings of Rabbi Sheila Shhulman (z"l) and Peter Block.
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If you are super keen and have been paying close attention to the theme of these High Holy Day sermons – and do not worry – there is no test (!) – you may have realised a potential problem. There is space for four sermons over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We have been using the well-known teaching by Hillel from Pirke Avot/The Sayings of the Fathers as a framework for the sermons: ‘If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?
Four sermons, three phrases. We have a mathematical problem! Well, not for long.
Whilst I was at rabbinic school at Leo Baeck College, I was taught by Rabbi Sheila Shulman (zichronah livracha). She had the most profound and transformative impact on every aspect of my life and my rabbinate. A feminist, lesbian, chain-smoking, deeply intelligent and impassioned rabbi originally from Brooklyn. She would often begin our intensely academic and challenging theology classes by saying – ‘ok kinder, let’s go’ or ‘We can't start the class until I've found a lighter’…. For Sheila, her students were her everything.
One evening she invited my class to her fourth storey flat near Portobello Road, part of a women’s housing co-operative. Like the Holy of Holies, we had to remove our shoes to gain entry and like the incense of the temple we waded through the smoke of her cigarettes to her lounge packed with books from floor to ceiling.
Sheila’s teaching was fuelled by anger and her understanding of the injustice in this world. She was spiky, often rageful, yet also full of compassion. She was far from perfect which is why she was such a powerful teacher. That evening, in her flat, she spoke about the importance of community, our roles as rabbis in convening conversations and her deep belief that politics and spirituality were the same things. There were two things in particular which she said that night which re-shaped my Judaism forever, which I would like to share with you.
Firstly – she taught us the words of the writer, Adrienne Rich, who added a fourth phrase to Hillel’s quotation – ‘If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?’ ‘and, if not with others, how? This addition to this well-known phrase is mind-blowing – if not with others, how?! Hillel’s quotation focuses on the individual – If I…and when I…. Yet this addition focuses on the collective, the community. The only way all of this spiritual work and this action is possible is with others. Sometimes in our pay-as-you-go society which has such an emphasis on individual wellbeing and our entitlement for services and good we forget the vital power of community and the need for others and collective power.
Yet Sheila, as you may have gathered, was not a kumbaya type of person.
Her notion of working and being together, of being part of a community was not about rainbows, glitter and hand-holding but about working through the struggle which is inherent in being with others. For the second thing Sheila said that evening which so deeply struck a chord was this – ‘who says Judaism is comfortable?! Judaism isn’t supposed to be comfortable. For someone who has a deep need for order and control (as so many of us do), I found this teaching unsettling. I did not want to be discomforted – who does!! I wanted to remain in my Judaism which was about nostalgia for the beauty of Friday night candles, the happy and shining family around the Shabbat table. Yet, as so many of us know, these moments are rarely comfortable. An argument breaks out, a hurtful comment made. The story of our people is about being taken out of comfort and about realising the challenges of humanity and our role within it.
We know that Judaism and, by extension, being in a community is not comfortable. Maybe as we have been returning to gatherings in the last few months you have been surprised that you have felt a sense of anti-climax as you returned. The same issues arose within your families, the same snide comment made or the repeated and divisive political conversations had. Maybe, even returning to synagogue has brought feelings of disconnection alongside connection, a sense of not belonging, alongside a deep desire to belong.
In another teaching by Hillel, recorded in the Talmud, we hear that he was confronted by someone eager to convert to Judaism.
Firstly this person demands of Shammai, Hillel’s contemporary and frenemy – ‘Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot’. Shammai physically pushes him away. The man then talks to Hillel who converts him and then states: ‘that which is hateful to you, do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.’ Hillel teaches that this is the essence of Torah – that which is hateful to you, do not do to another. This is very different to the Golden Rule, known to many different traditions and also taught by Jesus in Matthew's gospel when Jesus similarly summarises the whole of the Hebrew Bible in a single phrase: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Hearing the difference between the two may be tricky. Hillel’s is a more negative statement – if someone does something hateful, painful to you – learn, and do not do the same to others. Jesus’ teaching is positive – the love you experience, the compassion – do that to others. It may feel as if Hillel’s teaching is more realistic and possible as it recognises the difficultly in living and being with others. People act out, people make mistakes (that’s why we’re here today!) – and we learn from that and change our behaviour accordingly.
The writer and community activist, Peter Block, wrote a book called ‘Community: The Structure of Belonging’ which talks to Sheila’s teaching. He champions the power of community (from family units, groups of friends, the workplace, your neighbourhood, this synagogue): ‘Community’, he writes, ‘offers the promise of belonging and calls for us to acknowledge our interdependence’. As an aside, perhaps this is why we have seen such a wonderful increase on the number of people who have come to our community over the past 18 months – to convert and to join this community.
Peter Block also speaks to the work which is required of each one of us in community – ‘to belong is to act as an investor, owner, and creator of his place.’ To belong to a community you must be accountable and, in my words, have done the necessary spiritual work. In fact, one quotation from his work influenced my intention towards these Yom Tovim and these sermons - ‘to be accountable is to act as an owner and creator of what exists in the world, including the light and dark corners of my own existence’. ‘Ownership is the decision to become the author of our own experience. It is the choice to decide on our own what value and meaning will occur when we show up.’ Being a member of this community, in particular, is an invitation to participate – to show up.
Like Sheila, Block, acknowledges the discomfort inherent in being with others – he does this through talking about the principle of hospitality – the backbone of communities like ours. ‘Hospitality is the welcoming not only of strangers, but also of the strange ideas and beliefs they bring with them. The moment people experience the fact that they can dissent, or, in a softer form, express doubts, and not lose their place in the circle, they begin to join as full-fledged citizens.’ I am sure this makes sense to you whether you have heard this articulated before or not. Many us go about in this world imagining that we are an imposter – at work, at home, with friends, in a shop, presenting a conference, out in a club – if only they knew that I felt this, or I’ve done this, or that I liked this, we think – then I’d be discovered as the fraud I am – I don’t truly belong, we tell ourselves. A healthy community/family/workplace/set of friends/relationships is when we accept the discomfort and celebrate and acknowledge that we are each different and give space for dissent.
The longer we can stay in spaces which are hard – when opinions are expressed which are so deeply different to our own – when we can listen, empathise and express ourselves fully – and still be accepted – that is when community can be counter cultural and transformative. In this way, Peter Block teaches, that we can ‘think of community as a possibility, a declaration of the future that we choose to live into’.
Our Torah, as usual, is way ahead of us. We read in Exodus and the intricate details of the building of the temporary temple – the Mishkan – that it was built through the unique gifts of each individuals coming together – ‘take from among you gifts to Adonai: everyone whose heart so moves them shall bring them’. Our duty is to bring ourselves fully, having realised our unique task and gift in this world, to work with others to create something holy.
As we begin the year 5782, as the gates close:
We learn that we are accountable for ourselves – the light and the dark corners.
We learn that our world, and the possibilities it contains, does not end with us.
We learn that this spiritual work is political and demands action and that the time is now.
We learn that all of this is only possible when we are open to the discomfort of being with others. Being authentically ourselves to be authentically with others.
Ken Yehi Ratzon – may this be God’s will – amen.
 Pirke Avot 1:14  bShabbat 31a  I’m grateful to Andrew Pal for his articulation of what membership of a community can mean.  Exodus/Shemot 35:4-11