“Na (sic) ha (sic) can you compete!” exclaimed my late Uncle Morris in his Polish accented English, as he commiserated with my father over their plight as small independent clothing store owners, attempting to eke out a livelihood in a city with more top notch retail stores than one could have imagined.
My Uncle Morris’ words came to mind last week, as I read about Sears recently filing for bankruptcy. Given the current retail climate in this country, Sears simply couldn’t compete. My Uncle Morris’ words came to mind however for yet another reason. As a congregational rabbi, I’ve come to realize, that although in all likelihood I am a lone voice crying out in the wilderness, when it comes to competing, unlike retail stores, synagogues shouldn’t compete.
Yes, competition is part and parcel of human nature. Communism was destined to fail from the start, because it did away with the individual as well as competitive spirit of the individual. I’ll be the first profess that competition, if correctly executed (and it hardly ever is), is quite healthy and even desirable for humans. The intent and goal of Judaism however, isn’t to make us more human; the intent and goal of Judaism is to make us more humane. Competition is part and part of human nature. Judaism on the other hand, challenges us to rise above human nature. How else can we explain the basis of kashrut, which by its very essence, is designed to suppress human urges and to ask of us to work on rechanneling human nature? Judaism asks that each of us incorporate a non- compete clause into our very nature.
“Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people” according to David Sarna. Recently, I returned a call to someone from the greater New York City area who was looking to relocate to Dallas. It didn’t take long to realize that I was falling prey to the very competition against which I am inveighing. “I’m sure that you’ve reached out to other rabbis as well” I said in my phone conversation to the gentleman. “And how many rabbis have taken the time to get back to you”, I smugly asked. Implicit in my question of course, was the fact that I provide better service than do other rabbis. By asking about other rabbis, I succumbed to the very worst aspect of competition; I showed that I was there for him by pointing out that other rabbis were not. Mea culpa!
Yet as uncalled for as my question was, I was mild in my condemnation of those “competing” against me. One need only watch political commercials being presently aired to see the very worse aspect of competition. We call it negative campaigning. Rather than present their attributes and explain why one should vote for them, political candidates point out the shortcomings, drawbacks and faults of their rivals. In Judaism, we call that Loshon HaRa or slander. As far as our sages were concerned, Loshon Hara is about as low as one can go.
How did it ever happen that synagogues capitulated to clichés and worn out phrases such as “warm congregations,” “friendly services” and “caring rabbis”? How is it that congregations deigned to respond to the repugnant term “Shul shopping” ? Recently, I heard a speaker tell us how Jews are defecting from Modern Orthodoxy, because it does not fill their needs as far as women’s participation and involvement. Politically, the current trend of Modern Orthodoxy is also not to their liking. Excuse me? I was always under the impression that religion was for prayer and connecting with G-d. How did it happen that religion must now compete for our political comfort as well as our personal view of the world? The real travesty however is that so many rabbis and so many congregations will spare no expense to keep the shul shopping congregant, real or perceived, satisfied.
There is however one type of competition that congregations would do well to embrace. And that is competition against oneself. Rather than worry about what other synagogues are doing best, congregations are better served when they are concerned about their own performance, and constantly looking to live up to their potential and seek new spiritual challenges.
Perhaps it’s time for congregations and rabbis to show what they stand for. Perhaps it’s time for congregations and rabbis to no longer fall prey to merchandising. When all is said and done, since its inception, Judaism has shown itself to be impervious to bankruptcy.