Random Musings Before Shabbat–Lekh Lekha 5770 Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution

Just 6 years ago I wrote a musing for this parasha entitled "Lekh Lekha 5764–Ma’aseir Mikol–The Ten Percent Solution."  As my thoughts continue to evolve on what Judaism’s future might look like, I thought this topic was worth revisiting.
Six years ago, I set up the topic this way:

Hebrew grammar and syntax being what it is, it’s easy to overlook, or misunderstand.

Let’s find our place. Avram serves as a mercenary to rescue Lot and aid King Malchizedek and the other Kings allied with him, and they defeat the five kings aligned against them. Malchizedek, the King of Salem offers a blessing to Avram. Oh, by the way, the text tells us, Malchizedek was a priest of G"d Most High, El Elyon. Now, if that’s not a head-scratcher…

G"d had just communicated with Avram. Already there are others worshiping this same G"d? I am not troubled by this. I always remind myself that Torah never explicitly says that G"d is making exclusive covenants. It’s not entirely unthinkable that G"d has been attempting to communicate and be recognized by others. Or that others have, on their own, discovered that the idols they pray to are false G"ds, and made the leap, if not to monotheism, at least to monolatry. So to learn that Avram and King Malchizedek are fellow travelers need not be a surprise. (Critical scholarship, of course, would require considering several somewhat different viewpoint on this, and on the origins of the Jewish people and their religion. There’s an interesting article in this month’s) BAR magazine on the subject.   But I digress.

After Malchizedek blesses Avram, he blesses G"d, El Elyon. Then, verse 14:20 ends "vayiten-lo ma’aser mikol." And he gave him a tenth of everything.

It might be easy to just assume, when reading this, that it means that Malchizedek gave Avram a tenth of "everything," of the spoils of the battle just fought. Yet Rashi and other commentators suggest that it was Avram who gave King Malchizedek a tenth of everything he had previously acquired, as Malchizedek was a priest of G"d. (The rabbis are quick to point out, however, that Avram gave only from what he already owned, as Avram did not accept any of the spoils of war offered to him in the subsequent verses.

Anyway, all this just to take me where I wanted to go today. That ten percent that Avram gave to Malchizedek simply because he was a priest of G"d. From these short and simple words (and those elsewhere in Torah) an entire
system of funding the religious establishment is derived.
It’s something that we Jews, particularly liberal Jews, seem to have lost sight of. Our Christian co-religionists still, in significant numbers, follow the practice of tithing ten, or some other fixed percent, in support of their churches. Yet our synagogues have become businesses. Fee for service establishments. Congregants argue and plea endlessly about what they should pay to support their congregation. And, far, too often, their arguments are based on "what am I getting for my money?" Is this why we affiliate, is this why we practice Judaism?

Synagogues have certainly attempted and struggled to change how they are viewed by their congregants, and I applaud their efforts. However, I’m not so sure all their efforts have or will effect the changes truly necessary. A large segment of the Jewish community is seeking its Judaism in places other than the synagogue. People are speaking with their feet (and their wallets.)
In an ideal world, no synagogue would struggle for the funds it needs, no form of Jewish education would go lacking for the funds it needs, and no person would struggle for the funds they need. It’s not an ideal world. Also, are we all truly convinced that, given all the funds they needed, that our synagogues, schools, etc. would use all the funds wisely? When the funds come too easy, it’s also easy to be wasteful, or greedy.
Six years ago I wrote:

I’m not here to defend the synagogue. There is lots wrong with the system as it exists, and perhaps someday, we will move into a post-synagogue era. The growing number of havurot, of unaffiliated groups, etc. are testimony to some desire on the part of Jews to find their Judaism without the trappings of the modern synagogue. The synagogue reshaping movements like Synagogue 3000 are as much an attempt on the part of the synagogue establishment to insure its own future as it is an attempt to respond to the changing needs of congregants. One wonders what would happen if, as a result of its deliberations, a synagogue future revisioning group reports back to its synagogue that their vision of the future doesn’t include the synagogue? Are these programs really open to that? But I’m digressing again.

Even the havurot, the unaffiliated and informal groups, etc., need some understructure, and some financial underpinning. Still I hear stores from those associated with such groups that even they are having a tough time getting the support they need, both in people power and money.
If it is the synagogue model that I am going to buy into, and associate myself with, then I have made my choice, and there should be little question of "what do I get for my money?" The Torah and our tradition make clear our obligation to support the religious institutions we rely on, and the "priests" and professionals (and non-professionals) who serve as the spiritual guides for the congregations.)

Yet, can you imagine the outcry if your synagogue simply decided that everyone simply tithes ten percent of everything (and that doesn’t just mean income, it means 10% of your total worth–probably even gross, and not net.) Those synagogues that use "fair share" systems already struggle with issues of privacy and confidentiality. We still have to rely on the basic honesty of the congregants to report and contribute their fair share fairly. It wouldn’t look good for the synagogue to hire CPAs, audit all the congregants, and bill them accordingly, would it?

Today, I am even less inclined to defend the synagogue as an institution. Though many of my colleagues disagree, I am no longer certain that the synagogue will or needs to remain the central core of Jewish community. There is likely to be a role for the synagogue in the future of Judaism, however it may simply be one alongside a number of different forms in which people participate in Judaism and Jewish community. With many different paths to Jewish community, finding ways to fund them,. help them survive, etc. is going to be quite complicated. What do we do if many of us, I as suppose is likely, might benefit from participation in a multiplicity of organizations and activities as part of our Judaism? How can we be sure we’re all contributing fairly to support them?
Again, six years ago I wrote:

The basic idea is the one we don’t get, and the one we’ve lost sight of. It’s not the synagogue’s responsibility to make sure we contribute our fair share, our ten percent. It is ours. And we should do it willingly, gladly, and without resorting to the same kinds of tactics we use when preparing our tax returns.

Abraham, didn’t stop and think "what will I get out of this?" He just gave 10% to Malchizedek, the priest of El Elyon. Would that all of us would do the same. Then, perhaps, the future of Judaism might be more secure. Our institutions would have what they needed to operate, our religious schools wouldn’t be struggling to do the next to impossible with minimal resources, and our religious professionals, both ordained and unordained, would have the parnassa they require to serve G”d and their congregations without having to worry how the costs of their kids’ college educations will get paid. With ten percent from all, our synagogues could be the source for the funds that all the richly-deserving charities need. (This doesn’t reduce our personal obligation to give to charities, but think how much more it might enhance the work of the charities, and maybe bring us closer to the messianic age.)

I’m a dreamer, a PollyAnna. No doubt of that. Nothing really is ever that simple. Or is it. Just ten percent. Think about the difference it could make if we all did it, without questioning. Ken y’hi ratson. May this be G”d’’s will. Ken y’hi ratsoneinu. May this be our will.

Whether it is the synagogue alone, no synagogue, or a variety of programs, activities and resources that we come to depend upon to live our Judaism each and every day, it still shouldn’t be up to those organizations to be sure they have the funds they need. The obligation is, as it always was, ours. Whatever form our future Jewish community takes, if it continues to struggle to survive because we all fail to support it as we should, we won’t be any better off than we are now, and we will have learned and gained nothing.

Remember, too, and this is something I neglected to write six years ago, that our contributions needs not only or always be monetary. We can give of ourselves, our time, our talents. (I do feel compelled here to caution that we not entirely expect those who help professionally guide us to work for inadequate parnassa. As utopian a vision as I might have, even one in which leadership is really not in the hands of an elite few, but in all of us, the reality remains that there will always be those whose dedication, skills, and learning for the sake of being good facilitators of Judaism are necessary. They deserve the support necessary to make possible what they do, just as everyone deserves that support.) Of course, maybe there will come a day when we are all Torah scholars. Some believe that day is already here, others believe such a day will never come. Me, I’m somewhere in the middle on this point. with each passing day, we have more tools at our disposal to be truly great learners. The debate becomes "what is required to be learned?" There is already more information than any one person can master. Even in the days of the talmudic rabbis, there were probably rabbis who had specialties in certain areas. Can one be said to have truly mastered Torah without mastering Mishna & Gemara? what about Midrash Halakha and Midrash Agaddah? What about Kabbalah? Already in the Jewish community we see decisions being made about what information is essential for members of that community to know. Sadly, our communities bicker and fight about this, and even consider those who do not adhere to their own understandings as being outsiders, even as not being "really" Jewish.

However, if we each have our own understanding of Judaism, and each of us is scholar enough to satisfy what we believe is necessary to be a scholar, we could be in one helluva mess. Trying to figure out where we each give our 10% might be truly difficult. (Do we give it to ourselves to enable us to continue to be scholars, do we give it to others so they can be scholars?) Can we truly become a scholar without a teacher? Our tradition would say not. Thus, the teachers needs to come from somewhere, thus our 10% could go to make sure we have those teachers (or we become those teachers.)
What seemed like such a simple idea-that we all willingly pony up our 10%, seems to be turning into quite the quagmire. I’d better stop before I sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester. Portions © 2003

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About migdalorguy

Jewish Educator & Musician, Technology Nerd and all around nice Renaissance guy
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