What are the obligations of the community to the individual?
What is the responsibility of a synagogue to a Jewish member,specifically in terms of helping that congregant deal with extraordinary stresses of his/her life?
What responsibility does the community organization have to that member, and particularly in regard to informing them of consequences of their behavior in advance?
I know of a case in which an active member of the Jewish community (one who has contributed much time to the synagogue and has been extremely supportive to individuals in need) was ordered not to continue to have contact with the clergy for personal matters as a condition of continued membership. When the member violated this restriction (by leaving a telephone message for a clergy person when in distress), the congregant was told she/he could not at any time enter the doors of the synagogue at the threat of calling the police.
The congregant did not receive advanced notice of this, but was told by a custodian upon coming to services that she/he could not enter.
What Jewish values address this situation?
While this scenario sounds extremely odd and I’m guessing that there’s more to the story here, I can only respond to the question in front of me, so here goes. Generally, Jewish law speaks about the individual’s obligations to the community and greatly praises those who engage in community service (perhaps this was JFK’s and/or his speechwriter’s inspiration for his famous statement re. “Ask not…”). Traditionally, in lieu of a king or the Sanhedrin, the ultimate authority on Jewish law, Jewish communities were run by an elected or appointed council, known as the “Tovei Ha’ir” (see Talmud: Baba Batra 8B and Megillah 26A), in conjunction with the Chief Rabbi of the locale who was the final religious authority. With the dissolution of organized Jewish communities (remnants still exist in Israel, Europe and other countries, but not in North America), it is difficult to define the “Jewish community” and who should be responsible to help individuals– is it the synagogue? Who in the synagogue-the rabbi? President? Executive Director? What if one doesn’t belong to a synagogue? Should the local federation be the default address? The guys from Moishe and Zelig’s Herring and Schnapps Club?
These are all crucial questions, with serious ramifications for an often uninvolved Jewish population. Practically, while each of us has an obligation to be part of a community and to do whatever we can to strengthen such community, this also means that individuals, who comprise our local societies, should be the beneficiaries of the community, especially in times of need. It is unclear from your question whether you are referring to formal, paid membership in a synagogue or membership by virtue of being a Jew in the local community. While one should not have to pay membership fees to benefit from the community’s goodwill, membership in a synagogue does, and should have privileges. When one does become a formal member of a community, whether synagogue or organization, a more binding relationship is created based on obligations and responsibilities. While that may include such benefits as the use of certain facilities or cemetery rights, it most certainly presumes that the synagogue community will support its individual members.
While the Torah commands all individuals to help our neighbors in times of trouble, based on the verse, “Do not stand idly by your friend’s blood”, clergy by definition have an extra responsibility to do so. One of the leading rabbis of the 19th century stressed that a rabbi’s main function is to comfort the needy and weak. Thus, unless the above-mentioned member was either a dangerous person who threatened the general community or was so mentally unstable that the clergy, after repeated attempts to assist, realized that the person needed serious help, I don’t understand how a distressed phone call to the rabbi for help could be ignored, let alone serve as the cause for the member’s dismissal from the synagogue. As we are enjoined to give all people benefit of the doubt, on both sides of the issue, perhaps there was some major misunderstanding here or the clergy felt that there was some deeper issue here that called for drastic action. Otherwise, a synagogue should be open to all, particularly to those who are seeking spiritual sustenance.
Maimonides, one of the great Jewish authorities, asserts that the commandments to help one another, broadly categorized as gemillut chesed, lovingkindness, stem from the idea that we should do unto others that which we would like ourselves. Clearly, then, if any Jew is aware of another’s distress, he must do all that he reasonably can to help his fellow Jew. The ultimate Jewish value is to help our fellow Jews (and non-Jews as well, though as in any family, our obligation is to first help our own brothers and sisters) so something sounds very ungefilte fishy about this scenario. If the person still needs assistance, please let me or someone else who can help know.
Before answering the questions, I would like to offer my hope and prayer that whatever distress or crises this particular Jew was in has passed. It seems that the challenges of life have boiled over and also become rather severe challenges with the Jewish community. It is quite a sad situation when a member of the Jewish community is shunned in this way.
I will try and answer your questions as I understand them. There are Jewish values that address a community obligation to an individual, but only in certain circumstances. For example, every community should create a communal fund to help take care of the basic needs of the poor. Communities are required to leverage the communal resources in order to redeem captives.
Individuals should strive to fulfill supportive mitzvot like visiting the sick and welcoming guests. We should all strive to give appropriate tzedakah to communal funds.
However, our tradition is also clear that there are limits to what individuals should give. We are all obligated to give tzedakah. There are recommended guidelines for how much is appropriate to give. One can be miserly and still fulfill the obligation of tzedakah. If one is so generous that they make themselves poor in the process, Maimonides states that person is acting foolishly. Even in holy obligations, there are boundaries and limits for both the minimum and maximum.
Without knowing more information, it is impossible to speak to the "order" to not contact the clergy for personal matters. The closest equivalent that comes to mind is the concept of "cherem" or excommunication. While outdated and rarely if ever formally used, the idea is that a community can punish a person who is behaving in an inappropriate way by shunning that person. Unlike other religions, cherem is not permanent, it's more like a "time-out." I must wonder what circumstances led to such a draconian decree as was placed on this individual.
The specific situation of the congregant being informed of being banned from the synagogue by the custodian seems to me an unfortunate and sad error. If this caused the congregant embarrassment, which it sounds embarrassing to me, then an error was made.
Synagogues should strive to be welcoming, inclusive, caring communities, to the best of their abilities. So too, Klei Kodesh (clergy) should strive to meet the needs of congregants, to the limits of ability. When those limits are reached, boundaries must be drawn. It is sad that in this case, boundaries exclude an individual from the community. Hopefully there are other synagogues or temples in the community where this individual lives that can better meet his or her needs. Choice of community effectively makes the decree of cherem null. I pray that a good resolution is in the near future for this sad story.
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