Tuesday, February 08, 2011

God in a Box

By Annie Levy, Storahtelling Maven
Storahtelling Maven Shabbaton

Congregation Beth El in Norwalk, CT

What should the Temple of the Future look like? How can it be built on the solid foundation of the past  (biblically speaking, as we were translating Terumah) and the present (pluralistically speaking, fulfilling the needs of the largest community possible)? And do we still need a “box” for God at all? This past weekend, Shawn Shafner and I spent Shabbat with Congregation Beth El in Norwalk, CT exploring these questions, and the many others that undoubtedly come up over an artist in residence shabbaton. However, the questions that everyone seemed to want to know the answer to went as follows: There is no story in Terumah, might as well just leave it in the Hebrew; what are you possible going to do to make it interesting to us?

Shawn and I were confident that we would, at least, be able to answer that last question, the question of personal relevance, without breaking a sweat. We are Storahtellers after all, Mavens trained in the intricate art of translating ancient instructions into contemporary conversation. Shawn and I set out to meet the challenges of a parsha that is basically just a list of building instructions, literally biblical blueprints, by setting up two characters, Bezalel’s contemporary ancestor, a modern day architect, and the matriarch Miriam, who were at odds with each other over whether we should look to the parsha as instructions of how our modern synagogues should look, or whether we should scrap the whole idea of what “was” in the interest of developing the best possible “what will be.” The Maven ritual climaxed, as it so often does, in the second aliyah stretch with the question, “How can we create the Temple of the Future to fulfill the spiritually needs of the largest possible community, especially those who are otherwise unengaged, the spiritually unfulfilled?”

The congregation faced this question with the expected moment of silence for contemplation and consideration (a few younger members of the congregation filled the adult’s silence with their offers of “a swimming pool!” and “a petting zoo!”)  but soon all of the adults' hands shot up and they began to offer a pretty thorough checklist of ways to improve on synagogue life in order to build the Temple of the Future. Shawn and I were feeling pretty proud of ourselves, we had clearly found our way into the story, our plan had worked, we had somehow managed to make this boring, irrelevant parsha meaningful! However, the real revelation came at the talk back, when we were asked if we had know that this synagogue was currently wrestling with the very question that the parsha asked, in the form of strategic planning to insure a Temple of the Future for that community. We had gone in with a plan of what we thought was relevant only to find that these stories are playing themselves out on their own.

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