“In beginnings, worlds are created. In creativity, meanings are formed” 1
In the Jewish mystical tradition, each human being is viewed as a creative spark awaiting more kindling on his or her soul journey. In the Hebrew Bible, the very first words of Genesis are, “In the beginning God created…” Life is brought into being through a combination of order and intuitive creativity. In the first blessing before one of the core prayers in the Jewish liturgy, we pray to hamehadesh b’tuvo bekhol-yom tamid ma’aseh bereyshit (the One who renews creation’s work each day). As reflections of that prayer, we, too, yearn to participate in the perpetual renewal of creation.2
Creative approaches to congregational planning, spiritual practice, decision-making, and values clarification can be a gateway to engaging and releasing this renewal. These approaches are not merely parlor tricks or artistic flourishes. They are keys to unlocking the very spiritual, emotional, and intellectual energy that may be dormant or blocked in a congregational system.
As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote in The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, “A modern equivalent of the notion of creativity, which tradition regarded as the very essence of the Godhood, would be the concept of the latent and potential elements in the universe as making for an increase in the quantity and quality of life … a spiritual conception of life is consistent only with … the belief that both humanity and the universe are ever in a state of being created. The liturgy speaks of God as ‘renewing daily the works of creation.’ By becoming aware of that fact, we might gear our own lives to this creative urge in the universe and discover within ourselves unsuspected powers of the spirit.”3
I have discovered the truth of Kaplan’s words in my own work. For example, I recently worked in creative ways with a 300-household Jewish congregation that wished to reconnect with its founding principles and mission—with its pre-building, pre-rabbi, pre-staff stage of communal life, which began two decades ago. With the aim of helping them accomplish this goal, I was brought in to facilitate the congregation’s annual retreat for members, clergy, and staff. The approaches I used were probably unlike any they had experienced at previous retreats. They were “creative” both in the sense that they employed narrative, imagery, role playing, and imagination, as well as in the sense that they were generative of something new, unexpected, and alive.
We began gently, with a familiar ritual—a niggun, a wordless melody that brings focus to the group’s energy and acts as a reminder of the sacred intent of our gathering and the commitment to the relationships formed in the name of community. Afterward, I began my presentation by projecting onto a screen a photograph from two decades ago. It showed a group of people gathered at a founding member’s home; this was the meeting where the idea of starting the congregation was hatched. I invited both seasoned and new members to use the body language and expressions of the people pictured to suggest what they were thinking. Wonderful stories came to the fore from the founders, and creative interpretations were offered by newer members, especially children and youth. I then showed more photographs from the congregation’s 20-year history, asking for more real or imagined thoughts or dialogue to be provided for those pictured. When we arrived at a current photo of the synagogue itself, I invited participants to find a partner and share what it was they believed this building would want prospective members to know about its people and its history.
The final image in my presentation was a supersized version of the congregation’s mission statement, which I invited the president to read aloud. Then I asked everyone to “become” the adjectives included in the mission statement: “You are ‘warm and welcoming.’ Why are you in the mission statement and what are you here to remind us of?” I asked. “I am here to remind everyone that we are to always be an open tent like our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, like the ancient festival celebrations in Jerusalem that welcomed in the Israelite and the stranger,” one participant responded. “That we are to be open to people who may have been alienated from religious life and are seeking a nonjudgmental home to return to,” offered another.
We went through all the descriptive words in the mission statement in this way: “You are ‘egalitarian’ … you are ‘inclusive’ … you are ‘valuing tradition’ … you are ‘innovative.’” More and more voices joined the exploration. I offered appreciation for the mission statement and thanked its initial crafters for the wisdom they imparted through it. I then asked the participants what they had learned from the document that expressed the reason for their community’s existence. An hour later, with the conversation still buzzing, I brought the evening to a close by offering a series of questions for everyone to consider in preparation for the next day’s session: “Imagine that you are back at that founding meeting 20 years ago. Would you change this mission statement in any way and why? What values would you like to see reflected in it? Imagine that it is five years from now and you are looking at a photo of this weekend: what was said at this time that supported the congregation in growing and thriving in the years that followed?”
That evening the past was present and the future was glimpsed. Individual and congregational stories were brought to the table, later to become inspiring references for the work ahead. On subsequent days of the retreat, we studied texts from the Torah, the Talmud, and the Hasidic masters. We looked at other congregational mission statements and a previous five-year plan to examine the elements needed to help build a conscious, supportive, and spiritually and intellectually vibrant community. We broke into subgroups to revise the mission statement, to clarify the value of a variety of religious practices and the synagogue’s worship style, and to explore educational issues that needed to be addressed in the year ahead. During prayer, we paused when one of the values or themes being explored in our work together surfaced in the liturgy, and we added additional prayers for those values (such as creativity, love, deep listening, and unity) to be present in the work of the board and committees, the clergy, and teachers in the year ahead. There were no activities—study, group dialogue, worship, brainstorming, or late-night conversation—that were seen as being outside the process and goals of the weekend or the subsequent year in the life of the community.
This is just one example of the power of creative modalities in work with communities. The more my rabbinic, educational, performance, and consulting work takes me into a variety of faithbased, not-for-profit, organizational, educational, and governmental settings, the more I see accomplished in both the short and long term by finding the modality—or combination of modalities—that best suits the group or organization and its mission, spiritual values, and traditions. Process and outcome, form and content become mutually enhancing and interdependent ways of realizing the divine potential of individuals, communities, and larger organizational systems, especially when conflict, stagnation, and habit are exerting stress on the congregational or organizational system.
Giving Voice to the Unexpressed
There are many ways to interact with our sacred texts and to weave in how we experience the Divine working through us now. For example, a number of the psalms include dialogue with God. Similarly, one way I have worked with both young people and adults in the area of congregational decis
ion-making, visioning, and planning is to ask them to write a “Dear God/Source of Life,” “Dear Self,” or “Dear Congregation” letter, allowing for a variety of comfort levels with personal theological language. This exercise provides an avenue to voice what is not in scripture but is informed by it, or to voice something that is in an individual’s heart but is not conventionally expressed. Sometimes I ask participants in this exercise to also write their own answering letters addressing their particular queries or areas of conflict or concern. What often emerges from this exercise is a soul response that is more expansive, flexible, and capable of holding polarities (even when resolution is not always accessible) than is produced by opinion sharing or conceptual discussion. The suspension of judgment and deep listening to the words beneath the words are very important in any of these exercises, just as they are in group spiritual direction or consensusbuilding exercises.
Another exercise involves asking group members to create a human “sculpture” around a particular value as it relates to an issue requiring a decision that will impact the community at large. For example, if tikkun olam—social justice and community activism—is the chosen issue about which members are trying to develop priorities, resolve conflict, or self-educate, participants can be asked to create a sculpture representing the various values, causes, or organizations under discussion. The exercise begins with one person striking a pose expressive of the cause or value he or she wishes to represent (for instance, the environment, international relief, or ending hunger,). One by one, others take positions in relation to the first person and offer a one-word description of the aspect of tzikkun olam they represent. During the exercise, the facilitator can interview various people as to why their cause is a priority. The different members of the sculpture can be invited to dialogue among themselves (“Environmental concerns, why are you an important priority and what do you have to say about your relationship to the other priorities?”). Those remaining seated can be invited to offer what they observe and how the dialogue impacts their view of the causes they believe congregational human and financial resources should be invested in, and in what priority.
The art of inviting participants—whether in study, during worship services, in youth or adult educational settings, or at meetings or retreats—to give voice to the unspoken thoughts and feelings of characters or situations in scripture can also be a powerful way to assist members of a community to unlock insights in the Bible (“bibliodrama” 4) and discover their relevance to contemporary issues. I have employed this technique in my work with congregations. For instance, to explore the dynamics of leadership with congregational or organizational boards, committees, clergy, and staff, I often use the story of Moses receiving and acting on his father-in-law’s advice about delegating and avoiding leadership burnout to explore the dynamics of leadership (Exodus, Chapter 18, or Deuteronomy 1:9-15). Exploring the scripture bibliodramatically might involve reading a few verses of text, then inviting people to offer suggestions as to why Jethro felt compelled to give Moses his advice, or asking participants to consider what Moses really thought when he heard Jethro’s advice and why he decided to listen to him. What is gleaned from this enactment and the text itself that relates to leadership and communication issues in the community can then be explored in discussion.5
Retelling the Story
Telling a community’s story through a scriptural lens, or creating vignettes of the history of one’s congregation, school, or organization and the values it stands for can help a group realize how it can live in and create sacred community. This creative and maximalist approach is central to a productive values-based decision-making process that can be employed for crucial issues in the life of a faith-based community. A paradigmatic model suggested by Dr. David Teutsch, director of the Center for Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, consists of:
- study of the sources of religious and cultural traditions and practices
- study of current information from the natural and social sciences (including organizational dynamics, systems theory, etc.)
- reflection on personal and communal values
- analysis of the impact of each possible decision on each affected party
- democratic and inclusive processes that maximize the number of participants along the way to a final decision6
To this approach, I have added the creative techniques for reflecting on personal and communal values described earlier in this article, as well as role playing to help in analyzing the impact of possible decisions. An in-depth process such as this may take a year or more in the life of a community, so this is not a model I would recommend for making minor decisions. However, in the areas of religious services, board governance, operating practices, financial resources, education, and involvement in social justice causes in the larger world, combining creative techniques with this serious approach to discernment can powerfully impact the level of participation, the outcome, and the ownership of decisions.
Cultivating Active Participation
Many faith communities and organizations employ such participatory processes to engage the entire congregation in renewing and reinvigorating worship services, coming to deeper ownership of congregational Shabbat practices and guidelines, and other areas of ritual. The role of clergy as teacher and guide—as well as active participant—is crucial to the success of such endeavors. By trusting that when we openly look at and name the dynamics of power, authority, and responsibility that we, as clergy or lay leaders, have in a congregational or organizational system, we can facilitate ownership by other members of the community for their part in the decision-making process—to everyone’s benefit.
An example of this occurred recently in my own life, when I became the visiting rabbi at a lay-led congregation, Dor Hadash, in Pittsburgh, a faith community experimenting with a hybrid of leadership models. In this congregation, we arranged for the signing of the rabbinic contract to be a ritual event. After the president of the congregation convened the evening, the leadership of the havurah, a subgroup within the community that, with the support of the larger congregation, had accepted responsibility for bringing a visiting rabbi to the congregation each month, shared what it meant for them to arrive at this moment. The havurah liaison and I both shared that we had experienced the contract negotiations as a truly holy conversation. We then discussed the themes of power, authority, and accountability as they occur in any group or organizational system, studied biblical and contemporary texts on leadership, and explored our hopes for our rabbi-congregational relationship.7 Next, using a ritual format often used at Jewish weddings, the president handed me the contract, asking if I agreed to the covenant of our terms. He then did the same with the havurah liaison. After we had signed the document, other havurah members were invited to sign as witnesses if they so chose. Afterward, we chanted the traditional shehekhiyanu prayer, thanking God for being the sustaining Source and for bringing us to this day. This was followed by a shared meal, where we traded stories about our personal journeys. Finally, we embarked on a three-hour planning session that laid out the year’s activities for the havurah and how it would interface with the congregation as a whole.
People remarked upon how our study together and the sacredn
ess of the signing ritual had directly contributed to the energy, creative thinking, and enthusiasm for the decision-making and planning that followed. At evening’s end, I invited the leadership to share what they were taking away from our first collective working session. A number of participants commented that their fear of losing their voices with a rabbi present had given way to new energy, empowerment, and a sense of being supported to take on greater roles in their spiritual and communal lives. Weaving together ritual, individual and congregational stories, study, prayer, a shared meal, administrative objectives, and program planning can mutually enhance each of these components, helping to build relationships and a sense of sacred community at the same time.
I have discovered that capital campaigns and efforts to decide what type of membership dues or fee structure a community will adopt can also be enhanced by these types of creative values-based decision-making approaches. Dorshei Tzedek, a growing congregation in Newton, Massachusetts, spent a year studying money and Jewish values en route to a community-wide vote on restructuring the congregation’s membership dues system. Having participated in a similar process to update their mission statement, they are now applying this approach to their emerging capital campaign.8
Creative and participatory approaches to the spiritual life of any community are enhanced the more people see themselves as active participants in their individual and congregational religious life. This can help narrow the divide between practices and expressed values both within a faith community and outside its walls. In addition, seeing adults become more invested in the major issues that determine the current and future actions of their community can also inspire young people to become involved.
Of course, we can misuse any creative or participatory process—to block needed action and consign decision-making to an endless process of processing, for instance. We can also hide behind anti-authoritarian approaches, undermining clergy and leaders by insisting that everyone needs to approve every decision or that consensus is required at every turn. To avoid these pitfalls, it’s important to be aware of the shadow side of any creative process when we approach core issues in sacred community creatively and with maximal member involvement. Ultimately, when we enter into discussion about an important issue in our community, we are entering sacred ground. Godliness can manifest through the approach and content of our decision-making. We are, in short, striving for a process that contains Godly values and yields an outcome that fulfills the mission of our community and the spiritual growth of the participants.
Whatever approach we take, it’s crucial that we do our homework beforehand, trust in the development of our own styles of leadership and the social and spiritual bonds in the community we are committed to. We also must recognize that we might have a strong bias in favor of a particular outcome. This is part of the creative tension when we move decision-making from an elite activity into greater communal participation. Moses faced this tension with a burgeoning community at Sinai. Managing polarities is part of the decision-making process. In the moment of a creative encounter—as in any artistically alive and spiritual moment—our task is to be present to what the relationships and dynamics in the room are calling out for, in balance with the mission and values of that community. The insights, healing, enjoyment, and challenges people will experience from such an encounter depend on this practice of presence, as do the creativity, compassion, and conscious choice-making that can be its result.
Questions for Reflection
1. Hasidic story about Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, as told by Rabbi Harold Schulweiss, In God’s Mirror: Reflections and Essays (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing, 1990), http://www.ktav.com.
2. From the blessing for light and creation in the shakharit, or morning service.
3. Kaplan, Mordecai, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (Detroit: Wayne State Press, 1994), 62-3, http://wsupress. wayne.edu/index.html.
4. Peter Piztele, a therapist and psychodramatist, structured this process (which emerged in some Jewish and Christian circles in the 1970s and 1980s) into a form of interpretive play he termed “bibliodrama.” For a full description of the process of bibliodrama, see Peter Pitzele’s Scripture Windows: Towards a Practice of Bibliodrama (Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 1997–98), http://www.torahaura.com. Also see http://www.icmidrash.org, the Web site of the Institute for Contemporary Midrash.
5. For a collection of texts that can be effective tools for leadership training and board and committee development, see Jewish Communal Leadership and Congregational Governance: A Resource Manual for Training and Developing Effective Boards and Committees, compiled by Rabbi Shawn Zevit and Shira Stutman (Elkins Park, PA: Reconstructionist Press, 2005), www.jrf.org.
6. For more material on Jewish valuesbased decision-making, see Rabbi Richard Hirsh and Dr. David Teutsch’s articles in The Reconstructionist: Decision Making, Volume 65, No. 2, Spring 2001 (online at www.therra.org); Rabbi Shawn Zevit’s article, “The Evolving Face of Reconstructionism,” Reconstructionism Today, Summer 2004, Volume 11, No. 3 (under Reconstructionism Today at www.jrf.org).
7. The Rabbi-Congregational Relationship: A Vision for the 21st Century, Rabbi Richard Hirsh, editor (Elkins Park, PA: Reconstructionist Press, 2001), www.jrf.org.
8. For a full case study on this community, see Shawn Zevit’s Offerings of the Heart: Money and Values in Faith Community (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), www. alban.org; and Money and Jewish Values: A Twelve-Week Curriculum by Shawn Zevit and Shira Stutman (Elkins Park, PA: Reconstructionist Press, 2004), www.jrf.org.