By Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit
Ideally and historically, the Jewish people have been committed to looking at financial resources as tools for building sacred community and reflecting sacred values in the very structures and foundations of communal life.
The fundamental approach to economic resources from biblical times onward has been to operate within available resources and to thank God by offering back a portion of what we have been graced with.
Of course, confusion or tension can also exist between private financial practices and faith-based congregational practices, or between religious values and traditions and the business aspects of running a congregation or organization. Our contemporary world does not ask us to put our financial practices through a religious audit to see how our actions line up with living a godly life.
Simply attending synagogue, mosque, church or a meeting place does not, in and of itself, heal this divide. We must also consider what spiritual insights might guide and determine our choices within the sanctuary, and how the prayers and policies of our congregations contribute to us all living lives b’tzelem Elohim — in the image of God.
We can benefit greatly in our communication and choices about financial matters when we share not only balance sheets, but concerns over how money is connected to our theologies, deeply held values, and life experience.
Avoiding these discussions — viewing them as “not related to the bottom line” or relegating sacred-talk or values clarification to moments deemed “spiritual” — contributes to a financial and soul split where we may consider our financial decision-making as unrelated to us being the best person or community of faith we can be.
In congregations and Jewish organizations, we are also pulled in a variety of directions that, on the surface, can seem in opposition to the very foundations of our endeavor. We are neither for-profit “businesses” in the marketplace, nor classic nonprofit organizations. We have dimensions of both, with the added ingredient of a religious and cultural-based mission.
I like to think of our faith-based communities as “for-prophet enterprises,” sharing the ultimate goals of manifesting the sacred values, laws and cultural traditions we have come to hold dear.
One of the Hebrew words most known to the world is shalom. The word shalom (peace, hello, goodbye) comes from the word shalem (wholeness or completeness). In a wonderful embodiment of a Jewish approach to the divine and human intersecting in the world of practical matters, the word for paying for an item to take possession of it became l’shalem.
To obtain something is to create an exchange that leaves all parties feeling whole and holy in their comings and goings with each other. Money used as a spiritual tool in this way has the potential to leave everyone resting in a place of peace, of shalom.
To address realizing our personal and communal goals, we need to create a trusting environment for such a discussion, not unlike the framework of communal directives and interpersonal ethical conduct that precedes Parshat Terumah.
Conversations about money in a communal setting can be challenging, because issues of class and money are tied to issues of self-worth, personal values and individual choices. We may have discomfort or even shame at having too much, too little or not enough. Envy, competition and insecurity can all surface when we talk about financial issues.
The intensity of discussion, opinion and emotion can intensify when attached to conversations about religion and religious and ethnic identity, especially when there has been little in the way of education and dialogue about money and religious life. Through study, effective listening and open discussion of our attitudes and expectations, however, we can turn a potentially challenging subject into a profound opportunity for building relationships and community.
There has never been any organized religion that did not need resources of some kind, expecting its members to contribute offerings, dues or taxes to support its institutions. Along with the personal dimension described above, we need to develop workable congregational systems where funds are collected and managed in a fair and just manner that both reflects our values and inspires further giving.
Imagine a world in which our religious institutions and network of sacred relationships stand as an inspiration and practical example for a global community operating in the image of the divine. Envision how you and your congregation, organization or community’s actions could be active participants in this goal. Financial resources, how they are organized and viewed, is an integral part of realizing this dream.
May we strive to bring
Into the flow of our resources
From our hearts, through our hands.
Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit is the rabbi for Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia and the co-chair of the Clergy Caucus of Power Philadelphia. He is the co-founder/director of the Davvenen Leadership Training Institute. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.