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North Shore Temple Emanuel

a Progressive Jewish Congregation

The Art of Culturecraft
Rabbi Nicole Roberts
Yom Kippur Morning 5782/2021


Shortly after America reopened, comedian Bill Maher welcomed his live audience back into the studio, joking: “Wow, it’s great to see so many familiar masks.”  (I could relate to how strange it felt to stand in front of a crowd whose faces can’t be discerned.)  Not everyone can wear a mask, but those who could, at least in his audience, chose to do so.  A significant and vocal portion of Americans, however, strongly resisted mask-wearing—not on medical grounds, but because they claimed that rules enforcing masks would fly in the face, so to speak, of their cherished personal freedom.  So, Bill Maher’s audience notwithstanding, the medical advice to cover one’s face proved a difficult pill for Americans to swallow, even to fight a deadly pandemic.  Many resisted, leaving their faces uncovered.

            Meanwhile, other countries couldn’t understand what was the big deal about wearing masks and took to the protective measure voluntarily, with the notion of the greater good at top of mind.  In many parts of Asia, wearing a face mask was customary even before Covid hit, so prevalent was the notion of putting the needs of society before one’s own.  In Australia, we heard of a few small protests against masks last year, but by and large we proved to be a mostly rule abiding society, convict history and a few nude sunbathers notwithstanding.  People here also like to “do their bit,” and during the first lockdown, at least, our civic-minded behaviour swiftly flattened the curve in our country for a good, long while. 

Suffice to say, this past year, national cultural differences proved immensely impactful.  And now, over a year into the Covid crisis, many democratic societies face another challenge in protecting their populations: vaccine hesitancy.  A federal vaccine mandate would be the political death of any elected official in most countries, which means that achieving herd immunity depends on persuading, reassuring, and incentivising the individuals that make up the so-called herd.  In this too, each country’s success will depend on its collective culture.  

As governments around the world cautiously test the limits of what they can enforce—be it masks, lockdowns, or vaccines—and as different societies either observe or shirk restrictions, what has become evident is the extent to which a nation’s culture can prove a matter of life and death for its citizens.  The histories, priorities, sensitivities | leadership styles, political systems, even the eating habits, Bill Maher would say—all elements of a national culture—bear great impact when it comes to “who shall live and who shall die”; who will value mutual responsibility over individual liberty; who will follow community-minded guidance and who their own impulses and opinions.  Only so much is in the hands of scientists and drug developers; much remains at the mercy of the culture we live in.

As an American who had the privilege of becoming an Australian citizen this past year, I often found myself comparing and contrasting; reflecting on how much we’re all at the mercy of societal culture, not only in surviving pandemics, but in other matters of life and death, like accepting gun control, upholding the peaceful transition of power, criminalising the incitement to violence, providing universal health care, fighting climate change, and more.  What is it in American culture that has the nation so polarised as to render even mask wearing a partisan issue?  What is it in Australian culture that so easily enabled the swift passing of the first Job Keeper bill?  On a broader level, beyond dilemmas posed by Covid, how does a society whose legislative hands are tied by a commitment to individual rights and freedoms, build a culture of mutual responsibility?  If culture takes over where the reach of law ends, how can we ensure that that culture is a morally responsible one, committed to ensuring the common good?  A culture that makes citizens of its people—that is, that molds them to consider the wellbeing of others in the populace when making their own personal choices?  How do we build a culture that makes doing so a natural inclination?

The Jewish sages, while living in times, societies, and government structures very different from our own, recognised the importance of what I call ‘culture crafting’.  In those times when they maintained some jurisdiction over their own legal disputes and systems of justice, their writings and rulings show they were well aware of the gap between where the law leaves off and the moral ideal is realised.  They recognised the vital role that culture crafting must play in filling that gap. 

The rabbis, for instance, pointed to cases where exercising one’s rights and freedoms to the fullest extent of the law | would have been detrimental to another person or the greater good.  They articulated a moral concept they hoped people would apply in such circumstances.  They called it lifnim mishurat ha’din – ‘stopping short of the law’ – meaning, foregoing the full extent of the benefit due to you under the law.  Depriving yourself somewhat, even though you’re entitled to more.  Behaving in this way was considered meritorious by the sages and, scholars say, “idealized in rabbinic literature” as a pious and merciful way to act.  For all their famous pilpul—their ‘nitpickiness’ when it came to parsing Jewish legal texts—the rabbis recognised that, as one scholar explains, sometimes “theoretically-correct law can be destructive when applied in practice.”[i]  According to the sages, foregoing the right to your full legal benefit, when others in society might be harmed by your exercising it, reflects “religious values such as humility, compassion, modesty, peace, or charity”—values that save lives and make for a culture of mutual responsibility.  Those who chose otherwise, the Talmud says, were responsible for none other than the fall of Jerusalem![ii]

One scholar writes that making the decision to forego rather than reap the full benefit that law allows, means focusing “not primarily on rules but on outcomes”—specifically, achieving the optimal outcome for all involved in a situation, not just oneself.  One who does this considers factors outside the law “such as his relationships with the other individuals involved.”[iii]  This may partly explain the behaviour of Charedi communities in Israel and America, who held gatherings of thousands, mostly unmasked, ignoring the common good.  As a group, they don’t see themselves in relationship with the larger society, and are focused on rules (as they understand them) over outcomes that would benefit the whole society. | But for those of us who do care about outcomes for the whole of society and who include ourselves in that whole, the question becomes, what can Jewish tradition teach us about culture crafting?  How can today’s Jewish communities support the common good in the societies we live in?  If we, like the sages before us, recognise that societies can only go so far in legislating moral behaviour and, beyond that, are dependent on culture to achieve the common good, what can we learn from our forebears?  How did they go about building and perpetuating a culture of moral and mutual responsibility among their people?

It turns out, the sages’ greatest, most indispensable tool for culture crafting is one that we still have in our toolkit today: the synagogue.  While they judged disputes in houses of law, it was in their synagogues that the rabbis taught and preached, working each day in their communities to cultivate good citizenship and a culture of mutual responsibility—to influence individual behaviour toward the common good.  The rabbis recognised that culture is a composite of multiple factors and inputs—what some in modern times have called a moral ecosystem.  The synagogue became their vehicle for a multi-pronged approach to building that ecosystem.  Guided by their vision, the synagogue became:

  • A beit midrash—a house of study—where children and adults would learn not only Jewish law, but also our Jewish narrative from which derive our values like loving your neighbour as yourself; building a guardrail on your rooftop so no one accidentally gets hurt from your negligence; the supreme value of preserving human life; the importance of practicing medicine, and looking after your body and health.  (To name just a few Jewish values especially pertinent to pandemic life.)
  • The synagogue also became a beit k’nesset—a house of gathering—where people came together to support each other: to trade, to discuss local politics and assemble in solidarity, and to put their learning about law and Jewish values into practice—to practice being good communal citizens.  By interacting with one another, they had opportunity to model the moral, mutually supportive society that the rabbis envisioned, and to transmit culture to the next generation by doing in addition to teaching. 
  • As well, the synagogue became a beit tefilah—a house of prayer—where people could each day be reminded that our actions matter to a higher Power; that those around us are not just “others” but part of the human family, precious to God and created in the image of the Divine.  The sages also recognised the role that awe would play in building a culture of moral responsibility.  Contemporary sociologist Nicholas Christakis writes that experiencing awe can “cause a cognitive shift that reduces egocentricity and makes people feel more connected to others… it quiets self-interest and makes individuals feel part of the larger whole.”[iv]  The rabbis intuited, like Christakis, that awe and an awareness of something greater than ourselves “had survival value to ancient humans”; that awe would prove essential to ensuring the common good and the longevity of a society.

With the synagogue functioning in this traditional threefold way—as beit midrash, beit k’nesset, and beit tefilah—the rabbis worked to create a moral ecosystem that would grow good citizens.  They built a culture and a way for people to immerse in it.  Our synagogues can do the same, if we take seriously, as did our sages, the art of culturecraft.  Today’s Temple can be a vibrant beit midrash, where children, teens, and adults learn social values and commitments.  It can be a thriving beit k’nesset, where activities draw us into meaningful contact with each other; where we practice our values and commitments—practice being a society, modelling for each other and the next generation what it looks like to make selfless choices.  It can be an inspirational beit tefilah—a place to experience awe and wonder, humility and selflessness, accountability and interconnectedness.  It can be all of these and more, and in fact, today it must be more.

In a post-Enlightenment world, the synagogue of modernity operates in a more open societal context, which our forebears could only dream of.  The Jewish community of today engages with the outside world, so the culture we craft needs to instil a sense of mutual responsibility—not only to other Jews, but to the broader society around us.  To this end, today’s synagogue should strive to also be what I call a beit chalonot—a house of windows to the world—a place that cannot turn a blind eye to the needs of the world at large and how to keep it healthy.  If the synagogue of today is not also this, the people it raises become a closed tribe, like the Charedim who don’t see themselves in relationship with others, as part of a larger whole.  Crafting such a short-sighted culture ultimately destroys Jerusalem.  Our synagogue must build a culture that sees much farther, beyond itself.  And the beauty is that every member can do their bit to help the synagogue build it.

Everyone in a synagogue community plays a role in culturecraft, from the person who teaches in our Hebrew school to the person who joins in our adult education programs; from the person who requests a meal | to the person who delivers it; the person who organises our film group and the person who attends it; the person who sings in our High Holy Day choir and the person who makes a monetary donation; the person who serves an asylum seeker a warm meal and the person who brings a can of food to our basket in the foyer.  What if every time you had an interaction with the shul, as beit midrash, beit k’nesset, beit tefilah, or beit chalonot—what if every time and way you decide to engage, you imagined yourself as helping craft a culture?  That’s how I see it.  You’re helping your rabbis make the Temple of today a hub and generator of culture.

Culture teaches us how to behave where law’s reach falls short.  If crafted with intention, it can help us behave morally when we don’t have to, and keep the greater good at front of mind.  According to the sages, it can spare us the fall of Jerusalem, and instead bring about a redemption: a more compassionate, sustainable world.  Through the synagogue, each of us can help hasten this redemption.  In his novel, The Gates of the Forest, Nobel laureate Eli Wiesel (z’l) concludes: “The struggle to survive will begin here, in this room, where we are sitting.  Whether or not the Messiah comes doesn’t matter; we’ll manage without him… he will come every day, thousands of times every day.  He will have no face, because he will have a thousand faces.”  How good it will be on that day, to see so many familiar masks.  G’mar tov.


[i] Christine Hayes, “Legal Truth, Right Answers and Best Answers: Dworkin and the Rabbis,” Diné Israel Vol. 25, 2008, 73-121.

[ii] B. Bava Metzia 30b

[iii] Deborah Barer, “Ethics and Halakhah: Reframing the Questions,” Journal of Jewish Ethics Vol. 5, No. 2, 2019, 192.

[iv] Nicholas A. Christakis, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2019, 7.

Wed, 6 December 2023 23 Kislev 5784