Community for Its Own Sake

B’reisheet 5767 – Community for Its Own Sake


October 26th, 2006

by Rabbi Russ Resnik

In one of the classes I took toward my master's degree in counseling, the professor asked us to discuss our attitudes toward those we counseled. I said that I tried to approach each counselee with respect. This seemed to me a rather obvious response, so I was surprised when the professor and the other students challenged it vehemently. "Why would you automatically respect someone?" they asked. "What did they do to earn your respect?" They were not impressed when I said I would respect them simply because they were human beings, made in the image of God.

I was the only God-oriented student in this small seminar, yet I held the highest view of the worth of human beings. Paradoxically, when we place God instead of humanity at the center of things, we raise the value of humanity. Indeed, in the culture wars of today, those who affirm God as Creator and Ruler of all things have the strongest stance on the worth of human beings. The most destructive and inhumane movements of the last century were precisely those that sought to displace God from the center.

The book of Genesis, to which we return this week as we renew our cycle of Torah readings, makes clear this connection between God's sovereignty and human worth.

And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth." And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, "Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth." (Genesis 1:26-28, NJPS)

We were created to be divine image-bearers, representing God's reign upon the earth that He created. But, in the very first section of Genesis, we fail in our assignment and mar the divine image through our sin. Only in Yeshua, who is the express image of God, is our humanity restored to its royal stature, so that in Him we can fulfill the role for which God formed us.

This picture of divine-human relationship counters the dominant culture of our day, which often professes belief in God, but promotes human autonomy in countless ways. Yet this is a false autonomy that ends up reducing people, as human societies have always sought to reduce people, to objects and commodities. Instead, as we acknowledge God's kingship through Yeshua the Messiah, our own kingly destiny is restored, as is our recognition of the divine image in others, even those who have not yet acknowledged Yeshua.

This restoration has multiple implications, but I would like to explore those for spiritual community, the congregations that are at the heart of our calling in the UMJC.

Just as our understanding of God and humanity counters dominant belief systems of our day, so should our spiritual communities. A healthy, biblically based congregation may be the only place in our society where people are recognized and received as divine image-bearers, rather than as consumers or commodities themselves. Our congregations are to be places of refuge from the relentless consumerism of our day.  They are to be communities that honor the divine image in each person, rather than communities of control that use people as means to an end.

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, in a recent book, "Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life", contrasts what he calls "sacred community" with the dominant "market community" of our times.

He writes,

The everyday is what we use as means to ends. The sacred exists as its own end. . . . Sacred community, then, is devoted to certain tasks, but these can be realized only in a sacred ambience, not in a market community where people weigh value by the list of limited liability deliverables that they think their dues are buying.

"Sacred," of course, is a synonym for holy. Human beings are holy because we are created in the image of a holy God, even though we have marred that image through our sin. Holy things have worth in themselves, not just as means to an end. Indeed, holy things should never be used as means to an end. Rabbi Hoffman notes that traditional Jewish law "prohibits using synagogue space as a shortcut. You can't go in the front door and out the back to avoid having to go around the block."

Congregations founded upon Yeshua value people for their own sake, simply because they are made in God's image, and value community for its own sake as well. The congregation is not a means to an end, that is, a collection of programs, projects, and benefits, but is a gathering of those sharing the life of Messiah and seeking to serve him.

Now, of course, a congregation will do things for its members and for the wider community. But these things are secondary, arising out of its true nature as sacred community. In a similar way, the ancient sages said that we should study Torah lishma—for its own sake—because it is holy.

Rabbi Tzadok said, "Don't use [the words of the Torah] as a crown to build yourself up, nor as an adze to dig with, as Hillel said, 'The one who would make use of the crown [of the Torah] will pass away.'  Thus you may learn that whoever [improperly] uses the word of Torah takes one's own life from this world." Pirke Avot 4:5)

Torah will have many beneficial effects in the lives of those who study it for its own sake. Likewise, a congregation founded on Yeshua, the Messiah who brings life and transformation to those who follow him, will provide much to its members. At its core, however, the congregation is a sacred community to which people belong because they love it and find God there. Once a member begins to ask, "what's in it for me?" he or she has left sacred community and become a consumer.

The congregation is a place–perhaps the only place in today's world–where the image of God in each one is recognized and affirmed.  Hence, it is a travesty when the congregation shapes itself according to the market community, to become just another outlet seeking its market share of religious consumers. A congregation where people are valued for their own sake, in turn is to be valued for its own sake.

"And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." Messiah restores this image, brings it to its fullness, and enables us to recognize it in others. Here are some questions for us as we apply this truth to our shared life as followers of Messiah:

  • Do I seek to be part of a congregation lishma, for its own sake–or do I use the congregation as a crown for self-glorification or an adze for material advantage?

  • Do I guard myself against using people as means to an end, even the worthy kingdom goals that I might have? Am I willing to give time and attention to someone even if my projects or priorities will gain nothing from this investment?

  • In what ways do I show that I honor my congregation and its shared life as holy–of great value in itself–apart from anything I might gain through it?

Shabbat Shalom,

Russ Resnik


Stephanie Escalnate