Minority Rule in Synagogues
The Iron Law of Oligarchy
In 1915, the German sociologist Robert Michels formulated Das eherne Gesetz der Oligarchie, or, The Iron Law of Oligarchy. Oligarchy is Greek for “rule of the few”.
Michels recognized that all organizations, whether elected or appointed, whether democratic or tyrannical, become oligarchies.
There are several reasons for this. First, the need for efficiency. This requires a division of labor and a hierarchy, which in turn leads to the accumulation of power in the hands of a few and to the exclusion of the majority.
Participatory democracy is therefore eliminated while those with exceptional political skills remain in charge. Those in charge are also in control of information and can therefore impose their views on everyone else. Finally, those in charge can promote lesser members to positions of influence and power and thereby create a self-perpetuating oligarchy.
It is reasonable that these social forces operate in the Jewish community just as they operate in all human communities. That is the reason for the lack of democracy in Jewish affairs. Obviously, a few bosses dictate the policies of all national Jewish organizations and decide who shall be a member of this or that “board”, who shall hold an office and who shall be a $400,000 executive director.
What is true of our secular organizations is also true of our synagogues. They, too, are run by a few oligarchs while the majority is excluded. That exclusion is to some extent voluntary in that many members seek no office, do not wish to be included in any committee and attend no social functions or meetings.
There are, however, Jews who are excluded for other reasons. These are the poor, the old and immigrants.
The poor cannot be members of synagogues because by definition they are too poor to pay annual dues exceeding $2,500. Even $1,000 is too much for many of the poor. It is of course argued that those who cannot afford such sums can be members for less or attend services without membership. Even if that is true, it is still not possible for the poor to drive to the wealthy suburbs where our synagogues are invariably located. Furthermore, poor people are ashamed to beg for transportation or to park a beat-up old jalopy next to all the Cadillacs. The poor are also embarrassed to ask for dues reductions. Moreover, the poor cannot make contributions to numerous “causes” nor exhibit expensive clothes, ties etc.
The old are also excluded. Ageism is a common bigotry in the U.S. and is as common among us as it is among other Americans. The old are viewed as unproductive idiots. No one speaks to them at the “kiddush” after religious services and contempt is the most frequent attitude displayed towards them. Of course, “old” is relative. A forty-year-old is viewed as “ancient” by twenty-year-olds, and sixty-year-olds see the eighty-year-old as a useless “has been”. All this operates within our synagogues and our secular organizations.
Finally, there are the foreign born. Particularly those who came by reason of the erstwhile Nazi horrors. These are seen as superfluous people by the American Jewish community. As early as the 1930’s when the first refugees from Germany arrived in the U.S., these Jews were regarded as unwanted burdens whose nightmare experiences may give speakers at Holocaust commemorations publicity, but who are to stay out of the Jewish community or at least keep quiet. No one wants to hear a complainer nor did the Jewish community then or now want to help the survivors. In fact, we were not only kicked out of the numerous “agencies” operating then and now, we were even kicked out of synagogues for lack of money to buy High Holiday tickets. It is remarkable that my mailbox in my office is daily besieged by requests for money from the very same organizations which wouldn’t give me “the time of day” when I needed it the most.
So you see that the Iron Law of Oligarchy works everywhere. Our synagogues are empty, as only one half of Jews are members. Of these only 8% attend each Saturday. Jealous that others might want to participate, the oligarchs keep them out by any means. In addition, I know from my own experience and the experiences of many others that a Jew who attends a synagogue in which he is not known is not greeted but ignored. How many Jews might have joined a “shul” if it were our policy to greet everyone at the door and ask newcomers who they are? How about introducing strangers at the usual “kiddush” following services? I have traveled this country from Alaska to Florida and from California to Massachusetts and have never been greeted by anyone in any “shul” in forty years. Others tell me the same thing. The only establishment in which I was asked my name at the door is a Pentecostal Church. Believe it or not.
The outcome of all this is described in my book: American Judaism in Transition: The Secularization of a Religious Community. Why not read it? After all, everything cannot be learned only on Television.