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From the Rabbi - April 2013 PDF Print E-mail

 

Dear Friends:

Passover marks the beginning of a trek that our tradition says lasted fifty days, a journey from the shore of the Reed Sea to the foot of Mt. Sinai where the Israelites received the Torah.  This period of seven weeks plus one day is called S’firat HaOmer, the counting of the barley sheaves, in recognition of the fact that this was a time when the first crop of barley was harvested in the fields of Judea.

For the first month of the period, there was a lot of work to do – planting, tilling, weeding, all sorts of agricultural chores.  But starting on the 33rd day of the cycle (Lag b’omer), there was little to do except wait for the growing plants to mature and produce a crop.  According to tradition, it was on this day that weddings were held, since inactivity in the agricultural arena made this a superb time for a honeymoon.  By the 50th day, it was time to go back to work!

If you were not planning to get married, however, the prescribed activity for this time of the year was study, getting ready for the revelation of the Torah by planting seeds of knowledge.  And this reality from our tradition reminds me of something that happened in mid-April in the year 1770.

Moses Lindo was a Jewish merchant in Charleston, SC.  Not himself prosperous, he nevertheless responded to a fund-raising appeal by giving five pounds to the newly-established Rhode Island College (later renamed Brown University).  Why did he do this?  Because RIC had decided to admit students without considering their religious affiliation.  When Lindo had been a young tailor in London, he had been blackballed from the Merchant Taylors School because he had been Jewish; he did not forget that slight. So, when RIC assured him “that the children of Jews may be admitted into this institution and entirely enjoy the freedom of their religion,” that they would be exempt from attending Christian religious services and that they could establish their own Hebrew language program with a Jewish instructor, he was ecstatic.

That latter proposal was never implemented because there were not very many Jewish students in Rhode Island; in fact, as the Revolutionary War broke out, the RI Jewish community was devastated by British attacks.  But this does not diminish the importance of the original offer, which marked the first American proposal for collegiate Jewish studies.  At other schools, Hebrew was taught as part of the Christian theological curriculum by ministers or Jews who converted to Christianity.

So, here we are in the middle of the period of the Omer.  No one of us has any sheaves of barley, so what does it mean to us.  We are fortunate to have much the same kind of leisure that the farmers of ancient Israel had in the late Spring, and we can look forward as they did to the revelation of Torah on Sinai.  We can look forward by immersing ourselves in the books and the magazines that help us understand what the biblical climactic moment has meant over the centuries.  You don’t need to go to Brown or any of the other great universities where there are now Jewish studies programs; you have that availability right in your own home.  Moses Lindo made a financial contribution to get the academic ball rolling.  You don’t need to give a dime.  All you need to do is open the book and start learning.

  Shalom,
         Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi
 

 
From the Rabbi - March 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

 Religious worship began as public drama.  It was a play staged to teach or remind the populace of certain central values of a society.  Of all of our Jewish observances, the Passover seder more partakes of this dramatic element than any other.

 Consider that the seder might be understood as a production in three acts.  The first act takes place roughly 3300 years ago in Egypt.  We try to retroject ourselves into this history so that we can understand on a participatory level what the experience must have been like.  The Israelites slaves suffer grievously under the burdens imposed by their taskmasters.  As the seder unfolds, we use various means to make their agony a reality to those of us who have never undergone slavery.  We listen to the words that describe their ordeal; we eat the bread of affliction and the mortar-like haroset and the bitter herbs and dip in the salt water.  By the time we have reached the conclusion of the first act, maybe we have some empathy with what our ancestors endured.
 

The second act also takes place in ancient history, but now on the east bank of the Reed Sea.  The Israelites have passed through the walls of water, the Egyptian army has drowned, and the former slaves are now free.  How to appreciate what freedom feels like?  By acting out what free people can do.  We put our books aside and turn to a sumptuous, often-overladen table with delicacies of various sorts.  In truth, is it not the essence of freedom that we can eat as much as we want, whatever we want and for as long as we want?  A slave eats only with his master’s permission; a free person sets his own table and dines at leisure.
 

When we pick up our books to resume the seder for the third act, we bring ourselves back to the present and project ourselves into the future.  It is then that the message of the seder is most clear.  The first act has taught us that slavery is terrible; the second act reminds us that freedom is wonderful.  Now, we learn that what we treasure for ourselves cannot be only for ourselves; if we cherish freedom, it must be for everyone, and it is our task to extend that boon to as much of the world’s population as we can.  After all, the Torah repeatedly insists that we have a special obligation to the unfortunate of this world, since we were once slaves in Egypt and we, of all peoples, should understand how unpleasant slavery is.

 The drama concludes with a necessary postscript.  At the very end, we recite “LaShanah HaBa’ah Birushalayeem,” “Next year in Jerusalem,” next year in the messianic city of peace and freedom.  For we recognize that we have not completed the task our covenant with God demands of us – to bring the reality of freedom to the peoples of the earth – and Elijah, the herald of that achievement did not darken our doors.  So we challenge each other to redouble our efforts and to make Passover not just a happy family occasion, but a launching pad that the bell of liberty may ring throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.

 Phyllis and I wish every member of the congregation and all of your extended families and dear ones a very happy Pesach.
     Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 
From the Rabbi - February 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

 A Hasidic story tells us that the Kaminker Rebbe resolved that he would devote one entire day to reading Psalms.  By the time that the evening approached, he was still only partway through the book when a messenger from his mentor: the Maggid of Tzidnov wanted to see him.  The rebbe said that he would greet this man as soon as he had finished reciting the Psalms, but the emissary insisted.  “The Maggid wants you to come to his home immediately.”

 When the Rebbe arrived in Tzidnov, the Maggid asked him why he had taken so long to get there.  He replied that he was praying from the psalter, but the Maggid told him that he had summoned him to collect money for a poor person in desperate need.  “Psalms,” he said, can be sung by the angels, but only human beings can help the poor.  Charity is greater than reciting Psalms, because angels cannot collect tzedakah.”

 This anecdote reminds us that, though we are not angels, we have a special role in God’s order of the world.  You and I are the only beings who can enhance our existence by donating tzedakah for the benefit of those less fortunate than ourselves.  A wise Jewish scholar once said that “to live is to give.”  God freely gave us life; freely, we can give the gift of life to others through our generosity and tzedakah.

 There is something more.  Over the centuries, we have learned that every Jew is responsible to and for every other Jew.  Even in this blessed society, where anti-Semitism has diminished to its lowest level in two thousand years, we understand that no one will see to the particular needs of the Jewish community and its members except we, ourselves.  Though we would never disclose any names, let me assure you that there are, right here in our city, Jews who do not eat properly, who do not turn on their lights or furnaces for lack of funds, who suffer the quiet humiliation and deprivations of poverty – right before our very eyes.  And then there are elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere whose need is almost incomprehensible to us in its magnitude.

 In Corpus Christi, we have a vehicle dedicated to this sacred task: the Combined Jewish Appeal.  The kick-off dinner of this year’s CJA campaign is Thursday, February 28.  Please consider attending.  But even if you cannot be present, at least be one of those who does what the angels cannot do: bring out the image of God that is concealed by lives of poverty, desperation and despair.  This will not make you an angel, but you might become an exemplary human being.

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 

 
From the Rabbi - January 2013 PDF Print E-mail

 

Dear Friends:

A few weeks ago, I received a mailing from the American Humanist Association entitled “Good Without a God.”  I wrote to them, asking them to help me understand how they chose what to believe, what values to hold up and what ideas and values to reject.  Roy Speckhardt, their Executive Director, was kind enough to write me back and refer me to the Manifesto.  You can find it, as I did, by going to the search box of your computer and typing in http://www.americanhumanist.org/Humanism Humanist_Manifesto III.   Humanism and both atheism and agnosticism represent major challenges to religious conviction and faith today, and Mr. Speckhardt’s answer led me to do some very serious thinking.  I share my response to his note in the hope that it will stimulate you to  your own thinking and spiritual search.

Dear Mr.  Speckhardt:

I very much appreciate your response to my note and the reference to the Humanist Manifesto III, which I have read and reread carefully.  Its contents are prima facie evidence that American humanists are committed to being good, ethical and moral individuals by every and any standard to which the western world subscribes.  Of that, I do not think there can be any doubt among serious readers of the Manifesto.  It is a position that evokes admiration and honor.

Nonetheless, I am still puzzled about the source of the values enunciated in the document.  The Manifesto proclaims that “science is the best method for determining…knowledge [of the world]”, and I understand this perspective.   However, as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great  Britain often says that “Science takes things apart to see how they work.  Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” (The Great Partnership, p. 2).  Science cannot even ask the question “Why?” nor can it offer help in differentiating and choosing between alternative values.

The Manifesto says that “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest…..”  But need and interest can lead in perverse and horrific directions.  The Nazis and Stalin murdered tens of millions of human beings because they perceived it to be in their interest to rid their nations of enemies.  So, too, the Khmer Rouge, the Serbians, the Hutus, Assad and Khomeini and Idi Amin and scores of other tyrants through the ages have justified torture, imprisonment, exile and cleansing of one’s enemies, racial, religious or political, because they judged that these acts met their needs and their interests.  I do not believe for an instant that the members of the AHA would approve of these actions, but I am unable to figure out from the Manifesto by what philosophical process a humanist would prefer one set of values and reject another.

In other words, is simple subjectivity the basis by which you can declare that “each person …[has] inherent worth and dignity…” or is there some principle that you apply that makes it possible to affirm that this position is superior to any  of its alternatives?  I ask this question, not out of a polemical perspective, but as a serious inquiry to understand how humanists make decisions that other people assert are the consequences of their religious traditions.

By the way, in your response to me, you speak of a dichotomy between “blind faith” and “flexibility.”  I reject this opposition as a false dichotomy that may serve your institutional and/or personal needs and interests, but which does not do even minimal justice to a variety of liberal religious traditions presently practiced around the globe.  I belong, for example, to a movement called Reform Judaism.  Nearly fifty years ago, a study was published entitled “Reform is a Verb,” and the author made the point that the word “Reform” designates a continuing process in which the applications of ethical and moral values that have been validated by 2500 years of usage are constantly updated in the light of new conditions and understandings.   My personal religious convictions and those of my congregants cannot be characterized as “blind faith;” with unending flexibility, we seek an amalgamation of the best of religious insight and meaning with the best of contemporary, scientific knowledge.  The life to which we aspire is described as “holy,” a word that cannot even find a place in the vocabulary of the scientific mind.

Shalom,

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 
From the Rabbi - December 2012 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

When Antiochus Epiphanes IV of Syria invaded Jerusalem in 168 BCE and converted the Temple into a place of idolatrous worship of the Greek gods and Roman emperors, he gave the Judeans an either/or choice.  Either you worship our way, or we will exterminate and destroy you.  As the books of Maccabees and later Josephus tell us, Mattathias the Hasmonean and his followers resisted this ultimatum.  Eventually, they expelled the intruders and restored the worship of Yahweh, Israel’s God.  But, as you think about this episode of Jewish history, you might consider the fact that the Hasmoneans were just as intransigent in their beliefs as were the Hellenists.  For them, the old ways of the Judean desert and the Jerusalem-based Temple were the only way; nothing else was admissible and no compromise could be entertained.

For virtually the entire length of the Jewish adventure, this has been our story.  We could either be ourselves or we could be what the others want us to be, but there could be no intermediate position.   In 1742, Phila Franks, the daughter of New York’s leading Jewish family, eloped with Oliver DeLancey, son of British aristocrats and an officer in the army.  She converted to the Anglican religion, we believe, because that was the only way in which the marriage could have been accepted in British elite society.  Again, as had always been the case, it was either one side or the other.  In the Tzarist lands from which many of our ancestors emigrated, you were either one of us or the alien other, with us or against us.

The consciousness of this nearly-uninterrupted history of several millennia is what makes our existence in America so remarkable.  Even recently, interchange among American religious communities was so unusual that, when the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church and Temple Beth El began their joint Thanksgiving service in 1934, Time Magazine found the event worthy of national coverage.  What only seventy-eight years ago evoked curiosity would today be a consummate yawn; sharing across ethnic, religious and racial boundaries is so much a part of our society in the twenty-first century that we take it for granted.

We should not.  The world in which we live, for virtually the first time in Jewish history, has made it possible for us simultaneously to be Jewish and to be integrated as full participants in our greater community.  Paradoxically, this novel situation provokes a different kind of choice for us.  No longer are we confronted with a stark alternative, with either/or, with one side or the other.  Now, the challenge for American Jews is how to live on both sides of this cultural fence with integrity and authenticity.  Each of us has both the right and the obligation to decide how much and what elements of our identities to assign to each side of this equation, and even when we have made that decision, we recognize that the assessment is fluid and may change as conditions and circumstances change.  It’s an exciting and dynamic time to be a Jew and an American.  May we be worthy of the challenge.

    Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 
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