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From the Rabbi - July 2014 PDF Print E-mail
“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel”

These beautiful words of praise are traditionally recited as we enter the sanctuary  and appear in the opening section of the morning service.  They are all the more beautiful because they were uttered by a man, Balaam, who was intending to curse the Israelites rather than bless them.  

The story of Balaam, that we will read the first Shabbat of July, is one of those stories that, if it were not in the Bible, it would be more likely classed as ancient farce than spiritual lore.  The story tells of Balak, king of Moab, and Balaam, a unique example of a non-Jewish prophet in the Hebrew bible. Concerned by the Israelites’ victory over the Amorites, Balak sends for Balaam and instructs him to curse the Israelites. Not only is Balaam initially obstructed in his path to curse the Israelites by a talking donkey, but every time he opens his mouth to speak the curse he blurts out a blessing instead, despite the rising and somewhat comical anger of Balak.  Included among these blessings is the first line of the Mah Tovu prayer.

The Rabbis understand this blessing to be a prophetic reference to the study houses and synagogues that were to be such a central aspect of Jewish communal life.  In looking over the ancient tents of the Israelites Balaam saw not the physical beauty of the tents but the spiritual and ethical beauty of synagogue communities.  And the fact that Balaam’s words are turned from curses to blessings, sheds light on an important aspect of synagogue community - our words of prayer, our spiritual experience in the synagogue, and our acts of loving kindness in the context of congregational life, can and should have a transformative effect.  Having come to curse Israel, Balaam observes their places of worship and his words of condemnation were turned to words of praise.  Many of us may walk through the door of the synagogue with the burdens and concerns of our daily lives; the anger and frustration at friends, family and work colleagues that we all feel at times; the anxieties, pains and difficulties that life throws at us and that fill our hearts and minds from day to day.  The synagogue is the place where we can turn our curses to blessings, our anger to calm, our anxieties to contentment, through the presence of the divine and the support of our community.
 
How do we do this?  Ron Wolfson, in his book “Relational Judaism”, describes how congregations succeed in touching and transforming our lives for the better:

“It’s not about programming
. It’s not about marketing. 
It’s not about branding, labels,  logos, clever titles, websites, or smartphone apps
. It’s not even about institutions. 
It’s all about relationships”
 
Judaism has always understood the synagogue as a Beit K’nesset, a place of meeting. It is a place in which we meet one another and God, and in which we learn how Judaism teaches us to meet the world. In the consumerist society in which we live, the synagogue community reminds us that the primary business of religion is people. It is a place where we find community and the kind of deep personal connections that only a congregation can provide.

As part of a congregational family we can be transformed for the better through our relationships with each other, with our tradition and with God.  Those relationships are created and deepened as we share our stories and the stories of our people, as we create connections with each other, and as we engage with the many activities of congregational life that help us to create shared experiences and shared stories.  This, perhaps, was what Balaam saw so many years ago as he looked over the tents of a People who truly cared for each other and built our Jewish tradition that values relationships so highly.

As your new rabbi I have already experienced the great warmth of the CBI welcome and begun to create relationships with the wonderful people who make up this community.  I know that the depth of communal and spiritual relationships is a significant part of what makes CBI great. And I hope to build on that great strength in the coming years as I get to know everyone and build relationships with all of you.  
 
Rabbi Emanuel
 

 
From the Rabbi - June 2014 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:
    Unless some extraordinary circumstances intervene, this will be the last Newsletter column I shall write.  Next month’s issue will be headlined by the words of Rabbi Emanuel.
I’ve thought long and hard about what theme I should address with you in these closing remarks, and I have decided that I ought to focus my comments on the topic of SPIRITUALITY.
    The term was hardly ever used in Jewish circles until the 1960s.  Then, it became the buzz-word of the decade.  In a caricature portrait, the spiritual Jew was wrapped in an oversized tallit, adorned by kippah and even tefilliin, rapt in meditative davening and prayer, chanting a niggun (a syllabic melody without words) and swooning to the warm and fuzzy insights of the human potential movement while he or she desperately sought to recapture a lost personal identity.  The extreme manifestation of this style was the “JewBu,” who combined Jewish intellectualism and Buddhist meditation in a creative synthesis.  People who could not adopt the new-age forms of Jewish spirituality were told they were not “spiritual,” which was always meant as a detraction and put-down.
    Pendulums have a striking tendency to swing.  The movement of Jewish spirituality was a swing away from the ultra-rationalism of earlier days.  For Reform Jews whose religious style emerged from the 1920s and 1930s, religion was exclusively from the neck up.  Even during the Aleinu which counsels us to bow the head and bend the knee, the prayer books of the previous ages either made this into a universal and non-physical affirmation or suggested that we simply “bow our heads.”  One did not sway or otherwise use bodily movement in worship.  There was no ritual garb; I have even heard ushers tell men to remove their hats.  And the congregation did not dare sing along with the professional choir who, after all, possessed exceptional voices.  If one even thought to join in with the singing, other congregants would turn and glare until the offender slinked down in silent compliance in the pew.  But this era has ended and, in the 1960s the pendulum swung vigorously in the other direction.
    These were days of experimentation and individual styles of worship.  Small havurot and minyanim sprang up across the country in which small groups of like-minded Jews gathered to express the full and free range of their unique passion.  Intellect was deemed passe; what now counted was the full-bodied emotionalism with which they approached their religious involvements.  Yet this pendulum swing also contained its own self-correction, and that’s where we are today.
    I think we have now come to three healthy realizations.  The first is that intellect and emotion need to find a balance in our religious expression.  No Jew would ever seriously counsel abandoning our traditional quest for a highly-developed life of the mind.  We have made our mark in the world – and always will – based on our creativity and inventiveness, on our ability to compete in arenas of human endeavor that depend on mental acuity.  And yet to neglect the ninety-plus percent of ourselves that lies from the neck down now strikes us as unfairly dismissive of gifts that God has given us.  We need to find new ways to take full advantage of both body and mind if we are express our Jewish selves in the most complete manner.  The second insight our new situation demands of us it that each individual will need to craft his or her own balance.  We have swung beyond that point where one synthesis fits all; each of us is entitled to figure out a Jewish style that fits personally.  And finally, we ought to recognize that spirituality is not linked alone to worship.  To be sure, there can be exalted moments of heightened spirituality in the sanctuary, whether the sanctuary of the synagogue or the sanctuary of nature.  But some people may find an equally valid and compelling spirituality in tikkun olam as they reach out to help repair the brokenness of our society.  Some may find it in concentrated study.  And some of us may approach the ideal of a spiritual life rooted in the ultimate Jewish ideal, as expressed in Pirke Avot 1:2:  
    Simon the Righteous…[said]: The world stands on three things: study of the Torah, worship and doing loving acts of kindness.
    May you be favored with a spiritual life that embodies all of these virtues and may God bless each and every one of you.
    
Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 
From the Rabbi - May 2014 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

    Let’s talk about Torah.  We all know that the text of the Torah contains 613 mitzvot, some positive (248) and the rest negative (365).  About half of these laws relate to the priesthood and the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.  When the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans, it became impossible to implement these laws.  There is a group in Jerusalem today called “The Temple Faithful” who anticipate that the Temple will be restored in the time of the messiah and that all those ancient practices will be reinstated.  Liberal Jews have a different point of view.  We deliberately call our houses of worship “temple” because we do not look backward toward that biblical shrine.  Instead, we believe that a temple can be wherever Jews congregate for prayer and study and fellowship.

    But the Torah contains more than laws.  It includes historical narratives, ethics and morality, geography and underlying all of this, a religious philosophy and theology.  It’s a rich repository of the most basic ideas and practices that have guided our people for nearly three thousand years.  But much more than what it says, the Torah elicits emotional responses from us, and it is those feelings that I want to share with you.

    The first set of feelings is about linkages.  When I look at or touch or read or study the Torah, I am acutely aware that Jews all over the world are doing exactly the same thing with the same words at the same time.  Whether one is a Jew in Japan or South Africa or Russia or Brazil or Corpus Christi, on any particular Shabbat morning, the parasha is the same everywhere.  Unrolled, the Torah is like a long belt, encircling the Jewish globe and connecting every Jew with every other Jew.  It does not matter if one is Reform or Orthodox or Conservative – we’re all on the same page.  And that sense of Jewish unity and togetherness is a rather remarkable phenomenon.  Beyond that, however, the Torah as we have it today is at least 2500 years old.  That means that it also links us with Jews who opened it in different eras of history and in the different places of our past.  When I stand in the presence of the scroll, I can be with Rabbi Yehuda Nasi as he and his colleagues wrote the Mishnah in the Galilee in about 200 C.E.  I can be with Moses Maimonides as he and his family fled Moslem Spain in the twelfth century and resettled in North Africa.  I can be with Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin as he decided to translate the Bible into German so his fellow-Jews could better understand the words.  And I can even imagine myself with the inmates of Auschwitz and Dachau as they gathered on Rosh HaShanah and, even though they did not have a physical scroll, recalled and recited as best they could the sacred words of Torah.  I can do all this because the Torah spans the contemporary world’s geography, even as it connects us with Jews of every historical time and place.

    Beyond these connections, however, is a mystical linkage that emanates from the Torah that is displayed in the niche on the south wall of our Sanctuary.  It came from a little town, Domaslice, just inside the Czech border from Germany.  In 1939 or 1940, all the Jews of this town were deported and eventually murdered.  Their religious items, including this Torah, were taken to a warehouse near Prague and catalogued.  No one knows why the Germans were averse to destroying the 1564 Torahs saved in this building.  Perhaps they were superstitious about ravaging a holy item – although they were not so reluctant to massacre holy human beings.  When the Torah came to Corpus Christi at the end of January 1984, I am convinced that wrapped into the scroll were the souls of the martyrs of its original home.  I cannot look at that Torah without thinking of those Jews, Jews who did not have the opportunity to complete their lives.  And so it seems to me that the Torah challenges us to live our Jewish lives in such a way as also to complete their lives.   In a sense, we live for two – for ourselves and each of us for one of them.  To me, this is a highly-charged emotional mandate.  I dare to hope that you might see the same.
                    Shalom,
                    Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 
From the Rabbi - April 2014 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

You may recall that Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with these immortal words: “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”  He was, of course, referring to the days immediately preceding the French Revolution, but his words could just as aptly relate to the months of Adar and Nisan in the Jewish calendar.

We begin this period in the Jewish year with Torah readings that center on our slavery in Egypt.  It was the worst of times.  But then come the best of times, as we gather to celebrate our liberation and our journey to Sinai.  We become “a kingdom of priests and a holy people” as we imbibe the intoxicating spirit of freedom.  And yet, within only a few days, our lives turn dark again, as we read of the idolatry of the Golden Calf in the Torah and relive the calamity of the modern-day Shoah and the destruction of over one-third of our people.  Could there be any worse times?  Yet, less than ten days after we have gathered to remember the victims of the Shoah and to think about human cruelty we also rejoice on Yom Ha-Atzmaut, the anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel.  Back to the best of times.

Perhaps it is our Jewish fate to fluctuate between these two poles, between exaltation and despair.  Our history imposes on us this bi-polar perspective.  For a long time, it was a common attitude to think of the extended Jewish Middle Ages (really from the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE until the emancipation of European Jewry after the French Revolution and even until the founding of the State of Israel) as a period of unrelieved sadness and oppression.  The great Jewish historian, Salo Baron, decried the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” thinking of the past as an unmitigated tragic narrative.  Modern scholarship has demonstrated that there has actually been an alternation between periods of success and security and periods of pogrom and persecution.

We Jews count ourselves as fortunate to live in this blessed land of the United States.  Any fair and objective assessment of our situation must lead to the conclusion that Jews have never before lived in similar conditions of freedom, acceptance and security.  For all the complaints we have about our society and our nation, America has been good for us.  Here, it is the best of times.

Are the worst of times in the future?  In the past, when bad things have happened to Jews, the impetus has almost always come from the outside society; others made our lives miserable.  Now, however, it seems that the future is in our own hands.  If we choose, we can sustain this “golden age.”  But if we are uninvolved, apathetic, ignorant and contemptuous of our heritage, we can bring down upon ourselves the worst of times.   For the first time in Jewish history, the choice is really up to us.

    Shalom,
    Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 
From the Rabbi - March 2013 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

I know that a good number of young people have peanut allergies, but I had no idea that so many of our members are lactose intolerant.  But I have had to conclude that this must be the case, since a vast number of you have avoided the cow who stands in our lobby.

You may remember that last year’s confirmation class created HOLY COW! as a way to collect money for the dairy needs of the Good Samaritan Rescue Mission on Alameda Street.  We have “milked” her twice, and we have proudly been able to transmit nearly $900.00 to the GSRM.  The gift that the confirmands gave to CBI was not only a gift that keeps on giving in the form of tzedakah, but also a gift that reminds all of us of a very important Jewish value.

One member of the congregation urged that we remove HOLY COW! because she thought it was ugly.  I disagree.  Hunger is ugly.  Homelessness is ugly.  Desperation and hopelessness are ugly.  Many of us are the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of impoverished immigrants who, in their own day, struggled incredibly hard just to survive.  Their poverty and distress were ugly, but fortunately they found ways to extricate themselves from the slums of urban ghettos and make a good life for their descendants.  In this process, they had devoted help from those who had come before them and who could now reach out the hand of rescue and relief.

Jews have always been noted for their philanthropic generosity.  We have helped our own brothers and sisters in need, and we have then extended our hands to others.  If we enjoy the life-style that others helped make possible for our families and for us, then it would seem selfish in the extreme not to offer the same assistance to others who are now in need.  If tzedakah once helped our families, then it is incumbent upon us to pay it forward by doing the same for the next generation of those less-fortunate than ourselves.  (By the way, Carole Murphree, Executive Director of GSRM, tells me that two-thirds of the residents there have full-time jobs, but they cannot afford to rent an apartment because of the scarcity of low-income housing in our city.)

So, next time you are in our lobby, fish out a little change and feed HOLY COW!   Get rid of your lactose intolerance and do a mitzvah to help our needful fellow citizens.  I am quite sure you’ll be mooo-ved by this simple act.

Sincerely yours,
Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 
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