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

We get questions.  Just when we think we’ve heard everything, we are confronted with some new challenge.  Debbie has become an expert at fending off somewhat unbalanced individuals who show up and announce that they want to become Jewish and join the congregation.  Most of these people have never been inside a synagogue, have no idea what being a Jew entails, often cannot even use appropriate vocabulary.  But somehow they’ve gotten the idea that this is where they need to be.  She invites them to join us for Shabbat services, gives them a copy of the CBI Newsletter, and, most often, we never hear from them again.

    In early July, I had a non-Jewish guest who wanted me to write an invitation to his Jewish brother-in-law in California to come for a visit in Corpus Christi.  The only problem I had was that he wanted the invitation to be in Yiddish.  I’m pretty good at language, but I am hardly fluent in Yiddish.  I did the best I could, but if someone from California speaking Yiddish shows up at your house in January you can blame me.  He did compensate me for my stilted efforts with a copy of a map of the United States, produced by the Industrial Removal Office in the 1910s to encourage Jewish immigrants to East Coast cities, already crowded with newcomers, to move west.  The entire map and all its place names are spelled out in Yiddish!  It’s really fascinating, and I’m going to have it framed and posted so you can find your way around our nation.

    Questions are intrinsic to the High Holydays.  (After all, we’re Jewish, so questions come most naturally to us.)  The shofar, especially, is an instrument for questioning.  Long before the shofar became an instrument of religious purpose, it was a device used by indigenous people in the land of Canaan for communication.  You recognize, of course, that we can communicate in non-verbal ways: music, ballet, art, smoke signals, gestures and facial expressions, various symbols like flags – all of these convey messages, but without words.  So, think of two shepherds on the hills of Judea.  One is aware of a predator that is stalking his flock, and he wants to warn his friend to be vigilant.  A blasting shofar alert carries across the valley and alerts his friend to a potential danger.  It’s called a shofar because, after all, you can hear it sho far away.  So, think of the shofar as the mobile telephone of the ancient Near East; it communicates.

    Eventually, the shofar became associated with religious ceremony, with the new moon and with Rosh HaShanah.  When we blow the shofar during our New Year’s services, we are also communicating, communicating two questions that are at the heart of the holyday.

    The first question asks us to consider:  “How do your rate your behavior during the past year relative to the expectations of the Jewish tradition and the standards that are set for us in the name of God?”  Inevitably, all of us, if we are honest, are forced to admit that we have fallen short of the mark.  There are things we did not do – or do enough – and there are actions that we wish we had not done.  With some personal embarrassment, we accept ourselves as imperfect human beings, come face-to-face with our shortcomings and seek to make amends for our mistakes when we still can.

    But there is a second question that the shofar asks.  “In the coming year, how can you modify your behavior to improve on the record of the past year?”  The message of Rosh HaShanah is essentially optimistic.  It assumes that improvement is always possible, that each of us can strive for and achieve a better result in our lives.  We know we are never going to be perfect, but “better” is a wonderful aspiration and a worthy ambition.  And Judaism says that this goal is within our grasp.

    So the High Holydays are a time for listening to the questions of our tradition and then forging your own answers.  As you do this, Phyllis and I wish you a very happy 5774.  May it be a year of great fulfillment and happiness for you, your family and all who are dear to you and a year in which the dream of shalom, of peace, finds greater reality in our troubled world.
         
   Shanah Tova Tikateivu,
                                    Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 
From the Rabbi - June & July 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

Most of the time, my columns are 100% original, mostly because I think you have the right to know what I believe and what I consider important.  But once in a while, someone says what I wish I had said, only a lot better.  The column I am reproducing below was written by Frank Bruni, a writer for the New York Times.  Bruni has written about President George W. Bush, has been the paper’s Rome correspondent, has served as its food critic and has frequently written for its Sunday Magazine.  I’ve taken the editorial liberty of modifying this article so that it also applies to Jews; my changes are in italics and brackets.  This article appeared on the NYT op-ed page on May 7, 2013.  I hope it stimulates your thinking as much as it did mine.

RELIGION BEYOND THE RIGHT

    As the Boy Scouts of America reassesses its ban on gay scouts and leaders, we’re hearing a lot about the organization’s need to remain sensitive to people whose religions condemn homosexual behavior.  Their morals must be properly respected, their God aptly revered.
    But what about the morals and the God of people whose religions exhort them to be inclusive and to treat gays and lesbians with the same dignity as anyone else?  There are many  Americans in this camp, and their opposition to the Scouts’ ban is as faith-based as the stance of those who want it maintained.
    Take Scott Ward, 48, a public relations executive and married father of three in Takoma Park, Md.  He’s a scout leader, with a 10-year-old son who’s a scout.  He’s also an elder in his Presbyterian church.  And for him, the ban must go not in spite of what Christianity [and Judaism] says about homosexuality (or what selective literalists have decided it says) but because of what it says about humanity.  “From my faith perspective, singling out people for exclusion from the life of the church [synagogue] or the life of the community cannot possibly be part of God’s plan….If you look at the people Jesus [God, the biblical prophets] tended to be most suspicious of, they were people who sat in positions of authority to say that they had the unique ability to judge others.”
    We refer incessantly in this country to the “religious right,” a phrase routinely presented as if it’s some sort of syllogism: to be devoutly religious is to gravitate to a certain side of the political spectrum, one set of values dictating the other.  “Christian [Jewish] conservatives” is an almost equally ubiquitous bit of alliteration.  But there’s a religious center.  A religious left.  There are Christian [and Jewish] moderates and Christian [and Jewish] liberals; less alliterative and less dogmatic, but perhaps no less concerned with acting in ways that reflect moral ideals.  We should better acknowledge that and them.  And we should stop equating conventional piety with certain issues only and sexual morality above other kinds.
    Our tendency to do that was illustrated by the hullabaloo last year over the Nuns on the Bus.  The Vatican officials who wanted them to be more assertively anti-abortion and anti-birth control were portrayed as the dutiful guardians of tradition, while the nuns, focused on matters of economic justice were the rebels.  Why?  It’s as fundamentally Catholic and Christian [and Jewish] to care about the underprivileged as to safeguard the unborn (or to combat homosexuality).  Indeed, many Catholics [and Jews and other religious people] look to a politician’s social welfare policies as they do to other positions, and vote in a manner that would be accorded a label other than conservative.  Many people of faith are pacifists, and that’s a decisive factor in how they cast their ballots, though this concern is infrequently characterized in religious terms.
    “I find it perplexing the way the ‘moral values’ phrase is used,” said the Rev. Mark Greiner, the pastor of the Presbyterian church that Ward attends.  “Concern for the environment, concern for workers’ rights: those are moral values” he told me.  “But the phrase ends up being limited to matters of human sexuality, as if Jesus [God] was primarily concerned with what people did with their reproductive parts.  It’s crazy-making.” Greiner wants the ban on gay scouts and leaders lifted.
    Later this month, the organization’s National Council will vote on a recommendation that the ban on gay scouts be lifted but the prohibition against gay leaders be preserved,  The Mormons have indicated that they can live with this.  The National Catholic Committee on Scouting has been vague.  The Baptists have cried foul, as have evangelicals like Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, which sponsored a webcast over the weekend called “Stand with Scouts Sunday.”  Rick Perry, the Texas governor, appeared on it to denounce any change in the ban, and for good measure called homosexuality “the flavor of the month.”  Like pralines n’cream, I guess.
    But that’s not the whole story.  The Episcopal Church wants all aspects of the ban lifted, as does the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, whose former chairman, a Baltimore lawyer named Jay Lenrow told me that while no troop should be forced to choose a gay leader, no troop should be prevented from doing so, either.  He added that our country was founded on the principle of religious freedom: that the Scouts’ bylaws require equal treatment of every religion’s teachings and that certain denominations – the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA),, for example – ordain gay and lesbian ministers.  By the Scouts’ current rules, those very ministers, fit for the pulpit, aren’t deemed fit to lead a troop.
    Isn’t that as much of an insult to their religions as the ban’s end would be to Perkins, Perry and their kind?

    It’s something to think about, isn’t it?  Have a good summer.
    Shalom,
              Kenneth D. Roseman

 
From the Rabbi - May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

    For the last several months, I have dedicated on Friday evening sermon each month to a discussion of a prayer that we say or sing all the time, but which we usually do not understand.   I have tried to bring out the historical background of the prayer and then point to some of the spiritual implications it might have in our lives today.  We’ve talked about the Kiddush, the Aleinu, and the Avot veImahot (the one about the patriarchs and matriarchs).  This month, we’re taking a break because we have three wonderful Shabbat evening events, and we want to focus specifically on the young people involved in those ceremonies.  On June 7, however, I’ll continue this series with a discussion of the Gevurot (God’s Mighty Power), which is the prayer right after the Avot veImahot.

    There is an underlying issue that I’d like to raise with you in this note.  The issue is: “What are we really doing when we pray?  What is the exercise of prayer all about, anyway?”

    We ought to agree on at least a first premise: when we pray, we are attempting some kind of communication.  Fine, but then what?  To whom are we communicating and is there any reciprocity?

    I’d like to suggest to you that the communication of prayer can be directed in three different directions, sometimes all at once, sometimes only toward one.

    Classically, of course, we think of prayer as communicating with God.  Some prayers praise or thank God, while others ask for something in return.  In the traditional tefillah (Some call it the amidah because we stand up.), one of the blessings that is said during the week, but not on Shabbat, includes the ending “We praise You, God, Who hears prayer.”  Notice that we say “hears,” but we don’t say “answers.”  In fact, if you think back on serious prayers that you have uttered, sometimes the divine response was positive and sometimes it was negative, and sometimes it was silent.  Judaism asserts that it would chutzpadik to think that, just because we voice a prayer, God has to answer it in the affirmative, as if God were some kind of cosmic light switch that would automatically turn on whenever we wanted something.  Mature religious people understand that God is like our parents who sometimes responded to our requests “Yes” and sometimes “No,” and sometimes “I’ll think about it” or “I’ll talk to Daddy when we have some time to discuss it together.”  It’s important when we pray to have fair and reasonable expectations.

    A second direction for our prayers is toward our neighbors.  When you speak the voice of your heart out loud, you communicate something about yourself to the people around you.  Consider just two examples.  First, the mishebeirach prayer when we speak the names of family and friends about whose welfare we are concerned.  How many times have you been in the sanctuary and heard the name of someone and said to yourself “I didn’t know he (or she) was ill.”  The other worshippers who spoke that name have not only shared a significant piece of information with you about that person, but they have also told you about a worry that weighs heavily on their minds and hearts.  Or, think about the Kaddish list that we read toward the end of services.  We always read the names of people who have died recently for an entire month of Sabbaths in addition to noting the anniversary of deaths, sometimes long past.  It is customary for the mourners to rise as the names are enunciated.  By that silent, prayerful act, they are telling you that they have suffered a loss and that they would be grateful if you would acknowledge their grief and the change that has come into their lives.

Finally, we communicate with ourselves.  Prayer is a way to help ourselves discover resources that are already implanted within ourselves.  A prayer in our typical Shabbat evening service tells us that “…when doubt troubles us, when anxiety makes us tremble and pain clouds the mind, we look inward for the answer to our prayers.  There may we find You, and there find courage, insight and endurance…..”  As the biblical prophet Elijah discovered, God can be the “still, small voice within us,” and we can hear that aspect of our own godliness in our prayers if we listen carefully enough.

    Prayer begins to make more sense when we stop thinking of God as some kind of supersized bellhop who races to attend our every whim whenever we raise our voice.  Mature religion suggests that we become more sophisticated in our understandings and expectations of prayer.  When we do, we are likely to find it far more satisfying.

    Prayerful regards for your spiritual welfare and a blessed summer.

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 
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

 
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