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From the Rabbi - May 2012 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

I’d like to share a few thoughts about MAY with you.  As a month, May got its name from one of two sources.  The Roman poet, Ovid, suggested that May comes from the Latin word “maiores,” which means “elders.”  We derive our English concept of “major” from the same root.  This literary lion was drawn to this etymology because May is followed by June, which he said originated from “iuniores” or “juniors.”  Maybe….maybe not.  But who am I to argue with Ovid?

On the other hand, others in the ancient world believed that the source of May was the Roman goddess of fertility, Maia.  Her festival was observed in the Spring, as the earth was experiencing rebirth, in the same way that Passover is a rebirth festival of both nature and the Israelite people; from arid to fruitful, from slavery to freedom and independence.  So it is altogether possible and logical to derive May from the name of this good deity.

Suppose, however, we think of the word not as a noun, but as a verb.  Contrast the word “may” with “must” or its opposite, “must not.”  When you think of “may” in this way, it becomes pregnant with possibilities.  (Are we back to the goddess of fertility, Maia?)

As such, May may be the best month of the year for liberal Jews.  Liberal Judaism generally avoids what is mandatory, preferring instead to place before its adherents a range of optional choices of ritual and religious behaviors.    In doing so, it affirms the potential of individuals to make good choices; it trusts you and me to confront all possibilities and to pick judiciously and carefully from among the options before us.  It tells us that we are not required to keep kosher, but neither are we bidden to eat tref.  Rather, liberal Judaism poses the question to us: How can you arrange your diet so that it may enhance not only your physical health but also your spiritual welfare?  Liberal Judaism affirms that no one will stand over you with a gun to demand you make a charitable contribution, but it does propose that you can be sufficiently forthcoming with your funds that your generosity may make the lives of others and the character of the community better.

Most of all, liberal Judaism proposes that there is a mutual covenant between God and each individual Jew, and that this God is not a God who commands or demands or mandates, but who trusts us as partners to strive as best we humans can to choose the right thing.  Saying this, liberal Judaism affirms the considerable value of each human being as one worthy of being in partnership with the Eternal.

So what should we say at the beginning of May?  Perhaps we ought to think of the first mitzvah of the Torah (Genesis 1:28) “Be fruitful and multiply.”  May all your decisions be fruitful and may all your choices multiply in satisfaction and fulfillment.

Kenneth D. Roseman

From the Rabbi - April 2012 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:
I recently read an interesting passage in a book entitled Jews in the Early Modern World.  I share it with you in its entirety here.

“According to the Statutes of the Scola dei Tedeschi [German synagogue] in Rome from 1541,…by which the parnassim gave the rabbi full authority to make takkanot (ordinances), the members of the community were obligated as follows:  all members had to pray in the evening, morning and afternoon in the synagogue (They could do so in other places only with special permission.); absence for three consecutive days resulted in a monetary fine; a fee was involved for quitting the synagogue; and no business could be transacted before the shacharit (morning) prayers.  The statutes also indicated that all members must pay assessed synagogue taxes and pay all donations immediately; all needs of the synagogue were to be determined by majority vote; two parnassim and three counselors were to be appointed, who must take an oath of office; and no one was to speak during prayers without permission from the parnassim.  Disputes between members had to be brought before the congregation; no member was to strike another or speak badly of him; reconciliation at the Torah must be accepted; and, in the same spirit of community, all members were to share the expenses of the communal lulav and etrog used during the holiday of Sukkot.

In the last 471 years, a great deal has obviously changed.  And yet the basic question remains: What does a member owe to his or her synagogue?  What expectations ought a congregation have of those who say that they are part of it?

The By-laws of most congregations, including ours,  are conspicuously silent on this matter, except to indicate that every member must assume a fair proportion of the cost of the congregation and stay current in those financial obligations.  The virtually mandatory provisions applicable to the Jews in the ghetto of Rome five centuries ago clearly do not reflect our times, although our endowment funds would be overflowing if we fined everyone for habitual absence.  But, at the same time, is there more than a financial contribution that a modern synagogue ought to expect from its members?  We certainly cannot (and do not) expect anyone to attend worship services morning, noon and night, but is it unreasonable to think that everyone might come “once in a while,” perhaps once a month?   It might seem excessive, but another modest expectation is that each member would try to grow in Jewish knowledge on a regular basis.  There are so many Jewish books, on the best seller lists in every category, that it cannot be an oppressive thought that each of us would find time to read something of Jewish enrichment from time to time.  And then there is the matter of mitzvah.  I have a suspicion that almost every member of CBI does a social mitzvah on a daily basis.  We have a good record of helping others, of reaching out to those in need, to supporting the fallen and caring for the sick and depressed and desperate.  If you have done your mitzvah for today, you might remember that there are still 612 more in the Torah; there’s much more work to be done.  I think a Jewish congregation might reasonably hope that its members would try to add one additional mitzvah every so often to those that they already perform.

The Board of CBI tries to manage the congregation’s affairs with wisdom and transparency.  We try to be financially responsible and prudent.  But there is one thing we cannot do for you, and that is to appear at a congregational meeting and vote.  No one can do this except each individual member.  We have such a meeting on April 1 at 7:00 PM to consider an important change in our by-laws.  It is described elsewhere in this newsletter.  We’ve tried to make this brief meeting appealing and enjoyable by pairing it with the appearance of Rabbi Bob Alper and his stand-up comedy routine, but you’ve got to come.  This is an obligation that you have to the synagogue and, most especially, to the other members who are counting on you to make a legal quorum.  Do not think that others will fulfill your obligation for you; this one is strictly up to you.
    Sincerely yours,
    Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - March 2012 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

March seems to be a time when non-Jewish groups want to visit our synagogue.  In the next month, I’ll speak with the eighth graders from St. James School and a confirmation class from the First United Methodist Church in Portland.  In addition, I’ll spend an evening with a teenage group at All Saints Episcopal Church exploring the Passover seder and its relationship to the Last Supper.  All of these groups prepare for at least an hour, watching the video created some years ago by our Sisterhood; it’s called “Your Visit to the Temple” and covers a number of basic points so I don’t have to repeat them, but can enter into conversation with the young people rather directly.

I often wonder why these groups are so intent on coming to see our synagogue and our services and why they are so interested in Judaism.  Surely, it is not because they want to become Jewish.  On occasion, I think it’s just a field trip to fill up a hole in the curriculum, but usually it’s more.

For one thing, there is a huge difference between the curiosity about one’s neighbors if one is a minority group member or a part of the majority culture.  As Jews we need to understand what the other people in our community are thinking, what they believe, how they worship, what values are salient in their thought.  The civilization of America is filled with people who are often very different from us, and, if we want to get along with them in harmony, we need to have a pretty good idea about who they are.  On the other hand, members of the majority culture have much less motivation to understand us; they can be more self-sufficient and get along in their own world without paying attention to our small group, if they wish.

The fact that a number of them do wish to know what we are about is a remarkable and wonderful American phenomenon.  There are Christians of immense goodwill who are committed to the concept of cultural pluralism, who want their students to understand and respect difference in American life.  Curiosity about people who live in ways that deviate from the majority culture does not always produce a positive outlook or respect, but I know the teachers of many of these youngsters, and I know the follow-up they have in their class discussions.  They make sure that the point of their visit is never missed.

There is, of course, a second reason to learn about Judaism.  Christianity, after all, grew from a Jewish root, and Jesus was a Jew from his birth to his death.  Only later did a separate religion emerge.  If a Christian is going to understand his or her own faith, the substratum of Jewish beliefs and practices constitutes an essential part of the knowledge base.   Consider just this one (among many) example.  Just down Saratoga Blvd. is a large Catholic Church named “Most Precious Blood.”  It is virtually impossible to understand how this Church got its name unless one realizes that the blood spilled during Jesus’ sacrificial crucifixion is to be seen as the successor to the Torah’s use of blood for atonement in the animal sacrificial cult of earlier biblical times.  To know Jewish parallels and precedents makes Christianity more meaningful to its adherents.

Finally, I think there are some very special elements in what we do that Christians can never have.  Biblical Judaism dates at least back to the Exodus from Egypt, roughly 1250 B.C.E.  Catholic Christianity traces itself back to the first Christian century, so there are nearly fifteen hundred years of history and development that we have that preceded the emergence of the daughter faith.  When we read from the Torah, we are doing something that Jews have been doing for roughly 2500 years, long before any alternative faith was fashioned.  The same is true of many of our practices, even though they take a modern form in today’s synagogue and Jewish home.   This sense of rootedness is remarkable and special – and unique to Jewish life.  Protestant Christianity goes back to Martin Luther, less than six hundred years ago, so its sense of historical connection is even more attenuated.  We represent something that is grounded long ago in biblical history, and that gives our faith a tremendous sense of meaning and value.

I hope you will think about some of the reasons why our Christian neighbors devote a good bit of time trying to understand who we are.  Their interest should remind you of virtues in Judaism of which you should be rightly proud.  Their visits should kindle within you a spirit of Jewish value and a desire to know even more and to be more involved in this age-old but ever-new enterprise we call Judaism.

 Sincerely yours,   
 Kenneth D. Roseman 

From the Rabbi - February 2012 PDF Print E-mail
 Dear Friends:

In mid-January, we took a group of CBI teens to see Fiddler on the Roof at the Selena Auditorium.  Of course, the star of the production was Tevya, and he displayed his characteristic conversations with himself and with God.  Part of his inimitable style was to consider alternative ways of approaching any problem: “On the one hand,” he would say, “but then again on the other hand.”

Tevya was caught up in a world that was changing in radical ways.  On the one hand, he was deeply connected to traditions that he had grown up with and that he desperately wanted to pass on to the next generation.  But on the other hand, he also recognized, however reluctantly, that new values and new practices were encroaching on the life he had always known.
Sholom Aleichem’s conflicted hero lived in a Russian-Polish shtetl over a century ago.  Yet his approach to life is as modern as 2012.  We understand that most serious issues have at least two sides, and we devote great amounts of energy and time to contrasting these various perspectives before we make a decision.
That is how we act, but it is not a universally-accepted procedure in the Jewish world of today.  Among the ultra-Orthodox, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, there are Haredim who contend that there is and can be only one answer to any question.  Their understanding of Torah represents the only possible, only correct approach to any issue; nothing else can be envisioned, and everything else is “treif.”  Their way of dealing with problems is authentic for them and legitimate within their worldview, but it is as foreign to us as the now-nonexistent shtetl of Anatevka.

More than forty years ago, I heard Elie Wiesel talk about the concept of Ahavat Yisrael, the love of Israel.  Aside from the feelings of loyalty and affection that nearly all Jews have for the modern State of Israel, he suggested that this phrase encompasses two very different types of Jews.    (As I recall, he was talking to rabbinical students about the Vietnam war and their choice either to oppose the war by refusing to serve as military chaplains or to swallow their opposition and serve because the men and women drafted into the military had no choice and needed them.)

There are Jews, he said, who love the tradition of Israel.  For them Jewish laws, ideology, theology and ritual practice are the ultimate criteria for any decision.  There are Jews, Wiesel taught, who accord priority to the “-isms” of being Jewish and who expect Jewish people to conform and submit to them.
On the other hand, Wiesel suggested that Ahavat Yisrael meant love for the people, for Jews as a group and as individuals.  When the needs of this Israel come into conflict with the strictures of the “-ismatic” Israel, Jews who understand the mandate in this manner put the needs of real people ahead of the theories and Jewish ideology.  In fact, Wiesel said, people are the essence of any authentic Jewish ideology.
I have chosen to be a liberal Jew because I am committed to this latter understanding of Ahavat Yisrael.  Traditions are certainly important to me, but people and their needs come first.  I know myself, and I am definitely closer to one end of the continuum of Jewish practice and values than to the other.   Each of us can find a place on this spectrum.  Where to locate yourself is a challenge that offers you the opportunity to think about yourself, to learn and know about yourself as a human being and as a Jew.
    Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - January 2012 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:
Ron Bernstein was born in New York City, but he moved to Israel more than thirty years ago to become one of the early settlers of Kibbutz Yahel.  Yahel lies about sixty miles south of the Dead Sea, right on the Jordanian border.  Soon, Ron became proficient in the cultivation of citrus fruit and dates, plus he learned how to manage the sizeable dairy herd that now produces more milk per cow than any other herd in the country. Along the way, he and his wife have raised three children, including an adopted oriental girl.

Right now, Ron has moved to Austin, Texas for a couple of years to represent the Jewish National Fund.  JNF was established over a hundred years ago to help develop the land of Israel.  If you have ever bought a tree or had one dedicated in our honor, the tree was planted by JNF.  Vast swaths of the Judean landscape have been forested by JNF, providing cleaner air for the country, minimizing soil erosion, offering Israelis and others healthy and enjoyable places to hike and picnic and beautifying the countryside.  In addition, JNF has invested in the building of schools, hospitals, public utilities and all sorts of other projects.  Much of the modern State of Israel exists in its present form because of JNF.
Ron will be our guest speaker on Friday evening at services, January 20, 2012.  I hope you will join us to learn more about a part of modern Jewish life that is especially important to all of us today.  This is one of the most constructive and positive features of Israel, something with which all of us need to be familiar.
During the Spring, our Combined Jewish Appeal will be offering you the opportunity to do the mitzvah of supporting Israel as well as all sorts of Jewish services in Corpus Christi.  The kick-off dinner will be held on February 2 at the Corpus Christi Country Club, at which time Elliot Chodoff will speak. Please consider attending the dinner and then making your annual pledge to the CJA; it's really the best way to ensure the Jewish future around the world.
Kenneth D. Roseman

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