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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.


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

From the Rabbi - November 2012 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

Fundamentalism scares the daylights out of me.  Let me tell you why.

We need to understand that the attitude of fundamentalism is not just a religious phenomenon.  A secular ideology can share the same characteristics as the most extreme religious system.  The basic attribute of any fundamentalism is that there is only one way to understand reality, one truth, one perspective.  Everything else is wrong.   So, someone who believes that cutting down a tree to provide lumber for the building of a house is a desecration of the environment and that this atrocity should never be committed is very little different from a religious person who believes that there is only one path of worship to the true God.

Fundamentalisms, whether religious or secular, are closed systems.  They admit no alternative views of reality.  Anyone who differs with their conclusions is, ipso facto, in error.  It is not a long stretch from deciding that the other person is wrong to concluding that the other person is sinful and even evil.  “My way or the highway” consigns a large number of thoughtful people who happen to think differently from the fundamentalist to exclusion and ostracism.  This demeans their human dignity and restricts their human rights.  It is only another short step to justifying the forcible removal and even killing of the heretic (anyone who disagrees); after all, if homosexuality is a sin against God, why not do God’s work and slay all the homosexuals?  That’s the logical conclusion when one idea is accorded absolute validity and all others are derogated as wicked and rejected.

Fundamentalisms are essentially antagonistic to democracy.  If any ideas other than your own are wrong and sinful, what is the point of discussing them or considering them or making a compromise with them?  To accept that the other person may have something of value to contribute to the solution of a problem is to do business with the devil, and this the fundamentalist cannot do.  Our basic rights under the Constitution (and especially the Bill of Rights) exist to protect minority points of view,, even unpopular ones.  But a fundamentalist, religious or secular, has no reason to respect those rights when they foster and protect views which he/she thinks are heretically sinful.

Finally, fundamentalisms are dangerous for Jews.  If there is only one truth and all other points of view ought to be eliminated, guess who goes out the door!  We represent a little less than 3% of the American population.  Should our position in this society be dependent on being seen as the one right and honorable path, we lose every time – it’s just a matter of numbers at that point.

The opposite of fundamentalism is pluralism, the idea that there are many different honorable and legitimate paths to the same objectives.  In a democratic society, each of those paths is entitled to some respect and to some role in the discussion; a viable solution often reflects a compromise in which elements of several different ideas are combined in a less-than-perfect agreement to move forward.  America functions best when pragmatism rules, when all the parties who hold differing ideas come together to craft a solution that works, even when it is not ideologically pure or correct. 

I hope every member of CBI will vote in the upcoming election.  When you do, I hope you will keep in mind the issue of fundamentalisms and make your choices for those candidates who will advance rather than impede the solutions to the many problems that plague our society.

     Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - October 2012 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

I have the pleasure and privilege occasionally to meet with Jews who are considering becoming new residents of Corpus Christi.  These conversations are usually a lot of fun, because I get to tell them about our congregation and our city and I get to learn about what concerns they have as they think about moving here.  Parents, of course, are interested in schools and in neighborhoods where other Jewish children live.  But almost invariably the discussion turns to the relationship of the Jewish community to the general population of the city.  If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it dozens of times: “Is there any anti-Semitism in Corpus Christi?”

To be honest, I am sure that there are some people in this city who do not like Jews and who do not want to associate with us, either in business or socially.  But if  there are, they have certainly kept their ideas and feelings a secret from me.  I can tell prospective resident that, in the more than ten years that we have lived here, we have never experienced anything that remotely resembled anti-Semitism.

Quite the contrary!  Phyllis and I have been accepted and welcomed in virtually every circle.  We become involved in a number of civic organizations, boards and committees.  I’ve been asked to lead prayers at the Catholic Social Services banquet several times.  My teaching about Judaism and religion, in general, has been enthusiastically supported at TAMUCC.  And, most of all, we are thrilled that we have good friends who are Jewish and just as many who are not.  Our religious affiliation has never made a whit of difference in our integration into the community of Corpus Christi.

I tell you this because I want you to mark something on your calendars.  Two years ago, a small group of clergy met in my office to talk about a commemoration of the tragedy of 9/11.  You may remember that we implemented five interfaith service projects to improve the life of our city, held services at each congregation to focus on what we might learn from those horrific events and then gathered for a common service at the First United Methodist Church.  Nine hundred or so people attended.

We continued our interfaith conversations and planning during the next year with an eye on offering another common program to the general community.  On SUNDAY, OCTOBER 7 AT 5:30 pm AT THE PERFORMING ARTS CENTER ON THE CAMPUS OF TAMUCC, we are hosting a concert to celebrate the rich diversity of religious and ethnic identities in the Corpus Christi area, but also to underline the fact that we are united in building a harmonious and collaborative community.  The theme of this concert will be Peace and Freedom as exemplified by the music of many separate traditions.

Among the performers will be the Corpus Christi Community Choir, our own Kim and Laurie Bryce, the Del Mar Children’s Choir, the choir of the Holy Cross Catholic Church, Mariachi Torero and, as the piece de resistance, a touring group of Islamic,, Turkish, Sufi mystics who are Whirling Dervishes and who are beginning their American visit right here in Corpus Christi.  As an audience, we’ll also have a chance to sing along with the performers on at least two occasions.

You should not want to miss this opportunity to hear some diverse and wonderful  music FOR FREE and at the same time accentuate the fact that interfaith friendship and cooperation are a high priority in our city.  It’s a statement the combined clergy of our community are excited to make: we hope you’ll come out and stand for the same ideals of proud diversity and ardent unity in our city.  I look forward to seeing you on October 7th.

     Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - September 2012 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Members of CBI,

It was Wednesday evening, and we were steaming northward aboard the Star Princess between Juneau and Skagway, Alaska.  I was wondering if there were going to be Shabbat services of any sort aboard the boat, so I addressed that question to the people manning the Guest Services counter.  It took a little effort to make the non-English speakers understand what I was asking about, but eventually comprehension broke through.  They looked at the Friday evening schedule and reported that nothing was scheduled.  ”Would it be possible,” I asked, to arrange something?   It doesn’t have to be fancy, but some of us would like to welcome the Sabbath in an appropriate manner.”  They called someone who was not in and left a message with the request.  By the time we got back to our stateroom an hour or so later, there was a message on the phone that services would be held in the ship’s wedding chapel on Friday at 5:00 PM.  “Unfortunately,” the voice announced, “we do not have a rabbi on board, so one of the lay people will have to lead the prayers.”  Little did they know!

By the appointed time, the small room was filled to overflowing – standing room only.  A good number of the attendees were members of a tour group from Jerusalem, but there were also people from Seattle and San Diego and other American cities.  We read and sang the short service to welcome the Shabbat and then made Kiddush with Manishevitz wine and challah that the ship had provided.   The Israelis got into the  mood, singing and dancing and drinking (We even had to get more wine!) until the crew finally ushered us out of the room so that they could decorate for a renewal of wedding vows that was scheduled at 7:00 PM.  It was an unexpectedly glorious Shabbat.

Why do I tell  you this story on the eve of the High Holydays?  It called to mind a passage from Public Ethics, a book by James Sellers.  There, he wrote: “In a democracy there is no prince furnished with an army to maintain the laws by force.  And since the people are established on the basis of parity, there is no pride of rank to exploit.  If there is any will or motivation to see that the laws are obeyed and that justice is done, it must come out of the hearts of the citizenry, from the will and ability of the people to act on behalf of the greater community.  It is this quality, rather than fear or ambition, that makes things work in a democracy.”

All that was needed to make a shabbat evening service possible was for one citizen to step forward and ask.  A simple request and a momentary involvement made the difference.  I put it to you that congregational life is not much different.   As the new year approaches, you might think to yourself – or with others.  What do I want from Congregation Beth Israel?  Do I want something changed at services?   Are there adult education offerings I would enjoy?  Do we need to see a greater CBI presence in the community, more social action involvement?  What is it that would make my congregation, our congregation more satisfying and fulfilling to you?

And now you know what to do.  Simply step forward and ask.  Ask President Jim Gold, ask me, ask anyone on the Board of Trustees.  Just like Shabbat services on the cruise ship, it’s very likely that your request will fall on listening ears and what you dream of will become a reality.  But first you have to ask.

Phyllis and I wish  all of you a most joyous, healthy and fulfilling New Year.

                Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

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