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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

From the Rabbi - December 2011 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

The period between mid-November and the end of December is a time when we traditionally assess our lives.  We are particularly conscious of the physical blessings that we have been given, our health, our shelter, our nourishment and, especially, our families.  To be sure, each of us has areas of concern, needs that are not fulfilled and problems that have yet to be resolved.  Our lives are hardy perfect.  Yet, compared to the lot of many other people, even people in Corpus Christi, we do have a lot with which to be satisfied.  As we add up our achievements and our acquisitions at the end of the year, the word “Thanks” easily comes to our lips.  In Pirke Avot, an ancient rabbi, Ben Zoma, asked “Who is rich?”  His response to his own question was that a rich person is “content with what he already has.”  There’s a great deal to make us content.

But the prophets of biblical Israel (and their successors through the ages) have stressed that we ought not to look at the world as it is, but as it ought to be.  It’s hard not to be aware of the imperfections of our society.  In areas of our city, there is a high propensity for violence, drug use, gang activities.  I spoke at King High School the other evening, and the principal told me that of roughly 800 students who enter as freshmen, only about 550-575 graduate.  Some, of course, move out of the city and some go to other schools, but the majority of this nearly 30% loss end up with marginal literacy and minimal employable skills.  How sad!  And then there are the bigger, world-wide issues of which we are all aware: disease, poverty, malnutrition, war, prejudice, disasters of every sort.

As satisfied as we may be with our lot in life, we cannot be smugly complacent in the face of the indignities with which fellow human beings are confronted every day.  So this period of reassessment and gratitude ought also prompt us to think about ways in which we can improve the world in which we live.  There are so many things – large and small – that each individual can undertake.  All it requires is a little determination and motivation.  It would be very nice if our good fortune would prompt each of us to find something to do that would move our world away from what is and toward what ought to be.

            Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - November 2011 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

The word Torah has been translated into English in a variety of ways.  Many of us simply refer to it as “The Torah,” while others call it “The Pentateuch” and still others refer to it as “The Five Books of Moses.”  Maybe the most appropriate English translation is “instruction.”   For the last nineteen hundred years, however, the Torah has often been termed “The Law,” following the usage in the New Testament’s Epistle to the Galatians (2:16).

“Law” has connotations of severity and rigidity, and anti-Jewish preachers during the first three or four Christian centuries played on these themes, contrasting Jewish harshness with Christian love and forgiveness.  Accordingly, those who kept the law could not look forward to salvation, while people of faith were easily reconciled to God.  Eventually, the legalistic dimension of the Torah was superseded by the love and faith proposed by the New Testament.
I am often conscious of these different concepts as the Torah year comes to a conclusion and begins again at Simchat Torah.  The recycling of Genesis leads me to recycle all the historical associations connected to the idea of Torah as law.  Calling the Torah “law” evokes notions of inadequacy and ineffectuality, of unthinking adherence to a legal structure without any thought as to its meaning or values.  It is, perhaps, the ultimate put-down of the early Christian centuries.

When I turn to these thoughts, as I do almost every year, one figure in more modern Jewish history always comes to mind.  His name was Rabbi Israel Lipkin, and he lived in Lithuania from 1810 to 1883.  He is often known as Israel Salanter, since most of his career was centered in the town of Salant, just twenty miles from the Baltic Sea in western Lithuania.  He was, by everyone’s admission, a great Torah scholar who worked tirelessly to strengthen Orthodox Judaism.

But his major contribution to our life was to popularize the so-called Musar movement.  Musar as a word comes from the second verse of the book of Proverbs: “[The goal is] to know wisdom and ‘musar,’ to comprehend the words of understanding.”  Here, the word takes on meanings like instruction, discipline and right conduct.  Salanter stressed the need to further ethical and spiritual development, even creating a separate learning environment where students would leave the legalisms of Torah and Talmud outside the doors and focus on the values that underlay the law.  A simple lesson involved the oft-repeated Torah dictum that we should be especially considerate of the poor and less-fortunate in society, since we had our own experience with misfortune as slaves in Egypt.  The key for Salanter was not the giving of alms or tzedakah, but the understanding of the ethical lesson that supported acts of compassion and charity.

In his rabbinic life, Salanter practiced what he preached.  In 1848, during a cholera epidemic, he commanded the Jewish population of Lithuania themselves to engage in any necessary relief work on the Sabbath, even if there were non-Jews who could do the same work.  The ethics that underlay Jewish law, he taught, demanded that Jews actively violate the Sabbath in order to save the lives of ill Jews.  So, too, he ordered Jews who were ill not to fast on Yom Kippur.  Saving a life, he reasoned, overrode the strictures of Jewish law.

What Salanter taught was that it is not enough to act in accordance with the prescriptions of the law.  One also needs to understand the values, ethics and morality that underwrite the behavioral norms of Jewish life.  For him this internalized sensitivity to the often-concealed rationales was even more important than the external acts of compliance.  As we turn the Torah once again from Deuteronomy back to Genesis and initiate the annual repetition of the cycle, I am intensely conscious of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter.  Unthinking repetition of actions and rituals is, according to his thinking and teaching, insufficient; you always need to look for the meaning and strive to understand the ethical rationale for what you are doing.

                Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - October 2011 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story entitled “The Birthmark.”  This tale recounted the story of a scholarly man who married a woman whose only evident imperfection was a birthmark on one cheek.  She perceived the mark as part of what made her who she was and, in fact, an element of her beauty.  He, on the other hand, thought of it as a defacement that detracted from her.  Finally, he persuaded her to have the birthmark removed through a difficult medical procedure.

When the birthmark was no longer there, the woman felt that she had lost her identity.  She began to wither and eventually died.  In his quest to make her perfect, her husband had lost the one person that he cared about and ended up with nothing.

The quest for perfection finds little sympathy in the Jewish tradition.  The Bible teaches us that everything God made was “very good.”  But “very good” is not “perfect;” in fact, it is considerably short of perfection.  To be “very good” is hard enough; it’s a goal that is worthy of our most serious efforts and striving.  To attempt to exceed “very good” and to become “perfect” is the ultimate of hubris; it is an attempt to go beyond what God designated as the fundamental character of being a human being.  Are we prepared to say that we know better than God what it means to be a person?

The High Holydays offer us the opportunity to evaluate our lives, not in relationship to perfection, but in comparison to the standard of “very good.”  That’s hard enough, and we inevitably fall short of even that mark.  We freely and openly admit that being human means that we shall make mistakes; “to err is human,” the poet said, and we do not disagree that this is the case.

Our shortcomings and sins are sometimes unintentional and sometimes deliberate.  Whichever is the case, we come into the congregation determined to change, convinced that during the coming year we can approach nearer to the ideal of “very good” without holding out before ourselves the ultimately frustrating standard of perfection.

It would be wonderful if, a year from now, each of us could return to the Sanctuary and stand upright before the Judge of Truth to affirm: “God, my life is closer to your ideal of ‘very good’.”

Phyllis and I wish all of you a very happy, healthy and satisfying New Year.

                                Kenneth D. Roseman

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