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

During January, we read a series of selections from the Torah about miraculous events.  First, there were the plagues in Egypt.  Then came the remarkable escape, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea.  Finally, the Israelites assembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where they witnessed thunder and lightning and a fearsome sound and light show as the Deity descended upon the top of the mountain.

One of the questions that I am often asked, especially around this time of the liturgical year, is: “Why doesn’t God do miracles today like God used to do in the Bible?”  I want to answer that question.

On Tuesday morning, January 11, I climbed onto a gurney at Methodist Hospital in Houston, received an anesthetic from a young woman doctor who looked to be about sixteen years of age but who was impressively competent and spent two hours undergoing back surgery to remove calcium spurs that had been pressing on my back’s nerves.  By mid-afternoon, I was out of bed and walking without a limp and with no more pain than that associated with a long incision.  Any of you who have seen me hobble around during the last six months will immediately recognize that the change was little short of miraculous.  My recovery has proceeded without interruption, and I am enjoying the luxury of being able to stride forward with my right leg as I did in years past.

Some people might say: “That’s no miracle.  It’s just medicine at work.”  Maybe they are right, but from the vantage of the person who has gone through successful surgery and can now move with ease, it sure seems like a miracle.  Miracles, like beauty, are probably in the eye of the beholder.

Today, many people are skeptical and cynical.  I take an opposite view.  One of the greatest assets a human being can have is a well-developed sense of wonder.  The ability to say “WOW” in the presence of some remarkable event; the willingness to suspend judgmentalism and react openly and enthusiastically to what another person does; the skill to open one’s eyes and ears and perceive that there may, indeed, be burning bushes all over the place (if only we were aware of them) – these are the crucial components of the person who recognizes miracles in today’s world.

Once you open yourself to a sense of wonder and awe. I suspect you’ll find it easy to discover the miraculous in even everyday existence.  Let me give you one example.  There are multiple billions of cells in a cubic centimeter of human flesh.  (If you’re having trouble with metrics, just think that there are around 15.6 cubic centimeters in a cubic inch.  How many billions would that be?)

The process of cell division called mytosis begins when a single ovum and a single sperm join together.  They are undifferentiated cells, but somehow, during pregnancy, they split multiple times and some of the split-offs become kidneys, some hair, some bone, some blood, some all the other parts of the eventual human being.  I know that this is somehow controlled by the DNA in each cell, but no doctor has ever fully explained to me how this directed cell division happens in such a predictable and orderly fashion, much less why it happens.  Yes, it’s part of the natural process of the universe, but to my wondrous eyes it’s a miracle.  When I see a newborn child, the only legitimate response I can make is “WOW.”

Here’s a second example.  The drive to preserve ourselves is paramount among the drives of the human organism; we are structured to fight for our own survival.  A key element, then, in the use and allocation of all the resources available to us should logically be that we use what we have to protect ourselves and to enhance our own personal existence.  And yet over and over again we see our fellow human beings giving to others, doing for others, sacrificing their own selfish interests on behalf of someone else.  There is something remarkable about altruism and selflessness.  It flows completely against the more natural impulse to hoard and sequester what we have for our own use.  When I see another human being subordinating self-interest to the needs of others, I can only think in terms of a huge “WOW.”  This flow against the normal expectations of human nature seems to me little short of miraculous.

I don’t suppose I’m going to go out to Cole Park and wait for God to split the Bay so I can walk over to Ingleside.  But maybe God has become a bit more subtle and nuanced; maybe God expects us to take a little more responsibility in spotting miracles in today’s world.  All I can tell you is that every time I turn around, I am confronted with events and personalities in the world that strike me as so remarkable that they seem miraculous.

Besides, I much prefer being a “cockeyed optimist” and taking a positive approach to the world in which I live than being cynical, skeptical, pessimistic and negative.  If you want to live that way, it’s OK with me, but try, just for fun, looking around, saying “WOW” and enjoying the grandeur of the miracles that surround us every day.

                       Sincerely yours,
            Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - January 2011 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

Whenever I try to encourage people to become Jewishly literate and better educated, one of the responses I hear is: “Rabbi, I’d like to, but I can’t read Hebrew.”

Good try, but the excuse doesn’t wash.  Here’s why.  In Cincinnati, Ohio, there is a  Jewish library with over 750,000 volumes on a single topic – some phase of Jewish learning.  To be sure, some of these books are not written in English.  There may be as many as forty or fifty different languages represented in the collection.  But, please be assured, well more than half of the books were authored in a language with which you have more than a passing proficiency – English.

I once figured out that, if you were to read one book each hour until you completed the library (assuming no new books), it would take you almost 86 years to read every book in the stacks.  If only half the books are in English, you’d still have 43 years of constant reading before you completed the task.

Not possible, you say.  My friends, there are plenty of books on Jewish topics that you can read.  Assuming you know the basics (like what Shabbat and the other holydays and kashrut and Zionism are), you can then exercise considerable discretion in your selection.  You can choose history or religious practice, theology and philosophy, biography, novels, travel, Israel….the list goes on.  There is no lack of interesting and inviting Jewish reading material for you to select.

The real reason you don’t read Jewish books has nothing to do with language.  It does have everything to do with your own choices and, even more, your own motivation.  Let’s be honest with each other.  The reason you don’t become Jewishly literate is that you choose not to do so.

So, here’s the challenge.  Of the roughly 400,000 English books on Judaica in Cincinnati, disregard 399,999 and pick up just one.  Which one?  It doesn’t really matter; choose one that might interest you.  And then, when you’ve finished that book, try another.  What I suspect you’ll find is a sense of power about your own identity, a deeper knowledge of what you might mean when you say “I am a Jew,” a richer sense of self.  In addition to reading a Jewish book at home, keep a second one in your car.  When you are waiting somewhere for an appointment, instead of reading an old magazine in the doctor’s office, take your Jewish book in with you and read for a few minutes.  You’ll be surprised how often you’ll be able to finish off a new reading project.

            Sincerely yours,
            Kenneth D. Roseman

From the Rabbi - December 2010 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

There are a number of things I don’t expect to happen when I come to Shabbat services.

For one thing, I would be quite surprised if even a sizeable minority of the congregation showed up.  We have around 400-plus individuals who are members of CBI.  If twenty-five percent of you came to a Friday night service, that would mean about a hundred people, and I would be astonished if that happened.  One of my friends in the Los Angeles region said that his congregation was populated by Seventh-Day Absentists.  I have a pretty good suspicion that this is not solely a southern California phenomenon.

A second thing I don’t anticipate is that we shall hear a divine voice penetrating into the Sanctuary and issuing commands or specific answers to our prayers.  If such a voice did make itself heard, you’d probably accuse me of ventriloquism.  Besides, theologically, many of us are not sure that God is revealed in this way, at least in today’s modern era.  Evidence for God and godly acts is much more subtle and sophisticated than a booming bass voice – or could it be a soprano?

In nearly fifty years of rabbinical life, I’ve never experienced a member of the congregation overcome with emotion to the point of blurting out a religious vision or testimony.   Maybe I’m doing something wrong, but I am pretty sure that we expect personal transformation to be more inward and gradual and that we’re happy to leave public conversion experiences to charismatic Pentecostals.

So, is there anything I do expect to happen if someone comes to services?  Yes, there is!

When I open the siddur, I do expect a specific result.  The prayer book is a shorthand summary of what liberal Judaism stands for; it rehearses in a terse fashion the fundamental values of our religion and our culture.  If you read its pages carefully, you will find a capsule version of what a Jew ought to believe and what a Jew ought to stand for and what a Jew needs to do.

I spend my entire working life preoccupied with those values, yet even I treasure a weekly refresher course.  I am grateful to spend ninety minutes of my week rehearsing the basic premises of what and who I should be.  There remain 166½ hours in each week when I can then implement what I have reviewed and relearned at services.

But I am unusual in this respect.  Most members of CBI, most Jews, do not devote themselves directly to the study of being Jewish.  It’s an important part of our lives, but there are other involvements as well.  That’s why, it seems to me, that coming to services for a weekly repeat of the basic values is important.  Services are not, according to this way of thinking, not an end in themselves, but a vehicle to help us pattern the rest of our lives during the ensuing week.  This is a specific outcome you can expect from your attendance.  So, come in when you can and take advantage of the benefits that accrue from being in temple Friday night or Shabbat morning.

            Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - November 2010 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

Food Fest will not be here for another two weeks, but I can already taste the delicious cabbage rolls, the kugel, the corned beef and, of course, my favorites, the half dill pickles shipped in from Brooklyn.  On Saturday, November 13 and Sunday, November 14, true “soul food” will be available in the Grossman Auditorium.

I am always awed and a little shocked to see the line of people who snake around our building at 5:00 PM Saturday evening in anticipation of this wonderful meal.  Yes, we all love the food, but there is so much more.  There are raffles and prizes and resale items and baked goods – something for everyone.

For CBI, there is, of course, a substantial financial benefit, mostly thanks to the dedicated efforts of the Sisterhood.  The contribution that Food Fest makes to the annual budget of the congregation helps us stay on a fiscally-responsible keel and is intensely appreciated.

But there are two other positive features of Food Fest that we should never forget.  The first is the sense of common purpose and friendship that develops among all the members – and there are a lot of you – who work to make the weekend such a success.  I’ve never found a better place to forge a community than in a kitchen.  In your own homes, where do guests often gather?  In the kitchen!  The CBI kitchens play a central role in the bonds that connect each of us to others in the congregation.

Beyond that, however, is the outreach that Food Fest represents into the general community.  Napoleon said that an army travels on its stomach.  I’ve got news for him, if he’s listening.  The message of Judaism and the appreciation and acceptance of Jews in Corpus Christi travels on a corned beef sandwich and pickle and some rogelach.  Nothing else that we do enhances our positive image in the community more than these two days in November.

So, if you have not yet signed up to help, there’s still time.  And, if you can’t work, at least come, bring some friends and treat everyone to a wonderful taste of Jewish cuisine.  At one and the same time, you’ll have fun and you’ll be doing something good for all of us.

Meanwhile, I’ll see you at the pickle booth.

            Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - October 2010 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, I joined about twenty-five other members of CBI for traditional services in the morning.  There was a lively spirit, much singing, and Rabbi Yonina Creditor kept up a spritely pace that moved the service with enthusiasm to a conclusion that was earlier than some of us expected.  There was a good feeling of camaraderie among this community of worshippers.

Still, I found myself reading and rereading some of the prayers in English that are found in the Silverman High Holyday prayer book, the Mahzor.   This volume was published in 1951, exactly sixty years ago.  The language is dated.  No one uses “thee” or “thou” any more, nor do we end our verbs with –est, as in “sayest.”  That kind of expression is stilted and does not resonate with modern linguistic usage.

Each generation finds it necessary to update the prayer book.  In our liberal services, I noticed that the very recent edition of Gates of Repentance that I ordered after last year’s Yom Kippur (when my really old one fell  apart) used “Eternal One” instead of other names for God – like “King” or “Sovereign.”  The Conservative movement has just published a new High Holyday prayer book called Lev Shalem, “[With a] Whole Heart.”  The editorial committee decided to omit the word “salvation” because people don’t have a clear sense of what it means, and they chose to no longer use the word “awesome” to describe God, primarily because it has been tarnished by its slangy use in Valley Girl talk.

The criteria of the Conservative editors, much like the criteria of the Reform Jewish editors, centered around two ideas: keeping faith with the traditional practices while, at the same time, addressing what congregations and modern, liberal Jews want and need.

Those two criteria sometimes complement each other and sometimes are in conflict.  Consider the Al Cheyt recital of Yom Kippur in Gates of Prayer.  It is updated to include both the traditional sins of pride and interpersonal malice, but also more modern transgressions, like pollution, governmental corruption and neglect of urban improvements.  On the other hand, there are limits imposed by traditional Jewish practice about how short the service can be and, equally, by expectations of congregants about what would be a satisfying and sufficient ritual observance.

What is crucial, however, is to note that every prayer book, whether traditional or liberal, reflects the social context in which it is to be used and the people who will hold it. The contexts change and the people change, so the prayer book itself has to change to be at all relevant to the realities of the lives of Jews.

And yet, paradoxically, the change is largely cosmetic.  At base, the values and ideas that are reflected in Jewish prayer books are the same that have characterized our worship for the last fifteen hundred years or more.  These values and ideas may be present in modern clothing, but they are the identical ones of which our ancestors spoke on their special days and of which we continue to speak on our High Holyday days.  There is something comforting and reassuring that, in the midst of all the flux and change of modern life, the values of Judaism persist to motivate and inspire our lives for a new year.
            Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

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