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From the Rabbi - February 2010 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends,


For the last two weeks of January and from now on until Simchat Torah in October, we’re reading Torah passages completely suffused by the presence of Moses.  He is such a ubiquitous figure that the Pentateuch is often called “Torat Moshe,” the Torah of Moses.  And that is because the name “Moses” appears in the text almost as often as the name of the deity!


Let me share two ideas about Moses and his popularity.


First, you might note the difference between God and Moses.  God is the giver of the Torah; Moses is the receiver.  Neither one is sufficient without the other, much in the same way that the quarterback is irrelevant unless there is a wide receiver somewhere down the field to catch his pass during the Super Bowl.  Early midrashic texts (about 1500 or more years ago) tell us that God had the Torah in heaven long before the creation of the world, but that the Torah without people to act on it was, in reality, a dead letter.  Nothing could happen with Torah, it could have no effect, until some people on earth received it and took it seriously.  Moses and the Israelites who gathered at Sinai with him – and all of their successors, which means us – became the doers of Torah, the catalyst that made the high ideals embodied in the books come to life.


Moses, then, becomes the symbol for all of us who proudly proclaim that we are “the people of the book.”  (By the way, that expression first was used in the Koran, where Jews are called “ul hakitab.”  Sometimes it helps to read what others have written about us.  Maybe they are not always wrong.)  Our mission, our task on earth, is to make the values of Torah real in the society in which we live.  Like Moses who had to transmit the values of the new revelation to his people, our purpose as modern Jews is no different: we are the people who are commanded by God to make Torah values come into reality in our world.  That makes Moses a pretty important and persistent figure; he represents what we ourselves are supposed to do with our lives.


A second thought – I have been reading Bruce Feiler’s book about Moses.  It is called “America’s Prophet,” and it is a book well worth reading.  Bruce traces how the idea and image of Moses has persisted in American history, motivating all sorts of different people in different eras and ages to thoughts and actions that produced freedom.  From the words of the New England Pilgrims to George Washington to the Civil War (both sides!) to Martin Luther King, Jr., Moses has been summoned to speak for the oppressed and persecuted and to encourage those who would alleviate their burdens.  In a telling passage, the author points out that Moses was called forward more frequently in Civil War rhetoric than even Jesus; he was that important.   Bruce’s point is that no other figure in the mythology of America has been so constant and so important as Moses, and that alone should make us want to hear, over and over, the story of this legendary Jewish leader.

You will enjoy and learn from reading Bruce’s book.  Even more, you will enjoy and learn from reading Moses’ book.  Or better yet, try both.  Like chicken soup, it won’t hurt you, and it might just make a difference in your life.

 

       Shalom,

      Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 

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

As many of you know, I teach in the History Department at TAMUCC as an adjunct faculty member.  The University has a small Philosophy Department, but offers only one course in the Philosophy of Religion.  There is no Department of Religion, but my Ph.D. is in history, so I have been included there.  One of the courses that I very much enjoy teaching is called “The History of Religion in America,” a course that is taken mainly by advanced students in the History Department.

I am beginning to prepare for this course, which will be offered again in the Fall semester of 2010, and that has led me to spend some time reading and thinking about fundamentalism, both in Judaism and Christianity.   Anyone who knows me, even a little, recognizes that I am far from being a fundamentalist, which means that understanding this kind of religious perspective is a stretch for me.  But, of course, one of the things that I treasure in my teaching is the opportunity to confront new ideas and wrestle with them.

Fundamentalism first came on the scene in American religion in the 1920s when a group of Protestants published a series of pamphlets in which they described the “fundamentals” of what a Christian was supposed to believe.  Since that time, however, it has come to mean a resistance to change, a dogged adherence to what the believer thinks are the unalterable basic tenets of the religion.  Most fundamentalists, however, go beyond simple belief; they resist any change whatsoever.  If grandpa davened by rocking from right to left, then that’s the way it has to be, forever and ever.  If we only use prune filling for hamentaschen or put raisins in the noodle kugel or take the left crown off the Torah before the right one – God forbid we should change even one iota!

In Jewish life, this kind of fundamentalism stems from the nineteenth century when a Rabbi in Hungary, Mordecai Schreiber (also known as The Hatam Sofer) announced that any change or innovation is forbidden by the Torah.  Since that time, Orthodox Judaism has become less flexible than it was before, even to the point of insisting that the adherents to various Hasidic sects wear exactly the same type of clothing that their predecessors wore two hundred years ago.

A religious stance like this, it seems to me, completely misses both historical truth and religious purpose.

First, historical truth.  When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the new leaders of the Jewish community were not priests, but rabbis.  This was a major change.  Sacrifice was no longer of animals and other agricultural products, but prayer and study and tzedakah.  The Temple was replaced by a synagogue; one change followed another all the way through the Middle Ages and early modern period.  Mordecai Schreiber inveighed against innovation precisely because Jews continued to adjust the practice of their religion to modern times.  We kept to the basics, but changed the implementation, and we continue to do so.

Second, religious purpose.  Kashrut is important, but it is a means to a greater end.  When Saul of Tarsus (aka Paul) wrote to the emerging church in Rome (Romans 14:17), he said what Jews were also thinking: “For the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the spirit of God.”  Some people get so hung up on the minutiae that they forget the purposes for which religions exist.  Missing the forest for the trees is a common hallmark of fundamentalism.

In these dark days of winter, perhaps the lights of Hanukkah will continue to remind us to shine a little light on our own religious commitments and focus the beam squarely on what is really important and not on the details or transient elements.  Fundamentalism may be the choice of some people, but it’s not good for the Jews.

Shalom,

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 
From the Rabbi - December 2009 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

A British, Anglican clergyman named John Andrew Holmes, who lived about a century ago, once wrote the following quip:  “Never tell a young person that something cannot be done.  God may have been waiting for centuries for somebody ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing.”

I suppose Food Fest is like that quote.  After all, any objective observer might say “How could a congregation of only 210 or so families ever dream of pulling off such an enterprise?”  The word “dream” is the key.  Theodor Herzl once wrote that “if you want something enough, it is no dream.”  A determined bunch of people can do remarkable things.

Or, think of Bar and Bat Mitzvah youngsters.  More often than not, non-Jewish parents come up to me after a service and ask “How did you ever get a thirteen year-old to so something like that?”  “It’s easy,” I reply.  “We don’t ask.  We simply expect them to do it, and, wonderfully, they rise to the occasion.”  Individuals are capable of incredible achievements, even if they don’t believe they can do so.

December is a great time to think about what we can do, even when we cannot see that there is a chance of succeeding.  It’s dark outside, and our vision can be obscured.  But our vision can also be enhanced if we turn our thoughts and images inward and look into ourselves.  It is amazing how much positive work we can visualize if we stop looking at the dark outside and start looking at the shining light that is within each of us.

You don’t have to be a naive young man or woman to think creative, positive new thoughts.  All you have to do is escape from the December doldrums of darkness and despair and think how much you can do, if only you will take a little risk and try.  Who knows?  God may be waiting just for you.

            Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 
From the Rabbi - November 2009 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

On November 2, 1898, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, had arranged to meet Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who was touring Palestine.  Their meeting took place at a kibbutz called Mikveh Israel, “The Hope of Israel,” and it was there that Herzl hoped that the Kaiser would endorse Zionist plans to create a Jewish national homeland in the area.

In fact, the meeting went smoothly, and Herzl left with the strong impression that Germany would throw its considerable influence behind the plans.  Imagine his surprise when, only a week later, the Kaiser turned lukewarm and then moderately negative to the Zionist idea.  What had happened to change his mind?

No, it was not anti-Semites in Germany, although there were certainly enough of them.  It was liberal Jewish professors and journalists and merchants who were afraid that, if they supported Zionism too strongly, a charge of dual-loyalty would be levied against the Jewish community of Germany.  Germans, they thought, would come to question their loyalty to the Fatherland and challenge their acceptance into German society.  They, it turned out, were the primary element that swayed the Kaiser away from supporting Herzl’s plans.

Fast forward now, exactly nineteen years.  WWI had been underway for three years, and there seemed to be no end in sight.  For the British, the key to their survival and ultimate victory was their navy; it would protect their access to the Suez Canal and guard communication within their world-wide colonial empire.  But how to guarantee that the British navy would continue to rule the waves?

A Jewish chemist named Chaim Weizmann offered the Admiralty a new kind of naval gunpowder, a propellant charge that could throw the projectiles of their battleships’ guns farther than their enemies’.  It would be to the great advantage of the British if they could shoot at the Germans, but, simultaneously, be out of range of the German guns.

Weizmann gave his invention to the Admiralty without consideration of personal recompense.  But he asked something for his people.  On November 2, 1917, His Majesty’s Government issued a statement declaring that they were in favor of the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine.  This was the famous Balfour Declaration, named for the Colonial Secretary who first spoke it, Lord Arthur James Balfour.

But a week later, in an amazing parallel to the Kaiser’s earlier actions, the British government first began to waffle and then quietly dismissed their own intent.  Obviously, the goodwill of the Arab populations in Jordan, Palestine and Egypt was far more important to them than that of the Jews, and the assurance of a steady flow of oil for the boilers of their ships was more vital than faithfulness to their declaration.

The French have a saying:  “le plus ca change, le plus c’est la meme chose.” the more things change, the more it’s the same thing.  In fact, things have changed.  We are no longer worried about a charge of dual-loyalty.  We know we can be patriotic Americans, but simultaneously enthusiastic Zionists.  Our identity is no longer fragile or conflicted.  But, at the same time, we know that there are forces in the Arab region that would try to persuade the powers of the world that a Jewish state called Israel is a travesty and unacceptable.

It is incumbent upon us, then, to act as proud American Jews and equally proud supporters of the State of Israel.  We may not agree with everything Israel does – that’s our prerogative – but it is our fundamental task to ensure that the Jewish national homeland continues and that we move as deliberately as possible to a state of peace and security in that troubled region of the world.

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 
From the Rabbi - October 2009 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends,
 
On the Shabbat that straddles October 16 and 17, we shall again begin the reading of the Torah.  I suppose that there is no other book that has had more influence on the history of the world than this one, and, when we start the annual cycle of reading, I find myself captivated by a number of majestic thoughts.  Let me share a few of them with you.

The practice of public reading of Torah is at least 2500 years old.  In the eighth chapter of the biblical book of Nehemiah, he who was the governor appointed by the Persians to oversee the restoration of Judean sovereignty over the land of Canaan in about 538 BCE, we discover how the reading was then performed.  I hope you’ll look up the details, but, take my word for it, in all major respects what we do in our sanctuary (and what is done in every synagogue around the globe) is virtually identical with what Nehemiah’s contemporaries did.  Whenever I read from the Torah, I have a powerful, almost mystical sense of participating in an unbroken historical tradition.  I am doing what Jews have done in every place and time where they have lived since the days of Nehemiah.  That’s a remarkable chain of tradition to which we link ourselves.

Nehemiah and his priest, Ezra, did something more than read the Torah.  They arranged to translate it; the Bible says they read it so everyone could understand.  They had to translate it because the Torah is written in Hebrew, while the common language of the people at that time was Aramaic.  I try to translate the text into English for the same reason.  They – and we – understand that these words are not simply words, but the key to our entire identity.  They contain important values and ideas and practices.  We structure our lives, consciously or otherwise, by what the Torah teaches, so it is important to us not only that we read the words, but that we understand the mandates that are contained in them.

I look at this scroll and think of the many times in our history that we carried it away from places of hatred and oppression, preserving for ourselves a higher set of ideals and principles.  The Torah that is in the display case on the east side of our Sanctuary– a survivor of the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia – symbolizes to me the remarkable endurance of this scroll and of what
Jews in less-favorable times than ours did to assure that Torah persisted.  This history calls out to us with a
demand: live up to the dedication they showed to Torah by making Torah a significant part of your own life.

The Torah is a holy document, and so, too, are people holy.  When I ask God’s blessing on someone in the presence of the Torah – you may have noticed – it is my custom to place one hand on the person and one on the Torah.  I know I am not the source of the blessing.  I am but a conduit between a holy book and a holy person, praying that this holy quality flows from one hand to the other, from a scroll to a soul and that the person who receives this infusion of holiness may be changed and elevated from that point on.

There is so much more to write and to say about being in proximity to the Torah.  Enough for now.  Suffice it to say, I hope some of the feelings that I have haltingly tried to convey can imbue you with the mystical urge of Torah that I have the privilege of experiencing every week.

        Shalom,
        Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi
 
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