10/31/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
November 1, 2013


There are opportunities that come our way that we just shouldn’t miss. One of them is coming on Sunday, November 3rd, at Beth Israel. Professor Jonathan Garb of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem will be speaking from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., on “The Way of Pleasure and the Way of Doubt: Hasidic Inner Work”. The lecture is funded by the Jewish Studies Program at Rice University and The Rockwell Fund. Dr. Brian Ogren of Rice University has made special arrangements to bring this public lecture to Beth Israel and the community. We are very grateful to Dr. Ogren and Rice University for the partnership that makes Dr. Garb’s lecture available to us at Beth Israel for the community.

                The lecture on Hasidism is not about ultra-orthodox Judaism, fur hats and black coats. On the contrary, Hasidism was, at its roots, a break-away from Talmudists who were meticulous about Jewish ritual observances. Hasids found God in ritual observance, too, but mostly in the joy of Jewish living. The reaction to Hasidism was the Misnagdim who resorted to even greater meticulous observance of Jewish law.

                Evidence of Hasidic joy is found in pictures you can recall of traditional Jewish weddings. From such depictions, we learn that Jews don’t only sit and study; they also dance. While Hasidic Jews were originally those who found in life’s joys all of God’s blessings; today, we use the word Hasids to describe a sect of Judaism that is meticulous in its observance of Jewish law. The vast differences between us and them, today, have very little to do with the schism that began between the Hasids and the Misnagdim in the past. Professor Garb will undoubtedly point out how Judaism is about discovering joy in the world through awareness of God’s covenant as reflected in the mostly unfamiliar world of Hasidism.

                Dr. Jonathan Garb is the Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbalah in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He received his doctorate in 2000. In 2010 he was awarded the prestigious Hebrew University President's Prize for Outstanding Research. Professor Garb has lectured around the world. His focus is upon modern expressions of Kabbalah. his latest books are: The Chosen will Become Herds; Studies in Twentieth Century Kabbalah (Yale University Press, 2009); Shamanic Trance in Modern Kabbalah (The University of Chicago Press, 2011); and Kabbalist in the Heart of the Storm: Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto (Tel Aviv University Press, forthcoming).

                Treat yourself and your friends to a lively evening of learning with Dr. Garb. The lecture is free of charge and will take place at Congregation Beth Israel, from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. It would be helpful if you called or emailed Kathy McMahon in my office to let us know that you are coming at, or 713-771-6221. I look forward to welcoming you to another rich and engaging course in adult education at Congregation Beth Israel.


“The Way of Pleasure and the Way of Doubt: Hasidic Inner Work”

Professor Jonathan Garb of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Congregation Beth Israel, 5600 N. Braeswood Blvd

7:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m., Margolis Gallery

10/18/2013 12:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
October 18, 2013


“Brinksmanship” should be added to every American student’s new vocabulary list. Their assignment should be to learn how to spell it but never to do it. It’s a word that many people have been looking up for meaning during these past few weeks. As the debate and debacle increased in intensity in Washington, the effects of brinksmanship were felt by every American, both those who were financially diminished and those who shuddered with anxiety about the possibility of default.

                On this subject, Barbara Tuchman explained the path of failed leadership from Troy to Vietnam in her book “The March of Folly” (1984). She began her book with important principles of failed leadership in government. She wrote, “A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.” She explained that misgovernment is of four kinds: 1) tyranny or oppression; 2) excessive ambition; 3) incompetence or decadence; and, 4) folly or perversity. As the title suggests, she wrote about folly.

                Tuchman wrote that “to qualify as folly… the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. Second, a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. Third, the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler and should persist beyond any one political lifetime. It is on this third criterion that our government now hangs.

                The first criterion has been met. The policies and ideologies that were relentlessly pursued proved to be counter-productive in real time. We required no hindsight or historical perspective to identify the counter-productive quality of a filibuster and brinksmanship. The second criterion was also met because a feasible, or I would use the words “reasonable” and “negotiable”, alternative was always available. The folly that ensued left the country in a shambles wondering where leadership can be found. According to polls, Congress as a whole has failed Americans, and the Republican Party has been blamed for most of the trouble. It isn’t any consolation that the Democrats fared better only by default. Pundits have now asked many questions, but to me the critical question is how to avoid brinksmanship and how to avoid political folly?

                Tuchman’s thesis suggests that to stop the March of Folly we must not lend credence to ideological dogma that bubbles up from groups that aim to persist beyond one’s elected political lifetime. It is fair, according to her third criterion, to recognize groups and not just individuals that aim to confound a political process that, given available alternatives, would still bring us to the brink over which we would all fall together.

                Time is of the essence to prevent the possibility that we might continue on a path to irrelevance as a government and as a nation. Reasonable and available alternatives are always before us and should be taken up as the hallmark of our nation’s creed to be “One nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Let’s arrive at January 15th as reasonable people who follow the drum beat on our march of freedom and not the march of folly.

                Shabbat Shalom.

10/10/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
October 11, 2013


I did my civic duty this week. On Wednesday morning, I responded to a summons to report for jury duty. The truth is that I rescheduled three times since last spring, so I had no choice but to go. From experience I knew to bring my iPad, a sandwich, a bottle of water, a pack of gum, two pens, a phone charger, and a book. Whether I was standing, sitting, waiting, hungry, or thirsty, I was prepared. I’m not an Eagle Scout, but I know how to get ready for unfamiliar terrain.

                Once I was seated in the jury holding room in the basement level of 1201 Congress St, a great improvement over the cattle pens of years ago, I watched the video, turned in my papers (just the bottom half), and listened for my number, which was exchanged for my name. No longer was I rabbi, David, or even Lyon; I was just a number. They said it was easier that way; well, maybe for them. Without too much delay, the bailiff lined us up by number and led us two-by-two through a maze of corridors, up an elevator to the 19th floor, and lined us up along the wall. There weren’t any numbers that measured our height so it felt safe to face front or turn to the side.

                When we filed into the courtroom we were told where to sit next to our fellow numbers. It was very efficient but completely infantilizing. It’s been a very long time since I was told when I could take a bathroom break. The judge was amiable enough. Once I recognized who were the lawyers, the bailiffs and the court reporter, it occurred to me that the odd-man-out was the criminal defendant. For some reason I kept checking to be sure the bailiff was keeping an eye on him. The “voir dire” commenced with questions from the prosecuting attorneys. Trained to question lines of logic, I raised my hand three times to probe the attorney’s analogies about prosecutorial evidence. Each time the attorney called my number and I made my point. Frankly, he didn’t disagree with me; but, only because his analogies were like open hunting season for rabbis. After each exchange, I felt vindicated but not without concern that a mark was being placed by my name and for reasons that would not become clear until much later in the day.

                A lunch break was announced. Most of the Eagle Scouts went down to the basement cafeteria. I found a bench and opened my case to eat my sandwich, catch up on emails and text Lisa that I was still a numbered juror. An hour later, we were summoned back to our numbered places in the courtroom. It was the defense attorney’s turn to determine if we could presume innocence before the case began. To my total astonishment, a juror claimed that she could not presume innocence. The judge interjected and explained that our nation’s laws presume innocence until such time that prosecutors can prove otherwise. She still couldn’t comply. I wasn’t surprised that she was dismissed as a juror. Perhaps she was being clever without being self-conscious in order to be dismissed; but, it still concerns me that she’s loose in the community.

                I didn’t tangle with the defense attorney. Eventually, they all went into a hidden room to exchange notes about all of us. They carried large yellow legal pads and many colored pens. When they returned, they were still writing notes, exchanging highlighters for pens, flipping pages and occasionally eyeing us from their desks behind the rail. Then, as if on cue, they gave all their papers and colored notes to the judge’s assistant. The attorneys returned to their seats and waited like the rest of us. Finally, the judge spoke up. He called the numbers of the men and women who would serve as jurors for the criminal case. Inching closer to my number, I grew concerned that I would be called to the juror’s box. Then it happened; I was skipped. Those marks next to my name did mean something. And, then came those magic words that are still ringing in my ears, “Ladies and gentlemen, the rest of you are dismissed and free to go.” Like children leaving school in June for summer recess, adults of all ages, races, sizes and attitudes bounded out of the courtroom to find their ways back home and work.

                Mind you, had I been seated in the jury box, I would have been pleased to serve my community. But, when I turned on my phone again and found 130 emails and numerous text messages waiting for me, I was grateful that my service to the community had been noted (at least for the next six months) and that I could return to the community where I feel more at home than anywhere else. Thank you to each of you who responds to the jury summons, who acknowledges the laws of the land, and who, when seated, fulfills one of the most important roles in our free nation. But, take it from me, bring provisions; it’s a long, long day.

                Shabbat Shalom.

10/03/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
October 4, 2013


Levit Hall, a remarkable room on our campus, is many things for many occasions. After a complete makeover, Levit Hall serves all the purposes we’re familiar with plus it’s now a fully functioning gym with retractable basketball hoops, volleyball nets, a scoreboard, a curtain to divide the room in two play areas, and a new floor striped for basketball and volleyball. Twice each year the room is still used for Rosh Hashanah Teen service and Yom Kippur Alternative service. During the week, Shlenker School uses it for P.E. classes. Now, its multiple uses expand Levit Hall into everything we need for our congregational community.

                Intramurals, youth games, father/mother-son/daughter games, etc., are all possible as we bring fun and community together on our campus. Levit Hall was recently highlighted in a Houston Chronicle article for its innovative and community-building functions.



This Sunday, October 6, 2013, from 11:15am to 12:15pm, Michelle Renfrow, Youth Engagement Director, will host an OPEN HOUSE in Levit Hall for everyone to play, have fun, and spend time with friends and families. Stay and play! If you or someone you know would like to organize intramurals or other events, please call Michelle Renfrow.

                Engaging in Beth Israel doesn’t only mean lowering barriers to membership (everyone is welcome); it means widening the doorway with more reasons to come in. Worship, education and community are the three legs of our proverbial stool that support everything we are as a congregational family. By the way, did you know that volleyball is as old as Torah? In Genesis we learn that “Joseph served in Pharaoh’s court!” Now come and serve in Beth Israel’s court. See you in Levit Hall.

                Shabbat Shalom.

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