From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Passover Seders are behind us, but the holiday doesn’t end until Monday night. During the week, we recount the ancient story and relate its themes to our struggle for freedom today.
In the U.S.-Israel relationship, greater freedom began with President Obama’s recent visit to Israel. Though he has had numerous conversations and meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the past, this was Obama’s first trip to Israel as President. Everybody watched as the President and Prime Minister exchanged messages and promises. The outcome was positive. Familiar leaders and young students in Israel gave Obama favorable ratings for his message and purpose. Some Israelis who had previously discounted Obama, now found him to be sincere and supportive of Israel, as much as any previous president had been. Nothing in Obama’s statements should have given Israel reasons to question his commitments. And, why would they? Israel remains the only reliable, democratic, Middle-Eastern ally. On the subject of oil, arms, Arab spring, and, most notably, Iran, the U.S. and Israel need each other.
I am not a prophet, but the relatively unchecked developments in Iran’s nuclear program suggests to me that Obama’s visit to Israel underscores any future messages that the U.S. and Israel will make about it. The clock is ticking on Iran’s nuclear capability completion date, and though intercepting it militarily poses incalculable risks, the world looks to the U.S. and Israel for a response. Whether or not Israel will act alone, all signs are being directed to the conclusion that, after any possible strike is made against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the U.S. and Israel will address the world as one.
Another struggle is taking place in Israel, but it’s an internal struggle for freedom. Akin to the Arab spring, modern Israelis, most notably women, are gaining ground in their effort to be heard. The Reform Movement is at the heart of their effort to pray as equals at the Western Wall, to advocate for religious women to ride the bus as men do, and to win recognition for weddings and conversions to be recognized by the state outside the current Orthodox rabbinic authority. Modernity and Judaism have rarely been out of synch except in Israel, where Orthodox authorities rule all religious functions.
Reform Judaism, represented by the URJ, HUC-Jerusalem, and leaders like Anat Hoffman of the Israeli Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Uri Regev of Hiddush, are making greater and swifter strides in recent times. You’re invited to hear Rabbi Uri Regev at Congregation Beth Israel, on June 7th, when he will speak during Shabbat Summer services in the Gordon Chapel. In advance, peruse his website at www.hiddush.org for the latest news on advances in freedom for progressive (liberal) Jews and Judaism in Israel.
This is not an example of America exporting democracy to a theocracy. Israel is a democratic state built on democratic principles, much like the Torah teachings, themselves. All the people are bound to the covenant God made with the Israelite people when they went free out of Egypt, as we learn, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God, every Israelite” (Deuteronomy 29:9ff). All are equal before God; some are not more equal than others. In the 21st century, in a world filled with more freedoms for Jews than at any other time in world history, it’s time to let Torah burst forth in the hands of every Jew, especially in Israel.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover.
Yizkor will be observed at services on Monday, April 1st, 10:30am in the Gordon Chapel. All are welcome.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Shabbat HaGadol. The Great Sabbath. That’s what the Shabbat before Passover is called. But, this year it’s called “Beatles Shabbat”. I know it sounds strange, but it’s also become one of the most sought after services of the year.
In the past, the Great Sabbath served a purpose. It was the single time during the year that the rabbi gave a sermon. He spoke at length on the details of Passover observance. He addressed the major themes of Passover. He cultivated deep understanding of how we, like our ancestors, were “fugitive Arameans” who went free from Egypt.
Today, we look forward to Passover for similar reasons. We will address major themes of the holiday at our Seder table. We will cultivate deep understanding of our people’s story by relating modern dilemmas with ancient themes. And, we will see ourselves as people who are still liberating the world from slavery of many kinds.
Beatles Shabbat is a liberation story for the Jewish people. To our ancestors, America was the Golden Land. Even if the streets weren’t literally paved with gold as they dreamed about, America still lived up to its promise as a land of opportunity. In the 1960’s, the British invasion of the Beatles swept over generations of young Americans, Jewish ones, too, with cutting-edge music for a new age. Since then, Jews eventually gained total acceptance in America. Today, there are no quotas or barriers to entry anywhere, not universities, law firms, hospitals, or country clubs, with the exception of a few holdouts. Young people today don’t make choices for their future based on barriers they need to overcome. For young and old, alike, Beatles music is part of their heritage as much as the Passover Seder. The music, the beat, and the lyrics from the Haggadah and “Yellow Submarine” turn on different parts of our hearts and souls, but they are both very much a part of us.
Truthfully, Beatles Shabbat is only coincidentally on Shabbat HaGadol, and we can’t credit Beatles music for deepening Jewish acceptance in America. Maybe it’s a case study for Levitt and Dubner’s “Freakonomics”. But, the coincidence is also apropos of our American and Jewish stories. They are not separate for us; not like they were generations ago. Singing our liturgy to Beatles music is the quintessential demonstration of being American and Jewish at one and the same time.
So, this is one reason why Beatles Shabbat has become the great Sabbath at Congregation Beth Israel once-a-year. We won’t thrive on a steady diet of Beatles Shabbat every week, but we will always associate modernity and Judaism in the ways we worship, learn, and engage the community. Beatles is just one example.
The other reason why Beatles Shabbat has become the great Sabbath, is because of Cantor Daniel Mutlu. He is a superb musician whose versatility enables him to interpret traditional Chazzanut, contemporary Jewish folk music, and modern pop, with respect due each genre. Worshipers in the sanctuary join eagerly in singing, or close their eyes to imagine themselves in the settings where they first heard their favorite pieces.
On Beatles Shabbat, all the rabbis will join Cantor Mutlu, but the most important people will be you and your friends. Has it been a particularly long week? Set down your troubles and “let it be, let it be.” “All you need is love” bound up in spirited music this Shabbat. Just “imagine all the people” who will join you at Beth Israel, at 6:30pm in the sanctuary. Come early for a good seat.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom, peace!
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
White smoke. To you and me it means the Sabbath candles have finally burned down. To Catholics around the world it means a new Pope has been elected. Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, the first in hundreds of years, drew Cardinals to Rome, to assemble in the Sistine Chapel and pray, contemplate, and vote for the next Pope. This is unlike anything we’ve ever known in Judaism. So, when a non-Jewish, non-Catholic person asked me recently what this means for the Jewish community, I had to consider my answer.
On the one hand, it means nothing. We go about our business without any interest or concern about the Vatican’s religious decisions. It’s a spectacle that attracts our attention for its historical and cultural significance.
On the other hand, it means so much. In history, the Pope’s relationship to the Jewish community around the world has carried much weight. Over centuries, the Pope’s sympathy or wrath towards Jews meant the difference between peace and strife. Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) who served during the Holocaust left a record rife with painful examples of derision towards Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis. For much of the War, he remained silent while German atrocities were committed. His meager attempts to shelter Jews were far outnumbered by horrific examples of indifference and outright scorn for their pleas.
Pius’s successors, beginning with Pope John XXIII, contemporized aspects of church practice including the relationship between the Church and the Jewish people. Nostra Aetate (1965) cleared Jews of responsibility for Jesus’ death, renounced the claim that Jews were rejected by God, condemned anti-Semitism, and called for mutual understanding and respect between Catholics and Jews. But, it was John Paul II (1978-2005), who took part in the historic Second Vatican Council, who would transform these remarkable words into real actions.
The young man who would become John Paul II, was an eyewitness to the Holocaust. The familiar story is told how a few months before the war ended he rescued a starving 13 year-old Jewish girl at a train station by taking her to his rail car and feeding her. His heart was moved. After his election as Pope in 1978, John Paul II often devoted his energy to improving relations between Catholics and Jews. His visit to a synagogue in Rome was monumental and his frequent visits with Jewish leaders renewed diplomatic relations with Israel. Like others before him, he maintained certain boundaries; but, the achievements he managed between Catholics and Jews renewed hope for peaceful relations in the future.
Pope Benedict XVI turned a conservative corner and guided the Church to reclaim the Latin mass and other aspects of the past. Some relished the change and others protested. Worse, however, are the sexual and financial scandals that have racked the Church hierarchy. In effect, they forced Benedict XVI to resign and turn over management of these affairs to one who would have more vigor and ability. Thankfully, in his relationship with the Jewish world he didn’t reclaim the past. Rather, he embraced what his predecessors had also concluded about Jesus’ death, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Though he drew ire from Jewish leaders on occasion, he learned from their appeals and demonstrated understanding. In a meeting with Jewish leaders the Pope said the Catholic Church was “profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism.”
So, what does it mean for the Jewish community that a new Pope is elected in Rome? You can decide for yourself. To me, it means that, God willing, the new Pope will be a man with skill enough to assemble his Church around acts of contrition and repentance for the sake of renewed holiness and respect; and, compassion enough to build on his predecessor’s legacies who laid foundations of understanding and respect with and for the Jewish people.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
By the time you read this I’ll be home from the annual convention of Reform Rabbis. The CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) gathers annually for study, perspective and collegiality. This year, we gathered in Long Beach, California. Our focus was on Judaism as we know it and as it’s shifting in this internet-centered, Next Gen, 21st century world. “Rabbis Leading the Shift: Jewish Possibility in a Rapidly Changing World” was the theme that tied together all our study and conversation.
“Leading the Shift” means getting ahead of the trends that are reshaping our world. The trends are sometimes elusive and nearly always complicated because they are not perfectly visible or quantified. The trends are mostly anecdotal and what data is available about them remains useful for only a brief period. Therefore, getting ahead of the trends requires less surgical and long-term changes and more trial and error again and again. Some models of change already exist and we can learn from them; but, too few metrics exist to suggest that these models will endure or if they can be successful outside their original trial settings.
The shift that dominates the conversation is technology, who’s using it and for what purposes. Technology is, as you know, about the internet, smartphones, and social media. Who’s using technology exceeds 1 billion users on Facebook, a large percentage of whom live outside the U.S., and the ages of users run the gamut from very young to very old, but mostly young. Technology is being used for everything and I mean that in the broadest and deepest sense of the word.
In Judaism, the combination of Next Gen’ers who use smartphones and social media to build communities of interest has redefined the familiar Jewish community. Increasingly, post-denominational Jews, those who identify themselves as Jewish but not Reform or Conservative, are changing the landscape and challenging the ways synagogues and “legacy Jewish institutions” (JCC’s, Hadassah, NCJW, etc.) are doing business. Some new answers are helping define new ways of doing business, but what works this year might not be useful the following year. There are no perfect answers, because the questions are still being asked, and I don’t believe that the best questions have even been asked yet.
For rabbis and Jewish leaders of all kinds, the most important duty is to recognize the Shifts as they are identified, and to embrace the responsibility to engage in new and intentional conversations about them. Successful answers should be published for everyone to emulate; and, unsuccessful answers should inspire leaders to re-imagine new possibilities. At Congregation Beth Israel, we have held intentional conversations about Shifts we’ve observed. Live-streaming worship and adult education, and building an on-line congregation is just one answer. High-quality worship, study and community service are parts of other answers. Inspired by the CCAR conference in Long Beach, the clergy team and Temple Board will continue to address the challenges that will help us build value in congregational life. At www.beth-israel.org, Beth Israel is described as a place where Judaism is Relevant, Joyful, and Meaningful, the very words that are used to describe 21st century synagogues that are leading the Shift. We’re on our way.
Please accept my invitation to join me, our clergy and lay leaders in Leading the Shift at Beth Israel. It’s not enough that we are the oldest synagogue in Texas, organized in 1854; we also have to be the finest synagogue for the 21st century.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
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