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04/25/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
April 26, 2013


Shabbat Shira. Music Shabbat. Call it what you will. It’s all wonderful, inspiring and engaging music led by Cantor Daniel Mutlu in a worship setting led by Beth Israel Rabbis Lyon, Scott and Miller.


Shabbat Shira, Friday Night, April 26, 2013, 6:30pm in the Sanctuary


Music has an effect on us that is difficult to describe. As Cantor sings Klepper/Freelander’s Shalom Rav, or Richards’ R’tzei, or Aloni’s Modim, we are moved. Some of you close your eyes and listen. Some of you watch and listen. Some of you sing along eagerly and joyously. I look and listen, too. I look at you and admire your enjoyment. I listen to the notes and nuance that Cantor reaches and touches so artistically. If it were just music, it would be enough. But, it’s more. Notes lifted up off the page through artistic interpretation, turn music into prayer. Like our prayers, Cantor’s music are offerings to God.

                Music’s effect was also described by Thomas Beecham (d. 1961), who was an English conductor with the London and Royal Philharmonic orchestras. He once said, “The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought.” He could have easily have said that the function of Shabbat music is to release us from the tyranny of a week’s work. Either way, to be led away from daily tasks to encounter the spiritual is, in itself, a sacred task. It all begins with the permission we grant ourselves to listen, to tune in, and to be moved. For some of us, it happens every week, and for others, it happens less often, or by some other musical means. Listening to music in the car or at home can turn a long drive or quiet house into a personal space or refuge. But, listening to music in the sanctuary, whether it’s Chazzanut, jazz, Beatles, or traditional liturgy, truly “releases us from the tyranny of conscious thought.”

                Music’s power in the sanctuary is evidenced best by its effect on young teenagers. Young teens usually sit together like worker bees around the queen. They often talk or text through the service as if the clergy were actors in a show they were forced to attend. But, when Cantor Mutlu picks up his guitar to lead a liturgical piece or lead us in a closing song, the teens begin to focus on the bimah. They stop talking and texting. They put their arms around each other and move with the music. It’s a stunning change that only music has been able to produce in them. It’s hard to know what conscious thoughts music releases in teenagers’ minds, but it’s good to know that they’re not hard of hearing or totally unaware of the service going on before them.

                If music’s power can turn a teenager around to face the bimah, it can surely turn our hearts and minds around, too. Who wouldn’t like to be released from the tyranny of their conscious thoughts? On Shabbat Shira, we celebrate the role that music plays in worship. We clap with the rhythm, move with the beat, and sing the words we know so well. Cantor Mutlu welcomes us to sing with him and transform our music into prayers we offer on Shabbat, together.

                See you on Shabbat Shira, Friday night, 6:30pm, in the sanctuary. From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

04/18/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
April 19, 2013


After this week’s Boston tragedy, I struggled to find the words. Then my daughter at UT wrote me a text message, “I hope one day, when I tell my kids about all of these tragedies and bomb threats, they’ll think I’m crazy because all that they will have ever known is peace.” I replied, “Amen to that.”

                When I opened the Torah portion this week, I read Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, a double portion. Acharei Mot means “after the death” of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Kedoshim means “holiness” and it contains the Holiness Code, including “Love your neighbor”. After tragic days, be they ancient or modern, we need a Holiness Code. We need a way to rise above the fray and retain our humanity in the face of inhumanity. We need to know that personal power can overcome the effects of bombs and bullets.

                In Leviticus 19, we read, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” It would appear that to be holy like God might require awesome power, but it doesn’t. Our rabbis taught that the goal is to be humanly holy. I think they tried to say that we didn’t have to possess Godly power to be holy; rather, we need only to live above the fray. To live above the fray can be spiritually enriching. It can lift us out of helplessness and set us on a path of hopefulness. And, by living above it, they meant the brand of humanity described in Torah.

                Our covenant with God is predicated on our participation in a set of rules that elevates us beyond even our own expectations. That’s why Leviticus 19 begins, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord, your God am holy” instead of, “You shall not be holy, for only I, the Lord your God, am holy.” The covenant demands that we become more with Torah, rather than less without it.

                For example, Leviticus 19:9 describes a human ethic that separates us from our baser instincts by aiming our efforts towards a higher good. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest…you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” Most of us understand the meaning of this ethical teaching, but its meaning can escape the brightest and most powerful among us. As urbanites, we don’t know much about farming, but we do know about reaping benefits and harvesting returns. We should also know something about donating a portion of our earnings for the poor and the stranger.

                Aiming for higher human expectations can give purpose to everything. Food is a basic necessity of life. When we live above the fray we see it as nutritious fuel and not as a triumph. “All you can eat” is a perfect example of feeding our baser instincts. Perhaps “All you need” is a better way of approaching the buffet. Sex is also a God-given urge. We shouldn’t deny it or exploit it. Living above the fray can mean a loving relationship with expectations for satisfying that urge in mutually respectful ways.

                In Leviticus 19:18, we read, “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord, your God.” This appears to be the high point along the way. Here we have aimed high so that human holiness is reflected in what we’ve made of ourselves and given to others. Mutual respect and love is the apex of holiness.

                In a world where bombs and bullets have become our offense and defense, I believe that we can still rise above the fray and aim for peace that begins with a moral code. It links us to each other, and makes us beholden to God, who more than we, is truly Holy.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

04/11/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
April 12, 2013


Equality. Diversity. Pluralism. These are familiar words to us. They are part of our vocabulary and our outlook. But, in Israel, they have been foreign words even in Hebrew. The orthodox have a lock on all religious matters, including how men and women pray at the Western Wall, the holiest site for all Jews. It is here that non-orthodox women have led protests to open the Western Wall to egalitarian modes of worship, such as men and women praying together and women who want to read Torah and wear a tallis, a prayer shawl.

                “The Women of the Wall”, as they have come to be known, have been arrested, insulted, and assaulted by orthodox men who find these women’s wants to be incursions on Jewish law. Protests and tests of wills by mostly non-orthodox women from across the world, most notably from America, have drawn media attention and enormous support for their cause. In recent days, some progress was made when Natan Sharansky proposed “one Western Wall for one Jewish people.” He called for a solution to “soothe over the differences by creating a permanent area for mixed-gender and women-led prayer.” The AP also reports that “it would be located in an area on a lower level, where limited mixed-gender prayer already is allowed, but which mainly serves as an archaeological site. The area would be renovated with a platform that would place it at the same level as the rest of the Western Wall plaza and it would be open to worshipers around the clock, just like the exiting men’s and women’s sections.”

                For those who have been there, the area they are recommending to enlarge is Robinson’s Arch. Currently, non-orthodox bar and bat mitzvah services are often held by Robinson’s Arch and led by Reform and Conservative rabbis. Sharansky’s plan has much merit, and up until Thursday morning (Houston time), it was lauded by Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who heads Israel’s Reform Jewish movement. At the time, he said that it could be a watershed moment for liberal Judaism. “If the Israeli government embraces the solution, I think it’s a breakthrough of relations between the Israeli government and the progressive Jewish world,” Kariv said. Even the Western Wall’s Orthodox rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, endorsed the compromise solution. He said, “I want everyone to pray according to Orthodox Jewish religious law, but I won’t interfere. If these things can be done at the Western Wall without hurting others, and this can bring about compromise and serenity, I don’t object.”

                But, if you thought that equality, diversity and pluralism were foreign words in Israel, add compromise to the list. Thursday morning’s news brought new reports of arrests of five women at the Wall. Kariv remarked, “The new government has to decide if they truly want to seek a comprehensive solution or if all they are trying to do is to please world Jewry for a few months.” Progressive Judaism’s goal is perfectly clear. It is not to be appeased for a few months. It is unequivocally to cultivate in Israel the enduring values of non-Orthodox Judaism which include equality, diversity and pluralism for peace among Jews.

                In a region where peace eludes us, should it also elude the Jewish people whose central tenet is faith in One God? Is it not with One people that God made a sacred covenant? Sharanksy put it best, “One Western Wall for One Jewish People”. Take it from a man who knew a time when he couldn’t pray with his people at all. May God have mercy on our people; may God help us find the wisdom to seek God in peace.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

04/04/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
April 5, 2013


We are a blessed congregation. We can count many multiple generational families in Beth Israel. We mark our time as a congregation with traditions and customs, but also with heritage. What’s the difference? Traditions and customs come down to us from one generation to the next, but they change as every generation adds, subtracts, and refines their religious inheritance. Heritage, on the other hand, is the root of our shared experiences over many generations. At Beth Israel, now in its 159th year, our heritage is long and deep.

                An example of our heritage includes the worship style of the past. Beth Israel was organized in 1854, as an orthodox congregation. Shortly thereafter, Beth Israel leaders adopted the Reform style. In the late 19th century, Reform Judaism was new to America, and Beth Israel leaders believed that it was the best way to meet their Jewish and new-world (modern) needs. Well into the mid 20th century, Beth Israel modeled what became known as Classical Reform. Characteristics of Classical Reform worship were a largely English service, no ritual garb such as kippot (yarmulkes), and a timely service that began and ended promptly. The prayer book was the Union Prayerbook (UPB). It was small, concise, and written in the King’s English. In the earliest versions of the UPB, the rabbi’s part in the service was labeled “Minister”. The rabbi was not generally called a minister, but in an effort to assimilate the role of rabbi as service leader in America, his functionary title in worship was minister.

                In 1975, the Gates of Prayer (The New Union Prayerbook) was published. Unlike its predecessor, the GOP, as it was known, was larger and fuller. It contained not one Friday night service, but 10! It appealed to the times when in the 1960’s many God ideas and modes of prayer were being considered. Service #1 was as traditional as Reform worship could be, while Service #10 did not mention God even once. By the time I joined the congregation in 1990, we used only two services on Friday night in GOP, Service #2 and #5. They provided variety but not diversity.

                In the last three years, we adopted Mishkan Tefilah (MT), the latest iteration of the Reform prayerbook. Unlike both its predecessors, the MT opens right to left to facilitate Hebrew reading, and, while it’s thinner and lighter than GOP, it contains multiple readings to accommodate not only variety but also diversity.

                The long arc of evolution of worship brings us back to honor the glory of Classical Reform Judaism and its roots at Beth Israel. Once each year, we use the Union Prayerbook during Heritage Shabbat. We use the organ in full voice and Cantor Dan Mutlu intones the Classical Reform settings of those times. In addition, we honor a family that has long roots and deep heritage in Beth Israel.

                On Friday, April 5th, at 6:30pm in the sanctuary, we will honor the Ladin/Weycer families who have been part of the congregation for multiple generations. We will worship with the Union Prayerbook, sing the Classical Reform settings, and welcome the Ladin/Weycer families to the bimah for a special blessing. Come to remember your heritage and honor the families that represent our past, our present and our future. How long has your family been part of Beth Israel?

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

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