From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
On a late night talk show recently the host said that in Arizona we should expect to see signs in the windows of businesses that read, “Nice shirt. Nice shoes. No service.” He was referring to legislation in Arizona that would have permitted business owners to exercise their “religious rights” and discriminate against gay customers. The audience laughed because it was the right setting for it; but, the truth is that there’s nothing funny about it all.
The demographic of late night talk shows should still remember when those signs weren’t only about shirts and shoes. The flipside of those signs still bear the offending imprint of a time when the signs read “No Blacks. No Jews. No Dogs”. It’s difficult for younger people to believe that those signs ever existed, but they did. They left a lasting impression on some legislators in Arizona who believed that, even absent a real sign, it was okay to create an atmosphere of fear and discrimination. Closeted bigots and xenophobes must be disappointed that Arizona governor vetoed SB1062, the controversial “anti-gay bill”.
The result was a relief for the time-being, but the real test of Arizona’s moral compass isn’t settled. Achieving the right result for the wrong reason isn’t enough. The veto of SB1062 for economic concerns is a bad reason. It leaves out concern for the real human issues at stake. The veto of SB1062 for the reason that it “could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine and no one would ever want” is a bad reason, too. It’s bad form to apologize without being specific about the offense you committed. To apologize for everything that might have happened is just political convenience. On her third attempt, Governor Brewer added, “Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value. So is non-discrimination.” We should feel grateful for the right answer even if it came after many efforts to arrive at it.
In an environment like Arizona’s, keeping bigots at bay with language that meets our nation’s standards for freedom is a remarkable success. Brewer is smart not to distance herself from the national barometer that’s seeking greater achievements on equality and non-discrimination. It’s not just gays and lesbians, marijuana smokers, and same-sex couples that test our laws and standards; all of us have a need to be counted and represented in our laws and courts of justice. Their voices seem to stand out lately, but not because they’ve just arrived; they’ve always been here. Throughout the 70’s, when I was coming of age, my school teachers were the product of the 60’s, and I remember their mod outfits and VW Bugs. “Peace” was in and “War” was out. Breaking down boundaries was in the air and it stayed with most of us who learned more than math and reading from our young and optimistic teachers. When we grew to be 45-60 year-old men and women who came into leadership roles and political office, the optimism of our youth and young adulthood blossomed. We were and still are committed to avoiding discrimination in the way Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it could be done; we’re eager to eliminate obstacles to socio-economic success the way President Johnson envisioned; and, we’re hopeful that social changes that provide equality for all will unleash the human potential that resides in every person.
Religious rights are not threatened in this country. Be a Christian, Muslim, Jew. Be a Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh. Be an atheist. Let me be what I want to believe or not believe. It doesn’t offend God. The Bible says that all human beings were created in God’s image, and both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles teach, “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.” What part of that says, but not you? Judaism doesn’t permit us to embrace only the commandments we like; it demands that we engage them all and especially the ones that deal with human ethics. I have hope for Reform Judaism much like I have hope for a living Constitution, because they are mission-driven to meet us where we are while guiding us into a future that honors the past without being beholden to it.
In a land of religious freedom, I am a Jew. I believe in God and God hears my prayers. I pray for the rights of all my neighbors, and I also pray for those who say they pray for me.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
One morning this past week, I was waiting at the stop light at Evergreen and Chimney Rock, and listening to a CD by “Pink Martini” to jazz up my morning before a full day began as soon as I arrived at Temple. When the light turned green and before the van in front of me lurched forward, a cement truck and a large yellow school bus sped quickly through the red light coming from the left side of us. I thought to myself that that cement truck could have created a tragic scene had the van in front of me not waited a brief second. A school bus racing behind the cement truck through a red light could have created a tragic and appalling scene I don’t even want to imagine.
In the split second those two vehicles raced through the red light, I thought about all the things that I would have done had I not been stuck behind the van. I wouldn’t have raced through the green light because in Houston you have to pause before entering the intersection; but I would have changed directions to follow the school bus. I would have tailed it long enough to get its identification numbers from the side of the bus. Then I would have made phone calls to HISD to report the reckless driver. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
It’s difficult to imagine what is or isn’t going through the mind of a school bus driver who doesn’t slow at a yellow light and stop at a red light. The singular task, call it Job #1, is to provide safe transportation to children. In this context, “safe” is not a relative term. It needs no clarification, and making it through a red light without hitting anything doesn’t mean that the journey was safe. I would question the driver’s mental capacity let alone his/her judgment and then relieve the driver of his/her job. The unspoken expectations of a school bus driver should make us all gasp at the scene, let alone the prospect, of a school bus screaming through a red light at a small intersection with bad visibility.
Likewise, when I leave the Temple at the end of the day and walk to my car, I look out over North Braeswood and Braes Bayou. It’s often a beautiful evening and bicycle riders and joggers are going back and forth. But, it’s also too often that a city Metro bus is tearing down the boulevard at what must surely be 50 mph, something well in excess of the 35 mph posted speed limit. I have often thought to myself what on earth does a large stretch without stop lights between Chimney Rock and Hillcroft prompt drivers to imagine? It’s not the autobahn and there’s nothing novel about a Metro bus arriving a minute or two late to its next stop.
You and I can complain that frail human values lead to the disintegration of our society reflected in these examples, but that accomplishes little. I believe that an answer must lie in two essential human values: 1) the tasks that are assigned to us and the jobs that we do are inherently filled with meaning and duty. A school bus driver should be invested with the honor to carry our treasured children to and from school. They should be trained not only to drive safely, but also to observe in their job a sacred task and to be recognized for their achievements in those roles. There is nothing more sacred about my work than theirs if that’s what they’ve been engaged to do. Rabbi Karff has written and taught on the subject of “sacred vocation” which, when understood, applies as much to a doctor as it does to the school bus driver; and, 2) erring on the side of safety should always be a forgivable offense, even when the bus arrives late. We tend to hide human frailty as if it were a wart that no one should see; but, forgiveness is an inherently necessary part of our human relations that allow us to make harmless mistakes without fear that we can’t overcome them. Rabbi Eugene Borowitz teaches that when we observe in our work a sacred partnership, then, even when we fail, “we have the possibility for repair.” There is nothing more important to any of us than the feeling that we are whole in our own skin, in the company of family and friends, and before God. Wholeness isn’t easy to achieve and often more difficult to maintain. If we let go of the idea that wholeness and perfection are the same things, then we can be whole as long as we are aiming to achieve, and repairing our effort to improve our aim.
God help the children who ride the school bus of such errant drivers. God help us find our way to fuller lives through deep appreciation of our sacred vocations wrapped up in good works for good reasons. And, oh yes, slow down.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Kaddish is one of the most moving and mysterious prayers we know. Perhaps it’s because Kaddish isn’t a prayer at all. Kaddish is an ancient praise to God. Its meaning is found in the timing of its recital. Ironically, it says nothing about grief, sorrow or salvation. As a praise, it lifts us out of our despair by turning us towards life’s hope found in God’s presence.
The custom of reciting Kaddish varies regionally. Traditionally, Kaddish is recited only by mourners. By definition, mourners are those who are grieving the loss of a spouse, brother, sister, father, mother, son or daughter. Others may mourn but they are not expected to observe mourning rituals and are not relieved of daily religious obligations. In the synagogue, rituals vary regionally and locally. In a traditional setting only the mourners rise and recite Kaddish. The congregation responds in specific places within the recitation of the Kaddish. In Reform congregations, it is often the custom for the entire congregation to rise and recite Kaddish after the entire yahrtzeit list is read aloud. There are basically two reasons for this: 1) in a post-Holocaust world, were it not for us there would be no one to recite Kaddish for those who perished; and, 2) when the congregation stands with the mourners it demonstrates our support in their grief. All these and other reasons have led to the familiar customs we now observe.
In our Gordon Chapel, beginning about 13 years ago, another custom was introduced. Those who come to worship are invited to rise where they are and a member of the family calls out the name of their beloved before the congregation rises and joins them in reciting Kaddish, but the entire yahrtzeit list is not read aloud. If a family member doesn’t attend then their loved one’s name isn’t read. This custom was recently questioned because there are names that are not read aloud either by family or the rabbi, but whose memory should be honored as beloved departed members of the congregation. After an important conversation with the Worship Committee, I resolved to address the question with an answer.
After much thought, I concluded that we have a duty to honor our beloved dead by reciting their names aloud. We want to honor the names of those who perished in the Holocaust. We want to acknowledge that some older members of the congregation cannot physically attend services. And, we recognize that live-streaming worship permits those who cannot attend to worship with us from home. Thus, the rabbi should read all the names aloud enabling us to honor all our beloved dead whether we are physically in the Chapel or at home. Rising to honor a beloved family member remains a special part of the Chapel custom, so in order to preserve it, too, the following custom will be observed in the Gordon Chapel going forward: 1) the rabbi will introduce Kaddish and read all the names on the yahrtzeit list including names of those who were laid to rest in recent days; 2) as names are called, members of the family of the deceased may rise at their places if they choose to do so; and, 3) upon completion of the reading of the yahrtzeit list, the whole congregation will be invited to rise to recite Kaddish together. The directions will be given by the rabbi in the Gordon Chapel services.
In the sanctuary, when we read the entire yahrtzeit list, it might happen that family members will rise, without instructions to do so, when their beloved’s name is read aloud. That is perfectly fine and when the reading of names is concluded we’ll all rise to recite Kaddish, together. The rabbis, cantor and members of the Worship Committee trust that this custom will honor all those who once worshiped with us that they may remain in our hearts and minds with abiding love and peace.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
There’s so much happening at Beth Israel for you and your family. Let me begin by inviting you to take note of very special programs you shouldn’t miss.
February 7th, Friday night, 6:30pm, Sanctuary, Rabbi Mark Miller will be honored for his time and service, dedication and gifts to Beth Israel. In a service wrapped in warmth and music, we will share our Sabbath prayers and give thanks for the blessings we’ve known with Mark and his family. Come hear our tributes and Rabbi Miller’s personal words before we sing our closing song and wish him “L’hitra’ot” until we meet again.
February 11, Tuesday evening, 7:15pm, Wolff-Toomim Hall, Michael Doran with Warren Kozak will be LIVE from the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Their topic is “The United States, Iran and Israel --- What’s Next?” Everyone is welcome. The program begins LIVE from NYC at 7:15pm.
February 14th, Friday night, 6:30pm, Sanctuary, Dr. Ron Wolfson will speak at Shabbat services. Dr. Wolfson, visionary educator and inspirational speaker, is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a cofounder of Synagogue 3000. He is author of The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community and many other inspirational books. February 15th, Shabbat morning, 9:45am, Finger Board Room, Dr. Ron Wolfson will lead Torah study.
Dr. Wolfson is impressed by Beth Israel’s transformations these past 10 years. He will speak to the values present in our congregation, how engagement builds Jewish identity, and how to leverage our strengths for the future we seek.
Mark your calendars now for March 7, 2014, 6:30pm in the sanctuary, for Dr. Rabbi Jonathan Cohen, an Israel-born scholar, is Dean and Professor in Talmud and Halakhic Literature at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati. His brilliant and inspiring lessons are not to be missed. Our Reform seminary is proud to be led by Dr. Cohen and we are delighted to welcome him to Beth Israel. On Shabbat morning, Dr. Cohen will lead Torah study in the Finger Board Room.
Our Director of Lifelong Learning, David Scott, joins me in welcoming you to enjoy worship and education as part of your family’s commitment to enriching your Jewish experience and identity. For more about Beth Israel, go to www.beth-israel.org, and for more about our 160th Anniversary Celebration, go to www.cbibeablessing.org. The resources of our large and welcoming congregation reach the inner soul of each person and the outer limits of Jewish imagination. Find your place among us and enjoy modern, relevant and joyful Jewish life with us.
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