From the Desk of Rabbi
Thirty-six times the Torah commands, "The stranger you should not mistreat, nor should you oppress him as you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. The Torah text is succinct, leaving much room for commentaries. Among them is a Midrash, a rabbinic interpretation, that implores us, "Do not scold your neighbor with a fault which is also your own” (Mekhilta 18). The rabbis connected the Torah text to our collective Jewish memory. Just as we read in the Passover Haggadah, "My father was a fugitive Aramean,” we are taught to see ourselves, and therefore our "fault,” as having been slaves and then redeemed from slavery.
As Jews, we are inextricably tied to our past. As a result, we have no choice but to learn from it and to live by the lessons that have come down to us. Now, it’s our duty to translate the commandments for our times. Beginning with the moral imperative not to mistreat the stranger or oppress him, let’s use the word "immigration,” not as a pejorative, but rather as the intentional objective of those who languish in war-torn and oppressive lands to reach a land known for welcoming the tired, poor, "huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Every immigrant refugee who comes to these shores has been vetted sometimes over months or years. There are some who fail to keep their promise to us, but let’s not fail to keep our promise to them. In light of recent failures to them, our nation has been horrified by burning of mosques, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, and bomb threats to JCC’s and synagogues. All of it emerges from consequences of our failures to bear witness to our sacred texts. No one should be indifferent to or stand idly by when we or our neighbors face the indignity of such failures. It’s too easy to resolve that we’re all immigrants. It’s more important to say that we’re the beneficiaries of our ancestors who saw this country for what it meant to them and, therefore, to us. If we fail in our lessons from Torah, then we will have failed our parents and their parents, too.
After recent threats to JCC’s and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, the Houston Jewish community received a letter from the Muslim community, signed by 26 leaders of the Houston Muslim community representing over 120,000 Muslims. They wrote:
"Fellow faith leaders, we offer these words of support to the Jewish community in Houston who have seen a rise in anti-Semitism through bomb threats, vandalism, and hate speech in our country, and most notably, a bomb threat at the JCC of Houston. These despicable acts do not represent the fabric of our city, state or that of our nation. We stand next to you saddened and shocked by the actions of those who have not had a chance to learn about you, your families, and your faith. As the Jewish and Muslim communities, along with all other minorities, face a growing wave of dissent because of the political winds, know that the Muslim community continues to, and will always stand with you and your families against anti-Semitism. We will not allow the seeds of hate to sprout in our city without fierce resistance. Know this day, and know this always, an attack on a person of Jewish faith is an attack on all of us. We will always stand together.”
Faith is not a guarantee of the future we wish to see. Yet, if we will bear witness to the faith that has been bequeathed to us, then we may enjoy what Midrash also taught, "I, God, have given you many laws, but also much reward.”
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of
Rabbi David Lyon
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, rabbi, attorney, and Executive Director of the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism, is coming to Houston this weekend. The reason for his visit marks the beginning of a movement in Houston, to advocate for the goals of the IMPJ. The IMPJ aims "to strengthen the connection of our People and its loyalty to Jewish heritage, and to reform the State of Israel according to the principles of the individual and social morality of Judaism” (www.reform.org.il/eng/). An arm of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the IMPJ serves the goals of Reform Judaism in Israel.
In the news we hear mostly about Israel’s political and geographic enemies. But, there are also threats to Israel’s well-being deep within Israeli society. Socio-economic issues challenge Reform Jewish values on fair-housing, pay equality, and job security. Religious issues challenge Reform expectations for the right of Reform rabbis to officiate at marriages and conversions. And, civil rights issues challenge Reform Judaism’s commitments to tolerance and fairness across ethnic and religious boundaries.
Unchallenged laws and restrictions will undo the hope that the Land can still be a homeland for all Jews and its non-Jewish citizens. Unfortunately, the ultra-orthodox lay claim to religious authority even though large numbers (www.hiddush.org) demonstrate that their grip on Jewish law is not in the best interest of Israel’s future. Young Israelis leave Israel to marry before they return, if at all. Converts to Judaism are challenged by ultra-orthodox authorities and are often labeled non-Jewish. Socio-economic distress forces Israelis to leave Israel, for better opportunities, and those who wish to make Aliyah, to move to Israel, question the way of life they will know there.
Israel is the Jewish homeland. No longer a driven people, Israel is home to Jews and non-Jews. Failures in civil, social, religious and economic rights shouldn’t be the price they pay for living in Israel. The ultra-orthodox monopoly has overreached its boundaries in Israel, a modern, democratic nation where 90% of the population claims to be anything but ultra-orthodox.
IMPJ has done great work on behalf of progressive Judaism in Israel. To us, they’re unsung heroes, but it’s time to bring them out of the wings and the shadows. It’s time for us to learn about IMPJ from Rabbi Gilad Kariv and his staff. I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Rabbi Kariv in Israel, in preparation for his visit to Houston. This is the beginning of what I believe will be a long-standing partnership between us and our progressive Jewish friends in Israel. The modern, relevant, and progressive Jewish life we love in America, even when we agree to disagree, is not the same for non-orthodox Jews living in Israel.
Rabbi Kariv will tell us where we’re succeeding and what challenges to our collective efforts still remain. Advocacy for Israel and Progressive Judaism is consistent with Congregation Beth Israel’s Israel advocacy work. Please join me this weekend, February 17th-19th, at Congregation Beth Israel, where Rabbi Kariv will spend a full weekend with us.
The Torah and its teachings were given to us so that we may live by them, not die by them. A person’s soul flourishes when it’s given roots and wings. Roots are planted in the foundations of Jewish culture and heritage; wings are the ways the Jewish people continues to be a "light to the nations,” for us and for others, in this time and place.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
"Encountering the World
Rabbi David Lyon / Congregation Beth Israel, Houston / email@example.com
Jewish thought is complex. It’s not complicated; it’s just complex, and multiple opinions are the norm. The tradition of holding in mind two or more opinions is rooted in Talmud. The dialectical method, by definition, pushed boundaries and invited inquiry until one opinion held sway over other alternatives. Even then, time and circumstances invited more commentary and sometimes a former conclusion was revised. If it reminds you of the precedent of Case Law, it should, because it’s virtually the same. The result is that it uniquely prepared the Jewish world to encounter and address the world throughout history.
Today, we can encounter and address the world better prepared than most others, but only if we embrace the dialectical method for similar reasons that the Talmudists did. Their goal was to preserve Torah teachings and its inherent and subsequent lessons. Our goal is to preserve the Constitution and subsequent Case Law. As Reform Jews, our aim is to engage in that process, which is inextricably tied to evolutionary changes in culture and religion. Inevitably, they present us with objectionable challenges we feel compelled to protest, or reasonable outcomes we feel prepared to accept, or both.
In an "Outlook” article published in the Houston Chronicle on June 23, 2015, I wrote, "In the wrong hands, we err when we use the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible and the Koran as eternal law codes. At best, they are human words inspired by faith that guide us to their highest ideals for love between humankind and love between us and God. We ascribe to these words a sacred quality due to their remarkable journey from ancient times down to our own. Having succeeded in reaching us, the obligation of the faithful is to discern from their ancient and translated syntax and context the greatest lessons for our times. Today, we have more understanding about the natural world than any generation before us. We have defined universal boundaries for crimes against humanity, and we know that 2000 year-old prohibitions against some sins bear little if any resemblance to the environment in which we think we find them, today. The evolution of human thought that came from individual and social aspirations for knowledge and understanding was supposed to help us conclude that perspectives on human equality, racial, sexual, religious, etc., evolved, too. It isn’t enough to thump our Bibles to point at our claim on divine understanding and ultimate authority.”
"Faith in the right hands was never supposed to provide only the right answers. Faith in the right hands was always supposed to provide the right questions. Our sacred books filled with ancient words in translation take us on a journey of history, sociology, religious thought, economics, sexuality, and other subjects that should pique our curiosity constantly. The sacred quality of our Bibles is in their enduring ability to raise timeless questions for every generation so that they can find answers that enable them to maintain not an ancient standard of times gone-by, but benchmarks that reveal the greatest human freedom and potential ever known to humankind. Racial, religious and sexual discrimination was wrong long ago; but, in our time it should already be anachronistic.”
Now, a new White House administration is moving swiftly to make changes. Our reactions are on display on social-media and they’re impressive. But, bear in mind our Jewish heritage. It’s one of mindful consideration of possibly more than one opinion all rooted in sacred texts and teachings. From such sources our most enduring Jewish understandings have served us in the worst of times and the best of times. Though many consider these to be among the worst of times, they only magnify our obligation to rely on Jewish teachings for the text and commentary with which to encounter them. For or against, our opinions gain heft and our actions gain authenticity when they’re rooted in enduring Jewish understandings.
The role of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, and synagogues like it, has never been more important than now. The late Richard Rorty, an American philosopher who hailed from University of Chicago and Yale, explained that "cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human—farther removed from the beasts (his word)—than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses." Judaism is amply stocked with verses, but are you? Learn with us. Engage with us. Find in Congregation Beth Israel a source of verses for guidance in times of change and hope. They’re not only for those on the left or the right. Such sacred texts have come down to all of us for "the sake of our life and the length of our days.”
Over the last 163 years, Congregation Beth Israel has seen more than any one of us, but it has endured because of individuals just like us. In Exodus 15:13, we read, "In Your love You lead the people You redeemed; In Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode.” What is God’s "strength”? The rabbis explain that "strength” is but a designation for Torah (Mechilta). And, so it is ours.
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