From the Desk of Rabbi David
In the news this week, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, reneged on two major commitments to progressive Jewish leaders in the Reform and Conservative movements. According to official reports "the Israeli cabinet bowed to extremist pressure and froze its agreed-upon plan to develop an egalitarian worship space at the Western Wall. The Israeli cabinet also advanced a bill that would grant the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions in Israel.”
ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) "condemns both of these outrageous actions which, if allowed to stand, will cement the power of the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel at the expense of Jewish unity and pluralism, undermine religious freedom in the State of Israel, and open a schism between Israel and world Jewry.”
ARZA and the Reform Jewish movement, represented by the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) and CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) celebrated the January 2016 agreement that promised investing in and constructing an egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, just south of the existing Western Wall plaza. This was a milestone for compromise and unity. In Prime Minister Netanyahu’s words, it endorsed "One Wall for One People.”
In March 2016, I joined my colleagues in Jerusalem to stand at the site where such an egalitarian prayer space would be constructed. We knew that the way would be long, but Netanyahu’s decision to preserve his power rather than his promises to us and the hope of world Jewry not to be held to Haredi Jewish extremism has led to a crisis between us.
Below are links to statements by Reform Jewish leaders that will inform and apprise you of the situation. The news will change quickly as efforts are made to reclaim our positions and restore relationships. Our Houston Jewish community rabbis and leaders are coming together to prepare a joint statement and to address our shared angst over these matters.
"Today's decision calls into question whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a man of his word. The Prime Minister, whose name is on the January, 2016 agreement on behalf of his government, has apparently caved in to the extremist views of his ultra-Orthodox (Hareidi) coalition partners. Moreover, this decision further strains the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel, and makes it increasingly difficult for our rabbis to make the case of support for Israel.
The prophet Isaiah, preaching of a messianic future about the Temple itself, prophesied, "Let my House be a House of prayer for all people." Our pre-messianic goal is more modest, that the Kotel could be a place of prayer for all Jews. The Kotel is a powerful symbol but unfortunately one that exemplifies the inequalities and indignities to which Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox Jews are subjected in the Jewish State every day.”
"Yesterday the Prime Minister and his government walked away from a compromise agreement regarding the Kotel brokered by JAFI Chairman, Natan Sharansky, turning a cold shoulder to the majority of world Jewry, as well as the Reform Movement within Israel. The Prime Minister made this decision without even a discussion with key leaders of the North American Jewish communities. The decision cannot be seen as anything other than a betrayal, and I see no point to a meeting at this time. We will make our arguments in the Supreme Court.”
"ARZA condemns both of these outrageous actions which, if allowed to stand, will cement the power of the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel at the expense of Jewish unity and pluralism, undermine religious freedom in the State of Israel, and open a schism between Israel and world Jewry.
We call upon the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resume their commitment to establishing a Kotel for all, and to reject the conversion bill that would hand more unfettered powered to the ultra-Orthodox political parties and Chief Rabbinate. We call upon synagogues in every religious stream, Federations, and all Jews to demand that Israel enact measures to be open and inclusive to all forms of Jewish expression in the face of antidemocratic forces from within the government and society at large.”
You may contact Rabbi Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David
Prayer is too often overlooked as a meaningful way to engage the world around us. It’s partially due to our rational and scientific orientations that began with our study of the scientific method. It’s also partially due to our observations that prayer is sometimes less effective than we thought it would be. Many remedies for our disappointments about prayer have been offered. Some say that our prayers are answered in ways that we don’t always recognize; or, that we "walk sightless among miracles.” But, there’s another remedy.
In Judaism, the role of prayer is highlighted in the root of the word "to pray” in Hebrew. "L’hitpaleil” to pray, is the infinitive form of the reflexive verb. That is, to pray means that we’re essentially seeking prayer to make a change within us, not outside of us. Here’s a prayer that was written by Rabbi Samuel E. Karff, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston. He wrote it for the children of Congregation Beth Israel’s Shlenker Day School.
O God, when I don’t feel very good about myself,
In this prayer, Rabbi Karff identifies very personal needs we all have from time to time, and for which we all seek help; and, then, he places us in covenant with God to find the results we seek. Where do we find the results? It’s within us, where God already placed skills, abilities and gifts to accomplish what we need. The prayer doesn’t say, "When I have lost or failed, give me success.” Instead, it relies on our hope that God will help us find in a particular trial or event what is required of us. Our ability to grow and become the persons we’re intended to be depends on it.
Though the prayer was written for children, it’s clearly a prayer for adults, too. It’s just that children, who often seek God in their prayers, are just beginning to learn that the answers to their prayers are already inside of them. As they grow, they’ll hopefully learn to trust God’s gifts to them. Couldn’t the same thing be said of us at our age?
Unfortunately, prayer fails us in adulthood when we expect the same things we did when we prayed in childhood. If we use prayer like a divining rod for health, prosperity and peace, without drawing on personal skills and abilities to participate in making a difference, then we’re likely to abandon the covenant and with it, God. Those who pray for health for a loved one or friend should also count on doctors who found within themselves God’s gifts to study and practice medicine. The role of prayer, combined with personal deeds, reflects a sacred covenant that doesn’t fail at all. Uniquely, it endures over time. Out of gratitude for the gifts we can know and the difference we can make with God’s help, consider this beautiful prayers, too:
God of goodness, we give thanks
What is your prayer this week? What can you find within yourself that will make a difference where you need it most?
You may contact Rabbi Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David
Open up your TaNaCh, your Hebrew Bible, to Numbers 12. It’s one of my favorite portions, because it begins with the familial conflict between Moses, Miriam and Aaron, and ends with the prayer that Moses offers on his sister’s behalf. To me, the prayer that Moses offers is one of the most beautiful in Torah. The conflict begins when Miriam and Aaron speak against their brother, Moses, "because of the Cushite woman he had married.” God punishes Miriam and Aaron. Miriam is "stricken with snow-white scales!” At first, Aaron pleads on her behalf to Moses:
Then, in the simplest of words, Moses turns to God and prays for his sister, "O God, pray heal her!” (Numbers 12:13). In Hebrew, the prayer is beautiful and alliterative, "El nah, r’fah nah lah!” The Hebrew is also poetic and simple. It makes its point. The English, while terse, also teaches us that prayer is not always about poetry. Sometimes, it’s about our gut reaction and direst needs. "Please God, heal her,” is one of the shortest and most demanding prayers in Torah. It’s remarkable in its brevity and its efficacy. Though Miriam is shut out of the camp for seven days to heal from her infirmity, the camp does not move on until Miriam returns to it safely and cleansed.
The ease with which we can come to prayer is a stunning invitation that comes to us even in adulthood. Far from the pews where we recited prayers by rote for our teachers when we were young, prayer is available to us in the pew, but also at home, in the hospital, and anywhere we may be. If we choose to use them, written prayers and services provide structure and focus that can be familiar and helpful. They’re welcome because we recall them from memory and they serve our purpose. But they’re not and cannot be our sole source of prayers. Prayers of the heart or "Tefilat HaLev” are the prayers that grow out of our personal, immediate, and soulful needs, which may relate even more deeply to our relationship with God. Sometimes, without knowing where else to turn, we utter what is in our hearts and souls. This is when, as it was for Moses, poetry isn’t required and sincerity, alone, is needed.
Spontaneous prayer or personal prayer is welcome in Judaism. In some religious faiths, only a lexicon of prayers is permitted with no room for personal prayer. I can’t imagine such a tradition that doesn’t provide for efficacy in prayer unless it’s from an "authorized” source. Rachel, Moses, and Hannah are just a few Biblical examples whose personal heartfelt prayers and pleas to God were not only heard, they were heeded.
God is "Shome’ah tefilah,” One who hears prayers we find in the prayer book and in words we discover in our hearts. As you wrestle with challenges that are unresolved, consider your own need to plead, to shout, and to pray to the One who hears prayer. Immediacy and honesty, even without poetry, can reveal the struggle and the helplessness. So plead for God’s presence to nurture and sustain; pray for God to guide the hands of those who help in physical, emotional and spiritual healing; sing aloud for understanding and never fail to shout for peace.
Excerpted from "God of Me: Imagining God throughout Your Lifetime” Rabbi David Lyon (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011).
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
An "Aron Kodesh” is a Holy Ark. The Holy Ark in the Gordon Chapel at Congregation Beth Israel is made of Acacia wood. It was created when Rabbi Samuel E. Karff, Rabbi Emeritus, recognized the opportunity to beautify and enhance (hiddur mitzvah) the chapel’s sacred furniture, including pulpit desks for the rabbi and cantor. He identified acacia wood from its Biblical source, and set out to find a craftsman who could construct a Holy Ark to hold the Torahs. In the early 1980’s, the pieces were completed and set in their places on the bimah (stage) in the Gordon Chapel.
In recent times, while standing before the Holy Ark, I noticed that pieces of wood were separating. In the winter, the wood separated leaving gaps that allowed the doors to swing closed after they were opened. In summer, the gaps closed up due to the increased humidity in the air. Eventually, more gaps opened and a permanent solution had to be found. Beth Israel leaders examined the problem with experts in wood craftsmanship. They conclude that the Holy Ark was a unique piece of construction; the solution would require unique craftsmanship, too. With no obvious craftsman available, Bruce Levy, Temple president, examined the Holy Ark for evidence of any identification of its original craftsman or origin. The only evidence he found was a signature of the artist: one initial and the last name, "R. Deatherage”.
In this age of Google, he entered the name and clicked "search.” Lo and behold, the artist’s name popped up: Roger Deatherage. And, to Bruce’s astonishment the artist also lived in Houston. An immediate call to the artist opened another door to a relationship that had never really ended. The artist remarked that among his numerous projects, designing and building the Holy Ark for Congregation Beth Israel was one of his most favorite and special projects of them all. Though retired now, he made a trip to Beth Israel and examined his work of art. He determined that it could be fixed and that he would come out of retirement to do it. Like any fine artist, the Holy Ark was a part of him. Touching it again and restoring it to wholeness would be a privilege.
On June 12th, the artist will take the Holy Ark (without the Torahs) back to his studio in Houston, to make repairs and refinish the piece. The project restoration will take two months and extensive handiwork. While the Holy Ark is gone, we will replace it with the Holy Ark we use at alternative services. It will sit on a draped table and hold one Torah scroll. It will look small in its place where a large and beautiful Holy Ark usually stands; but, we’ll be patient while repairs are made and summer services get underway. In August, when the Holy Ark is restored to its sacred space in the Gordon Chapel, we’ll rededicate it for its consecrated purpose and restore the Torah scrolls to their proper place.
The artist will be paid for his craftsmanship and skill to make whole again what he lovingly created so many years ago. I am so pleased that we’re able to give him the pleasure of restoring his work, and that we can look forward to welcoming back a familiar part of our worship space with such anticipation and gratitude. Donations for the restoration project are welcome and may be sent to Congregation Beth Israel at 5600 N. Braeswood Blvd., Houston, TX, 77096, attn.: Michael Jenkins.
Torah teaches, "Make Me a sanctuary that I, God, may dwell among them.” It doesn’t add that when it needs repair that we must do it, but it’s implied in what we also learn, "Adonai Yimloch L’olam Va’ed,” Adonai will rule for ever and ever.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
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