Ambassador Ron Dermer – Monday, October 22, 2018
From the Rabbi David Lyon
“Encountering the World
with Enduring Jewish Understandings”
Rabbi David Lyon / Congregation Beth Israel, Houston / firstname.lastname@example.org
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.