Rabbi's Message

Rabbi's Message

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October, 2015, #2, "Sacred Envy"

on Monday, 12 October 2015. Posted in Rabbi's Message

Shabbat Sermon
October 9, 2015

“SACRED ENVY”

Some of you know that I am a fan of the “God Squad” column that appears in the Kenosha News and in many other newspapers. Aside from the great sense of humor that Rabbi Gellman displays in most columns, I like the gentle interfaith message and accessible teaching of religion in the syndicated advice column. “God Squad” was originally co-written by Rabbi Marc Gellman and his priest friend, Monsignor Thomas Hartman. Unfortunately, the Monsignor was stricken with Parkinson’s disease and Rabbi Gellman had to continue the column without him. But, it is still a column in which people of any faith can send in a religious or theological question, and receive an answer. Last week’s column was inspired by the Pope’s visit, and highlighted the importance of interfaith dialogue and friendship. Gellman wrote: “interfaith dialogue is about learning that there are many paths up the same mountain….” In other words, we have much to learn from others whose faith is different than our own, and even though we may take different paths, we are all seeking the same truth.

For some, this is a difficult concept. What would we have to learn from someone whose faith is different than ours—except something with which we do not agree or has no relevance to us? Many people think that the way they were taught is the “right” way, and that there is really no point in knowing what others believe, except to, perhaps, pump up their confidence that they are right and others are wrong or to convince the others that they are misguided. In this view, it is best to avoid a discussion of religion and beliefs with most people because, once you go down that road, you are asking for trouble.

Obviously Rabbi Gellman is presenting a very different view here and it is one that he lived out in his life by starting his shared column with the priest. And I believe that most liberal-thinking people of many faiths embrace the view of “many paths up the same mountain.” But, the actual practice of true, interfaith dialogue is entered into by few. This year in Kenosha we will have a marvelous opportunity to enter into real and meaningful religious dialogue during an entire weekend devoted to that topic. In mid March, Beth Hillel will be the site of one of these events, and I hope that our members will attend not only that special Shabbat evening, but the entire weekend of activities.

A well-known Christian theologian coined the term “sacred envy” when speaking about the importance of interfaith understanding. Bishop Krister Stendahl, who taught at Harvard Divinty school, used this term to describe “being rooted in one spiritual place… while… realizing the sacred gifts that are more deeply held…in others.” He said that “sacred envy” “allows us to learn from others without becoming them….” (Brad Hirschfield in Sh’ma, May 10, 1996)

“To learn from others without becoming them:” That says it all. It is this idea that has inspired and group of faith leaders in Kenosha to work together over the past year to bring an outstanding Jewish-Christian scholar of international stature to our community. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a faithful Jew who is an expert in New Testament, and a professor at Vanderbilt University, will speak at Beth Hillel and also at Carthage College, First United Methodist Church, and Holy Rosary Catholic parish on the weekend of Mar 10-13.

You may ask yourself why would the rabbi be sharing this information so many months in advance? Or you may wonder: “What exactly can I learn from a faith different than my own?” To answer both of these questions, I would like to flesh out Bishop Stendhal’s idea of “sacred envy,” of “being rooted in one place while realizing the sacred gifts that are more deeply held in others.”

You will never find a greater proponent than me for the idea that Judaism is a complete religion with richness and depth and an ability to give comfort and inspire that is rivaled by none. I am, in Stendahl’s words, “rooted in one place.” How could I do the work I do each day if I were not? My life is devoted to teaching others that Judaism is a fulfilling and meaningful system for living that will make its adherents’ lives better and fuller. Not only am I rooted in Judaism, but my career and calling is to inspire all of you to be rooted in Judaism as well. And, of course, proponents of every religion feel the same about their own faiths. The interfaith endeavor thrives on the acceptance of the principle that we are all happily “rooted in our own places.”

At Beth Hillel we often play host to Christian groups who want to see what Jewish worship is like. We are proud to share our traditions with them and feel gratified when they love our prayer book, when they “ooh” and “ah” over seeing the Torah up close or marvel that we pray in Hebrew. Many of us invite non-Jewish guests to our Seders because we want to share what is beautiful and thought-provoking about our story and culture. It is easy for us to herald the interfaith endeavor when it is about others appreciating us. I am not sure, however, that we are so welcoming of the experience when it goes the other way. We do offer a class on understanding other religions in the teen Midrasha program of our school. But, as adults, we do not go out on Sunday mornings to see how Christians pray, giving ourselves a chance to “ooh” and “ah” over their communion customs and enjoy their hymns. Speaking from experience from an earlier period at Beth Hillel when we had an pulpit exchange with the AME church, Coleman Chapel, I am willing to bet that few of our members are interested in such an excursion. But I would be happy to be proven wrong.

We are all rooted in and fed and strengthened by our own faiths, and that is how it should be, but we can still admire and learn from and even be inspired by others’ faiths. This is, of course, the second half of that statement by Bishop Stendahl: The part where we “realize the sacred gifts that are more deeply held in others.”

When we did have that pulpit exchange with Coleman Chapel, I know I can speak for the few of us who did attend-- that we were “wowed” by the rocking church choir and organ music that filled the space and got people in the pews moving and shaking. I loved the fact that when I delivered the sermon, the congregation actually responded at regular intervals to what I was saying—not just politely nodding their heads like I see here, but shouting out “you tell ‘em Rabbi” and things like that. (I had to warn the pastor when he spoke here that no one was going to respond to his sermon, but they were still listening!) We were totally impressed with how members of the congregation got up an offered their own spontaneous prayers in front of others. By the way, this opportunity to give a spontaneous prayer happens all the time at interfaith meetings, and I am learning, but, let me tell you, the Christians at the table, even the lay people, are much more skilled at this than I am, after my many years of trying. We are used to a book telling us what words to pray, so dredging them up from inside ourselves is a skill few of us have developed.

These are examples of, in Stendahls’ words, the “sacred gifts of others,” that we can admire and emulate even while being rooted in our own place. But, we cannot do so if we never leave our place and venture into another.

We learn not only from others’ worship style, but also from others’ theology. Some of you know that I gave a High Holy Day sermon this year based on the words of a Christian hymn, Amazing Grace, and even borrowed the tune to give new life to the prayer Avinu Malkeynu from our mahzor. I also raised up the theological term “grace” that is widely used in Christian parlance, but not so much in Jewish prayer and discussion, and explained that grace is an idea that we Jews have as well, although its theological shading is somewhat different in Judaism and Christianity. (If you want to know more about what I said, you can go to the Beth Hillel website where that sermon and the others from the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are posted.) This is just one example of how, through interfaith dialogue, we can realize “the sacred gifts that are more deeply held in others.”

I find that Jews are often dismissive of other religion’s ways of looking at life’s big questions, just as much, if not more so, than people of other faiths. We may not want to convert others to our way of thinking, but many of us do not think that the other faiths have anything that is worth considering. This is a very narrow and closed-minded point of view. We hold this view because we have not really explored what others have to offer. Learning from a highly sought-after, world-class scholar, Amy–Jill Levine, who is coming to Kenosha in March, will be an opportunity to begin such an exploration. Why would a committed Jew become a New Testament scholar, devoting her entire academic career to educating Jews and non-Jews about what they can learn from each other? Because she believes in Stendahl’s principle. Over 4 days in March, moving from Lutheran Carthage College on Thursday to Beth Hillel on Friday for Shabbat to Holy Rosary Catholic parish after Mass on Saturday night, to First United Methodist on Sunday morning, Dr. Levine will speak on the following topics:

“Mistakes Jews and Christians Make about Each Other”
“Jesus and Judaism: Why the Connection Matters” (this is the one at BHT)
“The Parables of Jesus as Jewish Stories”
“How Jews and Christians Read Scripture Differently”

I hope these topics peak your curiosity enough to come not only on Friday night to Beth Hillel, but to one or more of the other events. All of the programs and the services at the congregations will be open to the public.

In an interview with Rabbi Gellman of “God Squad” fame, Gellman spoke of his work with Monsignor Hartman. He said: “When we were together, we were like a band. He had his own music and I had my own music, but there was something about the way we played together that was better than his music and my music alone.” I think this could be said about what all people can do together when they open themselves up to the interfaith experience.

Gellman also said in that interview:

“Tom and I were very aware there was no way we were ever going to agree on Jesus and so we didn’t talk a lot about Jesus. What we realized is that our ethical orientation to the world was the same and that the world was broken and in need. If people who are engaged in interfaith dialogue need to focus on their ideological differences rather than their ethical similarities, they are betraying the promise of interfaith dialogue.” (Palm Beach Daily News Jan 13, 2013)

My feeling is that we have to talk about Jesus in interfaith dialogue, and that we can learn a great deal from the stories Christians tell about Jesus that inspire them and by listening to how their belief in Jesus as the Christ feed them. By listening to Dr. Levine in March, we will even find that many of Jesus’ stories are really, in essence, Jewish stories, akin to midrash.

But, I think I know what Gellman was saying: As friends, Marc and Tommy did not have to talk about Jesus because they knew they disagreed, and that was okay. The rest of what Gellman said in that last quotation is very important—that as people of differing faiths, there are many more areas in which we agree than disagree, and there is much we can do together, when we come together in true dialogue.

I invite you to join me in this interfaith dialogue endeavor, in which I have been blessed to be immersed for over 30 years. You can begin by setting aside the weekend of March 10-13 to learn from Dr. AJ Levine. It will be a way to begin experiencing what Bishop Stendahl called “sacred envy,” a very positive kind of envy--which we should all cultivate. I hope to see you there.

October 2015, #1

on Sunday, 04 October 2015. Posted in Rabbi's Message

Often times, you will see listed on the donation page of the Achshav newsletter a section called “Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund.” But you may be wondering what that fund is and why you might want to make a donation to it. I would like to use this space to describe the fund and some of the ways it is used.

The Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund is set up to allow a rabbi to accept donations that he/she can use at his/her own discretion to support temple programs or needs, tzedakah causes, scholarships for camp, youth events, and adult retreats, people in need, and the like. It is never used for personal purposes and is set apart both from the rabbi’s personal accounts and from other temple funds. The temple has a clear policy governing the use of these funds, modeled after guidelines provided by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

I have had the good fortune to be the steward of Beth Hillel’s Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund for over 30 years. The fund is primarily supported by donations from the congregation in honor of life cycle events, in recognition of yahrzeits or in honor of a congregation member’s simcha (happy event) from another member. Donations made in appreciation of my services at life cycle events are always placed in the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund*, even if the check is made out to me personally. (Please note that, more properly, such checks should be made out to Beth Hillel Temple) I also place honoraria from speaking engagements in this fund.

During the past year, I have used the Fund to help send a number of our youth to NFTY weekends, and the Fund has helped a few families who needed extra support to send their children to Jewish camps. The Fund also helped two families with urgent financial needs in their personal lives. Since the effort to supply the temple with new mahzorim was underway, the Rabbi’s Fund provided for 20 sets of books last year. A significant gift was made to the Shalom Center in Kenosha to support its renewed efforts to build a new facility, including a permanent shelter for the homeless. Supporting our own education efforts at BHT, the Fund paid for materials from the Shalom Hartman Institute for the adult course now underway, “Engaging Israel,” and also paid for additional subscriptions for the PJ Library program when our grant from the Jewish Community Foundation came up short. In addition, I was able support the American Jewish Archives, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and other tzedakah causes, Jewish and not, with the Fund. This is just a partial list of where the Fund donations went last year--to give you an idea of how it is used.

While there are many other worthwhile funds at the temple and beyond to which you may direct your tzedakah gifts, I hope you will agree that this fund serves an important purpose and that you will keep it in mind in your charitable giving. I sincerely thank those who support the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund for trusting me with your tzedakah dollars.


*Please note, that at the request of the Leadership Council, honoraria for non-member funerals, for individuals not related to temple members, are charged a $350 fee that goes into the temple general fund, and does not go into the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund.

August 2015

on Sunday, 04 October 2015. Posted in Rabbi's Message

As I write, Rosh Hashanah is exactly two months away, and yet it feels like it is almost here. So much preparation goes into making the fall holidays meaningful, deep and joyous that many of us have been immersed in planning for several months already. The added element of a new High Holy Day machzor (prayer book) has made this annual time of preparation even more interesting and involving for those of us who are doing the planning.

You may have noted that the word for a High Holy Day prayer book (machzor) is not the same as the word for a Shabbat, weekday and/or festival prayer book (siddur). Siddur comes from the Hebrew shoresh (root) s-d-r, which means “order.” Machzor comes from the root ch-z-r, which means “return.” This in itself is significant. This is the book to which we return each year at our holiest season, and which is designed to help us return to God and to our best selves. A new machzor will help us to return in fresh and new ways that are sure to bring us to a new level of insight on these Days of Awe.

The Mishkan HaNefesh machzor has a similar presentation that is found in the Mishkan Tefilah siddur, with the traditional Hebrew and a faithful translation on the right side of a two-page spread, and with thematically connected, but very different types of readings, on the left side. The book is fully transliterated, as is Mishkan Tefilah, to help non-Hebrew readers join in the Hebrew. But Mishkan HaNefesh really represents a sea-change for High Holy Day liturgy in many ways, and those of us who have been preparing to use it are very excited about some of the changes it offers.

For example, the traditional three sets of Shofar calls, each with its own theme, will be separated on Rosh Hashanah morning this year into three distinct sections of the service, instead of all being grouped together, as in the past. This will enable us to focus more fully on the unique theme of each section.

In addition, there are many options for afternoon services for Yom Kippur. It would be impossible to use them all, but the Ritual Committee has decided to incorporate material from each of the new services. In this regard, there will be an alternative service during Yizkor (Memorial) services for those who do not wish to observe Yizkor.

Many of our members practice the custom of not attending Yizkor when one’s parents are still alive. Although we have always encouraged everyone to attend Yizkor and contemplate its beautiful readings on life and death, even if one has not lost next-of-kin relatives, we recognize that there are some who wish to stay in the synagogue all day, but will not attend Yizkor. Therefore, a lay-led service on the first floor will take place while Yizkor is going on in the sanctuary. This service will use the liturgy of the brand new “Avodah” service in Mishkan Hanefesh. The Avodah service recalls the ancient Temple worship that was once so central to Yom Kippur and, in 15 steps, offers connections to our spiritual lives today.

The Yizkor service itself will be transformed with a candle-lighting ritual and lay readers offering readings on different aspects of loss and remembrance. In the Mincha (afternoon service), we will begin with the Torah service at 3:30pm, reading from Leviticus and Jonah, before proceeding to the rest of the liturgy. In the past, the Torah service concluded the Mincha service. In addition, instead of reading only the stories of the ancient martyrs (Eleh Ezkarah), our new book encourages us to read the stories of others who gave their lives for their faith or for a just cause, throughout different parts of history as well. We will embrace and incorporate some of this material into the Mincha service.

There are a number of other interesting changes. The new books and some of these innovations will be introduced at BHT during the month of Elul, the month in which we are to prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe. I will be introducing one new thing, briefly, during Shabbat services each week, and we will have one “Lunch and Learn” on the machzor on Aug. 20. Details are found below.

The Ritual Committee, Orit Perlman, and I want to clearly convey that while we hope the books will invigorate our High Holy Day worship, the Hebrew prayers and melodies and the basic feel of the services will remain the essentially same. We all want Holy Day worship to feel familiar, warm and comforting. We thought about what things “anchor” High Holy Day worship at Beth Hillel and made sure that these were retained, even while introducing exciting changes. We look forward to joining with you as we find new ways to think and pray and consider, as we “return again: return to who we are, return to what we are, return to where we are,” (Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach) using our new machzorim in the New Year, 5776.

As the holy days approach, let me be the first to wish you:
L’shana Tovah Tikateyvu,
May you be inscribed in God’s Book of Life for a good year.

June 2015

on Thursday, 25 June 2015. Posted in Rabbi's Message

MachzorsAt the end of May, 777 pounds of books arrived at Beth Hillel! They are the new Mishkan HaNefesh machzorim (High Holy Day prayer books) that we have been anticipating receiving. Many of you have generously donated sets of the books (there are two books--one for Rosh Hashanah and one for Yom Kippur). So far, 117 sets have been purchased (thank you to all who have contributed!), but 83 are as yet unpaid for and lacking the dedication that you may want inside the front covers. Please donate online or through Lois Bruno in the temple office today so that we can use all of them on the High Holy Days!

The sheer weight of the books and the fact that two books replace what was all in one slim volume in Gates of Repentance, our former machzor, should give us a clue as to what is different about this machzor: Many, many choices and options. Designed in a similar format to our Shabbat, Festival and Weekday siddur (prayer book), Mishkan Tefilah, the new machzor allows the leaders of worship and those in the pews to choose their own paths to a meaningful and soulful prayer experience. The words Mishkan HaNefesh mean "Dwelling Place" (or "Sanctuary") of the Soul." Both the name and the format imply that each person using the machzor is invited to have his/her own unique soul-searching and soul-lifting experience on our holiest days with these books.

Allowing us each to find our own way through the machzor does not mean that we will all be praying separately in our own worship bubbles. On the contrary, the Days of Awe will have a very familiar communal feel, with the music and traditions we have all come to love and by which we are all inspired, still intact.

I have been working with the book for a couple of months now, as our High Holy Day soloist, Orit Perlman, and I received advance copies in mid-April. Orit and I are very conscious in our preparations to keep in place what is familiar and cherished about High Holiday worship while infusing new ideas and readings into the familiar flow. The English translations, while faithful, are new and refreshing, but the Hebrew will, by and large, remain the same. We are looking at some exciting innovations in, for example, how the shofar service will play out; incorporating moments of meditation and contemplation from alternative materials provided in the books; and what the afternoon, Mincha service for Yom Kippur will look like, choosing from the many options suggested. There may even be some new Torah or Haftarah readings or additions! The Beth Hillel Ritual Committee is also hard at work, adding many extra meetings, helping to make decisions on how to use this new machzor.

In order to help us all transition to the new machzor, the Ritual Committee will be providing some learning experiences this summer. Some may take place as short insights given during Shabbat services. There may be some separate classes or even mock services offered. Please watch the summer E-minders for further information. And the machzorim will be available for your perusal whenever you come to temple for an event or services this summer.

If would like to read more about the new machzor, go to the following link for an article that appeared in the Washington Post this spring:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/new-jewish-prayer-book-speaks-to-gay-equality-women-and-doubt/2015/03/08/362caaec-c3c0-11e4-ad5c-3b8ce89f1b89_story.html.

If you would like further reading beyond what you see here, please contact me and I would be delighted to provide more material. I invite you to take a look at the books when you are here and post your first impressions at the temple's website where this message appears in a "blog" format that is open to comments.

The holidays are early this year (see schedule elsewhere in this issue of Achshav), so it will not be long until we are all in the sanctuary again with the new machzorim in our hands. Until then, have a restful and enjoyable summer!

April 2015

on Friday, 10 April 2015. Posted in Rabbi's Message

In mid March, I attended the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. As I ran into colleagues who were in my class or from my era in rabbinical school (the late 1970s and early 1980s), we all commented to one another that we were beginning to realize that we were among the elders in the room; most of the attendees are younger than we are. As we honored colleagues who have been in the rabbinate for 50 years, we realized that we are closer to that designation than we are to ordination. Since we are still full of energy and enthusiasm for our work, it seems impossible that we have reached this stage.

Having just signed a 10-year contract at Beth Hillel, commencing this summer and leading up to my retirement in 2025, this last point is something I would very much like to stress to the entire congregation. The fact that I have signed a retirement contract does not mean that I am slowing down! I intend to give my full energy and attention to the congregation for the length of my contract, just as I have done these past 30 years. I will continue to work with all of you to institute new ideas for programming and operations; to engage in community work; to teach our children and youth; to welcome and integrate newcomers into our midst; to develop new leaders; to listen to each and every one of you to find out what you need and want from being a part of our community; and, above all, to be open to change and new directions, while staying true to the essence of who we are as a Jewish community and as a people.

It has been my honor to serve this congregation for these past 30 years, and I feel privileged to be able to do so for the next decade, while helping to set it on a course for greatness in the future.

As I prepare to make this transition to my final contract at Beth Hillel, I would be interested to know what your ideas are for what we should be thinking about to set us on a path for the future—for the next decade and well beyond. Please feel free to post a comment at the Rabbi's Message/Blog section of the BHT website: www.bethhillel.net. Or if you prefer, speak to me in person or send me an email.

As we say in the synagogue when we finish reading a book of Torah, let us all say to one another at this juncture: "Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik. Let us be strong and strengthen one another."

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