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Gun Control: Different Jewish View

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The Central Conference of American Rabbis, together with the Union for Reform Judaism through the wing of the Religious Action Center, are on record for stronger gun control laws. On the Religious Action Center’s website you can find, “It is imperative that President Obama and Congress take action to prevent gun violence, including taking assault weapons off of our streets and improving our system of background checks.” By far the great majority of reform rabbis are in agreement for stronger gun control laws.

I concur with my colleagues in regards to the need to effectively keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. We have all too often seen the tragic consequences of this failure.

There is a danger however in Jews being the leaders in taking all guns from our homes, and Jews complying. This is what happened to my own grandfather in 1938 in Vienna, Austria:

Soon after the Nazis took control of the Vienna, Storm Troopers came to my grandfather’s apartment and searched it for contraband. He owned a pistol, which had been made illegal by the Nazis for Jews to own. This was one of the first laws passed in 1938 when the Nazis occupied Austria. The Storm Troopers, who my father described as being similar to the Hell’s Angels of the 1960s, at first wanted to immediately take my grandfather to a concentration camp. My grandfather, who had great people sense, brought out the schnapps and managed to ingratiate himself with the storm troopers well enough to make them leave for the night without arresting him on the spot. Needless to say, he was able to escape with the rest of his immediate family from Austria. More than thirty other members of my family died in the Holocaust. My point is simply this: we should think very carefully about disarming the Jewish world. Perhaps the Holocaust would have had a different ending if the Jewish community could have effectively protected themselves.

What Is In A Name?

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Most parents spend considerable time thoughtfully picking the names of their children. I remember all the hours my wife and I spent debating possible names for each of our three children. We wanted the name to be just right, one we both liked and one which would help them through life. No question there is power and meaning to someone’s name.

In fact in the Hebrew Bible the second book is called in the Hebrew language Shemot, which means names – in English we call it the book of Exodus. It is named after the first verse of the book of Exodus “These are the names of the sons of Israel…”

There is an ancient Jewish legend which teaches the great importance of names. The legend teaches each person has in reality three names: the name that parents give to him or her, one that friends bestow, and the one that God gives to a person at the end of his or her days.

The legend teaches about our character. Some of it is clearly given to us at birth, from heredity. Clearly we are influenced by our environment and our friends. But the name we really make for ourselves is one for which only we are responsible. We are all free agents. The real name we create for ourselves is the one we create by what we do and how we live our lives.

The terrible tornado in Mobile has been a true test of the names we are creating for ourselves. As Rabbi I have personally witnessed many of our members doing extraordinary acts of kindness and dedication on behalf of our historic Springhill Ave. Temple. Similarly many people have already created names for themselves, ones of remarkable generosity. As this New Year begins it is most appropriate for us to ask what is the name we are creating?

From Tornado to Better Future

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Springhill Avenue Temple, Mobile, Alabama: December 25, 2012 EF2 Tornado Damage

What is it like being the rabbi of a congregation that has been damaged over the years of my rabbinate by two hurricanes and now perhaps the worst damage from an EF2 tornado? At first discouraging, but on the other hand déjà vu, and experience dealing with disasters comes to mind. As my wife reminds me I tend to be the cup half empty type, but I am learning to change.

So I must think of our Jewish motifs: Joseph saw seven good years, and seven lean ones, but a better time would eventually come. Moses knew the children of Israel would enter the Promised Land, in time. The prophets though they saw evil, still predicted a better day would yet come. The ancient homeland of the Jewish people has been brought back to life once again. How could I predict anything but a better future, and an even more beautiful congregational building once more? As one of the oldest congregations in the country, going back to 1844, I am confident our future will indeed be better than our past.

Full Rights for Women and Reform Judaism In Israel

My colleague and friend Rabbi Elyse Frishman, being detained by Israeli Police for wearing a Tallit at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel. She is the editor of our Reform Prayer Book, Mishkan T’fillah. This must change!

Following this incident, which occurred just before the last night of Hanukkah 2012, Haartez published an op-ed by Rabbi Frishman recounting her experience. She writes, in part:

We began to move through security. All of us wore our prayer shawls and carried our prayer books. There were rumors: No women permitted to bring prayer books or prayer shawls today! Contrary to rumor, prayer books were permitted – but for the first time, no prayer shawls. A decree had been issued – illegally, randomly – that women could not have prayer shawls today. Security began to confiscate them. Some men walked in with prayer shawls. Most women had theirs removed.

There is no law in Judaism against a woman wearing a prayer shawl. If anything, the law from Torah (Numbers 15:38) is: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations…”

We gathered quietly at the rear of the Western Wall to pray. One woman came over to me and asked quietly, “May I stand with you and pray? I wanted to wear my prayer shawl, but I’m afraid.”

Two police officers walked over. One said in Hebrew, “You are not allowed to wear the prayer shawl.” Pretending, I said politely in English, “Excuse me, I do not understand.”

Read full story at Haaretz

Elephant in the Room: Interfaith Dialogue

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I’ve had the pleasure participating in Christian-Jewish dialogue my entire career. In particular here in Mobile, Alabama for the last 25 years I have been a part of the oldest continually active lay led Christian-Jewish dialogue in existence in United States. More recently we have started a Trialogue group between the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities.

Over the years I’ve learned from the excellent intellectual presentations made by national and international scholars visiting our community. There is one serious problem however: the people who attend dialogue are invariably not the people who most need to attend these programs. The regular attendees are open-minded people from every religious denomination who are generally not convinced of the inerrancy of their respective traditions. They are open to learning about other faiths and ideas. They are a minority of the religious community.

The people who would benefit most by attending these programs rarely set foot in the door of either a church, mosque, or synagogue to hear such a program. Why will they not attend? Invariably they are members of a more fundamentalist denomination of their particular faith group, who simply put, know the truth. They have the religious answers and feel no need whatsoever to hear other people’s opinions about matters for which they are so very sure. When you possess absolute truth why waste your time listening to other people’s misguided opinions?

The people who most need to open their eyes, ears and hearts to the diversity of religion in our great country have no interest whatsoever in doing exactly that. That is the “elephant in the room” of interfaith relations.

One solution might be project oriented. In our diversity we can find unity in projects of service, which might have the possibility of bringing diverse communities together. Joint projects on topics such as under education, homelessness, poverty, and social justice to name only a few, might if carefully orchestrated become grounds for building relations. Relationship and conversation is where we must start, and at present there is little of either between liberal and fundamentalist denominations of any faith group.

Whether dialogue groups around the country have the enthusiasm, energy, and stamina to try to break down these age-old barriers is another story. It would be the true tough work of interfaith relations, but more importantly it would be where the greatest dividends could accrue. It is nice and lovely to talk with like-minded liberal interpreters of all religious traditions but it never crosses the bridge into the untouched world of fundamentalism. Maybe we should try.

True Interfaith With Life of Pi

Debating what movie to watch Saturday night, I was glad we did not follow A O Scott’s review in the New York Times of Life of Pi. IMBD rated it quite highly so we went with that opinion.

I am certainly thankful we went with the latter. Having studied religion at Berkeley, I found the entire movie a delight of open-minded religious synergism, that I only wished was shared by more people in the world. Unfortunately it is not, and what is more world opinion seems to be only intensifying in the opposite direction toward greater religious ethnocentricity.

See the movie for the delightful play of cinematography and metaphor. It is the story of Pi, who as a boy coming from a Hindu background, finds the god Jesus in a church, and explores Islam. He finds kindness from a Buddhist sailor, as the family embarks on an ill-fated freighter journey with the family’s zoo in tow. They cross the Pacific on a ship fascinatingly called Tsimtsum. Unfortunately Tsimtsum sinks. To many this name would mean nothing, or they would guess it is Japanese, coming from the freighter’s country of origin.

Tsimtsum however comes from the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition popularized in the 16th century. It explains that tradition’s teaching on cosmology: the Infinite One, Ein Sof, at one time filled all, but in an act of self contraction, made room for the world as we know, filled with both good and evil, and free will. It is a nice conception that actually could in some ways be related to modern theories of cosmology such as variants of the big bang. When I saw that name Tsimtsum, I was pleased. The bad news is the ship sinks. The symbolism is delightfully open-ended.

See the movie, and pay attention to the symbols, at least with more detail than the NY Times. If only world religions, and more importantly their often radicalized followers, could learn to reason with the mind of Pi.

One Solution: 20 Something Synagogue Engagement

I carefully read the “Forum for the Future” on the RJ blog – it was well written and deserves all of our attention.  Two messages rang clear throughout all the writings: these devoted young Jewish leaders are not joining congregations; however they are searching long and hard for Jewish community.  Clearly they are not finding the community they want within established congregations which are largely designed for an older member.  The entrée to membership has most often been the question, how are we going to educate our children, an irrelevant one for most 20 somethings.

Though a singularly focused 20 something with deep commitment to Judaism might want serious Jewish study, he or she is probably not going to be comfortable studying with 50-year-olds and older.  There are generational differences.

Each congregation needs to spearhead a chavurah community for the young adults within their midst.  Every congregation can proactively do this with larger congregations forming multiple units of these artificial communities.  This is exactly what the young people are writing about: searching for community and many of them are finding it within the communities they themselves are creating.  It is an idea first popularized in the 1960s and gained strength in the 70s and 80s, but now not so much talked about.  Every congregation could reach out like fingers into the community to establish these networks to bring our 20 and 30 somethings together.  Synagogues need to be creating these communities as part of our outreach.  Exactly what they would do within their various chavurot would be up to each of autonomous group: from a Shabbat dinner together to an afternoon of hiking.  The important thing is the Jewish bonds would be created and strengthened, and communities would be built, albeit small ones.

Will these people be members of the congregation?  While they are in their 20s and early 30s we should give away a membership to anyone who wants it while they are placed within these chavurot.  The model should be similar to what many rock groups do today: they give away their music on the Internet precisely because if they didn’t it would be stolen anyway.  They have a backloaded financially viable model through their concerts and the sale of merchandise. Similarly we give everything away to our 20 and 30-year-olds as we involve them in these chavurah faith communities, and develop commitment and loyalty which will evolve as they mature. Later on, if the relationships are strong, as they create families and move through the cycles of life they will support congregations.

Who will pay for all this and who will run it?  It doesn’t take all that much to organize a chavurah.  I personally have organized many in my career and it only takes a few hours’ time at the initial meeting and the foresight to help pick a few charismatic leaders who are on board with the task.  If the group finds common purpose it will sustain itself and flourish.

The chavurah movement is an old idea that needs to be carefully promoted once again by each local synagogue to reach our young people.

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