Friday, November 29, 2013

And in Our Days, Too

Everyone loves a lesson about Hebrew grammar.  I know I do.  But grammar lessons where the grammar can be a little wrong, or at least clunky, but the message be of powerful importance to how we believe - that sounds like one I might give a second to.
So in brief, here it is.  There is a dispute as to the correct wording of the second blessing for the Hanukkah lights (which we started lighting Wednesday night) – that is the she-asa nisim blessng – and this is it.  There are two alternatives for its wording: “שעשה נסים לאבותנו בימים ההם בזמן הזה” or “ובזמן הזה”. The first refers to God’s miracles performed “for our ancestors in those days at this time”, whereas the second speaks of miracles “for our ancestors in those days and at this time”.
Now some say it should be "and at this time" because God has and continues to make miracles for us and we should be considerate and thankful for all of them as a part of Hanukkah celebrations.  The ones God performed for the Maccabees are important, but so too are the ones he does for us today.
Others say that using this wording makes no grammatical sense as it would suggest that the miracles God is doing today were for our ancestors back then.  
But I think that may be true (though I don't say the blessing in that way, but that's another story - the way you learn the prayers is the way you learn the prayers).  I think it is true that we should be thankful to God for miracles God did for our ancestors as well as for us.  
AND we should also believe that miracles performed today are for the benefit of our ancestors.  If we believe in a measure of eternal life for everyone, then in some mystical way miracles for us are of benefit to them.  But even more and greater than that - their story becomes all the more powerful, all the more meaningful, all the more richer and fuller, if our story which began with and depends on what they did becomes one of great religious, moral, spiritual growth and success.  Think about it - Steve Jobs' tinkering in the garage bore impressive fruit with the Apple II - but how much more impressive did his earlier accomplishments become when we saw that they led to the iPhone?  The Maccabees story becomes all the greater the greater a legacy we build upon it.
So maybe it's not so terrible to say the prayer acknowledging those days and ours as well.
Happy Hanukkah and Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Benson

Friday, November 22, 2013

Speak to Us with Utmost Candor: Thoughts on the JFK Anniversary

As I write this now, it is fifty years and an hour from the time that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  It has the feel of great significance to me; it should.  It is a defining moment for contemporary American life.  Much of what and how we conduct ourselves in the world in which I have grown up and in which we all live has arguably been defined by those moments in Dallas.

One such change, and we were reading more about it in the recent Pew report the other day, was with regards to our society's increasing focus on the individual and what is "in it for me."  Rabbis and other Jewish leader speak, rightly or wrongly, of a heyday for Conservative Judaism, in about the time of the Kennedy Administration, when synagogues were booming and volunteerism on behalf of the community seemed to be at a peak.

Now I'm not sure that was ever truly the case.  I think there are many good things going on today in synagogues, and I suspect some of that volunteerism in the 60s was as much about proving who made the best casserole or could bowl the most strikes as it was about truly improving peoples' lives.

It is telling to me, though, that in early 1964, responding to words spoken by the Mayor of Dallas, Earle Cabell, that one of Dallas' leading clergyman, Rabbi Levi Olan spoke the message I would like to relate in part to you (on his regular radio program - for those of you who don't know that's like a podcast).

Rabbi Olan was responding to what the mayor had said, which was, "I call upon the churches and synagogues for such devotion to our faith that they will speak to us with utmost candor, both of ideals of truth and of the shortcomings of our community, so that we may be guided into the paths of right... I call upon the people to bear every means of strengthening our moral fiber and to make our a community of tolerance and understanding."

That in itself is impressive.  The notion that the religious institutions of the city should be thought of potentially playing such an important role in its life.  But beyond that, Rabbi Olan's response is one of true moral integrity and prophetic challenge.  He demands that among other things the city not fail in its efforts to move forward with civil rights, protections for the hungry and poor, and otherwise earn the good reputation it felt it had lost.

He also worries about a particular sort of problem that he fears may rise up, "We have accepted the personal one which begins by asking, 'what is in it for me?' So we do not help the dependent child adequately, we do not feed the hungry child, and we do not care about slums, drop outs, second class culture. These do not fit our self-interest code of values."

Olan concludes after this that the churches and synagogues cannot simply reflect back the values of the people but talking to them about how they might seek to rise above - and for Olan, the answer is to make concern for others an essential part of who we try to be.  That sounds like such a universal value, but it is truly a Jewish one at its core.

And I believe, it is as resonant today as it was half a century ago.  In many ways it is the antidote necessary to inspire and motivate our current generation of Jews.  They clearly aren't interested in the synagogue as bowling league and casserole bake-off center, but I don't think Rabbi Olan was either.  I think the best ideals of the 60s are still as applicable, if not more so, now - the concern with our fellow human beings and lifting them up.  Recognizing our responsibility to them, as fellow citizens, as Jews, as human beings.

It seems to me we had a president who once delivered just such a message, too.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Friday, November 15, 2013

From the Jewish Review of Books - Gordis on Conservative Judaism

Been away for a bit.  Hoping to have time to have more to say to you in the weeks ahead.  In the meantime, this from one of my teachers, Rabbi Daniel Gordis.  Thought-provoking article about Conservative Judaism to say the least:

Requiem for a Movement