Friday, January 25, 2013

Clear in the Eye of our Soul - D'var Torah - January 25, 2013

   On this Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, the Torah reading includes the chanting of the song the Israelites sang after crossing the sea and escaping the Egyptians who were pursuing them. The Haftarah reading contains the song intoned by inspired leader and judge, Deborah, celebrating a later victory. The Psalms, including “Hinei Mah Tov” and the lyrics and music that opened our service, were likely sung with musical  accompaniment going back to ancient times.
   What is the role of music in a community? In “One Light Above: The Larry Karol Songbook,” I explained that “music has the potential to illuminate the ideas, emotions and lessons embodied in Jewish texts….Favorite Jewish songs become a part of congregational culture and a foundation for personal spirituality.”
   Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th Century leader of Orthodox Judaism, defined song as "an inspired or rapturous expression of what some external event has revealed to the inner self, that which the physical eye cannot see, but what has become clear to the mind's eye". 
     I would add to Rabbi Hirsch’s statement, “what has become clear to the ‘eye of the soul.’” Song emerges from an overflow of emotion and a resulting interplay of words, rhythm and melody as well as chords and harmony. Song might seem to emerge “out of nowhere” and rapidly reach completion. It also might be the final expression of thoughts and feelings that took days, months or years to come together in just the right way.
    These definitions and reflections of music apply not only to the songs we sing during worship but to any music that we prefer and enjoy. Chances are that we like some music based on the old “American Bandstand” standard of “it’s has a good beat and you can dance to it!” Otherwise, it may be that we hear an echo of our own souls and our own lives in the lyrics and melodies to which we listen the most, whether on the radio, on vintage vinyl records, on CDs, on digital music players or on our computers.
    The rabbis wondered why the women happened to have timbrels with them by the sea so that they could break into song and dance, led by Moses’ sister Miriam, as recounted towards the end of Exodus Chapter 15. They explained that the women had faith that miracles, such as gaining their freedom, awaited them, so that they would have a reason to celebrate.  They were totally ready for something good to happen! 
    Hopefully, that is how we can approach every day of our lives, waiting for something good to happen rather than expecting the other shoe to drop.   With that kind of optimism, we can add a special spirit to our community. Our own personal song will come from a place of hope and love that will enrich the melody of the entire community.   And the music that we hear will, in turn, nourish our souls.  Throughout every week, may we find the melodic inspiration we need that will enable us to easily find reasons to celebrate along the path of life!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Thoughts on Reproductive Choice and Choices - January 22, 2013 (offered at a local event devoted to this issue)

When I spoke out about reproductive choice issues in the 1980s when I was a rabbi in Topeka, Kansas, I never imagined that I would be standing here in Las Cruces, New Mexico in 2013 giving yet another talk about the need to keep options for reproductive choice legal and open.  I am amazed that some people still don’t understand what it means to give Americans freedom to make their own decisions according to their own conscience or their beliefs.  
The year 2012 alone saw 43 state laws restricting abortion access through the imposition of complex and unnecessary requirements, including mandatory waiting periods and counseling, stricter parental notification guidelines that replaced already-strict rules, invasive ultrasounds, and onerous (and medically superfluous) clinic requirements. These laws were passed even though a majority of Americans support abortions in circumstances in which the mother's mental and/or physical health is at risk or there is a serious defect in the developing fetus.   That reality is not reflected in current federal health insurance plans such as Medicaid, which only permits abortion in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk. 
  So here we are again, making the same declarations because we must.   We have no choice but to speak out to preserve for women the right to choose.   
One year ago, I wrote a piece on my blog in response to the contraception exception controversy related to the Affordable Care Act.  At that time, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was trying to be helpful and sensitive to people of all faiths, but her efforts were spurned by some of the very people whose concerns she tried hard to address. 
What I wrote last year applies today – I will say this again and again as a guide for how we, as Americans, can guarantee freedom of choice for women and for people of all faiths or citizens who have no faith affiliation. 
 In my tradition, personhood begins when the head of a newborn baby emerges from the womb. In Judaism, what begins at conception is potential human life, not full human life. Throughout a pregnancy, the mother's life takes precedence. My tradition makes it possible to choose abortion in order to save a woman’s life OR to preserve her mental or physical health. This includes cases of rape or incest.  By the way, within Judaism, rape is rape, with no further definitions or qualifications.         
    Because of my tradition, I am required to declare over and over that any public policy defining personhood as beginning at conception stands against my belief – and it would fail to recognize the beliefs of some other faith groups as well.  A law with such a definition of life would constitute establishment of religion, which is prohibited by our Constitution.  Such a definition of full human life fails to recognize the rights of women to consult with their doctors and, if desired, clergy or others advising them to arrive at their own difficult decision.   This includes a right to have access to contraception for both men and women. 
Just because a situation is complex, just because a choice is difficult, does not mean that the few, with one particular viewpoint, should impose what they believe is an easy answer upon the many.   We all need freedom to think, to struggle, to wrestle with a decision when it relates to potential human life and whether a pregnancy should go forward to its miraculous conclusion.    So we will speak out and and declare that we value life. We cherish the life of a mother who hopes for a successful and uneventful pregnancy.  We support the life and well-being of a mother who faces a pregnancy that began as a result of an act of violence or abuse. We treasure life so much that we want children to be born happy and healthy, offering promise and hope for the future. And we believe that life in community means that we need to listen to each other so that we can live together, even in the presence of disagreement, with greater respect and understanding. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Benediction delivered at Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday NAACP Breakfast in Las Cruces, NM - January 21, 2013

Eternal One, Creator and Sustainer of us all,
We know that we have taken strides forward in overcoming hatred, in combating intolerance, in fostering greater acceptance, and in establishing a sense of equality.   Yet, we have only begun.  Barriers still exist. Prejudices still creep into the minds of too many people; bigotry still steals its way into the human heart.  
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called upon us to recognize the constant need for action, whether in our struggle to eliminate inequities or to root out war and conflict in our nation and our world.   He said:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of NOW.  In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. 
     There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect….We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.  This may well be our last chance to choose between chaos and community.”  
    Through compassionate policy, fervent belief, shared principle, common hope, coordinated action, may we choose coexistence so that we will be, as we are here and now, a community – one people – a beloved community based in genuine mutual concern– making Dr. King’s dream our dream, and making that dream a reality. 
So may we go and do – and let us say amen.    

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Becoming an American - A once-open path - January 19, 2013

     I was recently looking through some memorabilia from my Dad’s family, where I found some important documents that marked milestones for my grandparents, Mendel Karol and Anna (Wolf) Karol.   My bubby Anna/Nechame came to Kansas City to join other relatives there after arriving at Ellis Island on the S.S. Bremen (a German ship built in 1897) on May 17, 1904. My grandfather arrived within the next two years (he had family in Kansas City as well) after a decade-long sojourn in South Africa (he left Akmine, Lithuania most likely to avoid being drafted into the Russian army).   They were married on March 17, 1907, in Kansas City, Kansas.  What allowed both of my dad’s parents to enter the United States was the open immigration policy of the time.   As I understand the history, as long as there was someone in the United States to offer support, a new arrival was allowed to pass through the gates at their point of entry.   Mendel became an American citizen on April 28, 1924, and Anna was naturalized on September 22, 1941, a few weeks after my parents’ wedding.  She was among the residents of the United States required to register in compliance with the Alien Registration Act of 1940. That act established a program to fingerprint and create a record of every non-citizen within the United States.   This legislation also explicitly declared, as one of its purposes,  to prohibit “certain subversive activities.”  It became known as the “Smith Act” because Virginia Representative Howard W. Smith authored the Act’s anti-Sedition section.   So, my grandmother likely had to tell a local registration officer, sometime late in1940,  not only that she had hazel eyes and gray hair and that she was from Nowogrodek, Russia in the district of Minsk, but also that she had not “been affiliated with or active in organizations, devoted in whole or in part to influencing or further the political activities, public relations, or public policy of a foreign government.”   I admire the fact that my grandmother became a naturalized citizen following that experience!  After many years of operating a dry goods store (which closed on January 7, 1939), I am sure that she had nothing to hide!
    These documents reminded me that my grandparents were, at one time, strangers in this country, and that officially becoming an American was part of a long process of acculturation.   They became citizens when quotas had been established that all-too-effectively prevented the entry of many people who, if they had been given safe harbor here, would likely have added to quality and character of our nation.   Many controls on immigration still exist today that prevent the possibility of citizenship for some who might want to add the best of what they have to offer to the collective American personality.  Quotas  likely originated, at least in part, out of fear of the stranger or foreigner, which seems to persist even today, even when the diversity of our country should provide Americans from different national or cultural backgrounds with ample opportunities to get to know one another better. 
    Because of the experiences of my grandparents, I cannot help but be moved by the stories of the many people who are not yet citizens of our country who are still deprived of a path to citizenship.   We are enriched by the diversity of our national population and by the skills and wisdom and that that people from many different places bring to our society.  Their path to citizenship should be as smooth now as it was for Mendel and Anna Karol.   
     We read in the Torah: "Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt."  We recite this declaration at Passover every year: "In every generation, we should see ourselves as if we went free from Egypt."    I am glad that my grandparents had the courage to make a change in their lives and come to the United States.   What I hope is that the land that they envisioned – a land of freedom that is welcoming to all who want to enjoy the benefits of citizenship – is still within our reach.    I only hope that our national leaders, as they consider Immigration Reform, will see fit to consider their own stories of immigration, so that those tales will move them to make the United States a land of opportunity for all who want help our nation thrive in the decades to come.

A New Heart and Spirit - January 19, 2013

“And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; and I will put my spirit in you.  Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe my rules.”
(Ezekiel 36:26-27)
    As I studied this passage in the summer of 2010 with the intention of expressing its meaning in music and lyrics, I wondered how this declaration by the prophet Ezekiel to his people of God’s message of enduring presence and partnership could apply to us today.  In that passage, Ezekiel told his people, Judeans (Jews) living in exile in Babylonia, that they could regain their if they replaced their “heart of stone” with a new “heart of flesh” that would restore and raise their spirits and bring them close to God once again. 
   I wrote this song as many American citizens were losing jobs, homes and financial security in the wake of a national crisis.   Reducing hours of workers put many in dire straits, forcing many people to make difficult choices.  The attitude and culture of financial institutions that made clients secondary to the profit motive led to this untenable situation.
   In ancient Israel, it was the prophet who was called to deliver God’s message. The prophets did not choose to take on their crucial role in society, but they knew they had to speak out when they saw injustice and the need for change.   The message of Ezekiel that resonated with me at such a trying time was that everyone – including organizations, institutions, and government - needed to preserve within themselves the “heart of flesh” that sees all  people as created in the divine image.  We need to recognize that no one is immune to finding themselves in a difficult situation which might require assistance and compassion from others.   The prophet Micah articulated well the meaning of a “heart of flesh”: be fair, just, merciful and humble, and see all people as equals.
   The prophetic voice of ancient times reminded the people to listen to the still, small voice inside of them that would open their hearts to their fellow human beings with genuine concern.  
    My song “Heart” attempts to renew Ezekiel’s message for the here and now. Seeing the best in each other will ensure that we will care about the well-being of all people as we care about our own well-being.   That is the true meaning of community.  May such a spirit prevail among us in our nation and throughout the world.