Thursday, January 17, 2019

Invocation - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Board meeting - January 17, 2019

Eternal God,

Inspiration to Moses and Aaron,

Liberator of a people,

Watchful companion along our centuries-long path, 

Join us as we move forward into the future. 

Guide us in our creativity and judgment

To consider the needs of our congregation 

And the greater community 

So that we will continue to learn from one another

And to teach each other

To care, 

To build, 

To speak from the heart,

To listen, 

To support,

To give,

To feel, 

To overcome fear,

To rejoice, 

To unite,

And to love.

May our combined energies

Enable us to realize our dreams

Of a community and a world

Where differences offer opportunities

To forge deeper understanding;

Where conflict gives way to cooperation;

And where we see people of all backgrounds 

As fellow travelers,

Walking together from generation to generation

Towards the light that will ultimately overtake

Any darkness that could keep us from truly seeing one another.   

As You, O God, reach out to us 

Every moment of our lives, 

May the open hands that we extend 

in friendship to our fellow human beings 

Be an expression of all that You want us to be 

Our Creator

Our Teacher

Our Hope.

And we say


Sunday, January 13, 2019

There’s always time for hope - January 13, 2019

      I have noticed a trend in Reform Jewish worship in recent years.  

       At some regional and national conventions I have attended, leaders of some of the worship services leave out a prayer that expresses a sentiment which I believe to be all-important and foundational to Judaism. 

       That prayer is about hope. 

      I can hear and see in my mind the words of the prayer on this theme that we recited when I was a child. It followed “Va-anachnu” (we bend the knee...) and preceded “Bayom Hahu” (on that day, the Eternal shall be One and God’s name shall be one.” 

       Here is the paragraph from the 1940 revision of the Union Prayer Book (published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis/CCAR) that became ingrained in my memory and my soul (with a few emendations):   

  “May the time not be distant, O God, when Your name shall be worshiped in all the earth, when unbelief shall disappear and error be no more. Fervently we pray that the day may come when all people shall invoke Your name, when corruption and evil shall give way to purity and goodness, when superstition shall no longer enslave the mind, nor idolatry blind the eye, when all who dwell on earth shall know that to You alone every knee must bend and every tongue give homage. O may all, created in Your image, recognize that they are brothers and sisters, so that, one in spirit and one in fellowship, they may be forever united before Your. Then shall Your dominion be established on earth and the word of Your ancient prophet be fulfilled: The Eternal will reign forever and ever.” 

     Gates of Prayer (CCAR, 1975) and Gates of Repentance (CCAR, 1979) featured a slightly revised version of this prayer.  Mishkan T’filah (CCAR 2007) also includes a new rendering based on the texts of past prayerbooks. 

     No matter what the specific wording might be, this reading acts as a bridge between “We will bend our knee and bow and give thanks to the Holy One” and “On that day.”   In fact, in my view, it makes no sense to move from the first prayer to the second one without a reading in between that specifies what we believe to be the nature and character of “that day.”   

    I am certain that the omission of this prayer by some worship leaders is a matter of timing, based on a sense that, at that point, it is best to quickly press forward to conclude the service. 

      While leading music at a service at a regional rabbinic conference last year, I led my musical setting of  an alternative “hope” prayer, written by Rabbi Richard Levy, which was included in Mishkan T’filah.  Before I sang it, I said, “We are going to sing my melody to Rabbi Levy’s reading before moving on to the Kaddish prayer.  There is always time for hope.”  And we joined together, intoning these words: 

    “May we gain wisdom in our lives, overflowing like a river with understanding. Loved, each of us, for the peace we bring to others. May our deeds exceed our speech, and may we never lift up our hand but to conquer fear and doubt and despair. Rise up like the sun, O God, over all humanity. Cause light to go forth over all the lands between the seas. And light up the universe with the joy of wholeness, of freedom, and of peace.”     

    When I created the melody, I incorporated the Hebrew of “on that day” into the song as a refrain in the middle and at the end. (Here is a link to a live recording of the prayer/song): 

May We Gain Wisdom/Bayom Hahu - Music by Larry Karol - live at NewCAJE 2015 (with Cantor Martin Levson and Mitch Gordon)

     So what “hopes” for humanity and our world do these two readings have in common? 

  • Wisdom and understanding. 
  • An end to corruption, evil, and all types of idolatry,  coupled with the ability to conquer fear, doubt and despair. 
  • A sense of godliness and goodness in the belief and actions of all humanity 
  • Recognition of our common humanity in a spirit of unity and fellowship, that can lead to peace. 

    Should we really gloss over or omit these convictions from our worship?   Is it possible that we do because we no longer believe we can attain them? 

     Any service that I lead includes some version of this prayer for hope.  These prayers offer us inspiration to engender empathy and compassion within our communal life.  They direct us to overcome fear of “the other” and to try to discover the common threads that can bring together people who come from different backgrounds, faiths and viewpoints.   Even if the goals expressed in a prayer for hope seem to be out of our grasp, we can’t throw up our hands and give up.   

    In a song they wrote in 2010, folksingers Pete Seeger and Lorre Wyatt offered one reason why we can’t give up:   “When we look and we see things are not what they should be, God’s counting on me, God’s counting on you....Hoping we’ll all pull through.” 

   And, in the Sayings of the Rabbis/Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon offered another reason: “It’s not your duty to complete the work, but neither are free to neglect it.” 

    God is counting on us to keep working and hoping, so that others can continue our efforts in the future. 

   And I truly believe, even now, that we will all pull through. 


Friday, January 4, 2019

Faith evolves over the course of our lives - Column for Las Cruces Bulletin on January 4, 2019

       Everyone traverses a unique faith journey throughout his or her life.  

  I once attended a workshop on how our faith develops throughout our lives.  It was led by Kenneth Stokes, author of Faith is a Verb: Dynamics of Adult Faith Development.  

    Stokes defined faith as “finding meaning and purpose in life” within our accumulated experiences.   Through learning, joining, exploring, and developing/owning our own perspectives, our personal faith takes shape.  

    Finding our own sense of purpose can occur within the context of one or more religions or outside congregational life. We may undergo changes in what we believe as we search for greater meaning through rituals, experimentation, and performing acts of kindness and service for others.   

        My own family’s faith history is like that of many Jews who immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe.  My grandparents belonged to Orthodox congregations in Kansas City.   Orthodox Judaism follows Jewish law and tradition as it has been passed down for generations, with some reinterpretation by rabbis that might modify specific practices at home and in the community.  My grandparents kept Jewish dietary laws in their homes (only kosher meat, separation of meat and dairy foods and utensils, no pork or shellfish).  They likely did not work on the Sabbath (Saturday).  Boys became Bar Mitzvah at age 13 and men held the main leadership roles in the community. 

     When my brother Steve and I were young, my parents were members of a Conservative congregation. The Conservative movement views Jewish law and tradition as an obligation for its members to follow.  Conservative Judaism teaches the importance of Sabbath observance and keeping dietary laws.  This movement has, at times, decided on major changes in practice, such as opening to women the possibility of becoming rabbis, cantors (singers), and leaders in all aspects of congregational life.    

      When I was four years old, my parents joined a new Reform Jewish congregation in Kansas City, and, several years later, they became members of a larger Reform Temple, where they were active for forty years.  Reform Judaism views Jewish law as a guideline that can direct personal practice and inspire creativity. Early on, Reform Jewish leaders emphasized moral laws and prophetic teachings over and above preserving traditional forms of ritual (such as the dietary laws).   Women took on roles of leadership gradually, with the first woman rabbi being ordained in 1972.  As early as the 1880s, Religious School graduation ceremonies (Confirmation) at age 15 were for both boys and girls, with Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations being added over the last 60 years.  Worship featured choirs, musical accompaniment, and creative readings and translations of time-honored prayers (as distinguished from Orthodox practice). 

     Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan founded the Reconstructionist movement, which takes both a rational and a spiritual approach to Judaism, keeping many long-standing rituals while adding many innovations along the way.  Rabbi Kaplan’s daughter, Judith, was, in 1922, the first young woman to become Bat Mitzvah by leading part of a Sabbath service.   

    Over the years, I adopted traditional practices such as wearing a kippah/yarmulke and tallit/prayer shawl during worship and observing the Jewish dietary laws.  I made those decisions to further my own feeling of connection to my heritage and to God. 

    Each of us has the possibility of pursuing a quest for meaning and purpose in life. It is not only about what we believe, but about what we do to express those beliefs by ourselves or with a community. May we all find peace and hope along whatever road we choose. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Musical Resistance - Preserving Hope and Kindness - original songs of recent years

 When I write in any medium, it is, first and foremost, my personal expression.  Whether prose, poetry, story, or song lyrics, it’s all the same.     

The songs offer something more through the combination of lyrics and melody.  It’s my way of putting what’s in my soul on the outside in a way that might resonate with others or, at least, make them think.   

Of the 17 songs I have written over the last two years, several of them focus on values mentioned in the title - hope and kindness - which are at the center of what I do as a rabbi. 

Here are the songs I would include on this “playlist”:

1) Or La-y’sharim - Light for the Upright - Adaptation/lyrics and music by Larry Karol 
This song was based on verses about light included in the Chanukah candlelighting guide, HANEROT HALALU, by Elyse Frishman, published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.   I was intrigued by the symbol of light and the power of love.    I added a paraphrase of a well-known statement by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 
For lsongs on reverbnation, you can find the lyrics by clicking on the “dots” at the right of each song and the “lyric” link will be visible.  

2) If Not Now - Words by Stacey Z. Robinson, Music by Larry Karol 
Stacey Robinson, a wonderful poet/writer/liturgist and my music colleague, shared this poem after the tragic death of a demonstrator at the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017.   After seeing this posted online, I felt that I had to add music to it in order to offer my own statement.  I offer two versions - my multitrack recording and a live performance from the November 2017 Shabbat Shira conference held at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. 

3) Strength and Shelter (Psalm 46)  Adaptation/lyrics and music by Larry Karol 
   Songs asking for strength and shelter from God are about persistence and endurance in most any situation.  Having a sense of God’s presence can sustain us as we take a stand based on values we prize.     

4) Inheritance (Psalm 37) Adaptation/English lyrics and music by Larry Karol 
“The meek/humble will inherit the earth.”  Admittedly, the first time I heard this phrase was not from bible study, or from the reference in the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament.  It was quoted as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit” in Paul Simon’s song, “Blessed.”   The word for “the meek,” ANAVIM, can also mean those who are humble.  Sometimes I think people in this world are losing their sense of the importance of humility in human behavior.   I have never believed that it’s only loud and brash voices that win the day. Humility can mean knowing that each person is not the be-all and end-all of existence.  It’s like the saying of Rabbi Simcha - I have two truths in my pockets: “I am but dust and ashes” and “for my sake, the world was created.”   Advocacy and communication, and how we treat each other, is about balane.  

5) A Song of Love and Justice (Psalm 101). Adaptation/English lyrics and music by Larry Karol 
   Sometimes I peruse the book of Psalms, looking for a particularly meaningful expressions of values. Psalm 101 speaks of kindness, justice, faithfulness, and integrity.   In my mind, this Psalm challenges us to stand with God and follow godly paths.   I turned one section of the lyrics into a dialogue with the divine representing that challenge: 

A song of love and justice

To You I will sing

When will You stand with me? 

When will you stand with Me?

I will walk with a heart full of hope

When will You follow me?

When will you follow Me? 

  I feel it must be mutual for this world to work the way it should. 

 “I’ve decided to stick with love” was a wonderful quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that seemed to echo some of the sentiments of Psalm 101.   I decided to incorporate his words into this song. 

6). Heart of the Stranger (An Immigrant Song)  Lyrics and music by Larry Karol 
  I had been thinking about writing a song in which I imagined that I was one of my grandparents, entering this country at a young age, hoping that the immigration official I encountered would be welcoming and kind rather than demonstrating cruelty that might have mirrored the hallmark of officials in the “old country” who had no use for Jews.    With the movement of so many people in this world at this time, seeking safety and freedom from threats to their lives and well-being back home, I wrote this song from the perspective of a child who knows his or her bible, think of the passages that ask commanded the Israelites to be kind to the stranger, because they knew the heart of the stranger.  I took the biblical quote to that effect from Leviticus 19, a verse I read every Yom Kippur afternoon.   This isn’t just a song of an immigrant - it’s a prayer, and it puts God alongside the person walking on his or her journey, hoping to find security and freedom.   

There will be more songs like this, without a doubt.   I offer these fruits of my musical creativity as an example of how music can embody the principles of our faith and the goals for our relationships with people whom we know, and others whom we don’t yet know, in this world that needs our hope and kindness.