Archive for the 'Religion' Category

What year is this?

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, was yesterday. Literally translated, it is the head of the year.

Jewish holidays, the anniversary of a death, and other events are based on the lunar, rather than the solar, or secular, calendar. For someone observing the event based on the lunar calendar, Rosh Hashanah, like all Jewish holidays, falls on a different secular date every year. This date may vary by several weeks at summer’s end. Hence, we Jews say things like “the holiday is early this year” or “goodness, Rosh Hashanah is late this year.”

But, according to Rabbi Mike, it really depends on your point of view. When I tell him that Rosh Hashanah is early this year, he says “No it’s not, it’s on the same day and month that it was last year, the first of Tishrei.” For good measure, he also notes that the year is 5779, not 2018.

There are twelve months including the month of Tishrei in the Jewish year. Each is thirty days long, except for one month. The determination of Jewish years began somewhere in the middle ages. The Torah wasn’t particularly helpful in solving the question of when did the world begin. So the sages used some fancy footwork. Their Ingredients included the Torah-stipulated ages of the patriarchs, the rise and fall of kingdoms, seasonal occurrences, and gut feelings. So here we are in 5779.

The Jewish lunar calendar has been used for hundreds of years, and if it were not occasionally adjusted to match up with the secular or solar calendar, our seasonal events would soon be totally out of whack. The fourth of July would be in December and Hannukah would be in the summer. To address the issue, Jews occasionally add a day or subtract a day from some months. Jewish leap years can have as many as 385 days, or an extra month.

The secular, or Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582, has its own, though less complicated, eccentricities.  Gregory’s invention largely replaced the Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. The Gregorian calendar has 365 days with an extra day every four years (leap year) except in years divisible by 100 but not divisible by 400. Keep that in mind at your New Year’s Eve party in 2100.

Not everyone has adopted either the Jewish or Gregorian calendar. For example, based on the ancient Coptic calendar, the Ethiopian Calendar is seven to eight years behind the Gregorian calendar, due to alternate calculations in determining the date of the birth of Jesus. For those who yearn to be younger, take a trip to Addis Ababa.

In spite of the calendar’s quirks, Jackie and I managed to get to the Temple on the right day and at the right time. This was a special day in many ways. For me, it centers on the friends who gather with us. Friends who may only visit the Temple on Rosh Hashanah and those who are regulars. The day is warmed by the presence of all.

Conversation with the Kaplan grandchildren who are in Temple for the first time since the death of their grandfather. Alan, the Temple president, sweeping the crumbs from the floor during the blessing of bread and wine. Welcoming our new Rabbi who, in an earlier life, was not Jewish. John, who graciously offered me his kipah, or skullcap, that I had admired a few weeks ago. Listening to Phil simply and eloquently read poetry from the prayer-book. Thanking the choir members for their dedication to making the day richer.

And Jackie, who repeatedly practiced the blessings said when you are called to the Torah for an Aliyah, an honor reserved for one who has shown special devotion to serving the Temple and its congregants. In recognition of our special relationship, and especially sweet, was that Jackie and I were asked to offer these blessings together.

As proof of her penchant for leaving nothing to chance, Jackie had printed the blessings and downloaded an audio recording. I was also drafted in the preparations and practiced the blessings with her at home, in the car and while we walked the streets of Ojai.

On the morning of Rosh Hashanah, Jackie donned a black, sleeveless dress. Tempting but appropriate, she shone. Topping it off with daughter Sammy’s bat mitzvah tallit, or prayer shawl, she was immaculate, lovely and ready.

At Temple, Jackie sat anxiously next to me and awaited our Aliyah. Forsaking the laminated blessing  sheet available to us in front of the ark, she tightly clutched her now wrinkled, printed blessings, as though someone was going to snatch them from her. I could hear her heart beat.

Third in a line of those with an Aliyah, we were at last called to the pulpit. The congregation quieted. Jackie touched the corner of her tallit to the Torah portion being read. And then took the same corner to her lips. We chanted the first blessing. The Torah portion was read by Rabbi Mike. We chanted the final blessing…We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us a Torah of truth, implanting within us eternal life. We praise You, O God, Giver of the Torah.

We went back to our seats. I smiled. She smiled. It didn’t matter whether Rosh Hashanah was early this year.

Nobody comes to shul…much

We’ve been going to shul more frequently of late. “Shul” is Yiddish for synagogue, temple, house of worship or whatever. The word “shul” is comforting to me, slides off my tongue easily and conjures up memories from my childhood. It brings flashes of the faces of my now long-gone relatives to whom “shul” was the only term they ever used in describing the Jewish house of worship and learning.

In a prior life, as president of our Northridge shul, I regularly avoided Friday night Sabbath services. I made up stories in my head to justify my absence from what seemed to me as an unwelcome intrusion in my otherwise busy week. I just couldn’t see much reason to participate with the other fifteen percent of the shul’s membership who were Friday evening regulars.

Fast forward to Ojai and to a shul that’s about one-tenth the size of our Northridge congregation. In the last fifteen years we’ve wandered through a series of rabbis, who generally stayed with us about two or three years. They moved on either because they wanted more than a small shul could offer or because they just didn’t fit. Our appearances at Friday night services mirrored our Northridge experience, few and far between. The usual exception, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, brought us to shul along with a sea of faces who also needed a map to find the front door.

Sheila, bless her heart, persevered in her position as an on-again, off-again shul president and perennial Friday night service cheer leader. She’s begged, encouraged and even scolded, with little success, miscreants like me to come to Friday evening services. With a small congregation and limited finances, we are able to have a “real” rabbi only two Fridays a month. The rabbi-led services usually generate a reasonable increase in attendance. Enough to warrant turning on the lights and air conditioning. The other Friday nights, led with gusto by Sheila, often found her talking to near-empty seats.

I often said to Sheila, given our congregants’ seeming indifference to schlepping to her capably led though unappreciated alternate Friday night services, that we simply cancel them. Nobody would notice and Sheila could stop whipping herself into a manic frenzy at the thought of another deserted shul night.

Her response was simple. Somebody might need that Friday night service.

That prescient thought was vindicated at last Friday night’s service. Sweetie and I arrived about five minutes before the loosey goosey standard six o’clock start time. Entering the shul we found ourselves facing the only other person in attendance, Sheila. At five minutes past six we were a group of five. Time to start. Even without a minyan.

Wait. Who are those people entering our shul? Two mature adults and five young people. Never saw them before.

Hello. Welcome to shul. What brings you here?

We operate a teen rehab center. These young people are in the program.

These two kids are from New Jersey and the others are from New York. Three of the five are Jewish and the others came along for the ride.

We needed some place to go other than our rehab center. We’re pretty limited since we have to stay away from stuff like, well, alcohol. And other things.

We needed a place that was welcoming and, well, kind of spiritual. We saw your website and the announcement about tonight’s service. So we came. Thanks for being here for us.

One young man led us in a prayer. We all shared the oneg following the service, drank grape juice during the blessing over the wine and touched the challah while holding hands and connecting. We talked for a long time.

They left…smiling.

Glad we were here. For them. And for us.

Thank you, Sheila.

I’m Charlie…are you?

At first I couldn’t figure out what to say or do in the immediate aftermath of the mass killing of the French staff members who were guilty of publishing satirical Charlie Hebdo cartoons that took aim at the prophet Muhammad.

My initial reaction to the CNN morning news was something like “catch and kill the bastards who did this.  Slowly.”  Then I became more sophisticated and said “the world’s peace-loving Muslims have got to do something about their radical brethren.  Maybe like catching and killing them.”  Beyond that I was at a loss for words or clever thoughts.

And then the French police took  my best two ideas and surrounded and killed the bastards.  I thought “good, that’s done.”  But after a moment’s reflection I felt sort of empty with no place to go.  Later, thinking a bit more clearly, I realized that these unforgivable crimes could and probably would happen again.  It’s far too difficult to prevent the random actions of driven lunatics who obviously were ignored during their childhood, abused by their elders and successful at nothing as adults.

Even two-year olds can get the drop on us.  Witness the infant in Hayden, Idaho’s Wal-Mart who playfully snatched a pistol from his gun-savvy mother’s purse and promptly shot her to death.  Probably because she wouldn’t give him another Tootsie pop.  So who are we to think we can stop some nutcase, believing in life hereafter, complete with virgins, from hurling himself and his dynamite overcoat into a Jewish preschool.

Since the Charlie Hebdo holocaust I’ve read articles and watched talking head interviews that have wrestled with whether we’ve crossed over some line in publishing satirical or offensive stuff about religion and its proponents.  Certainly it’s pretty clear to most sane people that some stuff is beyond just being “offensive” and probably should never see the light of day.  I’m reminded of the Jewish comedian who some years ago regaled us with Jesus jokes in a social hall rented from the Catholic church for a community fund-raiser.  Jesus stared down accusingly from one of the social hall walls at what could only be called a major act of gross stupidity.  But, did the offending moron delivering the painful lines deserve to die?

Short of cartoons and articles that call for the destruction of innocents, I’m not sure where the line is to be drawn.  Personally, I take a major exception to stereotypical anti-Semitic depictions of Jews as Shylocks, political manipulators, and killers of small Christian children on Passover.  While I’d like to see bad things happen to such portrayers (like Mel Gibson, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh) I probably would restrain myself from seeing their movies, buying their cars and asking for their autograph.  Maybe I’d even write a blog about it.

So here’s what I think about the Charlie Hebdo assassins.  They are not heroes.  Heroes don’t wear masks, carry automatic rifles and without warning gun down innocent people who cannot defend themselves.  And they are without a doubt not representative of the overwhelming majority of Muslims.  But the larger Muslim community needs to do more.  It’s not good enough to say “they are not us.”  Separation, denigration and condemnation of murderous Islamists must become the everyday watchword of their faith.  Taught relentlessly to their children in their schools, their faithful in their mosques and, most importantly, in their conversations at home.

Like other faiths over the millennia, Islam is at a crossroad, fought for by competing factions.  Murderous factions.  Factions that are only interested in naked power, subjugation of women and death for those innocents who oppose their will.  It’s not so much a war between East and West.  It’s a battle for the heart of Islam.  One that none of us can afford to lose.

We undermine the support we should provide to moderate Muslims who are waging this battle when we broadly condemn their religion.  Right wing factions in France and elsewhere in Europe see a golden opportunity in this battle.  As the New York Times put it…The French are frightened — or more precisely, they are being frightened. The National Front has made fear its credo. It demonizes millions of immigrants as invaders who feast on welfare benefits while putting others out of work.  Capitalizing on fear and promoting  xenophobia are tools that could catapult them to power, along with their own extremist and exclusionary vision of the world.  A vision that may rival that of Isis, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Finally, what’s to be done about Charlie Hebdo and other cartoons that poke their fingers into Islam’s nose?  There’s little doubt that the continued publication of Muhammad cartoons that negatively portray Islam will exacerbate the already fragile tensions with the Muslim world.  But offensive though it may be to those offended, putting a lid on free speech is a slippery slope fraught with unwelcome consequences.  And, most importantly, It is quite simply unacceptable to condone mass murder in retribution for offensive language, cartoons or speech.  The civilized world has developed a variety of highly successful non-violent methods of dealing with such matters.  The murderers’  failure to use these tools highlights their Neanderthal immorality and inexcusable barbarity.

Freedom of expression trumps the sensitivities of organized religion.  To think otherwise is to invite less debate and more murders in the name of God.

They should see how it feels

They need to know how it feels.

The Supremes, in a 5 to 4 decision, today opened the door to the unbridled conduct of religious prayer at government sponsored gatherings.

Five black-robed Christians, voicing their opinion through Justice Kennedy, said that the prayers offered at a Greece, New York town meeting were “merely ceremonial.”  Without any real meaning or importance, I suppose.  Sort of like the Pledge of Allegiance.  Or maybe the credits at the beginning of a movie. No big deal.

“Ceremonial prayer,” Kennedy wrote, “is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define.”  So it seems, according to the Justice, that people should be free to ignore the rule of law, and piss on their neighbors, if it offends their religious beliefs.  The Ayatollah is surely smiling.

The Greece, NY town officials took pains to note that they had tried, with little success, to find non-Christians, including atheists, to do the opening prayers. Obviously those officials haven’t a clue as to what an atheist is.  So rather than mothballing the religious invocations due to a paucity of Muslim, Hindu or Jewish religious leaders, they continued their usual practice unabated and with a distinctly Christian aura.

The two citizens who brought the suit against the town said, according to the Justice, that they felt excluded and offended.  Rising to his full height, Kennedy told them to suck it up and added “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable.”  Not in his court, I bet.

The Justice is also much too busy to spend any significant time deliberating over what is religiously offensive or what is merely ceremonial.  He whined “To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech…”  So let’s just pretend that the Constitution’s First Amendment doesn’t apply when government bodies pray.  There. Done. Next case.

I was reminded of the time that I took a business trip to Chicago where a next day meeting was scheduled at 9am on the Southside’s 71st and State streets.  Seriously misjudging my travel time from Chicago’s North Side (mostly white) to the South Side (nearly all black), I arrived at my destination an hour early.  Seeking a calming cup of coffee, I stumbled into the only restaurant open at that hour, a McDonald’s, and was greeted by a sea of black faces, all staring at me like I had just dropped into their midst from an alien ship.  I felt a heightened sense of exclusion but I also got some idea of what those people probably felt when the roles were reversed.

I’m certain that a number of the Justices must have thought “Well, if you don’t want to take part in the religious invocation, just leave the room and rejoin the party when we finish.  No harm, no foul.”  Sure.  I can just visualize the poor sap returning from the hallway and displaying himself as a blatant non-believer to those by whom he must be judged or with whom he must transact business.

As a Jew I feel highly offended by today’s decision.  But our long history of offenses is much too involved to cover in this miserable blog.  Nor can I begin to delve into the long list of offenses perpetrated by the religious majorities in other lands on religious minorities that did not share their point of view.

Today’s ruling diminishes, rather than enlarges, the concept of religious freedom because it restricts the right of the minority to be free of discrimination in a public setting.  Which is probably why the founding fathers decided to feature freedom of and freedom from religion in the First Amendment.  So my advice to the five black-robed Justices is to spend more time in the company of those who are different from themselves.  And see how it feels.



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