Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hebrew; A language that is a tapestry of history

Homage to Hebrew in Honor of Israel Independence Day

I admit that as a child I despised attending Hebrew school after a day of going to school all day. I was no different than a lot of Jewish kids growing up in America. Many of us swore that after Bar or Bat Mitzvah we would never go back and never wanted to learn more Hebrew. The truth be told was that I did continue to pursue my studies at the congregation on Sunday mornings until 10th grade and then Confirmation. But I never learned more Hebrew. And I was just fine with that.
Years later my life’s purpose took me to Jerusalem and in Rabbinical School I was in the middle of a classroom learning four kinds of Hebrew from modern, rashi script, biblical Hebrew and Talmudic Hebrew. How else would I learn to read our ancient texts if not in the original language? There was no question that it was the holy work as compared to the torture I experienced as a middle school kid. Now I was studying four or five hours after classes. Then I was going out into the Jerusalem streets trying out my burgeoning Hebrew skills making mistakes but each day learning a little more how to communicate with Israelis.  Soon I could start to read newspapers and have light conversations with people. What a liberating feeling! I started to love Hebrew and feel that the language was the portal into the world not only of the Jewish past but also into the future of our destiny.
I was amazed to learn about the story of Eliezer Ben Yehudah the founder of Modern Hebrew. Most people hear ben yehudah and they think of the street in downtown Jerusalem where everyone finds the tourist shops in the center of Jerusalem.  Indeed, many cities in Israel have streets named after Eliezer ben Yehuda.  Eliezer ben Yehuda grew up in eastern Europe with a traditional yeshivah education. His life took him to the beauty of Hebrew and in the midst of the early years of immigration to Palestine he started his quest to adapt the classical languages of Hebrew to the street and into the mouths of Zionists of all stripes who came to settle this holy land.
Stories abound how he made his children speak Hebrew in the house at the beginning of the 20th century without having anyone else to speak with in the school yard. But at the end of the day it all paid off and his scholarly genius reached into rabbinical and biblical texts and created the first modern Hebrew dictionary. By 1919 when the Institute for Technology  (later to be named The Technion) adopted Hebrew as the official language of the school and instruction (1924), the Hebrew language took off and gained nation wide acceptance. There are dramatic stories of fights in the faculty many of whom were from Germany and who  insisted on German as the language of instruction. The the majority of faculty and staff prevailed with Hebrew as the language of instruction.  Other moments occurred when the British took over Palestine after World War One, the military administration recognized Hebrew as the official language of the Jewish people. Then Eliezer ben Yehuda formed an academic institute that would study Hebrew and introduce new Hebrew words into the language to keep up with the times.
Most American Jews can make their ways through the prayerbook with varying degrees of comfort. Younger generations who have visited Israel can incorporate more Hebrew into their vocabulary than their forbearers. Hebrew is an amazing language when we think that a hundred years ago Jewish intellectuals were struggling how to reinvigorate Hebrew from the scholarly language into one that the popular culture of Jews around the world could embrace as part of a new image of national pride for Jews around the world.
Today Hebrew has matured and has so many distinctive features like any language. Its sounds and nuances differ based upon where the historic backgrounds of Israelis. Jews from Arab countries speak in an accent that sounds distinctive in the same way as those who come from Ashkenazi cultures speak the language. The expressions and uses of American English have certainly crept into the language as it has influenced all the languages of the world.
When we speak Hebrew not just in worship services but also in modern Hebrew we are blending our history from the Bible and Talmudic times through the Middle Ages into the world today. We may not know it but the words of Hebrew are truly a tapestry of Jewish history. In honor of Israel’s Independence Day let us celebrate the beauty of the Hebrew language and the miracle of resurrecting it. It is just one more example of the miracle of Israel that arose out of the dust to a new life that we celebrate on the 63rd anniversary of its declaration of Independence.
For all my local low country readers, don’t forget to attend the low country celebration this Thursday beginning at 5pm at the Temple.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

May 12th: Israel Independance Day in the Low Country

This week we shall celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut-Israel’s 63rd birthday. I now know for sure Israel has made it in the world when as I was paging through a new flute instruction book I came upon a brief piece of music entitled “Israel melody.” I was curious so as I sight read it I started to play the piece and it was, low and behold, the music for HaTikvah-the hope-Israel’s national anthem!
What a wonderful way to begin a practice session. The point is that there is so much that is amazing and beautiful about Israel that is ignored because the world’s focus on Israel is always about Middle East peace. Of course that is critical and it deserves our attention.  But what American Jews, Israelis who live in America and Israelis too need to remember and do is to share the beauty of Israel’s culture around our country and the world.
We have always surprised the world with what we could do in the sciences and the cultural arts. Even the Sacramento Kings basketball team (they got a one year respite to remain in Sacramento-whew!) has an Israeli player on the team! Israel wins a gold medal for wind sailing in the most recent summer Olympics. The awards and the achievements are too numerous to mention here but it would do us well to remember that in anticipation of our community’s observance on Thursday May 12th, the focus is a celebration and we need every Jew in the low country to attend. There are many who are from other faiths inside our community and who love Israel as well. We need everyone!
The biggest problem that we American Jews need to address is how Israel’s adversaries continue to demonize it and paint Israel in the most unflattering way. They do it over and over whether through the internet, the newspapers, the U.N. and many other media outlets. It is a propaganda war and American Jews can make a difference by coming out and saying “I am proud of Israel.”
And we do need the support of the Christian community in America. Liberal Jews need to rethink how we can strengthen Israel’s place in the culture of America. I think the recent spectacular and successful Navy Seals operation to take out Osama Bin Laden will reaffirm that America and Israel stand shoulder to shoulder when it comes to facing the common enemy of extremist Islamic terrorism. But we have to go deeper by exploring new relationships with religious institutions that may not share all our viewpoints on domestic issues but who identify with us when it comes to Israel’s survival and its value as a legitimate Jewish nation.  As long as churches know that converting Jews is off limits then we can work together.
In other words if we are comfortable in our own skin then we should not be afraid to let others into our tent who have honorable intentions and who respect Israel. Their reasons for doing so may be theological and not coincide with Jewish belief but we can work around it. It is something we should explore in the future.
Israel has so much to offer the world. Sixty three years has proven how prolific Jewish culture is as a force for good. Christians and adherents of religions from all over the world can drink from our wells and learn from us as we have done from them over the millennium. All we ever wanted was the chance to prove ourselves and from my viewpoint Israel, with all its challenges, is doing the job well. It may be tumultuous and it may be controversial and it may be dramatic, but, in the end Israel is a miracle and that is what Israel Independence Day celebrates.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Community is critical to religion

Last week a group of temple leaders and myself traveled to Washington, DC to attend the Reform Movement’s conference on Social Justice, a hallmark of reform Judaism. The conference, sponsored by the Religious Action Center, highlighted the enormous effort that Reform Judaism invests in advocacy for liberal political and humanitarian issues. The main reason for our trip was to accept the coveted Irving Fain award for excellence in social justice programming. Our congregation’s efforts at organizing an interfaith coalition to address feeding the hungry and housing for the homeless caught the attention of the committee and earned us well deserved recognition. I was so happy for our congregant leaders who stood up on the stage and received the citation and recognition before over 300 people, including the leaders of the movement. Our congregation is now on the map. It is a great feeling.
We heard from political leaders such as Senator Carl Levin, Representatives Nancy Peolosi, and Rosa DeLaura. We also heard from a nun from New Orleans. She was the nun who wrote the book Dead Man Walking portraying her reaching out to a death row inmate and the relationship they developed before his execution. Remember the movie from this book that stared Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn?
The central theme of the sister’s ministry is opposing the death penalty. She gave an honorable and down to earth argument against the death penalty. One of the aspects of her speech that resonated for me was the idea of community. She talked about the community we all come from and that part of the strength of religion is how well it provides a sense of community to people who are seeking to belong somewhere.
My purpose is not to argue about the death penalty. It is, instead, to recognize that we are all looking for community. Today we can find it on the internet as well as face to face. Both have their drawbacks and even their dangers as we all know from so many stories. Yet, let’s not get sidetracked with those kinds of stories. The truth of the matter is that we are social beings and we need community to ground us and to feel a sense of belongingness to the world around us.
Think about it that the underlying theme of the Torah is all about building a sacred community. From the instance that we see Adam and Even expelled out of the Garden of Eden, the failed generation of Noah and then the beginnings of Abraham and Sarah trying to establish a new age of monotheism, we see that the individual is lost unless they are connected to a patriarch or to a people like in Exodus. Leviticus is all about community. It may be dry reading and tedious but don’t forget that it is all about building a spiritual infrastructure to enable the people to provide a communal expression of their relationship to God.
Today we are searching for the right faith and the old rules do not necessarily apply. People are living all over the country. They do not have roots like many of us had when we were growing up. We are living in a stew of different faith traditions that swirl around us. Again it is the choice we make. Is it the people who define what we believe or is it the doctrine we chose and then find the people who subscribe to it that determine what we will do?
When I see beautiful buildings and sanctuaries, I ask myself ‘Does the beauty of the building mirror the spirit that pervades the hearts and spirits of those who worship there? The sister was trying to tell us that even in a prison which is a horrible habitation for human beings (I have visited them and taught inside a medium security prison in Illinois) there is a spark of humanity amongst people who have done bad things to others in their lives. I suppose one could say by analogy that the beauty of a house of worship does not automatically mean that the people inside it reflect that same spirit either.
It is an imperfect world and religion contributes to many of the problems we have today. But when religion is on target the leaders and adherents understand that building a strong and welcoming community that opens up the potential of people to find faith and to learn their scriptures and to connect with God and then practice the good things that bind us all together then is religion at its best.
Religion is also at its best when it recognizes that alleviating the suffering of others is also part of the mission. That could be in a prison or for a hungry child or a poverty stricken family looking for a job. It is all part of Judaism and Christianity’s mission as well as Islam. If we could focus as a religious community on those values we might see a lot more unity in this country.