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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lessons of Thanksgiving

Throughout our history, the Jewish People has always championed causes of religious pluralism and a reverence for the rule of law, whether for Jewish law or the legal systems of the countries in which we have resided. The holiday of Thanksgiving serves as a foundational narrative for both the value of religious pluralism and the creation of the greatest legislation enacting the freedoms of religious practice that have ever been known to humanity; for those of the United States of America.

Thanksgiving is unique among our country's national holidays. Its roots are found neither in the ritual traditions of the Christian faith nor in the events or personalities of our country’s national history. In this sense, Thanksgiving is indeed reflective of a formative, pre-American narrative. It is a root-narrative shared alike by every migrant group that escaped persecution and coercion elsewhere to seek freedom. All Americans can derive important lessons about the freedoms we cherish from the story of Thanksgiving.

The first lesson is that laws are an expression of human experience, at least as much so as they may create the context for our future experience. We often imagine that our laws themselves protect our freedom. But, the Pilgrims flight from the religious persecution and coercion of Europe, in search of an opportunity to practice their faith freely, reminds all Americans that our underlying historical narratives of persecution and liberation are at the heart of all legislation that guarantee our freedom. Therefore, one important lesson of Thanksgiving, intuitive to the Pilgrims and transformed into legal codification by our nation’s founders, is that it is only to the extent that we remember our stories of liberation as Americans that we are likely to protect the laws that, in turn, protect our freedoms. No law stands forever unless it is reaffirmed; unless we remind ourselves of its purposes. Our legal protection does not depend upon the law itself, but rather upon our acute awareness of our collective national narrative, beginning with those who preceded the birth of our nation and inspired its great, new vision of freedom.

The second important lesson of Thanksgiving relates to the essential social contract that is implicit in American citizenship. This social contract must reflect an uncompromising commitment to religious pluralism in our society. There are two principles that must always comprise America’s pluralistic social contract: (1) Every faith community deserves its freedom of religious belief and practice in our country; (2) Likewise, all faith traditions must champion the value, practice, and legal tradition that protects religious freedom in America in order to ensure that any of us continues to enjoy the blessings of such freedom in our country.

As Americans of any faith, we must always remember that the social contract of religious pluralism requires of us not only to defend the freedoms afforded our own and other faith communities but also to demand of ourselves and of others that we and they do the same. There is an assumed “legal consideration” among all parties to the American pluralistic social contract whose enduring existence cannot be assured without our equal pursuit and implementation of both of these important components.

Thanksgiving is a festival of gratitude. In the Jewish tradition, we refer to this value as hakarat ha-tov – literally “the acknowledgment of the good” bestowed upon us by our Creator and/or by our fellow human beings. To be grateful, however, is not simply to feel a feeling or to recall with symbolic ritual a sense of gratitude dating back to the past and even felt sentimentally or substantially in the present. It is vital that we remain committed to the religious freedom enjoyed by all faith communities and committed to laws by our nation’s founders; it is equally important that we insist that such commitment is shared by all other faith communities - and their leaders, in word and in deed. Along with the retelling of the American story, from the period prior to our nation’s birth and onward, nuanced and broad adherence to both principles of the social contract of religious pluralism will ensure that our freedoms endure.  In this regard, to be vigilant is to grateful.


Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, located at 5721 Crestridge Rd., in Rancho Palos Verdes. To learn more about the synagogue's extensive children's and adult programming, or to attend religious services, please consult Ner Tamid's website, www.nertamid.com, or call (310)377-6986.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Closer Look At Gilad Shalit's Return Home





Now that Gilad has returned home safely, it is time to understand with careful and thoughtful wisdom that it was neither Israel who paid the higher price in this transaction nor was it is Israel who got the worst of it; Hamas needed to save itself from increasing irrelevance in the eyes of the Palestinian populace and, given the PA's strides in aiming toward Statehood without a peace accord and recognition of Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People, it was in Israel's vital strategic interests that the rivalry between the PA and Hamas be reborn and re-heated most immediately and that reunification efforts make it near impossible for a Judenrein Palestinian State comprising Judea, Smaria, and Gaza -- under PA control - without recognition of Israel come to pass. Gilad's freedom was Hamas' price to pay, and the (hopefully very) temporary freedom of movement of the evil murderers released by Israel into Hamas' custody (many of whom were heroes of Arafat's Fatah/PA - another blow to the PA's prestige), will prove to be a temporary price that Israel will pay for a long-term strategic benefit of neutralizing Abbas' PA while returning Gilad to his family and a nation held hostage almost as much as he has been. Now, however, is the time for Israel's political and military leadership to declare in no uncertain terms that there will never again be a negotiation of any sort for a hostage of Israel and that anyone responsible for any future such treachery against any Jew will pay a swift and unbearable price, along with any others who lend to them any support and/or assistance of any kind. - Moadim L'Simcha -- And, let's all ensure that such Z'manim always remain just this way, in safety and security for all of Klal Yisrael! - Rabbi Isaac Jeret


Rabbi Isaac Jeret 
Spiritual Leader 
Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay
www.nertamid.com/rabbi

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

CHALLENGING OUR SPIRITUAL BASIC ASSUMPTIONS



by Rabbi Isaac Jeret
What is the purpose of a spiritual engagement? What is the value of belonging to a religious community? Whatever our religious affiliation, and even if we are only marginally connected, these questions can be helpful to ask of ourselves. Think of it this way, whether we have reason to go the doctor frequently or not (hopefully not), we should try our very best not to forgo an annual check-up, if we can help it; whether we belong to a faith community or not, we can stand only to benefit from asking ourselves:  Why might one belong? What is a spiritual endeavor in a religious communal context all about in its essence?
Most often, the responses I receive to these questions center on the themes of comfort and escape. We bring comfort to those with whom we share spiritual fellowship and we are comforted when we are in need. In the spirit and harmonious melodies of worship, in the warmth of our sanctuaries, we can escape the demands, tumult, and burdens of daily life, recalibrating toward greater spiritual equalibrium.
To be sure, these are authentic and vital elements of all spiritual striving. These are among the finest qualities -- timeless values -- of religious engagement. However, the Judeo-Christian heritage demands more of us, and extends even broader opportunity to us, than comfort and escape alone. Had it not done so historically, Western religion would have offered the world nothing in the way of the revolutionary alternative that spawned Western civilization, distinguishing itself progressively from the repetitive narrowness of the pagan cultures that preceded it. Consider the following.
The Torah -- The Five Books of Moses -- offers two renditions of God’s Revelation at Sinai. The first is in real time, recording in the Book of Exodus the events as we are told that they unfolded. The second is found in the Book of Deuteronomy, as Moses revisited the occurrences throughout the Jewish People’s desert-journey toward the Promised Land.  In each instance, among the Ten Commandments uttered aloud, one finds the precept to observe the Sabbath.
Quite remarkably, the reason given for Sabbath observance differs in each recounting.  In Exodus, the Sabbath is to be remembered, for God sanctified the seventh day and rested upon it, having completed the creation of the world. A universal purpose is ascribed to the Sabbath. It was intended to return us all to Eden, to a time and place when, at most, one family existed in the entire world; no distinctions existed between spiritual pathways, only a singular wholeness awaited humanity’s acknowledgment and sacred celebration.
In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is to be observed as a day of rest, for the Jewish People had been slaves in Egypt with no such opportunity. Here, a more particular purpose is ascribed to the Sabbath. Having been denied liberty as slaves, a sacred day of rest was to have been, at once, a communal and personal Jewish experience of spiritual and practical sovereignty -- every week, for all of time.
But, the reasons ascribed seem, at first glance, to be confused. The generation leaving Egypt had known slavery. Surely, they could more easily have related to a Sabbath celebrating personal and communal sovereignty.  And, the generation entering the Promised Land had no recollection of Egypt at all.  Surely, having been protected by God’s cloud of glory and fed by God’s mana while traveling through the desert they could more easily have related to a Sabbath celebrating God’s creative and sustaining capacity -- an appreciation of the source of all wholeness, a more universal disposition toward the Sabbath.
The message is simple, perhaps, but instructive. The generation that experienced slavery in Egypt  was challenged to stretch beyond its own traumatic experience, beyond the world's brokenness, to find a contrary truth in the wholeness of God’s world. The generation that knew only of the God’s sheltering comfort was required to consider its historical past as slaves so that it might know to protect its presumed sovereignty.
If we today, the heirs of a Judeo-Christian heritage that has changed the world, are to continue to revolutionize the world toward the better, then, as each of the generations above, we must be open to the sacred messages and purposes of our traditions that challenge our spiritual basic assumptions.  Our spiritual and religious experience should not merely confirm what we know already to be true; rather, it should stretch us toward greater insight and capacity to understand and then to act meaningfully and decisively in service of the world's betterment.  Ultimately, even the comfort and escape that we seek and lend will depend upon and reflect the depth of our spiritual character, as we challenge ourselves -- as two ancient generations of the Jewish People did so long ago.
Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay. For information regarding Membership, Religious Services, Adult Classes, Pre-School, and Religious School, contact the synagogue’s office (310) 377-6986 or www.nertamid.com.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Revolution In Egypt - Tabernacle or Golden Calf?



Revolution In Egypt

Tabernacle or Golden Calf?

by Rabbi Isaac Jeret



As Jews, our character and faith are defined essentially by the story of our ancient liberation from slavery in Egypt, informing our concern for the welfare of those who are similarly oppressed. As a minority often vulnerable to the whims of tyrannical victors of history’s coups and revolutions, we are also keenly aware of the significance of the implications for Israel’s security and that of the entire free-world of the success or failure of the earthshaking events continuing to unfold in Egypt today.  Worldwide Jewry seems divided at worst and uncertain at best in determining our disposition toward the ongoing revolution in Egypt, embracing either but rarely both these two authentic Jewish concerns.  


We agonize. Should we champion Egypt’s modern-day revolutionaries as allies in spiritual cause, as heroes of personal liberty and authentic human rights? Alternatively, should we respond with a self-protective skepticism, urging caution or even preventative action against the likely emergence of a tyrannical Islamist regime that might soon enough have Egypt and the entire free-world yearning for a return to the days of the “moderate” Mubarak regime?  Should freedom and liberty come to prevail in Egypt without our support, will we not have betrayed the historic Jewish calling to champion the liberation of the oppressed? Alternatively, should Egypt renew passive or even active hostility toward Israel and the West would we not have betrayed our reasonable self-interests of security and stability, both as Jews and as Americans, should we have supported Egypt’s revolutionaries?


Taken together, this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, and next week’s portion, Vayakhel, may clarify core challenges facing even the most noble of Egypt’s revolutionaries, implying an important benchmark by which both we and they might assess the evolving character of Egypt’s revolution.

This week’s story of The Golden Calf offers an interesting consideration of a newly freed Peoples’ yearning to return to that which was familiar.  Having escaped tyranny, our ancestors created a God similar in form to the Gods known to them in Egypt; facing a future of possibility and uncertainty, they sculpted and scripted a God limited to that which they knew and could imagine, allowing them the illusion of safety and certainty and an escape from a future as yet undefined.  Rather than leaving Egypt, they would take it with them, recreating it in the desert, or even in the Promised Land.

Next week's return to the narrative of The Tabernacle, on the other hand, represents our ancestors’ graduation to the realization that, for their future to exceed their past, they would have to painstakingly construct a solid structure that would welcome and host the unknown, the mysteriously sacred, the unfamiliar, and the uncertain; a God beyond their control with a message regarding a future to which they would be challenged to aspire.  

Is the current revolution in Egypt akin to the erection of a Golden Calf or the construction of a Tabernacle? Contrary to initial reports of peaceful demonstrations aiming to replace their repressive past with a non-violent future, increasingly, credible accounts are emerging from Egypt of the rapes, beatings, mob-attacks, anti-Semitic/anti-Israel chants and grafiti, and rampant violence that occurred among those who seemed from the illusory distance of a camera-shot to constitute a peaceful resistance to Hosni Mubarak’s oppression.

Just as Pharaoh’s tyranny internalized and reflected broadly among our ancestors would have been even more secure and dangerous than the oppression instituted by a single leader and an insular group of power-brokers, a return to the Egypt familiar to today’s revolutionaries might well be worse than the Egypt we’ve known, or they’ve known, to date, and for the same reasons.  A Pew opinion survey of Egyptians taken in June 2010, only eight months ago, hints at Egypt’s Golden Calf that might well be completed in the coming weeks and months, unless a concerted effort to replace it with a Tabernacle-like initiative commences hastily and courageously.  Over 50 percent of the respondents backed Islamists, 50% supported Hamas, 95% welcomed Islamic influence over their politics, 82% supported executing adulterers by stoning, 77% supported whipping and cutting off thief's hands, and 84% supported executing Muslims who convert to another faith. Several other credible sources confirm that over 85% of Egyptian women endure female circumcision - genital mutilation.

A skeptical and self-protective disposition would then appear to be warranted on our part, given the percentages noted above and the savage violence perpetrated by Egypt’s modern-day revolutionaries upon reporters, foreigners, and their fellow countrymen alike.  However, we might be wise, as well, to maintain a prayerful disposition, hopeful that a more moderate minority might influence the majority of Egyptians more inclined toward the familiarity and certainty of a Golden Calf to build the solid structures and institutions of democracy - a modern-day Tabernacle - allowing for uncertainty and ambiguity, for dissent and differences of faith and opinion in the context of an evermore civil society.  Just as in the desert, for a People freed from Egyptian tyranny long ago, today’s Golden Calf was quick to be erected; it was and remains more about melting what was and re-molding it. However, a the construction Tabernacle requires an organized and sustained effort over a much longer period of time; it requires careful consideration o what needs to be so that the best of what might be is given opportunity to emerge and secure an enduring place at the very heart of a sustainable cultural evolution.

Rather than agonizing, we might acknowledge our skepticism for its well-valued realism while we pray for Egypt to begin building its Tabernacle of democracy.  First, however, its revolutionaries may well need to confront their Golden Calf. All the while, those of us throughout the free-world ought to offer encouragement and apply pressure, each when necessary and at its appropriate moment, to ensure as best we can that an Egyptian Tabernacle is indeed constructed - for Egypt’s sake and for our own.


Rabbi Isaac Jeret
Spiritual Leader
Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay
www.nertamid.com/rabbi