Saturday, August 15, 2015

Clergy have a duty to bring about social change.

My recent newspaper column that Clergy have and must continue to play a role in bringing about social change. I pray that volunteer leadership in churches, temples, and mosques will support them.
Have a good read and thanks for sharing your opinion.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Davar Torah on the Weekly Torah Portion: Seeking is finding-A pathway to Jewish spirituality.

Davar Torah: Parashat V’etchanan:

There are a lot of people today who talk the talk about seeking spirituality. Actually quite a few Jews will be the first ones to tell us that they left Judaism because they couldn’t find it, especially in Reform and Conservative synagogues. Many of them went into other faith traditions. You can meet, for example, a lot of former Jews in Buddhism, and many others involved  new age religions which explore spirituality or in psychotherapy groups which contain a dimension of religious fervor. These folks level criticism that  the Judaism of mainstream congregational life is stale, conventional and resembles a hybrid model of Jewish community center-country club rather than what they think should be a spiritual center.

Is it that simple? Is American Judaism that inadequate spiritually?  While there is always room for growth and this era is all about spiritual growth there is something else here that deserves further exploration. I think about how Jewish people feel about God and the criterion they define as spirituality. I have come to question whether we, mainstream Judaism, have fair expectations regarding what services, clergy and teachers should deliver to the congregants. Second my sense is that Judaism is caught between the ecstatic power of Christian charismatic religious practices in music and entertainment. The  attraction of eastern religions is a growing phenomenon which gets its market share of religious seekers. Ultimately the biggest draw that distances Jews from encountering the sacred, in my opinion, is not other faith traditions. To  the contrary, it is the appeal of American secular culture. All of these factors take us farther away from experiencing the Divine in a Jewish context.

In this week’s parashah, Vetchanan, the Torah says, “If you shall seek the Eternal your God, you shall find the Eternal. If you seek the Eternal with all your heart and with all your soul”(4:29). The rabbi of Kotzk replied, “The very act of seeking God, the longing to find the Eternal, means “You shall find the Eternal.” The rabbi concluded, ‘And that should be enough.”

When I read this interpretation years ago, it freed me. In other words, his insight lifted a burden off my shoulders that as a rabbi I was expected to teach how clear it was that God, existed, God was just and that God viewed us, the Jewish people, as the chosen ones. It released me from that mindset altogether. Instead I have devoted much of my teaching and preaching to the search and to the journey and in that sense I was able to find a more spiritual life in Judaism. It wasn’t because that I necessarily found the answers to the above mentioned big questions but because by seeking out the answers and by contemplating and trying understand the conflicts in theology and practical life I was engaged. That was the key, engagement. My contention is that the problem for American Jewry is that too many of us have not heeded the words of the Rabbi of Kotzk. It is the seeking that counts and in that way there is a kind of finding as well.

Tomorrow morning we will have another Bat Mitzvah in this congregation. Our congregant Paula Rudman who is a stand out individual because she embarked upon this spiritual journey. She didn’t have to become Orthodox to discover the authentic Judaism she sought for so many years. She is a searcher and to that degree she has found something precious  about her faith and its traditions.I believe that there are a  lot more individuals of her generation who are perfectly capable of embarking upon that journey like her. My experience is that too many of us relate to and define themselves solely in a secular and ethnic sense. When that happens do we not risk closing ourselves off from the seeking out of what this life is all about?

For this reason I have decided that I will offer a Bar-Bat Mitzvah class for seniors beginning in the spring of 2016. We have had several individuals take on this challenge over the last six years. My hope is that the idea of seeking is a spark that is waiting for others like Paula and those who have gone through this rite of passage in the past. Overcoming the fears of learning hebrew and studying sacred texts are the biggest challenges. Yet, prior experience teaches that adults can be successful.  It is not about only the reading of Torah or the prayers or the speech, rather, it is about the learning and reading of Jewish studies including history, theology, liturgy and on and on that changes a life. Judaism connects into  the spiritual, and the intellectual sides of what it means to be human and a Jew and it is up to each of us to seek out the blend of them both in a way that fits best for us.

I first began to understand that seeking meant finding when I stood in a rabbi’s study at the time when I was contemplating whether I would apply to rabbinical school. I told the rabbi of my  home congregation in Baltimore that I had questions, doubts and that I  wasn’t sure I had the faith let alone the knowledge to be a suitable applicant for rabbinical school. The Rabbi said to me, “Do you see all the books in my study? They represent my struggle to understand and to encounter God.” That statement gave me the faith and the courage to complete my application and the rest is history. 

One doesn’t have to be a rabbi to embark upon the journey to seek out the spiritual truths that the rabbis say are waiting for us.  It is available to all of us but we have to put in the effort and it is a lifetime discipline at its best. There is a blessing we recite every day that reminds us of the seeking. Blessed are You Eternal Our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us through the commandments and challenged us to Laasok B’divrei Torah- to engage in the study of Torah. The word Laasok to engage in the study of Torah is the key verb. That is the pathway of seeking that the Rabbi of Kotzk was teaching his disciples about in trying to set up appropriate expectations for finding the so-called spiritual life.  It is not the finding that unites us but it is the seeking of knowledge and wisdom from the wellsprings of our faith that brings us together and makes learning a sacred act.

Shabbat Shalom

Is developing a security plan for the house of worship doing God's will too?

Having served a congregation for about elven years that suffered a domestic terrorist attack that severely burned the sanctuary and the administrative offices I understand why taking security seriously for a house of worship is critical and essential for the welfare of the congregation and the clergy and employee staffs. This article is about a theological perspective towards why planning for security is doing God's work too.
Thanks for taking the time to read it. Your comments are always appreciated.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Supreme Court decision on legalizing Gay Marriage: What about the child who must still keep the secret?

Thanks for taking the time to read this recent column I wrote in the newspaper. What about the kids who grow up in homes knowing that they are gay and that their faith tradition and their parent's values would oppose or condemn them? What would they do?

Saturday, July 4, 2015

A sermon on ethics and walking humbly with God in light of controversial issues today.

This week the Torah Portion is Parahsat Balak in the Book of Numbers The parashah tells the story of Bilam who was a prophet for hire and was engaged to hurl a mighty prophetic curse against the Israelites by the enemy  Balak king of the Moabite tribe. To make a long story short Bilam started out on his mission to create this curse which in the spirit of psychological warfare would intimidate the Israelites camped on the border of Moabite territory. In order to discredit and even mock the prophet Bilam the Torah tells the story about the instance of this hired gun prophet who rides a donkey that actually talks to him protesting the way Bilam treats the animal. At the end of the day the angel of the Eternal confronts Bilam, to the fury and anger of his employer King Balak, and he ends up convincing Bilam to  bless the Israelites instead of cursing them. Bilal intones, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, Your dwelling places O Israel.” This verse became the standard beginning piece of music and davening in the daily prayerbook. Ultimately  the Moabite King Balak’s plan to destroy the children of Israel is foiled and they move on in their journey towards the Promised Land.

The reading from the Prophets, the Haphtarah, comes from the Book of Micah which makes mention of what God did to the Moabites and especially to King Balak That is the connection why the Rabbis chose this portion to compliment the story in the Torah portion this week.

In the poetic language of Micah,God promises  the destruction of Israel’s enemies and then accuses the children of Israel and threatens severe punishment for engaging in idol worship and immoral behavior. Finally, at the end of  Chapter six of Micah, God  gives a hopeful message through Micah saying, “ God has told you O man what is good, and what the Eternal demands of you: but to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with Your God” (6:8).

For many people this famous verse captures the essence of the ethics of religion. Yes, we have a rich heritage of laws and mitzvoth to follow. Yet, this verse sums up a basic mandate in Judaism to practice not only the laws and customs but to be gentle and kindhearted in the way we live out these commandments. In other words this verse teaches us to be a mensch.  How does that work for us today given the challenges we see before us in America with race relations and in particular the Confederate flag issue as well as  the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage?

As Jews and as Americans we are engaged in  contentious issues today that sometimes challenge our patience and our political views as well as basic morality and ethics. Houses of worship burn and terrorism leads to most recently the brutal murder of clergy and parishioners at a house of worship. As far as we have come in race relations we still witness segments of our country who bath themselves in hatred against people of color. Soon we will see the debate in our own state legislature regarding the Confederate Battle Flag flying before the State Capitol in Columbia. Will our elected leaders vote to retain it or lower it and put it away?

This is an issue where religion, politics and justice coalesce. Is this not what Micah was talking about in his adjuring our ancient forbearers to change our attitude in how we treat each other? The time has come to de-commission this flag because it has always been viewed as a code symbol for South Carolinians of color that whites only rule this state. The narrative of the Southern heritage is part of our nation’s past. The problem is that that heritage ignores the heritage of slavery which formed the economic and social backbone of that antebellum world view. Sadly too many of those who cherish that aspect of southern history somehow cannot see past their own ancestors’ view to the African American perspective. Two conflicting narratives exist about what southern was all about. Has the time come to acknowledge how that flag represents a painful reminder of the bondage of African Americans as well? The battle flag of the CSA embodies those two conflicting narratives. Is it not time to affirm mercy and to do good and walk humbly with God? 

The recent Supreme Court decision to legalize Gay Marriage in our nation will also challenge our ethics to respect the love that LGBT Americans share and equate it on an equal footing with heterosexual marriage.  I am hearing tremendous push back that the fear is that civil authorities
 will be forced to sacrifice their religious freedom to comply with this new law. People have the right to believe and to disagree with the court’s opinion. On the other hand if they work for government and cannot carry out their duties then they should seek other employment.  The teachings of Micah compel all Americans to stretch psychologically and spiritually to find it in their heart to accept this new reality.

This is a time for the religious community to unite to hold this nation together. What makes us a great nation is how to live with a diverse population of different races, religions and political ideologies. We hear a lot of talk about freedom but does that only apply to people who live and believe as we do? We tend to choose the verses from Scripture that fit our own values but we also struggle to apply those values to people and beliefs different than our own. We could apply this same dilemma of people talking past each other within our own Jewish community in America in relation to ongoing tensions between the branches in Judaism. We read reports of how this struggle for acceptance goes on between Jews of different branches of religious practice in Israel as well.  In either of these situations it is a necessary debate.

The prophet Micah warned us that God will punish us for our own transgressions as much as God will punish other peoples who will threaten our national survival. It is a two way street and we cannot have it both ways. In Psalm 85 we read, “
Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
Yea, the Lord shall give that which is good; and our land shall yield her increase.
Righteousness shall go before him; and shall set us in the way of his steps.

For America to yield its increase can we embrace these prophetic values to be a better more accepting nation which learns how to live with each other and those who do not always fit into the mainstream? Have we as Jews not asked for the same understanding and compassion from our neighbors as do our fellow citizens of color or from the LGBT community ask from us?
Do they deserve less that what we asked for ourselves?

Shabbat Shalom

Should the Confederate Battle Flag go down in South Carolina?
 Shalom to everyone.
Here is the latest column I wrote addressing the issue of taking down the Confederate Battle Flag at the state capitol in Columbia. I hope you take a few minutes and read it. Your reactions are always appreciated even if you disagree with my ideas.
I hope everyone had a nice Shabbat and a Happy Fourth of July to celebrate this nation's day of Independence.
I wish you the best and may God protect America.
Rabbi Bloom

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Massacre of the Righteous in Charleston, SC. What Now?

Shalom to everyone! I have published this piece in my newspaper column today.  We need to pay more attention to these kinds of hate crimes on a local level. We still don't get it that the enemy who hates the diversity of this great nation continues to worship hatred.   They worship death  and they take pride in murder. We need in the local level responses and action to monitor, educate and network regarding the potential of hate crimes in America today.
If not now when? Take a look at the column and tell me what you think?
May the memories of the  martyrs of Emaunel AME church be remembered for blessing.