Friday, October 13, 2017

The Right Rabbi at the Right Time - Article in the Lima News

On October 11, 2017, the Lima News published a wonderful article about our new rabbi: The Right Rabbi at the Right Time.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Entertaining Different Thoughts - A Message from the Rabbi

As promised in my last Rabbinic Message I am now going to discuss two books that I have been trying to get through in the last few weeks. But this is not a book review; it is really about an area of much greater importance: the issue of practical belief. So first, some opening reflections: The most recent Pew Research study on American Christianity (released just a few days ago) shows an almost 8% drop since 2007. Such a major shift is remarkable. Those self-identifying as no religion jumped from 16% to 23%. One could say that America is becoming more secular, and many could find some pleasure in that.

But what will take up the slack? I have always been very interested in such questions. I have always had the greatest difficulty with orthodoxy (which means “right thought”). How can one really KNOW for sure what is right thought versus, let us say, right action which can be seen, quantified, and measured? Attempts in Judaism to come up with dogma statements have always met with mixed results and less then universal acceptance. Judaism has always been much more an orthopraxy (right action) faith as are most Eastern faiths. Buddhism  is even clearer on this; every premise Buddha said must be tested to see if it is right.

So what does this have to do with the two books that I said I would discuss this month, Healing with God's Love by Rabbi Douglas Goldhammer and The Art of Kavana by Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld? Both are rather short (267 and 177 pages respectively). Even with a busy schedule, I should have plowed through both easily in my late-night reading schedule. Sheepishly, I have found BOTH rather daunting not because of length but due to the inconvenient questions they pose in their individual ways.

To the more troubling book, I have met and had Rabbi Goldhammer speak in my previous congregation. By the way, he is a Reform rabbi. Nothing he said or did at that time could have prepared me for this book. In many ways it has challenged me to look  into an area of my thought that I have really tried to avoid in my life: whether faith and prayer really can cause things to happen. I guess since adolescence, I have been a Doubting Thomas, thinking it would be nice if words could change anything, but rationally thinking that, at best, they were uplifting aphorisms. But what if the mind was more powerful than that and words uttered with REAL belief could reach Divinity?

Rabbi Goldhammer was diagnosed with    Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome, a rare vascular disease, in 1976, and the prognosis was he would lose one, if not both, legs. To make a long story short, he ventured into a specifically Jewish healing methodology which turned around his condition, and he has been using what he learned to help many individuals as a congregational rabbi in the Chicago area ever since. This does seem to be rather difficult to believe. If modern Western medicine and science says something, we have been raised to believe it. But in my limited experience, I have met a number of people whose life stories contradict the fundamentalism we have been taught that cannot be true. This book is very challenging even for someone who “wants to believe” in a different paradigm.

I found The Art of Kavana, by Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld, to be much less of a test to my credulity even though its thought dovetails with Goldhammer’s belief in being able to train one's mind to see the world as miraculous. It makes no claims and tries to get the reader to see the world with new eyes. Let me close with a quote from Rabbi Goldhammer:

“In my special room, I visualize in front of me, in huge letters, YHVH. Or I visualize the Burning Bush, or a room filled with light. And, I speak with these images with the same passion and trust that I would speak with my best friend. I first say Ribbono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, numerous times. This alters my level of consciousness. I then say Ribbono shel Olam-Hineini, Master of the Universe, I am here to do whatever You want, many times. After each time I say it, I visualize an experience that God and I succeeded in together... I then thank God for everything I have that I consider great or wonderful, and I mean everything...the best advice I can give you is to talk to God every day. Set aside the same time every day to hear Him.”

- Rabbi Yosef Zylberberg, May 2015

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

It's Time We Jews Talk Again About Zionism and Anti-Semitism - A Message from the Rabbi

It's no secret that my main personal and rabbinic interest is in the area of spirituality. It wasn't always that way. When I started rabbinical school, I was mainly concerned with social justice issues. How that changed is a whole other issue. But every once in awhile, events from the material world do jar me and are worth commenting about. The last few weeks have been overwhelmingly stark. The internal Islamic war between radical Islamism and the rest of the Islamic world has spilled over into a broader context. As I write this, France is mourning the death of 12 journalists, a number of police officers and 4 Jews. The four French Jews were murdered specifically because they were Jews. The French prime-minister Vallas recently said this compelling comment: “It is legitimate to criticize the politics of Israel. This criticism exists in Israel itself. But this is not what we are talking about in France. This is radical criticism of the very existence of Israel, which is anti-Semitic. There is an incontestable link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Behind anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

This is a very well-stated and clear statement, but, unfortunately, it is not limited to the specific situation in France.

I am not taken to a gloom and doom approach to life. As I mentioned at the beginning of this message, my major drive in life is a spiritual approach, but the climate that has governed the world since the end of World War II is vanishing. At the end of World War II, anti-Semitism, which was overwhelmingly based on Christianity, was discredited. The horrific record of Nazism made anti-Semitism’s diabolical nature obvious for all to see. The various churches had to re-evaluate their responsibility in fostering this and other forms of racism. Not only did public anti-Semitism sulk off into the shadows, but the creation of the State of Israel gained unintended support from the Western world's guilt in permitting racial hatred to have had unbridled reign.

It seemed for decades that we Jews and our national homeland, Israel, could walk proudly in the light of a new world knowing that anti-Semitism was literally dying with every fading anti-Semite. SURPRISE. The world's guilt over the Holocaust is dying; not anti-Semitism. Much of the world knows little and cares less about ancient history (anything per-Kardashian).There is a broad movement to discredit Israel as a concept, and even when Jews are attacked, as they have been in Europe over the last few years, the media seems unwilling to notice unless it is connected with a bigger story.

But I always believe in seeing a possible upside to a dark situation. The Islamists have overplayed their hand. Within days of each other, the various tentacles of this headless creature have: killed 12 journalists/cartoonists for lampooning Islam, murdered four Jews in a kosher market and butchered hundreds of fellow Muslims in northeast Nigeria. In reaction to these acts, millions marched in the streets of Paris and other cities of the world, Muslim intellectuals condemned these crimes in full page ads and people around the world may have finally woken up to a common worldwide threat. Each of us, as separate groups, may see the problem as something someone else needs to deal with. The Islamists are a bit more broadminded: a moderate Muslim, a secular Jew, a disinterested consumer - they all are equally targeted.

Of course our ADHD world could easily be distracted by the next celebrity scandal or sports extravaganza. When I called around to find out what was being done in the Columbus area, I was shocked to find that that meant nothing. It is hard for us here in central Ohio to have a more global point of view than The Ohio State University.

Be that as it may, there is actually a bigger world than that, and we Jews should not be so parochial that we do not take the opportunity to build bridges with like-minded people of all persuasions and creeds. We are in the time of the year where we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was brilliant enough to know that without alliances with individuals and groups outside the Black community, there would never be any chance for civil rights. We Jews need to understand that without constructive engagements on campuses, in churches and mosques, and with neighbors, that we can reach out to the causes we care about: Israel, freedom, fighting intolerance and anti-semitism are endangered. Benign indifference is for the simple-minded and the future victims. We should wake up and smell the smoke.

- Rabbi Yosef Zylberberg, January 2015

Monday, November 24, 2014

Do We Get Older or Do We Get Better? A Message from the Rabbi

One of the things I have most enjoyed personally and professionally is the fact that my upbringing and training was so geared to lifelong learning. My parents were always reading and discussing ideas and historical events with me and my sister. I never got the idea that learning was “to get a good job, get a good education.” Learning was about living; why wouldn't you want to learn? So naturally I gravitated to academic pursuits and eventually to the rabbinate. When I first entered the field, laity still seemed to think that somehow rabbis were glorified grade school teachers for Jewish kids. After all, there was nothing for adults to learn about Judaism; it was kids’ stuff.

How much has changed in the last thirty years! In front of me is a 2002 book, Becoming A Congregation of Learners: Learning As A Key to Revitalizing Congregational Life by Dr. Isa Aron. There are regularly scheduled seminars on Adult Jewish learning. Almost every large urban center has a Kollel, an ongoing Adult Jewish study center, running programs around the clock. These programs are run by almost every movement. There are ongoing institutes running programs for adults on many topics. The ones that I am most interested in are the Institute of Jewish Spirituality and The Mussar Institute.

Last month, I conducted two Adult Education programs introducing Mussar to the congregation; it seemed to me that the attendees were quite interested in the topic which didn't surprise me. People do want to know how Judaism has dealt with character development and changing traits. Life is rather difficult and we do want to know how we can change or develop habits, deal with stress, and it is only natural to believe that our age-old tradition might have some tried and true advice to share with us.

The more reading I did concerning this topic, the more surprised I became. Joseph Dan, one of Judaism’s most important scholars of the late 20th early 21st century presented in a series of lectures at the University of Washington in the 1980s, and he started his lecture this way:
The main subject... is the story of an ideological miracle; it is the tale of seven hundred years of diverse Jewish theological creativity, including many extreme, radical and even seemingly heretical schools of thought, which were integrated into a constructive, traditional Jewish ethics within the framework of Hebrew ethical literature. It is an almost unbelievable phenomenon, that the most far-reaching and revolutionary theological and mystical ideas produced by Jewish thinkers in the Middle Ages and early modern times were collected and re-presented as ethical ideas, and continued their existence within Jewish ethics, side by side, with the most orthodox, traditional and conformist attitudes. The ability of Jewish ethics to absorb and sustain conflicting ideas, which originated in schools that fought each other fiercely, is most remarkable and presents a fascinating chapter in the history of Jewish ideas.
Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics

Who would think that Jewish ethics would have such a strange background? That makes this study so fascinating. Let me give you a bizarre example that strikes me as Zen meets the Marx brothers.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm (sic) 1824-1898 developed a strategy to never lose his temper. He had a special jacket that he had set aside to wear whenever he was angry. He  said, "When I feel anger coming on, I know that I have to get my special jacket. But, by the time I do, I am no longer angry”.
 Every Day, Holy Day by Alan Morinis

How was Judaism able to create such an ideosyncratic system, drawing on different and competing ideologies, and yet produce so many practical methods to help individuals shape
their character traits (middot)? I have always been interested in how individual decision- making could be elevated from purely selfish desires into positive ethical practices. In our age almost everyone wants TO DO THE RIGHT THING but the follow-through from wish to act is the real rub. Exercises to build character transformation seem to be the missing link. That is what our Adult Education classes have begun studying, and I hope you will join our sessions soon.

- Rabbi Yosef Zylberberg, November 2014

Saturday, October 11, 2014

All I Want is to Be a Good Person - A Message from the Rabbi

Before you know it, it will be after the High Holy Days. All the prayers that talk about what we didn't do right will be over. For many people, this is the least likable part of Judaism but, surprisingly, attendance is the highest. That sounds counter-intuitive. People deny, vociferously that they ever do, or have ever done anything wrong, but they show up once a year (sometimes more!) and join with others to recite prayers and go through rituals that are about atoning for sins. “Rabbi,” you may be thinking,” you are over-thinking this. They aren't really following the prayers or agreeing with the sentiments expressed; it's really like a yearly Jewish homecoming. They get to see old friends, family members scattered from around the country, and catch up with the life changes that have gone on.”

Yes, to some degree that is true, but I really don't believe that is central to the High Holy Days. It is REALLY about the issue of what we should do and how we have fallen short.” BUT ALL I WANT TO BE IS A GOOD PERSON. ARE YOU SAYING I'M NOT A GOOD PERSON”? The issue is not that you are not a good person. Our tradition is very clear; the wholly righteous and the wholly wicked are very few. Most of us are “inbetweeners”. We have souls that are entirely pure, but what do our bodies do? All too many deny this bifurcation and deny the soul and totally identify with our bodies. Our bodies are in the driving seat and, if they aren't, our passions/feelings are.

But what if that isn't the case? What if we are locked in a struggle between great goals and less than stellar drives? Our tradition posits such a real struggle and doesn't believe an hour a year really settles the matter (attendance at a service). The belief that we can actually change our behavior is organized in Jewish tradition as Musar. This tradition has its roots in various Jewish teachings that go back to Biblical texts, developed in the medieval period and came to fruition in the 19th century in Eastern Europe, especially in Lithuanian yeshivas just before WWII. This tradition has been revived in recent years outside Orthodoxy by Alan Morinis, who has written a number of books on the subject, and who has done presentations at URJ events and has written in Reform Judaism Magazine. Musar is a method of teaching ethical/moral precepts (called Middot) and exercises that develop these in people so that they can transform themselves. Allan Morinis has created a Mussar Institute (mussarinstitute.org) and lectures around the continent on this topic. During the month of October, I will be teaching on this topic for the Adult Education programs.

Let me introduce you to Musar by quoting a passage in one of Morinis' books Every Day, Holy Day 365 Days of Teachings & Practices from The Jewish Tradition of Musar:

Just as there is a time to open and a time to close the door of a house, so should one close the doors of his mouth. Just as you would guard silver, gold, and pearls in your room, within a case, making one enclosure within another, do the same with your mouth.
                                                                                           
Orchot Tzadddikim (1540)
Phrase: Wisdom walks through the door of silence.
Practice: Find at least 10 minutes every day when you will be silent and seek inner stillness.

- Rabbi Yosef Zylberberg, October 2014

Monday, September 8, 2014

Before you know it, it's another year! A Message from the Rabbi

I have been reading a number of books recently and found myself coming around to the same theme-The Jewish New Year and the theme of summing up and assessment. One of these books, Pilgrim by Lee Kravitz is really about his search for a religious tradition that would speak to his search for spiritual fulfillment. Here is a wonderful passage about The Jewish Holy Days:

Actually, I no longer think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as High Holidays or even as High Holy Days. I think of them as being part of the “Days of Awe (“Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew). That phrase reflects the high-stakes nature of the soul-searching that Jews are supposed to do for ten days, starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. It also conveys the anxiety we're supposed to feel in that time. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is when God determines “who shall live and who shall die” during the coming year. The righteous get inscribed in the Book of Life, the wicked - in the Book of Death. But since most of us are neither fully righteous nor fully wicked, we have until Yom Kippur to repent. Then our fate is sealed.

The stakes can't get much higher than that.

Before Yom Kippur, Jews are supposed to seek forgiveness from those they've wronged....But I now understand how we need that level of soul-searching every year, whether we're religious or not. The Days of Awe are meant to keep Jews humble. They help us renew our spirit and heal our relationships. They spur us to compassionate action, so that we can begin again, become whole again, and deepen our commitment to serving humanity and God.

Lee Kravitz's words are right on the mark. It's pretty rare for a non-cleric, “not really religious” person to speak so eloquently and, let's face it, religiously, on what is SO central to the Days of Awe. All too often we are caught between two very self-satisfied positions. One is called Spiritual Materialism by the great Buddhist teacher Trumpa Rimpoche. Some see themselves as so “far ahead” in their spiritual practice that all they can do is look over their shoulders and judge others. Then there is another form of self satisfaction best exemplified by the occultist, Aleister Crowley, “Do what thou wilt, shall be the whole of the law.” What is there to atone or regret? Just do it.

But Judaism and Kravitz tell us an unpopular message: there is something outside of us that is the benchmark, and The Days of Awe call us to that. I don't think of it as we die for our deeds. We all die, but how many of us truly live; being awake? How many of us are sleepwalking in the Mall of Life, just being amused and entertained and vaguely aware that there is something else going on out there? All too often life ends and we didn't get done...what was it? I don't even remember. When I think of Judaism and the Torah I basically see it as a spiritual practice to make us aware of every moment. So, as we get ready for the New Year can we really see it that way, or does it simply run together? Does anything change? Do we change and for the better?

Too much of our society spends its time looking at the spectacle. Reality TV is primarily based on that. Our society likes to ridicule others but spends very little time on introspection. That is why I have such a fondness for this spiritual path and others that are introspective. As we turn or re-turn in Teshuvah (wrongly translated as repentance) I hope this year finds all of you rewarded with new vision and renewal.

- Rabbi Yosef Zylberberg, September 2014

Friday, April 11, 2014

Lima's Jewish Cemetery News Article

A gate at the Shaare Zedek cemetery, just west of Woodlawn Cemetery. Shaare Zedek translates to Gates of Justice. The cemetery was first referred to as simply the Jewish cemetery and the Shaare Zedek name came after the congregation of the same name organized in 1914. There were once both Orthodox and Reform groups in Lima.
Picture from the Lima News


The Lima News had an interesting article about our local Jewish cemetery and includes some history of Lima's temples.