October

2013

King Herod decided to renovate and expand the Second Temple, located on the Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. Like many kings of his day, he had an edifice complex, a desire to build large impressive buildings to demonstrate his power and wealth. Herod had already built a number of impressive Roman temples to their gods and had ignored the Temple of the Jewish God in Jerusalem until 20 BCE. The building that was standing was a poor, substandard structure that had been built after 500 BCE when Nehemiah and Ezra returned from exile and then rebuilt somewhat after the Maccabean revolt and subsequent Hasmonean dynastic civil wars.

Herod dreamed large – a huge stone edifice that would eclipse the memory of Solomon’s Temple, which had been built with whole trunks of Lebanon cedars (a related species of California sequoia). In order to accommodate Herod’s vision, the plateau at the top of the mount had to be artificially expanded to make a larger footprint, particularly on the south and west sides of the mount. A huge retaining wall was built around the entire mountaintop, quarried with enormous blocks of local stone.

The Temple and all of its walls and outlying buildings were built, a stunning example of Roman architecture that was not completed until long after Herod’s death. Herod’s Temple was completed in the early 60’s CE and destroyed by the Roman army in 70 CE. Much of debris was dumped over the southern retaining wall, burying it. Only the retaining wall on the west side was available and exposed. It became a place of pilgrimage for two millennia.

Today the Western Wall is a large plaza with thousands of pilgrims, tourists, and Jews swirling through and around the borders most of the time. The Western Wall has also become ground zero in the battle for Jewish religious expression in Israel. The Orthodox political parties and Haredim claim the entire area as under their jurisdiction and religious interpretation. The Progressive Movement argues that there must be space for them and their egalitarian interpretation of Jewish ritual. The Women of the Wall have been in the forefront of this protest against the Israeli Orthodoxy, enduring harassment and arrests that have continued to escalate.

The Israeli government has taken notice and is unsure of what to do. The situation at the Wall is dynamic and volatile. Women of the Wall is an extended part of our congregational family; their fight for religious expression is also our fight.

 

2012

Where have all the dinosaurs gone? The toothsome predators that died out sixty-six million years ago have been updated recently. No longer are they presented with their leathery lizard skin stretched over peculiarly shaped limbs and protuberances. They have feathers. From poofy puffballs to nettle-like daggers to full-fledged flight feathers, archeologists proclaim that these ancient beasts were flocked.

Even more, they can now offer evidence of the origins and colors of these feathers. The origins appear to be a response to a need for protection from the elements. However, feathers quickly evolved into displays of color, the same that are used by birds to this day. The velociraptor of “Jurassic Park” fame shows clear evidence of quill knobs on the bones of its forearms. This most awesome predator actually looked like a feathered chicken with teeth.

The creationists are up in arms. They want the toothsome, menacing creatures back. No one is exactly sure why except for maybe these fundamentalists who founded the Creation Museum in Orlando, FL. They have already invested heavily in the bony, toothsome creatures being wiped out in the flood of Noah’s epoch. Although the Creation Museum presents no evidence for its claims and no consistent theories for its depictions, its owners insist that dinosaurs did not have feathers.

With absolute certainly I can confirm dinosaurs are not in the Bible. Could this nonsensical debate get any more absurd?

Of course it could. We turn our attention to the great State of Tennessee, where the legislature passed a bill, signed by the governor, insisting that alternative theories to evolution be taught in public school. One of the fundamentalists, who happens to be a senator, wanted to see how the students of his fair state were doing academically. The State administered the ACT to high school students, a test that is used nationally for college admissions. The students did miserably, among the worst in the nation, which is also reflected in the abysmal acceptance rates into college.

When the senator pressed why the students did so poorly, a biology professor at U. of Tennessee explained that the core of biology as taught and practiced today is evolution. Everything is understood through the lens of evolutionary theory, for which there is more evidence than evidence of the theory of gravity, by the way. The senator got his answer; his young constituents got a flawed and terrible education that will haunt their economic prospects for their entire lives. How tragic.

Science has demonstrated through research and peer review that dinosaurs had feathers. What an amazing dynamo of life this planet Earth has been and continues to be. How easily this wondrous beauty can be stripped by self-blinded humans. I believe in a God who makes possible all the varieties and variations of nature and it is my responsibility to discover and understand as much of it as possible.

Dinosaurs with feathers – who would have thought?

 

2009

Simhat Torah has always been a celebration of completing a reading of the Torah scroll from one end to the other, while it has existed. It is a late edition to our holiday cycle, which did not fully evolve until the Middle Ages. Then the Reform Movement came along and changed the flavor of Simhat Torah all over again.

To understand Simhat Torah one has to look at Sukkot and understand the changes it went through to get to its present state of presentation. Sukkot did not even have a set date on the calendar other than “sometime during the eighth month” when the Judahites returned from exile around 500 BCE. Nehemiah sets a concrete date of “fifteenth of month” and sets it for seven days. Then he concludes that there is supposed to be “a day of solemn assembly” at the end of the festival and tacks on an “azeret” (a day of solemn prayer) at the end of Sukkot.

Fast forward 900 years or so to the fourth century CE and we find the first mention of Simhat Torah in the Talmud. In Megilla 31a the rabbis mention that a second day of “azeret” is added for finishing the reading of the Torah scroll. What happened in 900 years that the rabbis had to add another holiday to the holiday that was added to Sukkot?

After the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, the ritual of reading the Torah every week became an element of worship, which did not exist before. Market Day was every Monday and Thursday, and these days were decreed as days when Torah was read aloud to the congregation. Shabbat, being the third day that the Jews assembled together became the third day. Three days a week Jews read the Torah aloud in a service but it was not specifically determined which verses had to read on any given day. The rule was at least 21 verses had to be read. At the slowest pace of just 21 verses, the reading of the entire scroll would take three years. Even more, no community kept the same reading schedule because any community could read as many verses as they wanted as long as the minimum was reached.

In the fourth century CE there was a pietistic revolution and many of these self-determined, easy-going, rules were swept away. The rabbis of this era decreed that the scroll would be read in its entirety in one year, to be concluded the day after Sukkot, and that immediately the scroll had to be rolled back to the beginning and the reading started again. This day of finishing and starting again would be the second azeret.

Only in the fifteenth century did the rabbis allow dancing with the Torah scrolls.

Fast forward to the early twentieth century and the Reform Movement tied Simhat Torah to the beginning of the religious school year. Borrowing from the dominant Protestant culture, they took the ritual of Consecration and made it a tradition of welcoming new students into the religious school on Simhat Torah.

Solemnity has given way to the celebration of study – this is our history.

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