Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Journey

First Reading:
Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe,
Whose word brings on the dusk of evening.

Your wisdom opens the gates of dawn;
Your understanding regulates time and seasons.

The stars above follow their appointed rounds,
In response to Your divine will.

You create day and night;
You alternate darkness and light.

We call You “Lord of the heavenly hosts”…
The heavens proclaim your glory.

And we, Your creatures on earth,
Behold in wonder Your endless miracles.

Help us recognize Your guiding power
In distant galaxies and in our own souls.
Teach us Your law of righteousness and love,
So that Your spirit may govern our lives.

May our gratitude for Your wonders
Lead us, in love, to Your service,

So that, like the changing seasons, the days, the nights,
Our lives, too, will proclaim Your glory. Amen

Selections from Maariv Aravim, the first blessing of the Jewish evening service

This Chapel is home to many faiths and people of all faiths. So I am going to add something about one. And I have to tell it as a personal story, because that is how I experienced it. I wish I could easily explain how an Italian kid from Chicago came to become a Jew. Indeed this was the last thing on my mind growing up in a heavily Catholic city neighborhood. If my Dad’s faith was not always his defining characteristic, my Mom’s certainly was. She was always saying novenas and praying for people. Her faith was a great source of strength for her. My twin brother Ray and I, plus our three sisters all went to the local Catholic parochial school and Catholic high schools. All of us have many fond memories growing up. In fact, the summer before last we had a hugely enjoyable 50th grade school reunion with a lot of those kids we grew up with in St. Ita’s parish.

The key event though that started me on the current path toward Judaism occurred in this building back on August 1, 1971 when my wife Deena and I were married. In those days, nobody supported mixed marriages between a nominal Catholic and a Jew. But MIT was welcoming and Deena found a Unitarian minister who would preside.

Neither of us expected the other to convert. She knew my cultural background and I respected her deep commitment, especially since many of her relatives had died in the Holocaust. Her mother was smuggled out of Warsaw in a sack, and all the relatives left behind died. She never said much, but that reality was there.

So we raised kids, went through our ups and downs of marriage, and she thought we should move to Acton because of its schools. So we did in 1977. I was not terribly religious, but she began to become more involved in the local synagogue because she loved singing in the choir. So I found myself going more often, frequently to hear her sing.

In the late 1980s, she somehow got elected maintenance chair of the congregation, a job to which she was not particularly adept. Then I really got more involved, getting to know the HVAC, heating, and other creaky subsystems. One thing led to another and I moved up over the years from Assistant Maintenance Chair to be the Vice President of Operations, a job I did for a number of years. In fact, we had to expand the synagogue and it was my privilege to head that effort. We created a beautiful building for Congregation Beth Elohim, one that served us well. In any event, as I got to know the building, I inevitably got to know the people and the religion also. And I really grew to care for and respect both. My wife never pushed me to convert, she knew it had to be my choice. Also you have to put some effort into conversion, which requires over a year of study. Once I discussed the idea with my mom and knew she was OK, I proceeded and converted in May, 1998. Mordecai Avraham Ben Avraham is my Jewish name. Several years later, along with nine others, we all had our Adult Bar Mitzvah in March 2004.

So what is that I love so much about this faith - besides a building and some nice people in Acton? A lot. The history, development, the folk tales and its durability are inspiring. But for today, I’ll pick three aspects that I find especially appealing: First is its true respect, and wonder, for nature; next is its living traditions, making each person a part of Jewish history; and thirdly is the sense of community and communal responsibility.

Let me try to give some examples of each.

1) Respect for Nature: I hope the first reading captured some of that. I am often stunned by how compatible the core beliefs of Judaism are with modern science. If anything, they promote and embrace the inquisitive, searching science that characterizes MIT and its sister institutions. Some of you might enjoy how Gerald Schroeder, a MIT-trained physicist describes a world where both science and religion reinforce each other. His book is called “The Hidden Face of God”. The science alone is absolutely informative and encouraging.

2) Respect for traditions, but with the living tradition being an active part: In the Judaism I know, revelation and understanding the meaning or Torah and why we are here is an ongoing process. Every generation must participate. Moses’ job was to get it started, not provide the final answers. And if fact, this current generation is doing pretty well at this task. Jewish studies and scholarship are flourishing, in the US and other spots around the globe. In fact, one of the great thinkers of 20th century Judaism, Joseph Soloveitchik, lived next door in Brookline. Another great Jewish author and thinker, Harold Kushner, was the rabbi in Natick, MA, where my wife grew up.

Another aspect of this living tradition may be familiar to those of you who have participated in a Passover Seder. It is not when Moses and the Israelites escaped Egypt, it is when we did so and became free, when we escaped slavery. This quest for freedom is not something that happened once in the distant past, it is intended to be part of our own experience.

While Jewish tradition may respect antiquity, there is much more going on than simple linear progression of time. In a moment we will read a section from the Talmud, which has to be, on first encounter, one of the most confusing books ever created. The page layouts are like nothing before seen, and then you find out they illustrate a conversation among rabbis and sages over many, many centuries – all trying to answer the question of how to live a good life.

The Talmud is itself an expansion of an even more basic but comprehensive work, the Mishnah, completed about 200 A.D. It codified, in 66 tractates, Jewish practice and guidance up to that time. We will also see a brief section from it as well.

3) Sense of Community and Communal Responsibility:

You can certainly see this communal idea in the next two selected readings. And in many, many other aspects of Jewish life. For example a proper service requires 10 people – a minyan. You can see another aspect of communal responsibility on Yom Kippur, when prayers mentioning “confessing for our sings” and “forgive us” are said in the plural. Forgive “us” not “me” for a transgression. Communal responsibility extends to charity towards others. It is a mitzvah – a command, not an optional act – to extend charity. Rabbis talk of this as “tikkun olam” – fixing the (broken) world. Each of us has a role in fixing the world – and an obligation. I think our two following readings express this.

Second Readings, taken from the preliminary blessings before the morning service :

The following are commandments for which there are no prescribed measures: the crops on the border of the border of the field to be left for the poor and the stranger, the gift of the first-fruits, the pilgrimage offerings brought to the ancient Temple on the Three Festivals, deeds of lovingkindness, and the study of Torah.
Mishnah, Tractate Peah, Chapter 1:1

In fulfilling the following commandments one enjoys the yield in this world while the principal remains for all eternity; honoring father and mother, performing deeds of lovingkindness, punctually attending the house of study, morning and evening, showing hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, helping the needy bride, attending the dead, praying with devotion, and making peace between individuals. And the merit of Torah study is equal to all of these.
Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 127a

Robert V.Ferrara