Friday, December 21, 2012

"The Blood of the Children Cries Out From the Ground"

The Blood of the Children Cries Out From the Ground!
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
December 22nd, 2012
Over the many years that I can remember, beginning with the assassination of President John Kennedy with a rifle, the sound of the bullet was echoed by the citation of the second amendment and the "right to bear arms."  Whenever a catastrophe occurs, whoever cites past catastrophes always omits the earliest ones, which never lose their terribleness, because it is too hard, too painful, too long a list to remember to recite all the names of all the places.
I want to talk about the "Right to Live." This is not the cliché lifted from the Declaration of Independence, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," even as that is a very significant statement. I want to talk about the "Right to Live" of six and seven year olds to grow up, discover the universe, and fulfill their destinies. I want to talk about the "Right to Live" of the people dedicated to teaching them, who threw themselves in harm's way. I want to talk about the "Right to Live" of all innocent people, struggling in a difficult world, being good people, loving men and women, who are murdered, wantonly murdered by those with guns in their hands, in any place and at any time. No just now.
I want to know something. Doesn't the "Right to Live" supercede the "right to bear arms?" Isn't there something more important than guns? Isn't there something more fundamental than the caliber of the bullet? Isn't there something more precious than the rate of fire? Doesn't the "Right to Live" trump all other rights? To paraphrase the verse from Genesis from the story of Cain and Abel, "the blood of the children, the blood of their adult defenders screams out to Me from the ground." It is to them, the dead, to our children, the living, that the answers must be given.
I want to know something. Does the 'right to kill' supercede the "Right to Live?" What is the purpose of guns? I remember being a little boy with a holster and cap guns. You had to put one cap in each and it made a bang. For some reason I had a Mattel gun that used a roll of caps and you could make a lot of sustained noise. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea what it meant. I don't know why my parents bought them for me. Our children never had toy guns. Never! Ever! Stop the nonsense that guns don't kill. Yes they do! Yes, guns kill because they are held by people. Guns kill people. Guns kill animals. Killing begets killing, which begets more and more and more until there is no end! The blood of the children cries out from the ground: stop the killing! Who needs guns?!
I want to know something. Is the "Right to Live" held so cheaply because the profit is great from the proliferation of the "culture to kill" through video, movies, music – do you listen to the message of the lyrics?, toys, television and the manufacture of guns? What is more important? To make money and elevate the culture of death?  Or the culture of life? Is this the America we want? Is this the epitome of our society? Is this the "alabaster city?" Is this the country that we want God to bless? I enjoy the old westerns on cable. Where is the blood? Where is senseless violence? None. Justice, honesty, truth were the elevated values that would triumph, but killing was not glorified. There was even a sense of remorse by the guy who was clearly good. Today it is reversed! The more gore, the more horror, the more blood and guts and cut open bodies, the more explosions and destructions. Just because there is the technical capability to show all this, do we have to? Should we? Must we?  What world are we making? Do we promote fine arts? Do we esteem classical literature? Do we elevate excellent music?  What do you expect to reap, when the seeds of destruction are so blatantly planted? The blood of the children cries out from the ground: make us a better world! Make us a world of peace!
I want to know something.  Against whom are we bearing arms? Do we fear invasion from our neighbors to the north and south? Do we fear our neighbors who live next door? Do we intend to confront the local and state police? Would not intruders be more deterred by active alarm systems? Will the ability to defend against an intruder outweigh the number of deaths caused by people with guns who are ill-trained and ill-tempered? Will the proliferation of more guns, in a society already more armed than any in the world, make us safer, securer, surer? Are these quasi-military, high powered, quick-firing guns, the ones used to shoot duck, deer and antelope? The blood of the children cries out from the ground. They demand to know: who needs these guns?
I want to know something. I remember when living in New York it was decided to close facilities dealing with mental health, as it was deemed better to integrate these people into society at large. It never happened. If they had, they were abandoned to their families who did not have means to cope with the needs. Otherwise, they were on the streets. It really wasn't the philosophy, it was the cost. They would rather build prisons that honestly deal with the needs of society. They didn't want to deal with people. People with mental issues are "nobody's fault." They are members of our universal family. They are the easiest to cut in any budget. They are seemingly invisible. They don't have a lobby like the NRA. Now, now, it is on the agenda! The blood of the children cries out from the ground: this is the real cliff! This is the real cliff over which our world is destroyed! Fix it! Repair it! Mend it! Do not ignore us!
I want to know something. How many innocent deaths will it take for our elected officials to be leaders with moral backbones and not wimps who pander for votes? Where is their moral courage to face the mirror and know that day after day they have labored in society's vineyard to make each hamlet, each town, each county, each city better for each boy and girl, infant and adult, young and old, reach and poor, healthy and ill? How many tears must be shed by human beings? How much blood must spill in movie theatres, college campuses, high schools, elementary schools, shopping mall parking lots? How many hearts must break when the bell tolls as each name is read, as each tender body is buried? What must it take for delegates, senators, representatives, and president will finally act?
Until then, every morning, noon and night, at the break of dawn and the setting of the sun, in the dead of night and the brightness of the midday  sun, The blood of the children cries out from the ground! And it will continue to cry and cry, scream upon scream, like those in Newtown, Connecticut, until someone, someone will give them an answer.

Monday, December 10, 2012

When they say End the Occupation They Mean Destroy Israel

When they say "End the Occupation" They mean "Destroy Israel"
From the Heart
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


Language is important. Sometimes words mean exactly what they say. That would be nice. But there are problems in language. When you translate from one language to another and words have different meanings or shading of meanings, the translator has to pick just one, and freezes out all the other possibilities. The Aramaic translation of the Bible, the Targum, sometimes gives us a better insight to the Hebrew text, as understood in its time.


But there are times when people speak "in code." The words do not mean what they usually mean. They mean something else entirely. If you don't know that the person opposite you is speaking in code, you are completely blinded to what they are saying. Your response could be entirely wrong and inappropriate, even to the extent of doing your own self significant harm. This is dangerous. Very dangerous.


It is even more dangerous when the other listeners to the words being said about you don't realize that the speaker is speaking in code. They are hearing them in their face value, their plain meaning. As such, they don't sound so bad. But the speaker and those 'clued in,' they know the real message. They get it. They can trap all the rest of the listeners by having them reply to the fake message and not to the real message.


So when Hamas says that "Israel needs to end the occupation," it sounds plausible? It sounds appropriate? Hamas sounds right and Israel sounds wrong? Because you might be thinking that Hamas is arguing about Israel's control of the West Bank/Judea/Samaria. There is a discussion to be had on this matter. But they're not!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Hamas is not talking about the West Bank. When they say occupation they are talking about Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheva, Eilat, Tiberias and everything in between. They mean, completely and totally, the destruction of the State of Israel.


There is no occupation of the Gaza Strip. Israel left there in 2005 'lock, stock and barrel.' Except for synagogues, they left everything else standing. They left all the fields that they had created. They left their homes erect. They left the streets, the electric lines and buildings. The Palestinians either tore them down, or their leadership did not allow them to use it. What a sin against their own people!


The Gaza Strip is not under siege. That, too, is a lie. While there could be more, there is a constant stream of trucks from Israeli ports to the Gaza Strip. They are not starving because there is a constant stream of produce and food. They are not cold because Israel has been supplying them with electricity even when they haven't been paying for it. They are not thirsty because Israel has been supplying them with water, even when they haven't been paying for that, too. They are not dying from illness, because they have access to Israeli hospitals [even though one cured patient wanted to come back as a suicide bomber and blow it up] even when they don't pay for the services. Peace loving people in Gaza don't have to worry at night for Israel does not shoot indiscriminate rockets into Gaza, as Hamas has done to Israel.


Understand the code!!!

When they say: "End the Occupation" They mean: "Destroy Israel."


Our answers are:          Understand the code.    Tell that to others.         Support Israel.


We celebrate Tu B'Shevat in January. Buy trees and help the Jewish National Fund build the state, repair that which has been bombed and broken. Buy Israel Bonds that also help build the state. There are many things that you and I can't do or change.


But there are things we can. Do them!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Is It A Scandal [see Latin definition] To Be Particular?

Is It A Scandal [see Latin definition] To Be Particular?

October 19th, 2012

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor



Last Friday night I delivered a short sermon entitled: "Why Do They Hate Us So Much?" It originated in my 10th grade Confirmation class which is studying Judaism by looking at Christianity. Discussing the history of early Christianity and its separation from Judaism naturally led into the antagonism of Christianity towards Judaism until the modern age. I related several incidents of my own childhood and observed how different their lives were from mine. We had a great conversation. In the sermon, I used the question as the pretext to talk about the 50th anniversary of the onset of the Second Vatican Council and the great changes that came from it.


Last week's Torah portion of Beresheet is the root of many significant theological differences between Judaism and Christianity. In passing I indicated some of them, as always, being respectful of their faith as well as ours. I prefaced the matter in saying that Vatican II did not change Christian theology and it did not change Jewish theology. I suggested that the real challenge for people of faith is to take faith seriously, for all faiths demand us act on behalf of those who are disadvantaged from whatever cause, to eliminate poverty, guns, murder, disease and ignorance.


Much to my surprise, when this sermon was released on the listserv of the Rabbinical Assembly it ignited a firestorm of comment between colleagues concerning the Aleynu prayer. Along with Shema Yisrael and Adon Olam, Aleynu probably ranks as one of the better sung pieces of liturgy. But like the others, I think that many are not familiar with its content and theology. Some of my colleagues raced to defend this prayer, citing its supposed authorship and date. Others presented their own particular rewrites that are palatable to their consciences.


I would like to respond to my colleagues and share this conversation with you as well, especially as my sermons are released to our own listserv besides being posted on my blog and on the Rabbinical Assembly listserv, courtesy of our son. I can "kill lots of birds with one sermon!" While this is an immense subject, I am going to do this in extreme brevity.


I begin by sharing with you an episode that I taught the Confirmation Class this past Sunday. From 2006 to 2008 the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore joined with Union Theological Seminary /Presbyterian School of Christian Studies a "conversation" whose topic was: "The Scandal of Particularity." I was invited to attend and participate in the sessions held in Richmond. I was greatly honored.


The title was so uniquely worded because it  referred to the Latin origin of the word scandal, which is trap , namely was it, is it a trap to iterate and reiterate our religious and theological uniqueness and difference? Near the conclusion, about thirty Christian and Jewish scholars sat around the table and a Christian minister asked: "Would the Jews among us answer: Would it be all right if the Christians called themselves Israel?"


Yours truly had the privilege of being the first Jew in line. All eyes looked towards me. I was the sole pulpit Rabbi in a group of academicians. From all the previous discussions, I knew the answer they wanted. Instead, I said "No." Israel is the unique name for the Jewish people. It indicates my lineage from my Patriarch Jacob, my place in the Jewish people, the bearers of the unique message of Judaism. I cannot give up my name. You could have heard the air being sucked out of the room.


Is it so wrong, is it a 'scandal' – a 'trap' to identify – believe in my or any particularity?

Why was it, is it assumed that me the Jew and my Judaism can be, have to "homogenized" out of existence?

Can I be forthright, upright and out right about my identity while still respecting the identity of others?


There is a scholarly dispute about the origins of Aleynu but all agree that it was before the rise of Christianity to prominence, probably in Babylonia long before Christianity reached there, and so it does not refer to that faith. It was composed for recitation on Rosh HaShanah. Because of its meaning, it was then adopted as the closing liturgy for all services.


Aleynu proclaims the uniqueness of Judaism and of being Jews, the bearer of the message. Perhaps in the time of its composition, when the world was overwhelmingly pagan and amid the debaucheries of the Roman Empire, it might have also included the thought "that we were better than them." I can even imagine Jews entering the gas chambers of the Holocaust believing that too. But Aleynu doesn't say that. Siddur Sim Shalom does not translate it literally, but there are four opening phrases that stress the individuality of being a Jew, and thus we then bow down to the one and only  Creator and Master of the world. In the Aleynu it is not a generic "God" but specifically God as revealed in Torah and Prophets, Yud, Hay, Vov, Hay. The first paragraph also proclaims that there is no other God.  The second paragraph enunciates the hope of a better world and, even without using the word Messiah, but quoting from Zechariah 14:9, that at the end of time, the Messianic Era, "the only one to be worshipped will be Adonai – Yud, Hay, Vov, Hay – whose Name will be the only one invoked." [Or Hadash, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, page 51].


This is our unique and individual Jewish theology. I make no apologies for it. It comes directly out of the belief system that is Judaism, straight from the pages of our Torah and out of the mouths of the Prophets who surround us in these windows. That is why I answered my colleagues around the table that they couldn't be Israel. If I as a Jew am not Israel, I am not. By homogenizing away the core of the faith, I eliminate the faith. This I will not do.


The substance of Christianity proclaims Jesus as Messiah and that the teachings of the Gospels are the truth and salvation proceeds only through the rituals of the Church. Similarly, Islam proclaims the same about its own teachings about Allah with Mohammed as its singular Prophet. I don't expect any faith to give up its unique expression of the faith. When I sit at the table with my Christian and Muslim colleagues and share openly faith statements on any issue wherein we can agree, cooperate and improve our world, we all know our particular theologies. We do not get into a contest about "who is better." We believe, strongly, deeply, with conviction in our different theologies. No one is asked to gut their faith and self destruct. The reverse! We find fascinating the points of comparison, of similarity and of difference. It is exciting to be in dialogue, each believing in their own, while sharing fellowship, being people with faith.


There is no scandal, no trap, in being particular.


We can each proclaim our own, be strong as Jews, Christians and Muslims, as we realize that faith, religion, God is a mystery, beyond our human knowledge. No faith can prove its truth. None of these sophisticated philosophical theological systems can say that one is better than the other. Adherents to any must believe that theirs is the right one , but to do so with humility and modesty, recognizing that in our human time, we will never know.


So I conclude with the same sentence from last week:

We will know that the Messiah has come when from the pulpits of mosque, church and synagogue it is taught and accepted, that all roads lead to God.


                                                                                                            Shabbat Shalom.


Friday, October 12, 2012

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor: "Why Did They Hate Us So Much?"

Why Did They Hate Us So Much?

October 12, 2012

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor 


My tenth grade confirmation class learns about Judaism by looking at Christianity, and a little at Islam. We will "do" theology, history and sociology in a limited number of sessions. I often feel like Hillel needing to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot. I am also trying to prepare them for college in two years where their room mates and suite mates will be predominantly Christian besides of other faiths. They will engage in conversations where they need a higher level of knowledge of Judaism than can be attained by Bar/Bat Mitzvah age.


Religion is an adult matter and they only have a child's knowledge. That is why continuing solid and intensive Jewish education through the high school years is critical. Our children are a "Jewishly endangered species" by their lack of substantial religious knowledge. It can only be attained as their minds mature in their teen-age years, just like any other subject.


My course is a cram session about Judaism and the faiths they will meet along the way. Maybe, just maybe, they will have a deeper appreciation of the faith into which they are born and maintain an active allegiance into adulthood.


Our conversations are never linear. I also only know the starting point. I never know where it will end up. I take on all questions. They often lead to unplanned directions.


So, several weeks ago one of the students blurted out: "Why do they hate us so much?" That stopped the class in its tracks. The "they" in that sentence refers to Christians. The use of present tense indicates the sense that it is still continuing. The context of the sentence drew a direct line between "us" and "them," and maybe indicated some fear and concern for personal safety.


How would you answer this question? Gloss over it? Ignore it? Sing John Lennon's "All you need is love?"


This question enabled me to run a thumb-nail sketch and abbreviated timeline of the separation of the growing Jewish sect that became Christianity from its mother faith, Judaism. I indicated the need for the new faith to shape its only identity based a core issues: do the non-Jewish members need to observe Jewish law, as the born-Jewish members did? Which would predominate, the Church of Jerusalem or the Church of Antioch? What did it mean to be identified as Jews when, particularly after the second rebellion against Rome, the Bar Kochba rebellion, the Jewish people was loathed in the Empire? What were the implications of the Roman Empire becoming the Holy Roman Empire? Namely, what was the road to hatred of the Jews?.


It was never ever that we "deserved it." Rather, to learn to "connect the dots" from Jesus and his students who were observant Jews, to the birth of a new faith, to the Christian persecution of the Jew people through the Shoah, the Holocaust, spanning nearly two thousand years.


But I assured them that that their neighbors and classmates do not hate them. There is no reason for such fears. The lines between groups in America that cause ignorance that can lead to hatred are being erased by education and meeting each other. I told them about the many church classes that come here to learn about Judaism.


But fifty years ago yesterday began the seminal event that changed our world. On October 11th, 1962 Pope John XXIII convened what became known as the Second Vatican Council and would three years later issue the document called Nostra Aetate. It created a sea-change in modern Jewish history. While it finessed the relation of the Vatican to the Holocaust, for the first time in the history of the church, anti-Semitism was bluntly denounced, and most importantly, the Jewish people were not held responsible for Jesus' death, the charge of deicide. While we never doubted our own validity, in the global context, the repudiation of core Catholic doctrine about the Jewish people was and remains critical. This path would lead eventually to Pope John Paul saying that the Jewish people were his "elder brother." This changes two thousand years of history.


In a brief article on the Second Vatican Council I exposed my Confirmation Class to the answer to the blunt question: "Why do they hate us so much?" The church has to change its teaching about us, about our faith, for this to change. They needed to change their preaching from the pulpit and their education in schools. And it took time for it to extend to the far reaches of the church.


But Vatican II, as it is better known, did not change their theology. Nor did it change ours. They will read the portion of Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, of tomorrow's Torah portion and learn from it "The Original Sin." We will learn from it the fallibility of all humanity not to hear the Divine summons, and believe that each soul is born innocent, clean and untainted. They will believe in the need to believe in Jesus as salvational. We will believe that mitzvot – the system to implement God's will - and tzedakah, the righteous living will redeem us, save us, individually and all humanity.


I said to my class that they don't hate us any more. They once did. We were powerless. Many Jews died in pogroms, the Crusades and the Holocaust. The Second Vatican Council changed the Roman Catholic Church and greatly influenced the rest of Christianity. The real challenge is for people of all faiths to take their theology seriously, to teach about the sacredness of all life, that will lead society to leaven the riches and elevate people from poverty and disability; that will remove guns and murder from the streets; that all will unite in the fight against disease and ignorance; and that will end wars. Maybe then hatred will truly be removed from the hearts of all people.


We will know that the Messiah has come when from the pulpits of mosque, church and synagogue it is taught and accepted, that all roads lead to God.

Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Friday, September 7, 2012

The First Jewish Mitzvah in Torah

The First Jewish Mitzvah in the Torah

September 7, 2012

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


[While this appears in written form, with the congregation I am doing this opening in a Q & A style.]

What is the first specifically Jewish mitzvah in the Torah?

Some might think that since the Torah is "Jewish" book then every mitzvah in it is Jewish. Not true. It is a "Jewish" book, but the opening of the Torah is really universal narratives. The creation of the world and the chapter about Noah are not part of the particular story of the Jewish people. They are our narratives about the beginning of human existence.


By this point everyone knows that the answer is brit milah. Now I have another question.

When you are going to the event, how do you usually refer to it?

Except for my Hebrew speakers, most others will say: "I'm going to a bris." I think that most people associate that word with the English "circumcision," but it isn't.

Milah means circumcision. Bris means ---- covenant. The ritual is called Brit Milah. Herein lies the tale.


When we think about Judaism and the most central observances, the core mitzvot that define the faith and identify the faithful, you can suggest:

            the holidays soon to be upon us, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur;

            Shabbat the most frequent holy day, reminding us of God as creator & redeemer;

            Kashrut, an observance that clearly differentiates us from our neighbors; or,

            Objects such as mezuzah, kipah, talit and tefilin.

As important as all of these are, they are all derivatives - none are the heart of Judaism.


The central, core and first Jewish mitzvah of the Torah is the commandment by God to Abraham to circumcise himself, the males of his household and his son Yishmael, as the Israelite/Jewish component of the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants.


Only for the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews, is this physical procedure the core religious practice. Because it defined the faith and identified the faithful, it was the singular observance banned by the civilizations that sought to obliterate Judaism, namely the Greek and Roman world. While Hanukkah became focused on the Menorah, the original and core edict against the Jews was not to stop Temple worship. They just wanted to erect other altars in the sacred space. The main edict was to stop brit milah.

            In this ritual we Israel.

            In this ritual generations of Jews are tied to each other.

            In this ritual we are tied to the generations, family bonded one to another.

They wanted to get rid of us by getting rid of brit milah.


At a brit milah there are four central participants: (1) the baby, (2) the father [and mother], (3) the mohel, if it isn't the father, and (4) the sandek. Who is this? What is this strange word? It comes from the Greek, sinetiknos, which means "helper to the infant." The sandek is the protector of the baby in this difficult moment of its new life. He is the "protector" of the baby. When Menachem was born, Ruby and I asked my brother to be his sandek. Seven years ago, upon Moshe Tzvi's birth, our grandson, Menachem asked me to be the sandek, and to wear this, my father's talit. With the generations present, he was entered into the brit, the eternal covenant between God and Israel. Such a moment transcends times and bonds the generations together, back to Abraham, and forward forever.


There is one special item present at a brit milah invoking one special presence. It is kesay shel Eliyahu, Elijah's chair. Elijah, prophet in the Bible accused the Israelites of not being faithful to the covenant. The Rabbis bring together different elements in his life and imagine God saying to Elijah that he will have to be present at every brit milah so he can see that we are faithful to the covenant. Eliyahu is also the harbinger of the Messiah, the announcer of the time when wars will cease violence end, and humanity live according to the moral dictates of God. For those who want to get rid of Brit milah, they also want to get rid of the messenger and our message.


With all the other current events usurping our attention, you might have missed the attempts in Norway, Austria, Switzerland and Germany to ban all circumcision, without exception, even for religious observance. In today's paper there was a small blurb that a court in Berlin had to intervene to permit brit milah. Of course you see the irony: in the capital of the country that once did everything to eradicate us, a court intervened to preserve the one ritual that creates us. Strange. You might have thought that it was just a bunch ultra-God-knows-whats in San Francisco who wanted to ban brit milah in California. If they had succeeded, it would have been the springboard for such efforts across the nation.


I don't hear them going crazy over tattoos and piercings of every nature and location. Why focus on milah and not the others which serve no ultimate purpose? Perhaps they know, like the Greeks and Romans, that milah only stands in connection to brit. For us, it stands us next to God.


In the liturgy of brit milah, the part that I often recite, it quotes the prophet Ezekiel: "In your blood shall you live, in your blood shall you live!" It is through the mitzvah of brit milah that we live. Even as a people that has been wounded and bloodied, through the blood of this mitzvah, we the Jewish people live. And as Helen Zimm says: "Forever and ever."


We live so that we can celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Shabbat, Kashrut and all the rest of Judaism, to proclaim our unique Jewish messages to the world. There are times that we must arise to defend, nationally and internationally, our Judaism, our Jewish people, the State of Israel and its capital. With the internet it is easy to join these efforts, raise our electronic voices, band together and change the world. Are we less courageous than the generations before us?


In the week to come when we stand here before God asking Him to remember us, let us remember Abraham and all the generations ever after, that bound themselves in blood to God, to Torah and to the destiny of the Jewish people. Let us remember so that we shall be remembered for our devotion and our dignity.


Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Exposition of the "Glass Art, Murals and Building Frontispiece of Temple Beth-El"

Glass Art, Murals and Building Frontispiece of Temple Beth-El
[excluding the stained glass windows of the Prophets]
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
June 23rd, 2012
Temple Beth-El's Main Sanctuary building is renowned for the stain glass windows representing the Prophets of Israel, those who have a separate book as well as Elijah, from the Book of Kings, and Moses from the Torah. Yet there is much more religious artistry that embraces all those who enter the Sanctuary building, even as they approach it from outside. This document explains the glass art of the synagogue, excluding those of the prophets. There are also two murals, one in the main lobby as one enters the sanctuary room, and one on the rear wall as one exits. All this is in addition to the artistry that surrounds the bemah, subject of a different document. There is a great richness portrayed thematically, with great depth, in the vibrancy of deep colors, that in unison create a divine glow and aura for all those "who lift their eyes to the mountains."
There are four doors at the rear of the Main Sanctuary that have a pane of glass, each with a different theme. The execution is a simple style, not like that of the major windows. References to location often use the bemah as the point of observation.
From Left to Right:
1st  Door: Keter Torah – the crown of the Torah. Crown also represents God.
2nd Door: Menorah – seven branched, like that of the Tabernacle and Temple
3rd Door: Lulav and Etrog, main elements of Sukkot Observance.
                                    This holiday was a most significant celebration in Jerusalem.
4th Door: Center with a bird and cluster of grapes (a most familiar representation).
                                    The bird can represent the Shechinah, God's presence, or the quail that sustained the Israelites in the wilderness.
                                    The grapes represent the land of Israel.
The themes of these windows present a unified vision of being in the land of Israel and entering Jerusalem where God's Presence is manifest. The center of Jerusalem is the Temple from which emanates God's light and Torah, which is observed with great festivity. Sukkot represents God's sheltering presence by the clouds that led them through the wilderness years, 'aninei Kavod' – 'Clouds of God's glory.' The word Kavod is brightly presented in Ezekiel's window.
On the sanctuary side, above the doors are three murals. They were executed by A. Raymond Katz, who executed the stain glass windows of the Prophets. The center one contains the verse from Psalm 16: "I have set the Lord Always Before Me." This quote is also located above the bemah in Hebrew. Therefore, these are mirror images in the Sanctuary, bilingual, to be seen and impressed when entering and leaving. The center and other murals need further examination and clarification of their content.
On the lobby side, above the doors are three murals recently executed by Paul Bertholet. They are donated by Margie and Jake Clayman in memory of Irvin and Irene Kocen, an extended family long associated with and dedicated to Temple Beth-El who both died in the spring of 2012.
From Left to Right (as viewed standing in the lobby):
Left panel:
This is a view of the Old City of Jerusalem as one is approaching from the northwest corner of the city. It is a pastoral setting with no other buildings in the scene, as was the case until early in the 20th century. People coming from Jaffa and the north would have seen Jerusalem this way.
Center panel:
This is a view of the Old City of Jerusalem from the southwest side of the city. The major focus is the Tower of David, Migdal David, that sits adjacent to the Jaffa Gate on the west side of the Old City and was the main entrance way and the singular route came from Jaffa to Jerusalem.
Right panel:
This is the view of the Old City of Jerusalem from the eastern approach to the city. The viewer is standing on Mount of Olives, Har HaTzofim.The Mosque of Omar, Dome of the Rock, recognizable by its golden dome, is viewable in the distance. It stands where the Holy Temple once stood. Off to the left can be scene the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world.
The lobby on the main level is illuminated by three large glass windows. They are best viewed from within the lobby. They are dedicated by Mrs. Lena Sinker. As viewed facing the exit doors:
The left window is dedicated in the memory of Betty J. Gordon, her sister.
The illustration is of the Torah and David's harp, upon which rests his crown. By tradition David is the author of Psalms which were the core of the liturgy in the Holy Temple and thus became the core of synagogue liturgy.
The center window is dedicated in the memory of Samuel C. Sinker, her husband.
The illustration is of the Torah with a hind or deer leaping in the center of the window. As all references in the synagogue artistry is connected to the Tanakh, this must refer to verses in the Megillah of Song of Songs. The protagonists are God and Israel. In chapter 2 verse 9: "My beloved is like a gazelle or like a young stag…" In chapter 2 verse 17: "…set out my beloved, swift as a gazelle or a young stag, for the hills of spices." It represents either Israel running to God or God running towards Israel.
The right window is dedicated in the memory of Michael Gordon, her father.
The illustration is of the Torah with candles, a Kiddush cup, two challot and apples. Therefore this must symbolize Rosh HaShanah whose core meaning focuses on proclaiming God as our King.
All three windows have Magen Davids and are surrounded by clusters of grapes and greenery, clearly representing the Land of Israel, "a land flowing with milk and honey," while the use of grapes as a symbol comes from the spies sent by Moses, as related in the Book of Numbers.
The upper lobby of the Main Sanctuary is also richly illustrated. There are four doors entering the balcony and three large windows facing towards the front of the edifice.
Looking at the doors from inside the balcony:
The first door represents Mt. Sinai enshrouded with clouds with the children of Israel surrounding the mountain at its foot. There are Magen Davids in the windows. This scene depicts the giving of the Torah, a symbol so prevalent throughout the synagogue, the core document of the covenant between God and Israel.
The second door represents the hand of God and the cloud that was present as they left Egypt. There is also a lamb which was the instrument of salvation in Egypt, the blood of the Passover sacrifice. There is a green sea representing the Sea of Reeds and thus this window depicts Yitziyat Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt that leads to Mt. Sinai.
The third door represents the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, also has Magen Davids in the top and has two crowns, as well as grape clusters.
The fourth door represents Shabbat with candles and Kiddush cup. Shabbat enshrines God as creator and liberator, and is the sign of the covenant, the core of Judaism, as it is the relationship of God and Israel.
The three windows of the upper lobby have inscribed verses from Psalms and the Prophet Amos which are written to be seen from the steps of the edifice. Because of their protective covering, they are only viewable from inside.
Facing the windows from inside the upper lobby:
The left window quotes Psalm 1:
"Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water."
The central image is a luxurious tree, perhaps representing the tree of life. It depicts the river mentioned in the verse and has the Hebrew word Shalom meaning peace, the ultimate blessing for one who fulfills this psalm. All three windows have a depiction of Torah and it is surrounded with clusters of grapes and have Magen Davids in the corners.
The center window quotes Psalm 19:
"The Law of the Lord is perfect, rejoicing the heart."
The central image is the Ten Commandments and it has the Hebrew word Emet meaning truth, the seal of God, thus this window proclaims the truth of Judaism. It is appropriate to be the central window. Placed high in the architecture, this window as part of the synagogue replicates Mt. Sinai.
The right window quotes the prophet Amos chapter 5, verse 24:
"Let justice well up like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."
Paralleling the verse, there is a two tiered water fountain as the central motif with lions, representing God's majesty and strength facing in opposite directions.  The window has the Hebrew word Mishpat meaning justice and judgment, a core value of creating a holy society.
The front of the synagogue Main Sanctuary building is emblazoned with religious symbolism as well. It presents those entering the synagogue with the main motifs.
Uppermost are four representations of the Ten Commandments at both end, and also separating the words Temple, Bet-El (in Hebrew), and Beth-El.
Below that are four menorot, all are seven branched as was the Temple menorah.
Below that are three Torah Scrolls each flanked by a lion (as mentioned above) and each containing a Magen David.
The front of the building is faced with four tall columns. While the number might not be significant, the columns represent those of the Holy Temples, that building which followed the existence of the Tabernacle, which was built at Mt. Sinai.
The concrete side pieces are emblazoned with the Magen David. As this construction of the synagogue building was completed after the Holocaust, perhaps the prominence of its placement had particular meaning. While the Nazis wanted it to be a badge of shame, Temple Beth-El restored its luster and used it to proclaim the pride and honor of Judaism and the eternal existence of the Jewish people, which is "set in stone."
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
Temple Beth-El
3330 Grove Avenue
Richmond, VA 23221

Friday, June 29, 2012

“Zeh Ha-sha-ar L’Adonay” – “This is the Gateway to God” -- The Sanctuary of Temple Beth-El

"Zeh Ha-sha-ar L'Adonay" – "This is the Gateway to God"

The Sanctuary of Temple Beth-El

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

June 30th, 2012


The Main Sanctuary Building of Temple Beth-El is a most extraordinary religious edifice. It was built in three significant phases, the initial construction of 1939, the revision dedicated in 1949, and the stained glass windows depicting the prophets completed in the mid-1960's. Additionally, there is the art and architecture of the bemah, the main dais, the stained glass windows facing Grove Avenue, the stained glass windows in the doors on the main and upper levels, and the two murals on either side of the entrance doors into the Sanctuary room.  An untold number of hands labored with love, skill, craftsmanship and vision to assemble a religious structure that is wondrous to behold. Further research will reveal the names and details of how all this came to pass. For the worshiper who ascends its main portico, the collective construction and illumination creates an awesome, glorious and inspiring religious experience.


This year of 2011-2012, 5772, has been dedicated to the explication of the individual pieces that collectively construct the religious ambiance that embraces those who enter this building. In all probability the individual artists and architects labored separately and never knew nor conversed with each other. They could not tell the following artisan why and what their art was intended to convey. That being the case, my mind perceives a miraculous unity in the presentation and augmentation of this religious home. Each piece intertwines perfectly with the other, creating a religious broadcloth that surrounds the assemblage. Because the other papers detail the individual parts, the purpose of this composition is to delineate the unified vision that emerges.


The Psalmist urges us "to lift our eyes to the mountains (Psalm 121:1)." As one approaches the synagogue, the elevation of the building compels one to do precisely that. More than 'climbing steps,' one who enters is an "oleh," "one who ascends." This word resonates in the synagogue ritual, but is rooted in the history of the faith. It is a religious ascent, far beyond the physical. The central sacrifice was the "olah" that was entirely burnt on the altar of the Tabernacle and Temple. Its smoke rose to God, for the purpose of unifying the person who brought the offering with God. Later the term would be used to describe the pilgrims on their journey to the Temple in Jerusalem, commanded in the Torah to come at the holy days of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Lastly, the term is used for one who comes to the Torah during its reading.


The very edifice wants all who enter Temple Beth-El to feel that they are on this journey to fulfill all these meanings: ascending to a relationship with God, coming to the Temple to worship, and entering into the dialogue with God through the central document of the covenant with God, the Torah.


 The synagogue is the third official place of Jewish worship, following the First and Second Temples on the mount in the city of Jerusalem. They in turn replaced the Tabernacle, the portable shrine built by Moses. Yet that, too, was a substitute for the core location in Judaism, the place to which we never returned, where God revealed Himself to Israel, Mt. Sinai. It is the place where the children of Israel heard God's voice, where the irrevocable covenant that made Israel a nation was declared. Instead of staying at Mt. Sinai or making it a place of pilgrimage, Israel took Sinai with them, forever. The Jewish religious experience is the unique symbiosis of all of these places, Mt. Sinai, Tabernacle, and the Temples with the synagogue. From the outside of the building into it innermost core, this place takes each person on a religious journey through space, time and history to meet God.


The journey begins on the outside façade of the building. It is emblazoned with four manifestations of the Ten Commandments surrounding the name of the synagogue. The name itself proclaims this place to be Bet –El, God's House. The Ten Commandments lead us to Mt. Sinai. The Torah Scrolls represent Matan Torah – Kabbalat Torah, the Giving and Receiving of the Torah at Sinai. The menorot on the façade were first constructed for use in the Tabernacle becoming the paradigm for the Menorah of the Temples. They are replicated on either side of the bemah. The covenant of the faith of the Jewish people and God begins at Sinai.


Yet the ultimate destination is the Land of Israel, promised to Abraham and his descendants and reaffirmed at Sinai. When one enters the Main Lobby ones eyes immediately rise to the newest piece of art, the mural presentation of pastoral ancient city of Jerusalem. The Tabernacle of Moses, built at Sinai, is permanently when Solomon builds the First Temple on the mount in Jerusalem. It is the focus for Jews forever and throughout the world. Our orientation is to the Land of Israel and within the land, to Jerusalem, and within Jerusalem, to the Temple. This mural locates us geographically and spiritually.


Upon entering the Main Sanctuary one must look to the bemah with its two sets of tall columns, embracing the Holy Ark. It is surrounded with grapes, the main ornamentation representing the Land of Israel. The rear wall of the bemah is curved, precisely replicating the original synagogues in the 1st century C.E. in the Land of Israel. The Ark with the Torah was brought in to the room and placed in the apse. This architecture brings us back to 2nd Temple times, when Temple and synagogue co-existed.. The main liturgy of the Temples was the Psalms, chanted by the Levitical choir. Located at the very pinnacle of the bemah is the inscription in Hebrew: "I place the Lord before me always (16:8)." This same inscription in inscribed in English in the mural at the rear of the Sanctuary, so that the worshipper is directed towards it upon entry, focuses on it during the entirety of ones presence, and reminded that God's presence continues with us even as we leave the Sanctuary and reenter the world outside. The Holy Ark and the two lecterns are also decorated so as to capture one's eyes with the continuing symbol of the Land of Israel, David's harp – author of Psalms for the Cantor, Torah – core of Judaism, for the Rabbi.


The aura of the Main Sanctuary is created the infusion of the deep resonant colors of the windows that depict the essential message from each of the three Major Prophets, all of the twelve Minor Prophets, the Burning Bush – also Sinai, and Elijah, forerunner of the Messiah. Individually and collectively, their magnificent, breathtaking appearance presents the certitude of God and His message. The worshipper is to be infused with God, the certainty of God's existence, His choice of Abraham's descendants to be His chosen people forever, the eternality of the covenant made at Sinai, enshrined in the Temples in Jerusalem, and taken by the Jewish people to the ends of the earth, protected and projected by the synagogue. The awe inspiring physical surroundings place the worshipper on this unbroken journey to God and Torah that traverses Jewish history. The relationship of God and Israel bound together through the covenant of Torah is to last forever.


The strength and size of the internal and external architecture is to impress all who sit it and all who enter with the truth of Judaism and certainty of the faith. The vibrancy of the colors, the magnificence of execution, the repetition in the smaller pieces of glass in the doors, and in the windows that project forward in the upper lobby infuse the worshipper to be resolute in their conviction of Judaism, unshakeable in their identity as a Jew, proud to be the descendant of such a glorious history, confident to transmit it to their children and thus be the antecedents of generations of the Jewish people yet to come. All this is contained in this brilliant religious home, formed with grace, shaped in splendor, resplendent in beauty and filled with holiness.


Temple Beth-El has long held its rightful place in the never ending journey of the Jewish people. Its physical manifestation is a beacon on the hill for the Jewish people, illuminating them the meaning of the faith, belief in God, and loyalty to Torah and the Jewish people. Entering this building one travels metaphysically from Richmond to Sinai and to Jerusalem. Spiritually we stand before Sinai and God.


May the light of its truth burn brightly for ever.





Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152