A Prophetic Synagogue: Rededicating Mishkan Shalom

Irv Ackelsberg, 12/29/2004

Rededicating the Temple: Reflections on Hanukah, the Statement of Principles and our first Installation of a Senior Rabbi
By Irv Ackelsberg of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia

It is good to be together in our Mishkan of Peace on this rainy December night, as we gather to celebrate Shabbat, the 4th night of Hanukah and our first installation of a new senior rabbi.

We gather as members of a 17-year young religious community, as part of the long continuum of the Jewish people, and as proudly liberal Americans, pondering the role of religion in our shared lives and pondering the meaning of religious leadership.

Let us consider the national historic moment in which Mishkan was founded. A cartoon character residing in the White House was sponsoring fear and killing on another continent (in that case, to our south), was redefining the role of the national Government away from protecting and bolstering societys vulnerable citizens to glorifying greed, the self and societys winners and he was attacking affirmative action, the union movement and the reproductive rights of women. All this was happening by way of a massive political realignment that mobilized large numbers of voters through morally tinged messages that played to nationalism, latent racism and sexual repression. And the news media was telling us that this all was happening as a result of a resurgence in national pride and moral values.

In those days it was not only hard to be an American. It was hard to be a Jew. Many of us hungered for a living Judaism that gave a voice and a home to the sacred values of tolerance, equality and compassionate justice and that accepted and celebrated us for who we are even if we are gay or intermarried. In the words of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, we wanted to build a Judaism that enlarged our mental horizons, deepened our sympathies, imbued us with hope and enabled us to leave the world better for our having lived in it.

I suppose it could be said that there has been progress since the 1980s. In contrast to the Reagan landslides, the 2004 election came down to 100,000 votes in Ohio. Mishkan Shalom, which was merely a dream then, is a vibrant community of 300+ households, filling this beautiful building with a vibrant, tolerant and socially engaged Judaism.

But in todays renewed experience of a nation gone insane, one month following our electoral catastrophe, it has been for many of us a struggle to maintain hope. I must also admit that for me it has become a challenge in the last month to find comfort in religious expression, what with all this ignorance and injustice being explained as a new-found commitment to religious and moral values. The same day that the newspapers were reporting on the Methodist Inquisition of our neighbor and teacher, Beth Stroud, the TV networks were rejecting an advertisement for religious tolerance, on the grounds that tolerance is just another sectarian viewpoint. I cringe in anticipation of the President's Christmas message this year, remembering last year, when, in the name of our Saviour, Jesus Christ he sent a special blessing to the American military, thanking them for spreading peace and understanding throughout the Earth.

This Hanukah, I understand as never before the rage of Judah Maccabee, who rose up against Imperial sacrilege and who, the legend tells us, miraculously restored traditional values through the power of his sword. And, this Hanukah, I also am feeling more vulnerable as a Jew, a member of a religious minority living in a Christian country, a minority that has lived within the sheltered protection of the separation between church and state, a wall that has been dangerously breached.

As for the tale of Judah Maccabee, our Jewish John Brown with his band of religious insurgents, I can understand the righteous anger that drove them to rise up, but I find little comfort in that story this year. I am sick of religious wars. They rarely have happy endings; they never bring peace. Perhaps that should be the Reconstructionist reading of Hanukah. That, in the words of Thich Nat Hanh, we cannot bring peace unless we be peace. That in confronting what we passionately know to be intolerance, we must remember that the way we speak to this intolerance is as important as the truthfulness of what we say.

I remember that summer when Mishkan was being envisioned. One of the most memorable debates was over our name. On one side was Rabbi Brian Walt, preaching that we should call ourselves Mishkan Tzedek, because the principle goal of our coming together was to fight for justice. The opposing position was articulated by Rabbi Caryn Broitman, who argued that a sanctuary of righteous justice might not sufficiently signify the values of compassion and tolerance. Because Tzedek is the path to Shalom, she argued, we should call our community Mishkan Shalom. Somehow the memory of that Talmudic exchange seems important tonight.

And as for the weakening of the wall between church and state, even as we feel more vulnerable being non-Christians, it may be necessary that we learn to speak publicly about our Jewish values. This, in fact, wrote Mordecai Kaplan, is the very role of Jewish civilization living within American society. He noted in his book, The Greater Judaism in the Making, that, while the Constitution has effectively weakened the political and cultural domination of Christianity, the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations have still managed effectively to influence legislation and education in favor of their respective ways of life. As for the Jews, he observed, their lot has been principally to serve as the chief advocates of the Constitutional separation, essentially an argument that is secular and irreligious. It is time, he argued, for Jews to learn how to excel not just in the field of civil law, but in the field of religion, meaning the field of lived values, in order to enrich American life.

In exemplifying this religious vision, call it Blue religion, we will not be alone. We will be joined by those Christians who, in the words of Boston Congressman Ed Markey, are prepared to stand for Sermon-on-the-Mount Christianity rather than Book-of-Revelations Christianity. We will be joined, too, by Muslims with whom, this past year, we have walked for peace and begun to share traditions. We will stand and live, as religious Americans,
To confront the arrogance and intolerance of Empire,
To reclaim and sanctify the right of all people to live in loving commitments, and
To honor a caring God that protects human needs in opposition to a godless market that honors only the idols of profit and corporate power.

Blessed are you, The Listener, who hears our prayers for peace and justice.
Grant us, Source of Life, the wisdom and compassion to channel our anger and despair at the degradation of the American spirit into a revitalized movement for spiritual and ethical renewal.

Bless our rabbis, that they may teach us and inspire us to be the sacred community and the light of hope we envisioned in our Statement of Principles.

And, in the words of those very Statement of Principles, may we learn to pray together, and in so doing, infuse our lives with Divine Presence and Kedushah. May we study together, to enhance our understanding of our tradition and the ways in which its teachings and insights can inspire ethical and spiritual growth. May we find old and new ways to care for each other in a loving community and discover and create powerful and transformative acts to repair our suffering world so it reflects the divine values of justice and compassion. In all this we pray. Shabbat Shalom.


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