Author Archives: rabbilarrybach

“Practice and Patience”

taught by Rav Shlomo Wolbe — transcribed by Pinchas Vilman — translated by Larry Bach

We aspire to wholeness, a lofty goal indeed. How much time does it take to reach that state of wholeness? Who knows? Perhaps after forty years of practice, perhaps after fifty or sixty? A well-known saying of Rabbi Israel Salanter: “It is worth it to study Mussar one’s whole life if it helps one to refrain from lashon hara (lit., “evil tongue,” meaning “inappropriate speech”) even once.” If this is the measure of the thing, we can understand the importance of being patient with ourselves when our aim is to attain a state of wholeness!

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Domestic Partner Benefits are in the El Paso City Budget

Today was the vote on the city budget, and 42 people came out to speak for and against that element of the budget that would grant unmarried domestic partners, including gays and lesbians, the right to buy into the city’s health plan. As was the case last week, most of the opposition was religious in nature, with a few folks arguing it from an economic perspective. And, like last week, much of the support was avowedly secular, challenging the propriety of introducing religious doctrine into such a public policy debate. Continue reading

Another “religious” view of domestic partner benefits

I spoke at City Hall this morning, during “Call to the Public” portion of the Council meeting. These were my words:

Good morning, Mr. Mayor, Representatives, and thank you for the opportunity to speak.

I’ve come here out of a sense that the debate over whether or not to extend benefits to domestic partners who are not married has been miscast. Again and again, I hear that “the religious community” is opposed to this move. Mr. Mayor, Council, there is no one “religious community.” There are religious folks in El Paso whose understanding of Scripture and of Scripture’s proper place in public life leads them to vigorously oppose offering health benefits to gay and lesbian partners of city employees. You’ve heard a good deal from them over the last few weeks, and I have no doubt you’ll continue to hear from them. I celebrate the fact that we live in a country where they can speak their mind and seek to persuade you in this venue and in others. Continue reading

“Textual Harassment” on display at City Hall

Christian theologian Mary Ann Tolbert called it “textual harassment,” the misuse of the Bible to reject other human beings. That phrase comes to mind as I consider the parade of sanctimony at City Hall on Tuesday. Last week it was Syrian Rabbis making me feel ashamed for my chosen profession; this week, the shame is much further away theologically, but much closer geographically.

The issue: allowing unmarried domestic partners of City employees to purchase health insurance. It was made policy at a budget hearing several days ago, and upon hearing about it, El Paso’s social conservatives got organized. They showed up at City Hall on Tuesday morning, and a few pastors spoke against the decision during the open comments section of the meeting, prompting City Representative Beto O’Rourke to spend some time with them outside of chambers. Newspaper Tree has done a fine job of covering the story, with a narrative piece, transcripts of the pastors, and a transcript of Lisa Turner’s response.

I’ll probably say more about this at our Shabbat Morning Service on August 22 (Parashat Shofetim). For now, I want to be on record (speaking only for myself, but certainly from within the mainstream of Reform Jewish teaching over the last few decades). Yasher Koach, City Council (well, six of you, anyway)! And shame on those who would use the Bible as a bludgeon!

If you want to evangelize this rabbi, skip the CDs

So I got a call from a reporter at the El Paso Times on Friday afternoon. She was writing a story about a Texas Baptist initiative to put the Gospel in the homes of 10 million Texans by Easter, 2010. I responded to her question, affirmed my response and, reaffirmed it. I had the sense that she was looking for something more “provocative” than I was offering up, since she went to great pains to be sure that I wasn’t “bothered” by the mass-mailing of religious tracts into the homes of Texans (including Jewish Texans).

Truly, what’s to be bothered about? A religious denomination exercising its First Amendment right to express itself freely? I’m not bothered about millions of CDs containing biblical literature and contemporary testimony making their way into Texas homes; I’m thrilled! It means our secular democracy works.

Am I concerned that people are “preying on the souls” of my congregants? Absolutely not. If a person’s grounding in their own faith is so insufficiently rooted that a CD in the mail can lead them to abandon it, then my concerns are serious, but they lay elsewhere. But practically speaking, the “success rate” of this sort of effort in winning my folks’ souls is quite low.

I Facebooked the article a couple of days ago, and one commenter pointed out that the money spent on producing and mailing all those discs would be better spent feeding hungry people. I agree, and also maintain that such an effort would also be better evangelism. If Texas Baptists want to win this Jew’s soul, they’d be better off spending their resources “sharing the Gospel” in a more profound and subtle way: by living their lives in a way that leads me to say “I’ll have what they’re having.”

Jews tend to avoid active proselytizing, and certainly the sort of mass-mail efforts being undertaken by the Southern Baptists. At most, Jews are comfortable opening the door and inviting others in if they so choose. But we are deeply “evangelistic,” if we can see that term through the lens of our call, “you shall be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy.” Kiddush Hashem (“making God’s Name holy”) means, at the most basic level, living your life in a way that will bring others to recognize God’s holiness too. When a person becomes interested in Judaism not because of what you tell them, but because of what they see in you, you are a “Jewish evangelist” of the first order.

And the opposite is true as well. The flip side of Kiddush Hashem is Chillul Hashem (“desecrating God’s Name”), and the term can be understood as “acting in a way that makes people question the truth of Judaism’s teachings.” When (to name but two recent examples) a Jew bilks thousands of people out of hundreds of millions of dollars, or a group of nominal “Jewish leaders” use the cover of charitable institutions to launder money for tax cheats and criminals, it’s logical to ask: “How can Judaism claim to be a beneficial path when it produces people like this?”

The bottom line: may all people, of all faiths, be true to the very best their faith traditions have to offer, and may their “proselytizing” consist of nothing more (and nothing less!) than living holy lives. What a world that would be..with less unsolicited direct mail, too!

Making Jewish life available

I enjoyed this article by Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which first appeared in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. I’m glad that Temple Mount Sinai has long been one of those few congregations that doesn’t “charge” people to pray on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and I agree with Golin’s main point:

If we believe in the meaning and value of our heritage, then we should be willing to give it away to anyone and everyone who is interested. Once people share our conviction, they, too, will understand the fiscal needs of our institutions and contribute as best they can.


“Dreams of Peace” a contest winner

My last post, “Proud Papa Kvelling,” announced that my daughter had won a lyric-writing competition sponsored by Babaganewz. Well, it’s been a good week for the Bachs. Today, I learned that my song “Dreams of Peace” was a finalist in the Peace Music Foundation’s “International Peace Song Contest.” I’m really excited to hear all of the finalists (we should all be posted on the Foundation’s web site shortly). Ultimately, the song will join them on a compilation CD.

Proud Papa Kvelling

I’m not sure if there’s another “Simona B.” in El Paso, but the one referenced on the Babaganewz website as an award-winning lyricist is indeed mine. Way to go, Simona!

Click through to hear the song, with lyrics by Simona and music by Craig Taubman, produced by Scott Leader. And while you’re there, check out the rest of the site, which is one of the best things happening in Jewish education these days.

“Dying Creek”

I tried my hand at translating a song from Chava Alberstein’s incredibly rich exploration of Israel beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict, “End of the Holiday.” Chava’s husband, screenwriter Nadav Levitan, is the lyricist. He calls out those who would say that “the Situation” means that Israelis don’t have the luxury of being concerned for the environment. And, he uses the Hebrew selektzia, evoking the Shoah. It’s raw, and powerful.

Belatedly, in honor of Earth Day…

Across from the petrochemical plants
which provide jobs for thousands,
it is hard to fight for the life of
one poisoned creek, suffering and dying.

In this Land, striving and advancing,
it is hard to explain just why it is important
to return the plants to the banks of the creek,
and the turtles, and the fish.

But in the Book of Beginnings it is told
how the species were created.
It is not ours to judge who is expendable,
and who should be written in the Book of Life.

If we begin with this selektion,
who will vouch for us,
insuring that our day won’t come,
that our turn won’t come as well?

And in a rhymed, singable translation, too…

In the presence of the plant that makes the chemicals
from whose sale thousands earn their daily bread,
it is hard to stand in defense of one creek —
poisoned, empty and left for dead.

In this Land, always searching for the next breath,
how could it be even worth the time
to restore the banks, return the reeds,
the fish who have fled, the turtles who have died?

On the first page of the Bible the story is told,
how the world came into being, kind after kind.
Ours is not to judge who gets to live.
We don’t decide who has to die.

If we start with this selektion
who’ll be left to defend us
so that we won’t share the same fate,
so extinction will not end us?

With gratitude for sixty-one years of Israel’s existence, and with hope that her next decades will be a time of healing.