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Interview: Rabbi Barry Block

Added: Wednesday, October 15th 2008 at 12:28pm by robertflynn
Related Tags: religion


Interview with Rabbi Barry Block

Barry Block is Rabbi of Temple Beth-El near downtown San Antonio, Texas. Temple Beth-El is a Reform Jewish congregation serving approximately 1,200 families. Organized in 1874, it is a founding member of the Union for Reform Judaism, the synagogue body of Reform Judaism.


Q: I have always heard "Rabbi" translated as teacher. When members of Beth-El call you "Rabbi" what do they mean?

Rabbi Block:The translation is common, but incorrect.  The correct translation would be "master."  One could certainly say that, in this case "master" refers to a teacher at a certain level. In any event, none of that relates to your question, which is about what the congregants mean. I think that they mean to be addressing me by an honored title, the Jewish equivalent of "Reverend," suggesting that I have achieved a certain amount of learning leading to Ordination, and have been elected as spiritual leader of their congregation.

Q: How did you decide to become a Rabbi? 

Rabbi Block: I experienced the call, though I wouldn't have known to use that term, when I was a freshman in college.  At the conscious level, I made this decision like any other young adult makes a career decision: Being a Rabbi would require doing things that interested me, that mattered to me, and which I thought I would be good at doing. I now believe that God was very much involved in leading me to recognize how I could best serve.

Q: What are your duties as senior Rabbi?

Rabbi Block: They are many and varied. I am the person who holds overall responsibility for worship, education and pastoral care at the Temple. I provide vision to the congregation and its lay leadership to assure that we will continue to meet our responsibilities to our congregation and community into the future.


Q: As senior Rabbi you followed an icon, Rabbi Stahl.  Was that a problem?   

Rabbi Block: I was blessed to work with Rabbi Stahl for ten years before he retired. He, too, followed an "icon," Rabbi David Jacobson, of blessed memory. We are deeply blessed that Rabbi Stahl remains in our community and continues to serve our congregation and all of San Antonio.


Q: What is Reform Judaism?  

Reform Judaism is a liberal expression of Judaism. We understand Torah as the ongoing record of our people's interaction with God, as recorded by pious Jews throughout the ages. Each of us is responsible to study our tradition, in order to make informed choices about our ritual practices, on the basis of commitment and knowledge. In many instances, in our practices, higher principles of Torah, as we understand them, override specific ritual commands as understood by Orthodox Jews.

  For example, women are not permitted to be Rabbis in Orthodox Judaism. We regard that prohibition to be based on ancient Jewish law that does not, and ought not to apply in the modern world. We understand those outdated laws to be human, not divine, in origin. Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish religious movement in North America. There are over 900 Reform congregations with over 1,000,000 members.   


Q: Why were you a speaker at a conference in Houston regarding Christian, Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism?   

Rabbi Block: That was a conference of Texas Faith Network, with which I have long been involved.Texas Faith Network is a group of religious people who work diligently for the separation of Church and State. Texas Faith Network is affiliated with Texas Freedom Network, which is a mainstream organization that fights to defend our state from the hegemony of religious extremism. The leading political party in the State, namely the party that holds every single statewide elective office and majorities in both houses of the Legislature, has declared in its State platform that “America is a Christian nation.” Clearly, we have significant work to do, to assure that health care, education, liberty in Texas are guided by the Constitution, not by the dictates of a particular manifestation of one faith.

Religious fundamentalism, in its most extreme forms, is the greatest threat to the world today. We see that right now, particularly in terms of Muslim extremism as carried out by al-Qaeda and its allies and by the regime in Iran and its surrogates. Jewish fundamentalism is a threat to any promise of peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. In America, extremist Christian fundamentalism is most dangerous and pervasive. These folks are trying to redefine America as a "Christian nation," which it never was. They are working hard to restrict the basic human rights, freedom of religion, and a wide variety of liberties guaranteed to us all in the U.S. Constitution and implied in our nation's founding with the Declaration of Independence.


Q: Other than historical accuracy and the defamation of the founder of Christianity, what’s wrong with calling America a “Christian nation?”  

Rabbi Block: The way I hear folks say that America is a “Christian nation,” I understand them to be saying that the nation is Christian, to the exclusion of other religious faiths. Many even mean "Christian" to exclude Mormons or even Catholics. In this mind-set, those who aren't “Christian” are tolerated, so long as we don't interfere with the workings of a Christian Nation. That's not what our founders envisioned. They assured that we would have no state religion, specifically that America would not be a Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Atheist) nation, that all would be able to practice and flourish here. America, with its First Amendment, has the most vibrant religious life in the western world.  We should keep it that way.

Those who call America a "Christian nation" advocate, for example, prayers at the beginning of the public school day, prayers that would exclude my children and those of my congregants. Extremist fundamentalists clearly want to shape American law to conform to the dictates of their faith, irrespective of the rule of law established in our Constitution.


Q: How does your congregation feel about “Christian Zionism?”  

Rabbi Block: Members of my congregation hold a variety of views about “Christian Zionism.” I am very well on record, opposing Jewish engagement with the efforts of Christians United for Israel and its leader and founder, Rev. John Hagee.  


Q: Some say that Islamic extremism is something that Muslims must deal with. Is Christian extremism a problem that Christians should deal with?

  Rabbi Block: Yes, Christians have primary responsibility for dealing with Christian fundamentalism. For example, when the Southern Baptist Convention began taking intolerant and intolerable stances, Rev. Buckner Fanning disassociated himself and Trinity Baptist Church from that communion. When SBC passed a resolution saying that Jews would be "targeted" for conversion, in 1996, Buckner was on our Temple pulpit the very next Friday night, to explain how real Baptists support the separation of Church and State and wouldn't advocate targeting any particular group for conversion.

I'm always amazed when some fundamentalists focus on one particular verse in Leviticus, which may be interpreted as outlawing homosexuality, but ignore the much more clear prohibitions of eating pork, for example. I have been in the leadership of the Planned Parenthood Trust of San Antonio and South Central Texas for many years, including a term as Board Chair. Perhaps somebody had heard me speak on behalf of Planned Parenthood or heard or read a sermon I had given about "abstinence only sex education."


Q: Is it unusual for a rabbi to be involved in Planned Parenthood? 

Rabbi Block: Not at all. Reform and Conservative Rabbis alike are often at the forefront of battles to fight state establishment of religion. If the state were to adopt laws on issues like reproductive freedom, on the basis of the dictates of a particular faith or group of faiths, that would be nothing short of state establishment of religion. 


Q: Did you really say, “Those who advocate abstinence-only sex education have blood on their hands?”  

Rabbi Block:Yes.They assure the ignorance of kids who could protect themselves from HIV/AIDS, gonorrhea, syphilis, or unwanted pregnancy, on the disproven theory that, if you don't teach kids that condoms provide protection, they won't have sex. Yes, we want all teens to abstain. On the other hand, we know that intended abstinence fails more frequently than any other contraceptive measure. When abstinence fails, the kids who've had "abstinence only sex education" have 0% protection against potentially life-threatening sexually transmitted diseases, not to mention unplanned pregnancy. 


Q: In your sermon on the eve of Yom Kippur 2005 you quoted Isaiah 58:6,7: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to unlock the shackles of injustice...to let the oppressed go free...to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house: when you see the naked, to cover them, never withdrawing yourself from your own kin.” How did you interpret that scripture in that sermon? 

Rabbi Block: I said, “Is this not the fast God desires: To alleviate poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth, where the gap between our poorest and wealthiest citizens has widened drastically, during Democratic and Republican presidencies alike? To assure that every child has an equal opportunity to succeed in this Land of opportunity, by providing excellent education to every child, no matter where he or she lives in this great Land? To break the stalemate in Texas, where public education funding is the laughingstock of the nation? To provide the world's best health care, including needed medication, to every person within our borders?”



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