‘I feel I have something to teach’

‘I feel I have something to teach’

Rabbi Jack Bemporad launches Congregation Micah in Cresskill

Rabbi Jack Bemporad and Pope Francis
Rabbi Jack Bemporad and Pope Francis

Rabbi Jack Bemporad of Englewood has officiated at High Holiday services every year since 1954.

“I haven’t missed a year,” Rabbi Bemporad said. He is 86 years old and was ordained at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. “I don’t see any reason I should stop now,” he added

So after parting ways with Chavurah Beth Shalom in Alpine earlier this year, after being there for 27 years, he will host his own services this year.

“I really wanted to have my own congregation, to do things my way,” Rabbi Bemporad said. “Once they realized that I resigned, many people started calling and writing. I decided I’d start my classes again.”

Rabbi Bemporad is starting another congregation, which will meet only on the holidays and for classes. He said that the tone of the new group is clear from its name, “Congregation Micah.”

“If you want to have a one-sentence definition of Judaism, it’s what you get in chapter six of the Book of Micah, where the prophet says, ‘It has been told you what is good and what God requires of you: Do justice, love mercy, and walk with humility before God.” Micah defines a Judaism that “is not sacrifice or excessive ritual,” Rabbi Bemporad said.

He wants his congregation to be “an attempt to live a self-conscious Judaism that’s credible. It can’t be where you’re saying something that you don’t believe in your heart. It has to be rooted in tradition, in the best thinking of the biblical and rabbinic sources and Jewish texts.

“I try to deal with the real issues we face in our time, and say what the Jewish perspective on that is.”

Last month, he taught a class on the origin of democracy of Judaism.

“I disputed the generally accepted fact that democracy began in Greece. One level, yes, it’s true, but when you add that the vast majority of people in Greece were basically slaves, they had no ideal of humanity. The ideal of humanity is a biblical idea. It’s what Judaism gave to ethics and the world.

“You have that so clearly in the Bible, especially in the prophets, where the concept of human beings begins with an element of connection to a transcendent being, namely God. I spoke at length about how the Ten Commandments are universal commandments.”

He also believes Judaism has important lessons about equality.

“Equality in the Bible is not among equals. Equality in the Bible is raising those people who are in need, who are vulnerable, who are precarious, and raising them up to the level of those who are safe and secure. The Bible repeatedly claims that you have to be concerned about the widow and orphan and stranger and lift them to your level.”

This stands in contrast to “the idea of a caste system, like in India, where those who have exploit those who don’t.

“One of the Bible’s greatest transformations is the idea that every human being, including the slave, especially the slave, has the right to make decisions about themselves one day a week. The Sabbath doesn’t apply just to the person who is privileged. It applies to the slave. One day a week a slave is transformed from an object to a subject.

“The Torah doesn’t come from a sovereign who claims he is God. It comes from a sovereign who is a liberator. God is seen as the being who is concerned with our being free and our being human. We have to find a way that Judaism can teach the world.

“In my interreligious work, I try to understand those aspects of scripture that make for peace. What about those passages that don’t make for peace? The passages that tend to villainize and condemn the other? The foundation for overcoming it is the fundamental belief in the idea of humanity, that God is a God concerned with humanity who works to bring out the best of every human being.

“That’s what I want my congregation to live by and what I want to teach. I want services where people say, ‘Yes, this prayer makes sense.’ I want classes that are completely free, where anyone can come, where we can learn together.”

He will offer biweekly classes, except for the month and half he is away teaching at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome. (Rabbi Bemporad is active in interfaith work; the Saint Thomas Aquinas gave him an honorary doctorate in theology in 2016.) Cantor Janine Schwarz, who was at Chavurah Beth Shalom, will come to Congregation Micah and be in charge of music and education.

“She will be available if I’m not for life-cycle functions and bar and bat mitzvah tutoring,” Rabbi Bemporad said. “We will do online classes.”

The congregation is meeting at Cresskill Congregational Church on Union Avenue in Cresskill.

“At my age, I am finally interested to teach the Judaism I have studied all my life and I believe is true,” Rabbi Bemporad said. “I don’t think people can actually identify with Judaism unless they can say ‘This is what I believe and why I believe it.’ I have worked out ten principles of spiritual Judaism, in a sense along the lines of Maimonides’ thirteen Principles of Faith.

“In many ways I think I have a clearer understanding of Judaism than I’ve had in the past. I feel I have something to teach. It may be chutzpadik on my part. So why not do it?”

To find out more, call or text Rabbi Bemporad at (201) 233-5076.

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