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Sacred Acts BY CHAR MILLER MAKING THE TIMELESS TIMELY: Thoughts and Reflections of a Contemporary Reform Rabbi. By Samuel M. Stahl. 383 pp. Austin: Nortex Press. $21.95 cloth. IN THE BEGINNING, there was Sodom. That’s where a diffident but defiant Abraham argued with God over the texture of the relationship between heaven and earth. Learning that Sodom would soon be consumed, Abraham wondered if God intended to “sweep away the innocent along with the guilty”would this be just? Would the Lord spare all if there were but 50 righteous souls in the benighted town? God agreed, Genesis tells us, an agreement that Abraham then tested by haggling further, coaxing the requisite number down to 45, then 30, and finally 10. At that was the line drawn, and when Sodom was still found wanting, it was destroyed. Divine grace had its limits. Not so the human quest for justice, a point implicit in Abraham’s persistent arid stubborn queries. Upholding this Abrahamic tradition remains a defining element of Jewish spirituality, Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl affirms in Making the Timeless Timely, a collection of essays and sermons published to mark the 25th anniversary of his ordination. Indeed, Stahl, one of Texas’ most distinguished rabbis, suggests that this continual grappling with the nagging dilemmas of the human condition may explain Judaism’s survival in an often hostile world. It has had much to survive, too. Yet while Stahl sifts through the layers of oppression, ranging from the Crusader rampages in which a third of the European Jewish population reportedly was destroyed, to the fiery violence of the Spanish Inquisition, and then on to the years of Nazi decimation, he does not make a cult of this bloodied past, and has no interest in furthering a “Holocaustomania.” A tragic history based solely on a narrative of martyrdomvital though those martyrs werecannot sustain a healthy spiritual life, he observes. That’s why, for instance, he argues that “if understood and properly handled, the Holocaust can also provide us Char Miller teaches American history at Trinity University in San Antonio. with a way to grapple with anti-Semitism, to confront bigotry, and to regain faith in human nature.” Out of the death camps, comes a reverence and passion for life. Life is nonetheless a constant struggle against injustice; the millennium is not at hand. But we are required to give it a handeach generation must fight its evils, each must work to promote the commonweal. This obligation to repair a broken world, \(in Hebrew, “gives us a demanding and aggressive agenda,” Stahl writes. He then demonstrates the depths of his commitment to it by his response to some of the hot-button items dominating the contemporary political agenda, such as AIDS, abortion, and school prayer. He does not hold with those who seek to ostracize men and women who are HIV positive, and rebuffs those who seek biblical sanction for treating its victims as pariahs. Admitting that there are texts which would support such hostility, he counters these claims by drawing upon what he calls the Jewish “tradition of compassion.” Central to this is the story of Job, the dark account of a man of integrity and righteousness who lost his reputation and family, and who was “disfigured with a vile skin condition.” If we learn anything from this disheartening tale, Stahl concludes, it is “that tragedy is not the result of sin,” an interpretation that sustains his staunch support of those agencies within the Jewish and general communities that undercut “the curse of pubic ignorance,” combat discrimination and “reach out to AIDS sufferers and their families who feel alone, ignored and, rejected.” His justification for his support of abortion rights is an equally complex weave of theology and politics. Unlike antiabortionists, for whom life begins at conception, “Jews, regardless of denomination, agree that life starts at birth,” Stahl asserts, an assertion based on analyses of relevant biblical and Talmudic teachings. This research suggests further that a fetus is deemed “the equivalent to a limb of a woman’s body,” and, as a limb can be amputated if necessary, so abortion is not murder. But neither should it be construed as a “casual method of birth control,” he cautions. “As a spiritual container, a woman’s body has a certain sanctity” which makes the decision whether to have an abortion or not a matter of considerable “religious magnitude.” There are political considerations but none that Jerry Falwell would appreciate: a woman’s difficult choice can only “be made without the involvement, the interference, or the intervention of the state.” That’s his position, too, on the public exercise of religious devotion, a contentious issue, of course, particularly in the evangelical atmosphere of San Antonio, where Stahl serves as spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El. From his pulpit, in letters to the local press and in negotiations with school districts he has consistently argued that public institutions must adhere to and maintain the Jeffersonian “wall of separation between church and state;” a wall that at once protects and encourages all forms of worship, mainline and minority alike. Stahl’s arguments are not for everyone, and neither are they uniformly provocative a collection of essays originally written to be heard does not always read easily or well. But the volume’s strength lies elsewhere in any event. Taken together, these words and ideas are important markers of Rabbi Stahl’s attempt to define the moral content of his life and of liberal Judaism, and, by extension, to challenge that of his community. This is Texas today. A state full of Sunbelt boosters, strident anti-unionists, oil and gas companies, nuclear weapons and power plants, political hucksters, underpaid workers and toxic wastes, to mention a few. BUT DO NOT DESPAIR! r ob , THE TEXAS 1 IP server TO SUBSCRIBE: Name Address City State Zip $32 enclosed for a one-year subscription. Bill me for $32. 307 West 7th, Austin,TX 78701 20 MARCH 24, 1995