Monday, November 25, 2013

Organized By Law

From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

A Message From Our President

Dr. Lance Strate

Organized By Law

Moses is sometimes referred to as The Lawgiver, one of the first to appear in the ancient world, but there were others as well. Some of the earlier examples of codified law include the Code of Ur-Nammu, the king of Ur, the birthplace of our patriarch Abraham; the Laws of Eshnunna, a city-state to the north of Ur; and the famous Code of Hammurabi, the Amorite (a Semitic tribe) king who ruled over the Babylonian Empire in Mesopotamia (that included the city-states of Ur and Eshnunna). Some later examples include Draco of Athens (whose harsh laws gave us the term draconian), Lycurgus of Sparta, and the Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian I, whose codification of Roman law forms the basis of the civil law system used in many western societies (but not the United States, where we follow common law, a system originating in England, but resembling Talmudic law in many ways).

The Mosaic code consists of the Ten Commandments, which are only the first ten of a total of 613 laws and commandments contained within the Five Books of Moses, which is why Torah is often translated as The Law. Our religious tradition attributes Mosaic Law to God, who wrote down the Law on the first set of tablets that Moses brought down with him from Mount Sinai, and then dictated the second set after Moses shattered the first. Historians, however, believe that the system of law found in the Torah was derived, in part, from the earlier Semitic codes of Mesopotamia, and that the laws it contains evolved over the course of several centuries before it was finally canonized. In addition to the written law of the Torah, Jewish law includes the oral Torah, the interpretative oral tradition that was later codified as the Talmud. And in addition to Talmudic law, there has been further elaboration in the form of Rabbinic law. Taken as a whole, Biblical law, Talmudic law, and Rabbinic law are known as Halakha, the Hebrew word for walk or go (paralleling the Chinese concept of Tao or Dao, meaning the way or path).

For our ancestors in ancient Israel, the Torah was their constitution, providing them with guidance not only about how to worship God, but about how to govern their affairs. And for most of the history of the Diaspora, Halkha was the constitution for Jewish communities as they were allowed to function autonomously under the sovereignty of other nations. This changed with the coming of the Enlightenment and emancipation, as Jews in many European lands were granted equal status as citizens, and nowhere more so than in the New World, in our American republic. And we may indeed take pride in the fact that our founding fathers, in framing the Constitution of the United States, looked to the Torah and the tradition of Jewish law as one of their practical models, as well as a source of inspiration.

And this brings me to my main point, that it is not just peoples and nations and religions that adopt constitutions, but also modern organizations, such as our own—indeed, it is pretty much a requirement for any nonprofit or not-for-profit entity. Did you know that Adas Emuno has a set of By-Laws? I'm guessing that you probably didn't. And they haven't been much of a concern for us, as our congregation has been fortunate in being free from the politics that plague the governance of many other temples and in not experiencing any major conflicts on our Board or among our membership for many, many years.

But it is part of our responsibility, for our Officers, Trustees, and membership, to review our By-Laws periodically, to make sure that we are acting in concert with them, and if not, to either adjust our policies and procedures, or to amend our constitution. The Torah, as a sacred text, cannot be amended, which is why it was necessary to add the interpretations and supplemental rulings of Talmudic and Rabbinic Law. But other documents, such as our nation's constitution and our congregation's by-laws, contain clauses that allow us to make changes to them, to correct and improve and adjust these systems of law to better serve people's needs and adapt to changing conditions.

Over the past year our Board, led by Fred Friedman and Norman Rosen, conducted a review of our By-Laws, and have come up with a set of changes that are needed to bring them in line with current practice, and otherwise better serve the interests of our congregation. The Board has voted to approve the amended By-Laws and put them forward to the membership for approval. To this end, we will schedule a special meeting of the congregation to discuss and vote on the changes. We'll let you know about the date in a separate mailing, and include the proposed changes to the By-Laws so you'll be able to vote on them fully informed. And according to our present By-Laws, "Amendments to the By-Laws shall require an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the members present and voting" (a provision that is not one we are looking to change). The By-Laws also specify that a quorum consisting of twenty percent of eligible voting members is required, so I want to make a special appeal to you to attend this meeting, and if you cannot, please give your proxy to someone who will be attending.

I don't think there is anything especially controversial in the proposed changes, and that's because we decided not to include any changes in one area that is controversial, which has to do with the membership status and privileges of non-Jewish spouses and family members. What we would like to do at our special meeting, in addition to approving the relatively non-controversial changes, is to open a dialogue on this more controversial topic, and get your thoughts and opinions on whether non-Jewish family members should have voting rights, the right to serve as an officer, trustee, or committee member, and other such issues. The question of whether to make any changes to our existing, longstanding policy in this area, and if so, what changes to make, is an important one, and requires serious discussion and deliberation. I invite you to beginning thinking about it, keep an open mind, and come ready to speak your mind and listen to what others have to say when we hold our special meeting. Based on the feedback we get at that time, we will consider additional amendment to the constitution that can be considered at our annual congregational meeting in June.

As Jews, we trace our history back to Abraham entering into a covenant with God, and covenant is a term that means contract or legally binding agreement. And we tell the story of how the covenant was completed when Moses the Lawgiver gave us the Torah, The Law, our Tree of Life. And as a congregation, we are organized according to our By-Laws, and as a Jewish congregation we owe it to ourselves and to those who will follow in our footsteps to keep them in good working order in the same way that we maintain our buildings and grounds, our religious school and our rituals and services.

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