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Column: Everybody needs a rabbi

August 16, 2009

lkv rabbi1Really had fun with this column. Tied in an old family experience that pre-dated me and explored the beauty of Judaism with the insight of Rabbi Baker

What happens when we die? (My question) Why spend so much time speculating on the unknowable when instead you could be doing what’s right, he replied. Indeed.



Full text:

Austin rabbi ventures on his own to reach a broader audience

Saturday, August 15, 2009


In the late 1960s, before I was born and before my parents left Gary, Ind., for western Massachusetts, my family had a rabbi. That might seem strange because my family isn’t Jewish. They were your standard Irish Catholics for that time and place. My dad worked in the steel mills. My mother stayed home with the five kids. They all went to Mass on Sundays. But for a time, part of their daily routine included visits with the neighborhood rabbi.

Rabbi August brought candy bars for the kids, a copy of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” for my mother and advice for my parents on family matters.

It didn’t matter that they weren’t Jewish. Rabbi August saw a family who could benefit from the wisdom of his religious tradition.

I suppose that’s why longtime Austin rabbi Kerry Baker’s new venture — offering his rabbinic guidance to the world — makes sense to me.

Baker, 58, the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Halev, left that synagogue this summer because he felt drawn to share his religion with a wider audience. His new Web site is cleverly titled

Just why does everybody need a rabbi? According to Baker, Judaism has much to say about the common struggles we face, whether it’s marriage trouble or an ethical dilemma or a desire to live a better life. To that end, Baker will be teaching, counseling and writing on a variety of topics.

Jews, he said, are called to be a light to the world, and they live that out admirably when it comes to social action — speaking out against injustice or performing mitzvot, or good deeds, for people in need. But often, he noted, perhaps because they don’t proselytize, Jews miss the opportunity to share their religious beliefs.

“Judaism is a 3,500-year-old global tradition with spiritual resources,” Baker said.

And here’s a revolutionary thought, Baker suggested while sipping a café Americano at Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery: It’s not just for Jews.

If Jews are called to tikkun olam, or repair the world, and Judaism can help people live better, Baker wondered, shouldn’t a rabbi try to share those resources with as many people who seek them?

This work fits naturally with Baker’s commitment to interfaith dialogue. For years, he has collaborated with other faith leaders not only to find common ground but to have difficult conversations about the discord between Jews and Muslims, for example, or the problematic passages in various holy books that provide fuel for extremists.

It’s not exactly conventional for a rabbi to go freelance like this, but Baker said taking risks also suits his personality.

“Looking at the arc of my career, every 10 years on the average I jump off the ledge,” he said. “This is in some ways in character for me.”

In addition to the Web site, Baker is writing two books. He’ll also have an advice column showing how folks can apply Jewish ethics to contemporary problems. There’s even a Torah yoga class in the works.

All of this, he says, helps him reassess what it means to be a rabbi and challenges him to come up with a broader definition so that he can live out that call to be a light to the world.

It’s not just the practical, everyday stuff that Baker will address. He knows people grapple with heavy-duty existential questions and doubts and fears about their own religious views. I’ll admit I spend a fair amount of time on such hand-wringing, so I asked Baker how he would handle the question that preoccupies most of us: What happens when we die?

Not surprisingly, he countered with a better question: How would the answer to that change one’s moral responsibility today?

“What is the point of this speculation?” he continued. “Since the answer is unknowable, how is it better to spend your time — speculating on the answer or doing what’s right?”

As he writes on his Web site, “Judaism teaches that spiritual truth is not only what you believe but how you live. Judaism proposes that together God and we can imbue even the simplest acts of daily life with deep significance. Judaism means to facilitate the incorporation of the divine in every human act and thought.”

That’s the beauty of Judaism. And if you’re lucky enough to have a Rabbi August or a Rabbi Baker in your life, you might already know this. For others — people who see Judaism as insular and inaccessible — Baker’s new venture will shed light on a rich, vibrant spirituality and wisdom tradition.

“It’s a huge, unknown territory for people,” Baker said. Then he grinned and added, “which is why everybody needs a rabbi.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2009 12:24 pm

    Ms. Flynn,

    I read your article in the Statesman about why everyone needs a rabbi.
    Well I can tell you that I don’t need a rabbi. And I don’t need a priest
    or a preacher to tell me what happens when you die according to
    the Bible. You see the bible is your answer – not a man. You like
    many others put your trust in these folks to tell you what YOU
    should research at home on your own. when you have a need for these
    folks you help perpetuate the myth that they know something
    you can’t know unless you ask them. That is what keeps these
    folks in business.

    Let me ask you a question – If a rabbi, priest, and preacher all
    told you different answers as to what happens when you die who would
    you believe? Is there more than one correct answer? The bible paints
    a clear picture.

    I am not going to give you the bible verses, but I will give you
    the verse numbers. Then YOU go look them up. And you will
    answer your own question. And if you do not have a bible
    then lets you download a bible program that is a must.
    You can simply type in the word “death” or “heaven” and the
    verses with these words will be displayed. Read them. Then you
    know what the Word of God says.

    God did not give us religion. That is a man made creation. It is
    an abomination to God. He did not give us the Jewish religion

    Here are the verses you need to look up. Good day to you. And,
    I have met Rabbi Baker. Nice guy. Just a man – not deity – just
    preaching the Jewish viewpoint.


    Verses –

    Joh 3:13 And no one has gone up into Heaven

    Act 2:34 For David did not ascend into Heaven,

    Psa 37:29 The righteous shall inherit the earth and live on it forever.

    Gen 3:19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until your return to the ground. For you have been taken out of it; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

    Ecc 3:19 For that which happens to the sons of men, and that which happens to beasts, even one event is to them. As this one dies, so that one dies; yea, one breath is to all; so that there is to the man no advantage over the beast; for all is vanity.

    Ecc 3:20 All go to one place; all are of the dust, and all return to the dust.

    Psa 146:3 Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.

    Psa 146:4 His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.

    Psa 115:17

    (GW) Those who are dead do not praise the LORD, nor do those who go into the silence of the grave.

    No one goes to heaven when they die or “hell”. And the dead are dead.

    Take care.

    • Michael permalink
      August 27, 2009 9:13 am

      Ms Flynn,
      You are right on one thing G-d did not give us religion you are right. However he did give us a
      people (jews now, once Isrial) these people were
      the light into the world. You might conclued that
      they became a religion because they did not follow other religions.

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