Monthly Archives: October 2014

Simchat Torah celebration provides joy and meaning – 10/25/14

What would you do if invited to participate in the unrolling of a 100-foot Torah scroll and an Israeli-style dinner at a synagogue? Don’t know about you, but I eagerly accepted the invitation from Rabbi Michael Oblath from Congregation Beth Shalom in East Anchorage. In the past, I’ve participated in several Seder celebrations here, finding this community to be warm and welcoming. Relatively small in number, their friendliness, generosity, and willingness to talk always take me by surprise. Many Anchorage congregations I visit are not outgoing, even downright unfriendly, and fail to welcome strangers. Not true at Temple Beth Shalom.

The people I’ve met at Beth Shalom love to eat and talk. They are outwardly friendly and a delight to be with. I had a number of wide-ranging conversations with members, intensely enjoying the experience. Before the Simhat Torah ceremony, an Israeli dinner was served including pita accompanied by freshly made hummus, slaw, tahini, and fresh falafel. Before the meal, Oblath offered a Hebrew blessing. After conversation and cleanup, the rabbi invited the 50 or 60 people present into the synagogue for the Simhat Torah ceremony.

The Torah is the first five books of Hebrew scripture: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Commonly believed to have been written by Moses under divine inspiration just before the Israelites were to enter the promised land, the Torah is continuously read from and commented upon during the synagogue year. Scrolls used for these readings are progressively wound until the end of the year when they complete the Torah readings with Deuteronomy. The Simhat Torah ceremony celebrates the final readings, the commencement of the new, and a re-rolling of the scroll.

The Scrolls of Congregation Beth Shalom

Congregation Beth Shalom is home to three sets of Torah scrolls; The Bayles Torah, Salad Torah, and Tattooed Torah. They are kept in an ark, an elaborate wooden cabinet at the back of the podium. The Bayles Torah hails from Gold Rush days, and was created in Lithuania in the 1870s. Given to his son Sam by Rabbi Afroim Hessel Bayles, it accompanied Sam to Nome in 1900 during the Gold Rush, the same year the Nome Hebrew Congregation was established. With the decline of Nome’s Jewish Community following World War I, the Bayles Torah was transferred to Congregation Beth Shalom. The Salad Torah was principally financed in the 1950s by Hartford, Connecticut clothier Jacob Salad to help establish Congregation Beth Shalom. Finally, the Tattooed Torah, their oldest and largest scroll, was made in Czechoslovakia in the 1850s. As the Nazis overran Europe during World War II, they burned many confiscated Torahs, and put over 1,500 stolen Torahs and religious artifacts in a Prague warehouse, tattooed with unique numbers. In the 1960s an American Jew, Arthur Weir, spearheaded an effort to clean and restore these Torahs, distributing them as a reminder of the holocaust. This scroll even shows burn marks.

Simhat Torah Ceremony Begins

The Torah scrolls were covered with special fabric covers used during the recently concluded High Holy Days. As the ceremony began, the Bayles Torah was handed to congregation members who led a joyful circling procession of members around the synagogue accompanied by the singing of their cantor. This tradition of this festive holiday is the Hakafot (Torah processions) where participants sing and dance with the Torah. Special flags were distributed and waved by all in this procession. After each circuit, the scrolls were handed to another congregation member, until at least seven circuits of the synagogue were completed.

The Ceremony

Finally, the Bayles Torah scroll was removed from its High Holy Days coverings, slowly unrolled and the Simhat Torah ceremony continued. Each attendee present was allowed to carefully hold up a portion of the scroll with outstretched hands as it came around, being careful not to touch the print with fingers. I supported a portion of Exodus, close to the Ten Commandments. Made of animal skin parchment, the Bayles Torah is in remarkable condition. After the scroll was completely unrolled, Rabbi Oblath read the final portion of Deuteronomy, commenting upon the significance and meaning of Moses being denied entry into the promised land. Continuing on to Genesis, he read the first few verses of Genesis 1, explaining the mystery and significance of the creation order. The scroll was then carefully re-rolled starting at Deuteronomy going back to Genesis. Upon completion, the colorful regular coverings were put on the scrolls and they were returned to the ark.

After the ceremony, several attendees danced the hora, a well-known dance of celebration. Prerecorded music was played and eight to 10 people began dancing. As the hour was late, I felt it was time to leave. The Simhat Torah ceremony and dinner lasted more than 4 hours. I plan to return for Shabbat services in the future. They observe Friday evening and Saturday morning services.

During my evening I had the good fortune to meet Michael Silverbook, longtime member and past president of the congregation, and enjoyed walking around the synagogue with him during the Hakafot. At one point, he carried the Torah. In 2000, Silverbook took the Bayles Torah back to Nome in celebration of the centennial celebration of the founding of the Hebrew congregation. I eagerly anticipate joining this congregation in their other celebrations.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)

Baptism is alive and well in Anchorage – 10/18/14

Last Sunday I witnessed a full-immersion water baptism when attending Chugach Covenant Church’s service at Begich Middle School. CCCis a relatively new church using convenient but inexpensive meeting places. Although this article won’t describe their service, I will comment on the baptism. Early in the service, a CCC pastor announced the baptism — a “dunking” as he termed it. Two younger men had each indicated a desire to be baptized. A stock tank filled with water awaited in front of the audience. Coming out, one by one, the men were baptized by a pastor. One man, it was explained, was wearing an ankle monitor needing to be kept out of the water, an unusual juxtaposition for any pastor. The congregation was encouraged to whoop and holler after each of these men were baptized. Personally, I felt that part was a little scripted. Full-immersion baptism is symbolic of a washing away of sin, and the commencement of a new life. I congratulated each man after the service for their baptisms

Baptism Background

In the New Testament, Matthew 3:13-17 recounts John the Baptist’s ministry of preaching and baptizing in the name of repentance to prepare the way of the Lord. Theologian David F. Wells, in his recently revised book, “Turning to God,” writes, “Although there is much debate over the possible antecedents of John’s baptism, proselyte baptism probably was the only comparable rite known to his Jewish audience. When a Gentile wanted to become a Jew, he was baptized once to prepare him for his ‘new life.’”

Many were baptized during John’s ministry. Jesus came to John the Baptist asking to be baptized, but John wanted Jesus to baptize him. Jesus said his baptism by John was necessary “to fulfil all righteousness.” After John immersed Jesus in the Jordan, scripture records the heavens opened and the spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove, and a voice from the heavens declared, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Later, when the disciples were sent out by Jesus, he said, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15-16, KJV, describe the disciples being given this injunction, “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Numerous other references are found in the New Testament regarding baptism.

Purpose of Baptism

Baptism is symbolic of our death to sin and our old life. Coming out of the water, one is resurrected into a new life made possible by Christ’s sacrifice. Death, burial, and resurrection are prefigured by the act of baptism. A new birth into a life in Christ is demonstrated. In many, but not all, religions, the sacrament of baptism is also accompanied by acceptance into fellowship with the baptizing religious body. A “call to service” — i.e. serving God — is the other result of baptism. Many churches miss this and do not put newly baptized members into service.

Denominational Baptismal Practices

Various styles of baptism are practiced throughout the world. Some denominations baptize everyone, even infants. Others insist baptism is only for those who are able to make conscious decisions about accepting a life in Christ. Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches sprinkle or pour water on infants and others to baptize them. Many evangelical churches such as Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Church of Christ, and Pentecostals practice full-immersion baptism for those who’ve attained an age of accountability, and understand the rite of baptism.

Catholics actually practiced immersion baptism from early church times until 1311 A.D. when the Council of Ravenna changed the practice to pouring.

Lutherans practice sprinkling or pouring. Martin Luther initially expressed beliefs in baptism by immersion, but was somewhat conflicted about it, also advocating sprinkling or pouring.

Presbyterians, following the direction of Protestant reformer John Calvin, believe and practice sprinkling of infants and others joining the church. Calvin was resolute about these practices from the very beginning.

Methodists inherited traditions and teachings passed down by John Wesley who was adamant about baptizing infants, a practice still followed.

Mormons practice full immersion water baptism, but not for infants and children under eight years of age, believing they are under the age of accountability. However, Mormons adhere to a controversial belief of proxy baptisms for the dead, harking back to Joseph Smith. They’ve come under fire for this practice, especially for those not of the Mormon religion.

This list is not intended to be exhaustive, but representative of many traditions and practices surrounding baptism. Not all Christians view baptism as a necessity. Examples of churches not practicing baptism are Christian Scientists, Quakers, The Salvation Army, and Unitarians.

Films portray poignant examples of baptism. I think of Robert Duvall’s depiction of self-baptism in “The Apostle,” or his baptism in “Tender Mercies” as being powerful. “O Brother, Where Art Thou” showed a moving baptism scene accompanied by Allison Krauss’ haunting “As I Went Down to the River to Pray.”

Baptism is not a guarantee of salvation; only God’s grace does that. My full-immersion baptism at age 12 is still a strong memory. It was a huge moment in my life and a momentous decision. No one asked for “whooping and hollering” for me. Instead a chorus of “amens” rang through the hall — a solemn moment indeed. Although not all churches practice baptism the same way, it remains a powerful, divinely-inspired sacrament, full of rich symbolism. If you’ve never attended a full-immersion baptism, I urge you to do so.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)

Five Sermon Themes to Reconsider – 10/11/14

Visiting churches here, I hear all types of sermons. Some have good points, even great points, but many miss because they are theologically weak, not practical, or follow pastoral biases. An example of such sermons might be perennial “giving” or “stewardship” sermons warning all that God is cheated if various percentages of our income are not given (dubious from a true biblical perspective), along with annual pledges for church support. Often the endless and currently trendy “series sermons,” where some pastors preach three-point messages for weeks on end, amaze me. Some are good, but some are grounds for endless pontificating by pastors who can’t come to the point.

Today’s column is intended to give five examples of types of sermons that may be keeping seekers away from Christianity.

Steps to Becoming a Christian

Many pastors rightly believe this is the focus of their ministry but when all is said and done, their congregations often don’t get it, because the pastors themselves don’t seem to get it. Few Christians I meet day-to-day can explain to me how to become a Christian, other than tell me to attend their church. Even Christ’s followers had a hard time understanding it (see Matthew 19:16-30). An elevator speech (explaining what you do or believe in a short elevator ride) is virtually unknown to most pew warmers I meet. Many know more about what they’ve been told not to do, than to share biblical truths on obtaining eternal life. This shows many learn little from attending church for years, even after copious Bible study. I also don’t believe it’s contained in the Billy Graham or Luis Palau approaches nailed down by the “sinner’s prayer.” And why do church people flood such meetings anyway? I thought they were directed at the “unsaved.”

Rapture Theologies

Some churches and pastors advocate rapture teachings of doubtful scriptural backing, teachings widely discredited by biblical scholars and theologians. In too many rapture-preaching churches this teaching emerges as a scare tactic compelling non-believers into following this line of thinking. “Get on board, as you won’t know when it (the rapture) happens.” Christianity Today, just this week, denounced the latest Nicholas Cage movie about the rapture, “Left Behind,” as “un-Christian.” Theologian Martin Marty, in an Oct. 8 piece in Huffington Post, decried the attention these movies get, the rapture industry, and the money it brings in, as “something really bad esthetically … served up by a damn fool to a plain fool public as if it is an asset to belief and believers’ communities.”

Hellfire and Damnation Preaching

Many scholars believe this unfortunate interpretation of scripture is used to compel people to accept a misunderstood theology. This teaching, hurled from hundreds of Alaska pulpits, says God will allow sinners to burn in hell “forever and ever” if they are found wanting. Why would you serve a God who allows this kind of torture to continue forever? Many world-class, conservative and respected Bible-believing theologians and biblical scholars reject this line of reasoning countering instead that God will punish the wicked, their death is certain and final, not “forever and ever”.

Abuse, Domestic Violence and Mental Health

A national debate has arisen regarding pastoral failures to address issues of abuse, domestic violence, and mental health issues from the pulpit. With the recent focus on the NFL regarding issues of domestic violence now extending into other professions, it’s time churches gave these topics wider focus. I agree with the view that church is a hospital for those who are spiritually sick, but shouldn’t the prevailing issues of spiritual sickness be brought out in plain sight? The Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault recently reported that of every 100 adult Alaska women, 48 experience sexual violence from an intimate partner, 37 experience sexual violence, and 59 experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both. Yet most churches are strangely silent on this. Why? Maybe they believe these people are not in “their” church.

Practical Advice for Enjoying a Healthy Life

In many churches prayer is requested for friends and loved ones every week. They suffer physical pain with heart, gall bladder, obesity, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and other maladies too numerous to mention. I believe we should pray for those with such conditions. However, many of these maladies might have been totally prevented by adopting healthy living styles, something church leaders seem to ignore from the pulpit. Diabetes, for example, is heavily influenced by poor lifestyles. In 14 years of attending and observing local churches, I’ve heard just one sermon advocating healthy lifestyles. Instead, when attending church suppers and potlucks, I repeatedly see one aspect of an unhealthy lifestyle; unhealthy food, even that cooked by the churches themselves. Abundant scientific evidence is on the side of healthy lifestyles, but why isn’t it shared? The Bible itself contains excellent health information.

While this column won’t endear me to all area church leaders, my intent is to raise questions about the way local churches present themselves by their messages. I can’t claim to visit every church on a regular basis; no one could. However, the churches I regularly visit represent the majority of churchgoers in Anchorage. Though not exhaustive, this list represents reasonable targets to alert church leaders to the way they present themselves. I encourage more church leaders to review these issues seriously and hopefully begin addressing them from their pulpits.