Thursday, December 18, 2014

Vayishlach: Jacob's History, My History, Your History, Delivered 12/6/2014

This past week, I read an article by Dr. Heather Miller-Rubens, the Catholic scholar at the Institute of Christian & Jewish Studies (ICJS), on the subjective nature of history.  The article has come across my desk – or more accurately, my laptop -- as part of the reading assignments for this fall’s Clergy Forum, an on-going study opportunity for clergy that ICJS offers.  The Clergy Forum always tackles interesting and challenging topics in order to foster intentful while respective dialogue between Jews and Christians.  This year, they have expanded their mission to include Islam in the conversation with the welcoming of their first Muslim scholar into the conversation.
This fall Forum’s focus is the Middle East, specifically on what we Jews call the matzav, the “situation” or “condition,” a singular word that in Hebrew conveys the weight of the conflict between Israelis, Palestinians, and the neighboring countries that share borders with Israel. 
I have always found this word, matzav, to be an interesting idiom for this complicated, emotionally laden, and often violent, “situation.”  The use of such a common, ordinary word to describe it is telling of how Israelis have come to accept This Situation as the normal state of affairs.
But, I digress.  Dr. Miller - Ruben’s article is required reading for our forum because it reminds us to question the truth of the histories to which we hold on so tightly.   We, Jews, need this reminder when it comes to Israel.  A central challenge to the situation, the matav, in Israel is the differing narratives that exist and a lack of cross-cultural respect and validation for those narratives.  As I discussed on Erev Yom Kippur this year, our – the Jewish - understanding of Israel and how it came to be is not the only truth, it may not even be the best truth.  It is one truth, but our story alone isn’t the full history.  There are other peoples who have equally powerful and compelling narratives regarding this sliver of geography that sits between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan, and it is thoughtless and irresponsible of us to dismiss those narratives and the people who hold tightly to them.    Of course, Ferguson, Missouri is a stark reminder that we Americans, too, fail miserably in validating the narrative of the other.
Which leaves us with a challenge: how do we honor our own story, one that carries immense power and truth for us without invalidating the story of another human being who shares in the broader history of humanity?
Perhaps, Jacob’s wrestling match can inform us.  The assumed, the popular, understanding of this match that takes place in our Shabbat portion is that Jacob wrestles with a representative of God and prevails.  And for this gallant effort, he receives, in addition to a bum hip, a new name, Israel, that serves to forge his identity as a patriarch of the Jewish people.   But, is that how it happened on the shores of the Jabok?  One of my favorite things about studying Jewish commentary on Torah is that here we are comfortable with many truths.  The Rabbinic method, at least the aggadic, the story telling, tradition, opens the text to many different understandings, to differing truths.
Louis Ginzburg, for instance, culling a number of earlier midrashim offers a different perspective than the most commonly expressed.  His midrashic narrative views Jacob as being subject to bullying, if you will, from God’s angels, who, lead by Michael, ganged up upon him.  In this telling, Jacob doesn’t prevail against God; rather, God saves Jacob by assisting him in prevailing against these angels that were going rogue.  Scolding one of those angels for harming Jacob, God is clear, “You are my priest in heaven, but Jacob is my priest on earth.”  This rendering brings a very different nuance to our history.  Instead of Jacob earning his name for his physicality and his ability to vanquish even a Divine messenger from on high, his new name reflects his valued status and his meriting protection in his role as patriarch.
The Torah text itself provides little in the way of detail.   Jacob is left alone after sending his family ahead.  He wrestled an “ish” until dawn, and when this “ish” didn’t win, he did something to Jacob’s hip.   It is the word “ish” that leaves this history open to various understandings.   The peshat, the plainest meaning of the word ish is man.  But, biblically ish can also denote a distinguished person, someone of rank or a position of public office.  It is not, on its own, a word typically used to refer to God, and it is rarely left without further clarification.   
As I expect I’ve shared previously from this bema, I like to think that Jacob was wrestling with his own demons.   I imagine him faced with a bout of insomnia on this eve before he reunites with his estranged brother.   What must have been going through his mind?  After agreeing to go along with his mom’s plan in tricking his father, did he feel as though he deserved the wealth and power he had accumulated?  Perhaps he was struggling with the reality of his life choices: were his really any better than his brother’s?  Did he ever treat his brother with respect, or was the lentil incident just an episode of normal sibling rivalry?  He and his brother came from the same place, yet their histories diverged in two dramatically different directions.  Was that Jacob’s doing? Is he in part responsible for their estrangement, or Esau’s being shut out of the Israelite line?  
I imagine that Jacob tossed and turned on these questions so fiercely throughout the night that he bruised his own hip on the stone filled ground upon which he tried to sleep and later dedicates.  “Oh my God,” Jacob uttered, “I have survived this tumultuous night.”  But, he did so with renewed clarity, strengthened and ready to cross the Jabok in order to reconcile with his brother before shouldering the responsibility of Israel.   
Jacob’s internal wrestling should inspire us to wrestle with our own assumptions about what we consider true about our history.  Those experiences that are most significant, most formative to us, may have led to very different, and quite possibly detrimental, consequences for others.   We can’t undo the past, but like Jacob, we can work to come to terms with the multiplicity of narratives present in any history so that we can move forward.   It is incumbent upon us to consider historical narratives besides our own if we are ever to achieve honest and mutual respect and understanding.   Whether it’s Israel, Ferguson, or even Plymouth Rock, we must remember that our story isn’t the only significant story.  It certainly isn’t the only truth.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Tolodot: The Important of Isaac's Story. The Importance of our Story. Delivered, 11/22/14

This past week, our Rabbi Emeritus, in his eulogy honoring the life of Ruth Lederer, invited us to consider which phrases stand out as most important in Torah.   As he noted, there are quite a few good choices, some that might come immediately to mind are: the Shema, a text which tradition asks us to keep at hand and recite twice daily.  We certainly recite it on Shabbat; Bereshit bara Elohim, those first words of Torah which started it all; Anochi Adonai Elohecha, God’s identifying Godself at Sinai and those famous Ten Utterances that followed.  Rabbi Buchdahl had other examples of choice words from Torah, but his point, and what he so beautifully (and so appropriate to Ruth) expressed was that rarely, if ever, do we think of  יצחק תלדות אלה (Eleh toldot Yitzchak), “these are the generations of Isaac” as one of the more memorable sound bytes of Torah.  Perhaps, we should.
Eleh toldot Yitzchak.  Literally, “these are the generations, or this is the line, of Isaac.”  But, where are the generations?  Seriously, let’s look at the text we are about to read (Gen. 27:19ff): “These are the generations, or this is the line, of Isaac son of Abraham.  Abraham begot Isaac.”  That’s it.  No other begots.  The text immediately proceeds not to a genealogical list descending from Isaac but rather to tell us that, “When Isaac was 40 years old he married Rebecca.” From that point, the focus is on Rebecca’s pregnancy and the birth of their twins.
 So, where are the generations?  Arguably, after such an announcement, “These are the generations…,” we would expect a genealogical list, specifically in this case, a list of those who descend from Isaac.  But, instead, we are only told about Abraham’s lineage:  Abraham begot Isaac.  A pointed redundancy since Isaac has just been identified as Abe’s son.  In the paragraph preceding the start of this week’s portion, we are reminded of the other half of Abraham’s line, that of Ishmael, but there we are given a list of Ishmael’s descendants.  So, where is Isaac’s list?  Why does Torah not list Isaac progeny, Jacob and Esau, similarly? 
One way to understand the text is to imagine that somewhere in the editing process of the Torah, Isaac’s short genealogical list got cut out.   More likely, the word toldot had a more nuanced meaning in its ancient rendering.  Instead of “these are the generations, or this is the line of,” a more appropriate translation of eleh toldot here, and one suggested by our creation story told earlier in Genesis (“Eleh toldot hashamayim v’haaretz b’hibaram” – this is the story of the creation of heaven and earth [Gen 2:4]), so too,  Eleh toldot Yitzchak,  “this is the story of Isaac.”
This is the story of Isaac.  Now this makes much more sense.  The text highlights that particularly in Isaac’s case, he is more than just a passing link in the chain of tradition.
Though the text will move quickly on to discuss Isaac’s sons, Eleh toldot Yitzchak, reminds us that he is central to their story.  We don’t often think much about Isaac.  He easily gets lost, or as I characterized a couple of weeks ago when discussing the Akeidah, he gets silenced not only by Torah, but by the arc of Jewish literary tradition.  Even the midrash elaborates on his father and his kids far more than on him.  The Midrash reminds us that his father smashes idols and exemplifies devotion to a singular God.  Jacob is characterized as eager to leave the womb when his mother passes a place of study whereas Esau pushes to get out when passing a pagan temple.  Another midrash regarding Isaac’s sons notes that the Hebrew word for twins used here in the text is missing its silent letters, a grammatical form labeled “defective,” to indicate that only one of the twins is righteous.
There is plenty our tradition says about Isaac’s dad and his boys born to him and his wife Rebecca.  But, what about Isaac?  Isaac remains quiet, yet Eleh toldot Yitzchak his presence is vital not only to his immediate family but to the line of the Israelite nation.  Isaac is presented as the one who rebuilds and preserves.  We read this week of his re-digging the wells that his father dug that had then been filled in by the Phillistines. And, he renames them, not with his own names but with the same names his father used.  This effort is arguably one of the most important insights we have into Isaac’s character.  He isn’t an innovator, but he is a consolidator who enshrines tradition and ensures the continuity of his father’s legacy.  He is clearly characterized here as the vital link of tradition between Abraham, his father, and Jacob, his son.
  Eleh toldot Yitzchak, Isaac’s story is important.  Even though the author didn’t give Isaac much of a voice, even much of a characterization, eleh toldot Yitachak, he understood the value of Isaac’s life and underscores Isaac’s contribution to Israelite history, to our history.
Isaac is so often painted as the unsuspecting victim.  Not only in the Akeidah, but here in this week’s portion when his sons, with their mom’s help, trick their father out of his blessing for the first born.  Perhaps, Isaac isn’t so unsuspecting.  An insightful midrash, one I believe included in the Plaut commentary, asks us to imagine Isaac as knowing exactly who his sons are by their choice of words during that famous incident of trickery.  He doesn’t need to see them.  He knows his children.  He knows how they speak, and he recognizes Jacob by his immediate reference to God.  Why doesn’t he speak up and put a stop to the game?  Perhaps because Isaac understands his own story more than we generally give him credit for.  He understands that his role is that of preserving this covenant laid out by God.  A God that he knows Jacob recognizes and Esau ignores.  Isn’t it better for him to let Esau believe he was tricked out of blessing then for him to know it was never intended for him in the first place? That he wasn’t God’s chosen one?  Indeed, a difficult question for any parent to answer.  

Eleh toldot Yitzchak.  This indeed is the story of Isaac.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Where is Isaac? Delivered Shabbat Vayeira, 11/8/2014

Isaac.  Where is Isaac?
            Most often, when we read and study this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, our focus falls squarely on Isaac’s father, Abraham.  Abraham’s eager hospitality; his (and Sarah’s) news of impending parenthood in old age; Abraham’s willingness to argue with God over the fate of the residents of Sodom and Gemorrah; and finally, at the end of the portion, Abraham’s being called up to sacrifice his beloved son.  Despite Isaac being a central figure in the narrative of the Akeidah, the story of the binding of Isaac, he is silenced by the text.
            Soon, the focus will be almost entirely on Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau.  Their story, too, we know well.  We know how they competed for blessing and about their separate journeys.  We know even more about Jacob: his work, his love affairs, his brood of sons, his struggle with God.   But, where is Isaac?   What do we know of Isaac?
            Born to elderly parents, we know little about his life other than his brother was sent away, and that he was, without being given an option, bound up to be offered as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah by his father.  He isn’t treated much better by his own son who, at his mother’s bequest, tricks Isaac into giving him his brother’s blessing.   Isaac is, for the most part, through all of this a silent character.  He isn’t even deemed capable of finding his own wife.  A servant is brought in to the narrative for that task.    Our Rabbinic tradition, too, isn’t so kind to Isaac, either.  For sure, his place among the patriarchs is assured by tradition, and he is viewed as a critical link between the generations.  But Maimonides' opinion is reflective of much of the literature.  He notes that “there would seem to be no benefit nor any great honor to Isaac.”  He didn’t do anything, Maimonides argues, he added nothing innovative or of value.
            With all due respect to the RAMBAM, I’d argue differently.  I’d argue we’ve let Isaac down.  What does Isaac have to say after his father kills the ram and finally unties the binds that held him into place?  Abraham offers the ram in place of his son Isaac, God blesses Abraham for his steadfast faith with a promise that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars above and the sands of the shore. God promises Abraham that all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him; and then, the text reads: “Abraham returned to his servants; they got up and traveled to and settled in Be’er Sheva.” 
The text begs the question, where is Isaac, and we have failed to provide a compelling answer.  The biblical authors, our Rabbinic sages, and we too, have left him silent.  His story could have been fleshed out in a manner that allowed Isaac to be strengthened by the capacity to survive this traumatic event.  Instead, we’ve ignored his voice.  We do not hear from Isaac again until the end of two eventful chapters, when he reappears to witness his future wife, Rebecca, approaching on a camel.  The Midrash imagines Isaac as having great concern for his mother’s well being, but where is the concern for Isaac himself? 

There is great opportunity to fill in Isaac’s story, to give him a legacy from which we can draw inspiration.  He is a figure that survives trauma and disappointment.   He is a character that deserves more of a voice than he is given by our tradition.  As we read Vayeira this Shabbat, let us be moved to consider what Isaac would have said in response to God’s impossible request.  To his father’s dutiful (yet, thoughtless) willingness to comply.     Perhaps if we can imagine Isaac’s response, his coping strategies, how he moved forward from this tragic event, then perhaps, we will be less likely to silence those who experience trauma in our world.  Perhaps, we will be less likely to ignore their voice.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Reform Response to The Shabbos Project, Shabbat Noach 5775, Oct. 25, 2014

We need better marketing.  The Reform movement that is.  Well, Temple Emanuel, too, but this Shabbat, I’m concerned about the broader umbrella of Progresive Judaism.
You may have heard that Jews throughout the world have been called together this Shabbat (Shabbat Noach) to participate in The Shabbos Project.  This Shabbos Project is being marketed as an “international movement to unite all Jews through keeping one Shabbos together.”   Sounds like a lovely idea, doesn’t it?   Though, isn’t that what we do week after week- observe Shabbat with Jews throughout the world?  It was the Israeli writer and philosopher Ahad Ha-am who first reminded us, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, has Shabbat kept Israel.”   The international construct, if you will, that keeps Jews “together” is already present.  It’s called Shabbat, and it has the potential to unite us.  Indeed, Jews worldwide observe it.
While not so obvious on the Shabbos Project flyers posted throughout our community in places like Starbucks, or in the materials advertising the Baltimore Challah bake that occurred at the JCC as part of the project, this Shabbos Project is far from a pluralistic effort at uniting world Jewry.  It has been organized by a South African outreach organization called Kiruv.   Kiruv’s mission is one of unifying the Jewish people.  Their website states, “Our united efforts, with HaShem’s help, will be the seeds to infuse light, love, and inspiration to all of Am Yisrael.”  What becomes clear when digging a bit deeper specifically into the directions for the Shabbos Projects hosts, however, is that the goal of unifying the Jewish people is only about unifying us according to one narrow definition of what it means to be an observant Jew. 
Hosts are encouraged to “share the beauty of Shabbos by inviting a less-affiliated Jew into your home.”  I’m not sure what they mean by “less-affliated,” but I have a sense they are referring to folks just like me.  Non-Orthodox Jews.  It is striking that nowhere in the marketing materials are denominational terms used, just “Jewish” and “less affiliated.”  There are guidelines, of course, on how to handle “halachik mistakes” made by guests.  Encourage Torah observance, but don’t judge.  Tell your kids not to make any comments regarding lack of knowledge about basic Jewish concepts.  Remind them, your kids that is, that your visitors have never had the privilege of a Yeshiva education.  Oh, and my favorite suggestion, “when bringing female guests to shul, make sure there is a user friendly mechitza”…If the women’s section isn’t inviting, it is “better to encourage them to stay home with the women of the home.  This is particularly important for beginners.”  The website manual states.
I could share more about the instructions for those serving as hosts for this worldwide Shabbos effort, but you get the idea.  It is less about Shabbat ideals, and far more about promulgating a Halachicly narrow, Orthodox definition of Shabbat observance.  It is not at all about true unity, or making the world a better place, or even providing that taste of redemption.  It's about forwarding one idea about how to keep the Sabbath.
As I said, we need better marketing.
How do we – Reform Jews who do observe Shabbat, who live full Jewish lives, even if not halachikly bound ones – how do we respond to this divisive message that their “keeping Shabbat” is better than ours, that their way is God’s preference?  First and foremost, we must never be apologetic regarding the Reform movement’s stance on ritual, our understanding of history or Torah, or our personal level of Jewish observance.   Whether we tear toilet paper or not or use a light switch on Shabbat, should not be held up as a defining measures of our Jewishness, our connection to God, let alone our moral character.  Moreover, we should speak proudly about how we do express our Jewish observance.   We must always speak in the positive: affirm what choices are made and provide explanations that extend beyond mere convenience. 
Despite the concerns I have regarding Kiruv’s Shabbos Project, I hope it motivates us in one very important direction.  Each of us, regarding of our level of observance should take time to consider what makes us Jewish.  Is it simply a matter of our biology? Or, is it our commitment to social justice, the values of tikun olam?  Is it a matter of a faith in a singular God?  Or, is your Judaism defined primarily through historical and cultural connections to the past?   For so many generations, Jewish identity was assigned to us as much by external forces as by individual choice.  That is no longer the case today.   In our modern, some argue post-modern, world, we are not identified as Jewish unless we choose to be.  And, I’d argue, it behooves us to do so, to each be a Jew by choice.  I firmly believe that we must each consciously and proactively identify as Jewish – we must choose it.  In that sense the Shabbos Project has it right: we must choose to opt-in if we expect Jewish life to thrive into the decades and centuries ahead.
My hope – a hope that is at least as passionate as, if not more so, than the one behind Kiruv’s Shabbos Project—is that Progressive, Reform Judaism remains a vibrant, accessible, intellectually engaging, aesthetically beautiful and welcoming place for all Jews to opt-in.