Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bob Epstein on Shalakh Lechah - Humor in the Book of Joshua - a Drash

Humor in the Book of Joshua - a Drash

This week’s Parshah – שלח לך – tells the story of the scouts sent out to explore the Promised Land.  Ten of them came back with tales of fierce giants and brought back a cluster of huge grapes to suggest just how big these giants must be.  Because of their lack of faith, the Israelites were sentenced to wander aimlessly in the desert for another 40 years.
The feckless behavior of the ten scouts, “serious people” in the words of the Tanach, who saw אלהים ‘s wonders, is contrasted in the Haftorah to the behavior of a lowly Cannanite woman, Rahav, who heard reports of what יהוה had done.

Every once in a while, I come across an interpretation in Tanach which astounds me.  Three examples come to mind:
·    - First, that Queen Esther was a bigamist.   חז”ל say she was married to Mordechai and by offering his wife to the unsuspecting  Ahasuerus, Mordechai, according to Rabbinic tradition, committed a sin in order to achieve a Mitzvah.  Amazing!

- Next is King Saul – each time he asks “Who is David” it’s because he doesn’t believe that David is Jewish!  Saul’s obsession with the legitimacy of Ruth’s conversion turns him into a tragic hero.  Among tragic figures, King Saul, in my opinion, towers מִשִּׁכְמ֖וֹ   וָמָֽעְלָה “from his shoulders on up” in heroic stature, flaw and pathos.  Amazing!

- Finally, there is the example from this week’s Haftorah – the conversion of Rahav the harlot into a Jewish hero par excellence.  What amazed me was not that she became Jewish, but how unaware I was of our tradition.  Realizing others in our community may also have overlooked this extraordinary woman, and that there may be other למופת  דוגמאות (exemplars) obscured in our text, I asked Danielle if I could learn today.     After all, Rahav is the first convert to Judaism in the return from Egypt, preceding Ruth by 400 or so years and converted without ever having met a Jew! The Rabbis say she was one of the four most beautiful women in the Mikra and her conversion is regarded as more complete than that of Jethro.
This week’s haftorah describes the preparations for the conquest of Jericho.  Two men were selected to reconnoiter the town.  With the huge Israelite camp just across the Jordan River, the arrival of spies was anticipated by the inhabitants.  What the spies didn’t anticipate was their reception.  Rahav gives them the information they sought:” I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you.  And, she famously says:
 כִּי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם--הוּא אֱלֹהִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל, וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת.
 For the LORD your God is God in heaven above, and on the earth below.

As Rabbi Ian Shaffer of Yeshiva University points out, we can imagine that when the spies recovered their ability to speak, taking their cue from the Alenu prayer, their reply was אין עודThere’s nothing to add – you said it all!

The Rabbis considered Rahav as one of the greatest בעלי תשובה.  I don’t think teshuva here is about turning, returning, or repenting, it means she found the answer- she got it!
Compared to Ruth’s conversion centuries later, Rahav’s presents a different model, not about loving a people, but about understanding God.  That understanding and with it, the realization of the inevitability of the conquest of the land of Israel, led to Rahav’s second extraordinary characteristic: אוהב ישראל:  Her love of the Jewish people.  At the risk of her life, she hid the spies, fed them, misled their pursuers, and planned an escape route.  Even more amazing, Rahav bargained for her life and her family’s, managing to escape when the rest of Jericho was destroyed.
So, here is a woman, living in the late Bronze Age, who runs a business when businesses were few and women’s rights fewer, who is quick-witted, generous, bold and thinks totally out-of-the-box.   A woman, we would say, with alle maylis – all the best qualities.  Amazing.
I’d like to look at the Haftorah through the lens of literary criticism, for it was a story long before it was a text.  Let’s consider the tone.  There are many aspects of comedy in the Book of Joshua – the most outrageous being 40,000 soldiers limping toward Jericho, hands locked together, for all men younger than 40 had just been circumcised.  Picturing Jericho, we can imagine a long white city wall with a scarlet rope dangling from a corner.  The language, especially the double entendres, reinforces the comic elements.
I can imagine, as people are scraping the chulunt  around the campfire, a  Damon Runyonesque character, eyes twinkling when not rolling,  introducing the story of Rahav:
Tonight I’m going to tell you the story of Rahav whose name means broad.  Now Rahav lived in a hole in the wall and you couldn’t miss it because there was a red cord hanging outside the window.  Some people say the cord was to make it easy to find the place and others say it was to get out of town when you just had to get out of town quickly.  Either way – the woman was a genius.  The Radak agreed with Rashi that Rahav engaged in one of the two oldest professions, but while Rashi said it was hospitality, the Radak thought it was the other one.  Rashi said it was an inn and Rahav was a cook and we can imagine the Radak adding “Some inn, some cook”.
Now, if you follow the Radak, you may wonder just how the spies spent the night at Rahav’s house – “what is a Cohen doing in a cemetery”, so-to-speak.  They would have left much sooner (how long can you spend averting your eyes), but for their obligation to dissuade Rahav from converting! I tell you they didn’t sleep a wink.  When they weren’t reciting תהלים (Psalms) they were performing מִצְווֹת.
! סדקים ללא  צדיקים Their righteousness had no chinks.

When the spies returned to the camp and told them how Rahav had saved them and what an 
אשת חיל, a woman of valor, she was, all the חייליםthe soldiersvolunteered to rescue her.  Joshua's biggest problem was getting the soldiers from shouting out their names as they passed under her window.  They were so loud he had to have the shofars blown – that’s when the walls fell.
Rahav continued to show her love for Israel from the time she joined the Israelites.  Wherever she went, you could hear people exclaiming רהב עשתה עוד חיל"”, which can be translated as "has added luster to her glory."
I think the ambiguity of Rahav’s profession is deliberate and serves a comic function. Not that it matters, since the previous behavior of a convert, say חז”ל, is irrelevant.  That question, I think, says more about the questioner’s values than Rahav’s.

1) There is a quote in Tractate Nedarim:  “Had not Israel sinned, only the Chumash and the Book of Joshua would have been given them. “
 If the Bible ended with the Book of Joshua do you think we would understand our story any differently?

2) Are there stories in Tanach which you think are over-looked in our community?

I’d like to conclude with an image from this week’s haftorah:  Rahav twinning the scarlet thread over the cord from her window.  Our tradition speaks of the souls of the צַדִיקִים being entwined.  I think, from time to time we need to look closely at the braid and make sure that all the threads are accounted for.

Shabbat Shalom! 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Barbara Breitman, Yom Kippur 5775: On Forgiveness

Barbara E. Breitman  - 2014
Minyan Dorshei Derekh, Germantown Jewish Center, Philadelphia, Pa.
          When I was invited to speak on Yom Kippur, it was still summer and the war between Israel and Hamas was raging hot.  As I thought about whether I might have something to say on this holy morning, I realized how obsessed I was, not about geopolitics, but about questions having to do with vengeance, trauma and forgiveness. I decided to take the responsibility of this dvar as an opportunity to think more deeply, very aware I was doing so from the comfort and safety of my home in the United States.

            These are my questions: How will these people who have suffered so much at each others’ hands ever be able to live together in any configuration of peaceful co-existence?  What enables people to empathize with the humanity of the ‘other’ after such prolonged violence?  What can we learn from people who have been able to forgive and partner with their enemies and work for peace? Is there any wisdom in Judaism about forgiveness that might be helpful?  What wisdom might there be for us when we face questions about experiences of trauma and the challenges of forgiveness in less catastrophic circumstances? 

            I want to begin with basics from the Jewish tradition’s perspective on forgiveness, recognizing that these principles were not meant for conditions of war.  But in order to ground us in a foundation.  Within the tradition, forgiveness is consequent on repentance.  To become worthy of forgiveness, a person who has harmed another must first engage in a process of teshuvah which entails a number of steps: 

1.      Acknowledge that one has done something wrong
2.      Confess one’s wrongdoings to God and community
3.      Express remorse
4.      Resolve not to transgress in this way again.
5.      Compensate the victim for injuries inflicted and do acts of charity for others.
6.      Sincerely request forgiveness by the victim…with help from community or friends…and do so up to three times.
7.      Avoid the conditions that caused the offense
8.      Act differently when confronted with the same situation.

            Once someone has done teshuvah, we are obliged to forgive. At the heart of the tradition is the idea that forgiveness is an obligation and acting on the demands of that duty enables us to live as a community worthy of God’s presence. (see Elliot Dorff in Dimensions of ForgivenessThe bonds of community are re-established through action rather than a change in feelings.  It is the preservation of these bonds that is central to the traditional perspective.  Forgiveness is not the private emotional process we usually think of today.  I take from this a valuable principle:  forgiveness is a practice.  It is a choice and a decision.  It is not an emotion.

            And yet we know….the practice of forgiveness involves emotional challenges. 
            What makes it hard to ask for forgiveness?

            It is an act of vulnerability.  It means giving power to the other person by needing something from them that might be refused.  It means accepting our own capacity to do harm.  It takes humility and courage.

            Why are we motivated to forgive people who have harmed us

            We know we have harmed others and we want to be forgiven when we are the ones at fault.  Or we want to get past an incident and get on with our lives, not continue to harbor anger and resentment. 

            What makes it hard to offer forgiveness?

            Offering forgiveness is often the outcome of a painful struggle, with rage, fear, ambivalence, and conflict. Forgiveness involves overcoming feelings of hostility and vengefulness.  It involves overcoming feelings of vulnerability.  We have been harmed in a way we were unable to avoid, which has compromised our safety.  By forgiving, we may put ourselves at risk again.

            Offering forgiveness can involve a profound wrestling with good and evil, within our-selves and outside of our-selves.  As one writer expressed it:  “Forgiving involves facing this most difficult of moral and personal challenges:  striving to take the goad from our sides without eviscerating ourselves of our guts—our moral sensibilities, our self respect, our standards of justice and our hope.”  (Steven Cherry, Healing Agony: Re-imagining Forgiveness)  After extremes of violence and trauma, how is forgiveness even possible?

            In a remarkable memoir, a black South African psychologist who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission named Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela reflects on her interviews with Eugene de Kock, the commanding officer of state-sanctioned death squads under apartheid rule.  After witnessing an interaction at the hearings between de Kock and two black South African women whose husbands he was responsible for murdering, who yet offered de Kock forgiveness, Madikizela wanted to understand how remorse and forgiveness happen after mass atrocity.  “How,” she asks, “can we transcend hate if the goal is to transform human relationships in a society with a past marked by violent conflict between groups?  These questions,’ she says, ‘may be irrelevant for people who do not need to live as a society with their former enemies.  But for those of us whose lives are intertwined with those who have grossly violated our human rights…, ignoring the question is not an option.” I was asking the same kind of questions and though I don’t see the South African situation as historically or politically similar to Israel and the Palestinians, I wanted to learn from her.

            Was de Kock too evil or were his acts too evil to be worthy of the forgiveness offered to him, she asks?   In a face to face encounter, Gobodo-Madikezela confronts one of the existential crises that arise when a victim of extreme trauma faces a remorseful perpetrator.  As de Kock expresses what seems to be sincere grief and remorse over what he has done, Gobodo-Madikizela finds herself feeling sympathy for this mass murderer. At that moment, she instinctively touches his hand … but then recoils.  Was she crossing the moral line which allows one to maintain a measure of distance from a perpetrator by actually being able to identify with him? Was she violating her own sense of morality by feeling the human impulse of empathy for this killer?

Reflecting later, she sobs with despair for her suffering as a black woman under Apartheid.  But at the same time, she explains she felt a profound sense of loss about de Kock, “(for) the side of him she had touched (that) had not been allowed to triumph over the side that made him Apartheid’s killing machine.”

            It is an extraordinary quality to be able to empathize with such an enemy…and, of course, this was only possible once de Kock was in prison and the power dynamic between them had been reversed.  When war or oppression is still ongoing, such empathy can be nearly impossible.
            One of the most profoundly disturbing dimensions of this summer’s war was witnessing the ever more deeply entrenched dehumanization between Israelis and Palestinians from both sides.  Dehumanization made ever more intense as the everyday interactions that used to occur between the two peoples before the Second Intifada have become increasingly rare. That is what happens as violence and vengeance suck people into the cycle of kill or be killed, dominate or be dominated. (Embodying Forgiveness)  Empathy, even for the dead children of the enemy, can become a victim of war, as Bob Tabak’s recently posted dvar Torah so painfully named.  Empathy or even attempting to understand the other seems like treason.  This is why peacemakers are often assassinated by their own people.

            Sitting with those thoughts, I was moved to discover the words of a Christian theologian, L. Gregory Jones:   “It is important to analyze and confront our tendencies in modernity…  to see the world either as ‘lighter’ than it is (hence trivializing forgiveness by making it therapeutically easy) or as ‘darker’ than it is, hence believing that forgiveness is impossible or ineffective because violence is ultimately our master.”  I stopped in my tracks after reading that sentence. Has violence indeed become our master? 
            Jones continues: “It is urgent to explore whether there are ways to unlearn and break habits of violence, to stop cycles of vengeance, to cultivate a politics of holiness…. Our commitments to unlearn and break these habits is fragile, even when there is a desire to do so.  If such commitments are to be sustained, they require supportive friendships, practices and institutions that enable the unlearning of destructive habits and the cultivation of holy ones……...” (Bolding mine)

            And so I continued reading to learn more from people who have broken those habits.

            Among the books I read was Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.  In his introduction to the book , Bill Clinton reports Mandela’s answer to the question of how he was able to make the journey from prisoner to peacemaker and president:  “When you’re young and strong, you can stay alive on your hatred.  And I did for many years.”  Then one day, “I realized that they could take everything from me except my mind and my heart. They could not take those things.  Those things I still had control over.  And I decided not to give them away.  I realized that when I went through that gate, if I still hated them, they would still have me. I wanted to be free.  And so I let it go.”   “To make peace with an enemy one must work with that enemy, and that enemy (has to) become one’s partner.”

            Mandela’s words echo the wisdom of Torah.  Just weeks ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote on the biblical injunction “Do not despise the Egyptian because you were a stranger in his land”.   “The wisdom of Moses’ command not to despise the Egyptians still shines through today.  If the people continued to hate their ….oppressors, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt but would have failed to take Egypt out of the Israelites.  They would still be slaves, not physically but psychologically.  They would be …… held captive by the chains of resentment, unable to build the future.  To be free, you have to let go of hate.  That is a difficult truth but a necessary one…..Always be ready, Moses seems to have implied, for reconciliation between enemies.”

            Rabbi Sacks continues:  “No less surprising is Moses’ insistence: “Do not despise an Edomite because he is your brother.”  Edom, he reminds us, was the other name of Esau.  The earlier stories from the book of Genesis seem to imply that the enmity between Jacob and Esau would be eternal.  Why then, asks Rabbi Sacks, does Moses tell us not to despise Esau’s descendants?  “The answer is simple.  Esau may hate Jacob.  It does not follow that Jacob should hate Esau.  To answer hate with hate is to be dragged down to the level of your opponent.  When….I asked Judea Pearl, father of the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, why he was working for reconciliation between Muslims and Jews, he replied with heartbreaking lucidity:  “Hate killed my son.  Therefore I am determined to fight hate.”

            And this is what I discovered to be the distinguishing and shared characteristic of people who have been able to partner with the enemy and do the hard work of peace-making:  not to see the one who inflicted violence and trauma on them as the enemy, but rather to see the enemy as hate itself.  So simple.  So profound.  So seemingly impossible.  But there are people who do it.

            Several years ago, a Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish probably changed the course of Operation Cast Lead and the bombing of Gaza in 2009.  Dr. Abuelaish was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza.  He went to medical school in Cairo, studied obstetrics and gynecology in Saudi Arabia and did his residency in Israel. He spent years working in Israeli hospitals where, he has said, patients were always surprised to find a Palestinian doctor delivering Jewish babies.  He travelled through check points daily to work and was widely respected by many Israelis. On January 16, 2009, only 5 months after his wife had died of leukemia, Dr. Abuelaish’s home was hit by a bomb during Operation Cast Lead. Three of his daughters, aged 13, 15 and 21, were killed; another daughter, was seriously injured, a niece died and a fifth girl, another niece, suffered catastrophic injuries.  Right after the shell struck, he ran to the room that had been hit. "I saw my girls drowning in a pool of blood," "I saw their body parts… all over the room". Desperate for medical assistance, he called his friend Shlomi Eldar, a presenter on Channel 10 in Israel who happened to be on air at that moment. The doctor’s agonized cries for help in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic were broadcast live throughout Israel. Within an hour, with the help of his Israeli friends, his injured daughter and niece were evacuated from Gaza.    Then Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, also heard the broadcast. Two days later he announced the ceasefire.

            Dr. Abuelaish has written a powerful book called:   I Shall Not Hate . In an interview he was asked:  But how is it possible that you do not feel hatred after what has happened to you?  "There is a difference between anger and hate, he explains. “Anger is acute but transient; hate is a poison, a fire which burns you from the inside. ….It is important to feel anger in the wake of events like this, anger that signals that you do not accept what has happened, that spurs you to make a difference.  But you have to choose not to spiral into hate.  All the desire for revenge and hatred does is drive away wisdom, increase sorrow and prolong strife… …I realized that I had two options …:  I could take the path of darkness or the path of light.  If I chose the path of darkness, of poisonous hate and revenge, it would be like choosing to fall into the complications and the depression that come with disease.  To choose the path of light, I had to focus on the future and my children.”

            Even if the enemy has not expressed remorse, this letting go of hatred is a form of forgiveness that is an innovative gesture, breaking open the logic of vengeance and cycles of violence. 

            The organization Bereaved Families was founded by Yitzchok Frankenthal, an Orthodox Jewish business man from Bnei Brak.   Frankenthal’s 19 year old son Arik was returning home from his army base on a weekend pass when he was abducted by Hamas terrorists and never returned.  In 1995, Frankenthal and several bereaved Israeli families founded the Parent’s Circle Family Forum. In 1998 the first meetings were held with a group of Palestinians families from Gaza who identified with the call to prevent further bereavement through dialogue and reconciliation. The connection with the group in Gaza was cut off as a result of the second Intifada, though the work of the organization continues.

             Robi Damelin, whose 28 year old son was shot by a sniper while serving in the Israeli army,  and who works for the Family Forum, says the first words that came out of her mouth when she learned of his death were ‘do not take revenge in the name of my son.’  Robi travels around the world with Palestinian partners to promote dialogue.  One of those partners, Ali Abu Awwad, born in 1972 on the West Bank, was given a 10 year prison sentence as a teenager for throwing rocks but was released 4 years later after the signing of the Oslo Accords.  In 2000, during the Second Intifada, Abu Awwad was shot in the leg by an Israeli settler and his brother Youseff was killed by an Israeli soldier at a check point incident. Together with his mother, Abu Awaad became a member of Bereaved Families Forum.  He reports that he was shocked at his first meeting when he saw an Israeli parent cry: “I never believed that Israelis could cry.  I saw that they could be victims.”   David Shulman, a professor of Humanistic Studies at Hebrew University describes Awwad as one of the leaders of a new generation of non-violent resisters in Palestine, and quotes him as saying:

"The Jews are not my enemy; their fear is my enemy. We must help them to stop being so afraid – their whole history has terrified them – but I refuse to be a victim of Jewish fear anymore".

             AliAbu Awwad has been on tour this fall in the USA with Orthodox Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a passionate Zionist settler who says he has been transformed by his friendship with Ali.  Abu Awwad is coming to Congregation Mishkan Shalom this coming Thursday evening, October 9th and to Germantown Jewish Centre on Friday morning. 

            I cannot begin to figure out the geopolitics of the Middle East.  But I understand human relationships.  I do not know if I would ever be capable of the kind of forgiveness exemplified by these remarkable people, but I know I want to learn from them. At a moment in history like this, on this Shabbat Shabbatonim, I want to take seriously that forgiveness is a powerful Jewish practice.  I want to take seriously that hope is an ethical position, not an emotion.  I want to take to heart Sharon Salzberg’s words on faith:  “the power of faith doesn’t mean we’ve annihilated fear, or denied it, or overcome it through strenuous effort.  ….  It means feeling our fear and still remaining in touch with our heart, so that fear does not define our entire world, all we can see or do or imagine.”

            I want to leave you with the words of two poets.  The first is Jewish, Rabbi Tamara Cohen and the second by Palestinian American, Naomi Shihab Nye.

No Pain Like My Pain (Lamentations 1:12) - for Tisha b'Av 5774/ 2014 

That's how it feels Dear God.
That's how it felt to the lamenters exiled and Temple-shorn. 
That's how it feels to each grief-wracked mother, father, sister, son, family, nation.

                                                                                             הביטו וראו אם יש מכאוב כמכאובי
"Look carefully and see if there could possibly be pain like my pain, like the one bestowed by You upon me."

No pain like my pain, 
no exile like my exile, 
No land my land,
No desolate city like my desolate city.
No heart like my own aching heart.
No fear like the fear of my people.
No genocide like our genocide.
No humanity like our humanity. 
No right like our right.
No wrong like their wrong.
No rage like my rage. 

No pain like my pain,
immediate and raw and righteous, 
ancient and true and etched in our genes by history's injustices.

Dear God, help us look, 
look closer so that we may see
our children in their children,
their children in our own.

Help us look so that we may see You --
in the bleary eyes of each orphan, each grieving childless mother, 
each masked and camouflaged fighter for his people's dignity.

Dear God, Divine Exiled and Crying One,
Loosen our claim to our own uniqueness.
Soften this hold on our exclusive right -- to pain, to compassion, to justice. 

May your children, all of us unique and in Your image, 
come to know the quiet truths of shared pain, 
shared hope, 
shared land, 
shared humanity, 
shared risk, 
shared courage, 
shared peace.

In Sh'Allah. Ken yehi Ratzon. 
May it be Your will. 
and may it be ours.

       - Rabbi Tamara Ruth Cohen

 From ‘Jerusalem’ by Naomi Shihab Nye

I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.

Once when my father was a boy
a stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.

….A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.

There’s a place in my brain
where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It’s late but everything comes next.



Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Akeda: Avraham Avinu as God-Defier - Davar Torah by Richard Stern

The Akeda: Avraham Avinu as God-Defier
Second Day Rosh Hashanah, September 26, 2014

Richard Stern

We have just read the story of the Binding of Isaac. I want to focus on an inherent tension within that text: In both preparing to slaughter and in ceasing from slaughtering his son, to what extent is Abraham acting on his own, and to what extent is he acting at the direction of god or an angel? When Abraham “is called” to slaughter his son and also when he stops, who is doing the calling, the listening, and the acting? In some ways this is the bind that Abraham -- and all of us -- are in. Who has the authority and responsibility?

Both poles of this tension, and all the points in between, are part of our tradition. We can read the story as god calling Abraham, guiding him, ordering him, practically moving his muscles for him; or at the other extreme, we can read the story as Abraham struggling within himself, perhaps in the form of voices or inclinations in his own head. Even if Abraham were seeing and hearing an external force, how does he decide whether to comply -- which is god and which is some devil? In my view, it is Abraham who must decide.

The Yamim Noraim are perhaps most primarily about this question: which of our actions over the last year are sins, and to what extent are we responsible for them? If we have missed the mark, to whom must we make amends: To people (ben adam l’chavero) or to god (ben adam l’makom)?

While the concept of sins against people makes perfect sense to me, I find myself struggling with the very notion of sins against god. What does it mean to be responsible to god, to owe something to god, to require forgiveness from her? In my view, all of these notions can be false idols that risk diminishing our individual and communal responsibility for our own actions, and make it less rather than more likely that we can adequately and productively atone.

We, as individuals and collectively, are responsible for our actions – we must decide whether the voices we hear are unconscious parts of our own minds versus from some external source -- and whether they are for good or bad. The way I see it, we converse with ourselves, or we converse with other humans – and not with any actual gods or spirits, whether external or internal. I am suggesting that believing that we are speaking to a god that exists independent of us can diminish the quality of our listening and talking to ourselves and to our peers – our t’shuvah and tzedakah -- and ultimately make us less ethically responsible to ourselves and to one another. Perhaps, claiming to listen to god, or that god has a plan, or that god says to do it this way versus that way, could make it harder rather than easier to truly atone.

As you know, the traditional reading of the Akeda is of god commanding Abraham to sacrifice his long awaited and beloved son, as a way of testing Abraham’s faith. In this reading, the god character sends his angel to stop Abraham only after god sees that Abraham is willing to go through with the sacrifice. However, a number of commentators in our tradition have offered readings of the Akeda that highlight Abraham’s responsibility for his own actions, and downplay the role of the god character in the story. 

For example, Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi, a 14th century Spanish commentator, wrote that Abraham's own "imagination" led him astray, making him falsely believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son.

And it has widely been noted, perhaps first by Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz, that child sacrifice was the ethical norm, a duty of the pious among ancient Near Eastern peoples. Perhaps most centrally, our tradition has repeatedly asked, “by what authority does Abraham follow the angel’s command to spare Isaac, rather than god’s command to kill him?”

Based on evidence from the “documentary hypothesis,” which analyzes the various authors who contributed to Torah, a number of modern scholars have focused on the fact that an angel appears twice to Abraham: first to stop him from sacrificing his son and next to reward him for his faith. Many argue that god’s original command and the two angelic appearances were composed by different authors at different times, each to put a particular spin on the story. A reading by contemporary scholar Omri Boehm suggests that the original version did not contain verses 11 and 12 (in which the angel tells Abraham not to slay his son), but that these verses were added later.

On Boehm’s reading, in the original version of the Binding (most probably written by the author E), Abraham disobeys and defies the command from the god character. That is, Abraham sacrifices the ram “instead of his son” (v.13) on his own responsibility and without being stopped by an angel. Here, without verses 11 and 12, the story reads: "And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son (verse 10); but Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked and there, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went, and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son " (verse 13). Boehm’s theory is that by interpolating the first appearance of the angel, a later redactor shifted responsibility for halting the slaying from Abraham to the angel (v. 11–12); and, due to that shift of responsibility, the second angelic appearance (v. 14–18), in which Abraham is rewarded for his obedience, became necessary.

So this theory suggests that the angels were added into the story at a later time, perhaps to give the god character a righteous and central role. That is, there is some evidence very deeply inherent in the Akeda that Abraham himself, and not the god character or her angel, can be seen as responsible for the impulse both to slay and not to slay Isaac.

The Risks of Believing in any god
Some background: As most of you know, I am a proud and out, ritual loving, machmir atheist Jew. As part of my practice, I have been studying for the past 3 years in chevruta with Reb Shai Gluskin, chiefly about the role of god in torah, prayer, and modern life.

So I am encouraging us today to consider the risks of believing in any god or angel, whether our own or those from other traditions.

As you know, this sort of god-wrestling discussion -- about the interplay among the god of the bible, the god of prayer and the rabbis, and the god of modernity -- is profoundly Jewish, and very much within our tradition.

The Akeda is a deeply uncomfortable, disturbing story. I believe it’s a credit to our tradition that we have chosen to make this challenging segment of Torah a central reading during the High Holidays. I love that our tradition has such a brave willingness to engage with tough core issues.

In my view, the power we small beings have is certainly limited. Surely there is great value in recognizing something larger than ourselves, in our seeing ourselves as part of the deeply interconnected web of life. There are dangers in imagining that we humans have more power than we do. My worry is that saying that a transcendent “god (or angel) told me to do it,” -- offloads the limited power and responsibility we do have. Even the immanentist version of this – such as “I felt the spark of god within” or the new age versions of this, such as “I felt the spirit saying” – are betraying the thinly veiled supernaturalism that seems to be lurking, for me at least, in any god language.

I find myself worrying that admitting any god makes the world safe for so many fundamentalists, who fail to take responsibility for their views and actions by claiming that god is on their side or within them. I think it’s more powerful and ethical of us to say, “when I or we do something, or interpret scripture this or that way, it is I or my community who do it.” The risk is that by empowering a non-existent entity, we disempower ourselves: we give up some of our responsibility to act justly and morally in the world.

Abraham's Bind
So we can read the Akeda as less about God testing Abraham’s faith, and more about Abraham’s struggle within himself. Perhaps, the larger truth is in the paradox that Abraham wants both to kill and to protect his son.  Indeed we are wired with both the impulse for killing and the impulse for protection/attachment, and these impulses can generate a struggle within us. The Akeda, in the magical way that myth can, resolves the paradox by integrating both elements into the plotline. The English word bind, you’ll note, comes from the same root as the word “bond,” which can mean both a shackle (as in slavery) and a life giving connection (as in the parent-child attachment bond). Perhaps it is Abraham, and not Isaac, whose bind arises and is resolved in the story.

Binding and Blinding
In my view, a persistent theme in torah is our proclaiming that “our god is better than their god!” We practice this way, and not that way like our neighbors. As contemporary scholars note, we contrast ourselves with other groups by the god we worship; and via how that god commands us to do holiness, sacrifice, kashrut, and purity. John Haidt, a moral psychologist in the tradition of Piaget and Kohlberg, demonstrates how our ethical, religious, and even our political beliefs, rituals, and practices bind us -- but also blind us. They bind us together in groups; they are the engine of group identity and community (which is one of the reasons religion and tribal affiliation are selected for by evolution). But our practices and observances and our group identities also blind us to the humanity of other groups, and can lead us to condescension, xenophobia, and externalizing blame – sins we will soon address in the Al Chet.

Ultimately, the risk, I think, is that we can make an idol of even our god -- even the “universal” Reconstructionist god. In some ways, we Jews take proper credit for monotheism, for paring down the number of gods from many to one. Our ancient ancestors brilliantly saw the risks of idol worship. And Maimonedes wrote of paring down the concept of god, from the god of biblical sacrifice to the god of prayer. Likewise, many of us moderns, including Reconstructionists, have again pared down the concept of god, excluding elements here and there of the god of the bible, the supernatural god, the petitionary god, the vengeful or merciful god. Perhaps the natural evolution of the radical Jewish concept of monotheism is to continue paring down god until we get to zero. If we are genuinely seeking god, trying to connect with the ground of all being, the source, we have to embrace that there may not be one. Perhaps all gods – even our own -- are idols.

So the reading of the Akeda that inspires me most is that in shifting his focus off of Isaac and onto the ram, in seeing the ram, in defying god, Abraham is acting in his capacity as the original idol smasher, described in midrash. This is the Abraham that I revere.

In order to continue this discussion after today, I am starting an atheist and questioning discussion group, right here at GJC. Please contact me if you are interested.

O. Boehm, The Binding of Isaac: A Religious Model of Disobedience, New York: T&T Clark, 2007.

Omri Boehm, The Politics of the Binding of Isaac, The New York Times, Jan 14, 2014

To respond personally to Richard: