An American Moment

  11.20.2016

I want to share with you an American moment. We are now in our fifth year of Muslim-Jewish dialogue at Herzl-Ner Tamid. The next meeting is tomorrow and it’s at MAPS, the mosque in Redmond. The subject of the evening is ‘Tradition and Change’ and it’s being co-led by myself and Khizer Sherif, a lay leader from MAPS.

Khizer and I talked this week. And, the first thing he said to me was “do you think we should start by talking about the election? It’s not scheduled topic, but it’s on everyone’s mind.”

And, I said, “maybe we can connect the topic with the election. After all, in many ways, this was an election about tradition and change. Donald Trump depicted himself as the change agent, and urged people to vote for him, if they didn’t want more of the same. On the other hand, it seems like many people voted for Donald Trump because they thought the world had changed too much, and they yearned for a return to traditional values.”

So, we agreed that was a good way to start the discussion, and then Khizer said “by the way, I’m going to the Seahawks game on Sunday. Do you know what time the game starts?” I said, ‘no problem. It’s a 1:35 start. You’ll have plenty of time to get to our event at 6pm.’

And, I said, ‘that’s amazing! I’m going to the game, too.” He said, ‘yeah, I’m from Philadelphia. I’m going to root for the Eagles.” I said, “wait…..a minute! you’re rooting for the Eagles?”……. I felt like I had just been hit with a bucket of ice water. I said, ‘I’m Jewish, you’re Muslim. We’re both Americans. That’s cool. But, I don’t know if I can handle this Eagles thing. Tolerance has its limits!”

I want to come back to this conversation. But, first I want to take a journey into today’s parasha.  The parasha contains this ‘tradition and change’ tension that Khizer and I talked about. In Genesis 18, when Abraham challenges God, we see Abraham the rebel, as Anna said in her dvar.  We tend to see the rebels as the assertive change agents of the world.

But, Abraham also displays the opposite quality. In the story Leah talked about, Abraham puts his own needs in the background. He runs out to greet his guests. He washes their feet. He plays the servant, not the master.

And, in chapter 22 of Genesis, Abraham goes even further in that direction. He is the very opposite of assertive. He raises no objection to God’s asking him to sacrifice his own son. Many people associate that kind of passivity with an attachment to the way things are, with a love of Tradition.

How can Abraham be both loyal and rebellious? In their excellent divrei Torah, both Anna and Leah show beautifully how the very different behavior of Abraham in different situations really reflects the same core values of one person. I couldn’t do a better job than they have done at reconciling the different sides of Abraham.

But, I have a different question. I want to know why we ask this question at all. So, often the things that bother us about a Biblical character say as much about us as they do about the character.

We are troubled by the inconsistency between Abraham’s rebelliousness and his submissiveness. We assume that these two qualities cannot exist in the same person. And, we make that assumption because that’s how we experience the world. We divide the world into rebels and loyalists. We divide the world into people who are comfortable with the stranger, with the new and with those who are not. And, we see ourselves in one camp or the other.

Every summer, I go to the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The Hartman Institute bills itself as a pluralistic institution. Its founder, David Hartman, was a Canadian born Orthodox rabbi. And, its faculty consists of rabbis and teachers from across the spectrum of Jewish life.

And, yet, the students are not pluralistic. Of the 180 rabbis who attended the Hartman Institute last summer to study there, only one or two were Orthodox rabbis. The rest were Conservative and Reform. Orthodox rabbis by and large look askance at the Hartmans. And, it has to do with David Hartman’s stance on this week’s parasha.

In his writings, David Hartman says he broke with his teacher Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, the most revered leader of Orthodoxy in the 20th century.  That’s because for Soleveitchik, to be a Jew is to be submissive to God’s will, as Abraham is in Genesis 22. And, for Hartman, to be a Jew is to be willing to stand up to God, as Abraham does in Genesis 18.

I grew up attending Orthodox day schools, and my father was a Conservative rabbi. In all of the Conservative settings I have ever been part of, the Abraham of Genesis 18 is our hero—the Abraham who questions God, he is our role model. And, the Abraham of Genesis 22 who submits to God is always very problematic.

And, in all of the Orthodox settings I have ever been in, it’s exactly the reverse. The Abraham of protest is barely mentioned. It’s the Abraham who is willing to sacrifice Isaac who is the hero. In the Art Scroll Siddur, the siddur of Right Wing Orthodoxy, the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac is found in the daily prayer service and it’s recited every single day. You will not find this story in our Conservative prayer book.

And, this divide in the Jewish world is reflective of the same cultural divide in America. The Torah doesn’t see a contradiction between these two sides of Abraham. Abraham doesn’t see a problem. But, we do. We have divided Abraham.

And, that is why overwhelmingly liberal Jews vote Democratic and Orthodox Jews vote Republican. It rarely matters who the candidate is. And, that is why the biggest predictor of which party an American will vote for is whether a person goes to church or synagogue on a weekly basis. Those who go to church or shul weekly vote Republican; those who don’t vote Democratic.

And, each of our sides has a strong tendency to see ourselves as morally superior to the other. The Genesis 18 Americans are the Americans who protested the Vietnam War. And, the Genesis 22 Americans are the ones who served in it. For the Genesis 18 American, challenging authority is the ultimate value. The Genesis 22 American values loyalty and sacrifice to one’s country as the highest good.

For, the Genesis 18 American, the university is sacred ground. For the Genesis 22 Americans, the church is holy. Protest-oriented Americans view faith-oriented Americans as mindless, passive, and closed minded. Faith-oriented Americans view protest-oriented Americans as winers– spineless, selfish, and lacking a moral center.

Of course, both characterizations are unfair. And, if we are going to overcome the great divide in our country, we need to find a way to re-unite Abraham—to see the possibility of loyalty and protest as co-existing in the same person.

I want to go back to our Muslim-Jewish dialogue. About a year ago, we studied Genesis 18 together. I spoke about how wonderful it was that God embraced Abraham’s rebellious side. The Jews smiled approvingly. The Muslims were polite, but frankly, horrified. For them, religious devotion was submission to the will of Allah. How could a human being say that God is wrong?

It was very tempting for each of us at that moment to be smug, and to go home feeling we won. Fortunately, we rose above it. Here is how we did it. We said that God is our ultimate role model. And, in Genesis 18, God wanted to model humility for human beings. By allowing Abraham to question Him, God was showing us how to be open to another point of view. After all, if the ability to change is so central to human morality, how could God not set the best example?

This was an ‘aha’ moment for our Muslim friends and for us. Humility is a core religious value for Muslims. Previously we’d seen Genesis 18 as a story about the importance of speaking out, with Abraham as the hero. Now, both sides found common ground by re-framing it as a story about humbly being open to another point of view—with God as the hero.

I am totally convinced that if we approach America’s divisions with this same spirit of humility, we will be surprised at how much common ground we can find. It is tempting for both sides in this post election season to retreat behind our established positions and mobilize for the next battle. But, that will guarantee that we will have learned nothing from this experience.

There is another path. That’s why I am looking forward to my conversation with Khizer on Sunday night, as I always do. And, I am hoping to console him after the Hawks beat the Eagles.