Archive for the ‘D’var Torah’ Category

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. Aristotle

It’s not that study has ceased in the past month. Yes, typing (and knitting) has been constrained by a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome in one hand. But I feel I’ve been holding my breath since the Annapolis conference; and now The Decider has (finally) decided to take himself to Israel/Palestine.

Exodus has come and gone – the titillating narrative of Joseph and his family (Parashot Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27), Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)) has yielded to the spectacular account of Moses (Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1), Vaera (6:2-9:35), and Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)). Surrounded by readings that confirm creation of a “nation”, a “people”, the repetition of claims to land, I am stymied, silent, overwhelmed by a feeling of paralysis. In the face of archeological lacunae and an excess of the present, I anticipate this year’s celebration of Passover with an uncomfortable sense of dread.

Reaching into my store of proverbs and philosophical quotations, I’ve found a certain confirmation of this “place” in which I find myself: according to Ludwig Wittgenstein, “[w]hereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, or alternatively, “[w]hat can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).

I struggle with what can – and should – be said, and what cannot – and should not – be said. I cannot improve upon what has been said about the extent of the degradation of Gaza and the West Bank. Anyone with even a cursory interest in learning about the “facts on the ground” in Israel/Palestine can find this information – so many reports are available in all media, which speak variously, vividly, eloquently. From the comfort of my warm, well-lit desk, even the study of Torah cannot ameliorate the anguish I feel as I face the facts. And Moses’ narrative leads the approach to Passover, with its warm-and-fuzzy-ness, its catalogues of family recipes, it’s nostalgia, and its myopic mythology.

Shortly before Passover last April, returning on I-95 from a trip to visit a sister-in-law, we passed a fire burning in the brush on the side of the road. Without hesitation, I called the state police to report the fire. In the small space of technological hesitation, as a distant satellite processed the signal from my cell phone, I imagined that what I saw had been a burning bush. But then I had my shoes on, and heard no disembodied voice – other than that of the inquiry from the police operator. How relieved I was when she advised me that others had also seen the fire.

With Pesach approaching, I wonder how to tell the traditional story with my now-grown sons this year, whether I will be able to honor the festival with anything but silence this year. I wonder what to say in the face of the fire.


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Like neural synapses, the occurrence of I-Thou meetings are dependent on sensitivity to the other and whatever conditions are found at the site of the encounter. This is to say that the decision for relation is made within a particular situation at a particular time rather than being a decision for all times and all places. Andrea Cartwright, “Martin Buber: Poet of the Synapse” (1997)

With Parashah Vayetzei, the epic of familial deceptions spins for another generation. Having “stolen” his brother’s birthright and blessing, Jacob flees to his mother’s relatives in Haran with instructions to find a wife from the clan (Genesis 28: 10-11). En route he stops to rest,

and he dreamed, and, look, a ramp was set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens, and look, messengers of God were going up and coming down it. And, look, the LORD was poised over him and He said, I, the Lord, am the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie, to you I will give it and to our seed …. and all the clans of the earth shall be blessed through your, and through your seed. And, look, I am with you and I will guard you whereveryou go, and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done that which I have spoken to you.” And Jacob awoke from his sleep and he said, “Indeed, the LORD is in this place, and I did not know.” And he was afraid and he said, “How fearsome is this place! / This can be but the house of God, / and this is the gate of the heavens.” (Genesis 28:12-17). The Five Books of Moses (2004), Robert Alter transl., pp. 149-50.

Jacob anoints the stone pillow on which he’s had his famous dream, names the place Bethel [Beit El, or House of God], and continues on foot to find his kinfolk in the east (Genesis 28:18-22). He finds them, meets and immediately falls in love with his cousin Rachel by another well, and signs on to seven years’ service as a shepherd for his Uncle Laban to marry Rachel. On his wedding night, the men feast and Laban slips Rachel’s older sister Leah into the wedding tent. Jacob works another seven years to achieve Rachel, and then another almost seven more years. During this period of time, he makes his uncle/father-in-law rich with flocks and fathers six sons and a daughter with Leah (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar Zebulun, and Dinah), two sons with Rachel’s servant Bilhah (Dan and Naphtali), two sons with Leah’s servant Zilpah (Gad and Asher)(Genesis 29:1-35-30:1-21).

When Rachel, his favorite wife, finally produces a son (Joseph), Jacob finally seeks to take his household and return to his own family. Jacob and Laban strike a deal to divide the flocks, and Jacob’s share is increased by his skill as a shepherd – and a some divine intervention (Genesis 30: 22-43). Sensing a change of attitude in his father-in-law (and cousins/brothers-in-law), Jacob packs up his family and makes a run for it while the other men are away shearing sheep. Laban has his own dream of a conversation with God (who warns Laban to use care in speaking with Jacob); he and his posse of sons eventually catch up with Jacob’s household, and Laban makes a search for the household gods (terahim) Rachel has taken from her father’s household. Discovery of the theft is avoided when Rachel feigns “the way of women” in order to avoid being searched. Jacob and Laban part after making a peace pact and marking boundaries (Genesis 31:1-54-32:1).

This week’s study reviewed the usual approaches to Vayetzei: the imperfection of the patriarchs (and their extended family), the nature of the angels in Jacob’s dream (Rashi in URJ), the conditional nature of Jacob’s commitment to God (Rashi), how the evening prayer service tradition derives from these events , the distinctions drawn between the sister/wives Leah and Rachel (Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks). I’ve noticed how the wife-sister theme is expanded: now the wife is multiplied to wives who are, in fact sisters! I expect that others more knowledgeable than me have addressed this, but I haven’t found their work yet.

My interest in the philological, esoteric, and popular, is peaked by recent commentary on the translation of the Hebrew sullam as “dream” instead of “ramp”.

I am not surprised that Robert Alter (p. 149, n. 12 ) and others observe that Jacob’s dream is consistents with other Mesopotamian religious motifs, including the famous ziggurat at Ur (the ancient Sumerian temple, circa 4000 BCE, rebuilt in 6th c BCE (link), whose many ramps and terraced landings stretch to the heavens. Not surprisingly, the conception of rising approaches to the divine domain is shared by others, even as far as the Matankol people of Papua New Guinea.

Like Noah’s ark, Jacob’s ladder pervades culture past and present. In the ancient world, the ladder was a typical tool of work – as in (3rd c CE), or used instead of stairwells in residential interiors of antiquity (Qazrin, Golan Heights). or building/labor? (1, 2) ladder to temple? or to climb to land from waterway? (1) employed for travel of deities in Buddhist theology as well (Descent of the Thirty-three from the Tavatimsa Heaven. Ancient images of ladders associated with military sieges (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Modernist painters conceived of as an escape ladder (L’échelle de l’évasion, 1940 by abstract artist Joan Miro and modern images, of spiritual journey? (Lawrence Jacob’s On the Way, 1990).

As a metaphor for spiritual journey, Jacob’s ladder finds modern expression in an annual folk festival on Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), Israel. In the maritime world, Jacobs’ ladder is a miners’ ladder, and a marine ladder (made of rope, or chain with wooden or metal rungs, used when neither a walkway nor a straight ladder can be used to board a vessel). In the scientific realm, Jacob’s ladder is an electrical device (watch one here!). It is metaphor for steep places in close proximity to Heaven. Thus the Jacob’s Ladder peak and trail in Derbyshire Peak, England.

Since I am a musician, I am already familiar with the ubiquity of Jacob’s ladder as a topic in popular song, spiritual, ballad, and labor anthem. I am also a quilter, and have worked with the popular traditional Jacob’s Ladder quilting block (or modern abstract view). That the hymn tune has been printed on fabric for quilting is an unexpected find. I can well understand the small step necessary to link the Jacob’s ladder block in Harriet Power’s famous Bible Quilt with the quilt block as a sign of the underground railroad, a “ladder” to freedom (source). That Jacob’s ladder is featured on a Freemason’s goblet (c. 1830) is especially intriguing. Jacob’s Ladder is also familiar children’s string game, wooden puzzle or (Victorian) teaching tool (Victorian toy). In the world of cinema the ladder has appeared in both dream and nightmare: in technicolor biblical epics (1, 2) of the 1960’s-70’s, or the nightmare of the post-war (Viet Nam) by Adrian Lyne (1998) (starring Danny Aiello, Tim Robbins).

In Jewish tradition, there are few Jewish images of angels and Jacob’s ladder for those who scour the internet for useful sources. Ladders appear in images of Exodus’ narrative of construction during slavery in Egypt (Barcelon Haggadah (14th c). Jacob’s ladder appears in Passover Haggadah (Golden Haggadah, 14th Catalan ), as a birth amulet, a 19th c household amulet, and a contemporary papercut by Naomi Spiers. The ladder has been used to describe Maimonides’ eight degrees, or rungs, of tzedakah (charity) (here), and a modern Jewish interpretation explores the ladder as a projection of emotional states.

As usual, I wind up taking Marc Chagall’s work as a point of departure for serious study. Chagall’s many images of Jacob’s Dream (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) typically conceive of the events taking place in an open space, much as Beth El is described in Genesis. Yet as with the aqedah (sacrifice of Isaac), Chagall produced a singular image that provokes a new understanding of the narrative. Here, the angels and ladder exist in urban environs; the angels appear to climb above distinctly human structures.

I wonder about the dream: why angels, why a ladder? Angels have wings and shouldn’t need ladders. In spite of a Chabad Orthodox reading that anyone can get to heaven, without need of wings (just as angels don’t need ladders), I wonder about the imagery of Jacob’s dream. I am reminded of past and present ladders, past and present walls, and past and present angels …. the efforts of so many to survive the experience of walls, to scale their limits.

Walls and fences confined the Jews of the Kovno Ghetto (Lithuania), and now confine the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank.

Jews, and now Palestinians, have participated in building the walls of their own ghettos. Jews, and now Palestinians, have found themselves scaling ghetto walls to find the means of livelihood and survival.

Ghettoized Jewish children found ways through walls to find food and family, and so do Palestinian children today in the occupied West Bank. Jewish and Palestinian women have been similarly challenged by their ghetto walls.

Jews and Palestinians have imagined routes to freedom, in the form of grafitti: whether as “self-help” in the Warsaw ghetto’s imagined postal stamp (or other forms of creativity in the Holocaust), or West Bank visions of postal stamp balloon airlift, windows, curtains, screens, or other apertures.

This week’s Torah portion leads me to the lives reflected in these visual records, and these images – documenting parallel experiences of particular lives at particular times – clarify important moral connections prompted by the parshah. This clarity makes it difficult to distinguish between the eventual resistance of Jewish residents of Warsaw ghetto and the Palestinian intifidas. Not just Jacob, but all of us, might dream of angels – and ourselves, climbing ladders and walls divinely, or humanly, made.

Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings. Edward Said (1994)

(painted by Suleiman Mansour)

As always, all images used in this essay should be “live”, and a click on the image should provide access to its original source.

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Anyone who looks at the earth can see that it has been differentially altered – in some places carelessly, in other places with imagination, and in still other places with an excess of imagination; that is, in irresponsible fantasy. […] As we study the human use of the earth, moral issues emerge at every point if only because, to make any change at all, force must be used and the use of force raises questions of right and wrong, good and bad in the actors as well as in those who, like geographers, mostly observe and comment on the action. Human beings do not impose alterations on nature merely to survive. They aspire beyond mere survival to the good – good human relations and a good place in which to live. Yi Fu Tuan, Morality and the Imagination (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, vii-viii)

Doubles and disruptions

In Parshah Toldot (Tol’dot, or Toledot), Isaac and his family famously continue the saga of Abraham’s covenant with God, the various episodes providing frequent doubles of preceding events. Like Abraham and Sarah before them, Isaac and Rebecca are childless and seek divine intervention (Genesis 25:21). After becoming pregnant, Rebecca is troubled by the churning she experiences in utero, and she learns from God that she carries: “Two nations – in your womb, / two peoples from your loins shall issue. / People over people shall prevail, / the elder, the younger’s slave.” (Genesis 25:23), The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 129). The children are born, Esau first, followed by Jacob “grasping Esau’s heel” (Genesis 25:24-26). Faintly echoing the competing offerings of brothers Cain and Abel, Esau and his success as a hunter are prized by Isaac, while Jacob’s domesticity is preferred by Rebecca; Jacob barters (a vegetable stew) with his famished brother for the first-born’s birthright (Genesis 25: 27-34).

Conjugal doubling follows: Isaac’s marriage survives a wife-sister episode (the third in family history) in which he offers Rebecca as his sister to King Abimelech of the Philistines, for which he is twice-enriched (with material goods given by the Philistines, and with the discovery of water by God) (Genesis 26:1-33). Esau, doubling Ishmael, takes wives from the neighborhood rather than the clan (Genesis 26:34-35). At Rebecca’s direction, Jacob secures Isaac’s special first-born blessing by a costume-trick (Genesis 27:1-29). Esau’s despair is palpable, and Isaac eventually finds a blessing: “Look, from the fat of the earth be your dwelling / and from the dew of the heavens above, / By your sword shall you live / and your brother shall you serve. / And when you rebel / you shall break off his yoke from your neck.” (Genesis 27:39-40; Alter, p. 145). To prevent the fatal consequences of Esau’s vengeance, Rebecca arranges to send Jacob to her family to find a proper wife. Esau, aware of his father’s dislike for his local wives, takes his uncle Ishmael’s daughter Mahalath for a third wife (Genesis 27:41-28:9).

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that this parshah is so seldom illustrated by Jewish artists (the small illumination in the Golden Haggadah and Marc Chagall’s Blessing of Jacob, c. 1939 are the only ones I could find). Commentaries routinely address the narrative’s pervasive emotional turmoil, from the challenges of reproduction, whether for a mother or father, to the conflict governing the lives of these brothers from birth. The consequences of careless speech are a common subject, whether Esau’s “sale” of his birthright (here) or Isaac’s negligent blessing of Jacob (here) An AJWS commentary leap-frogs over the questions raised by Toldot’s wife-sister episode to reach global water challenges from Isaac’s discovery of water. Another explores the consequences of personal trauma (Isaac’s aqedah, Rebecca’s troubled pregnancy), as either an impediment to or motivation of productive action (Isaac’s blindness and hasty benediction of Jacob, Rebecca’s pursuit of divine explanation). A third reading repeats a common line: that the disruption of primogeniture signals the possibility of change in what we perceive to be the unchangeable order of the world. This week, URJ leader Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell offered a particularly savvy feminist approach to the questions of patriarchy and primogeniture this year, uniting the brothers’ separate identities into a single model of leadership (here).

Conflict resolution is another common theme: one author reads the parshah’s sibling rivalry and subsequent reconciliation as occasion for modern Jews to engage in dialogue with Christian brothers. A URJ commentary focuses on sibling rivalry as metaphor for Jewish-Christian intolerance leading to the Holocaust, based on the puzzling view that Jesus is a descendant of Esau (to my knowledge, canonic Christian sources in the Gospels, Matthew 1:2–16 and Luke 3:23–38, both trace Jesus’ lineage to Abraham through Jacob). Readings of Toldot by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks are no exception to the consistently sophisticated inter-faith lessons he teaches: Sacks reminds readers (here) that God’s preference for Jacob is not a rejection of Esau, but rather reflects degrees of intimacy and responsibility. Sacks also explores the ways in which the future affects our understanding of the past (here); what Rebecca hears as a prophecy of Jacob’s superiority is, in retrospect, an oracle of the possible future, in which Jacob “serves” his older brother to achieve reconciliation, and Esau “serves” Jacob by discarding the yoke of spite.

This year, with conflicts in Israel/Palestine at the boiling point on the eve of the peace conference in Annapolis, I have no taste for The Comic Torah’s satirical reading of the narrative, and Maurice Sendak’s schoolyard taunt (“I saw Esau kissing Kate”) makes me cringe. I cannot settle for even sophisticated apologetics for Jacob, or explanations of leadership, or the deceptions that pervade the parshah; I am unpersuaded by efforts to rehabilitate the moral value of the text by tribal claims on ends in spite of the choice of means. None of the traditional or contemporary commentaries I surveyed come close to dealing with the charge of the conflict that suffuses the parshah. These lives are motivated by not just by the despair of infertility, parenting failures, famine, or exogamy, but by the profoundest breaches of faith between neighbors, brothers, parents and children.

The implications of twinning preoccupy me, of both the twins Esau and Jacob and the twinned episodes, the echoes from the past few weeks. Esau’s ready response to Isaac’s call, “Here I am” (Genesis 27:1-2) duplicates Abraham’s own reply to God before the aqedah (Genesis 22:1-2); how could such filial fidelity warrant the theft of his father’s blessing? (I’ve read a rabbinic response to this issue, but remain disturbed). Similarly, the repeated misrepresentations of wives as sisters endanger willing hosts among the neighboring tribes in time of famine, yet are rewarded by host and God. This legacy of abuse of hospitality calls for an engagement far deeper than the genealogy of survival it traces.

I am amazed at the general silence regarding the ways in which the narrative sets up relationships and conflicts that resonate with the use of and authority over the land. Each parshah in Genesis seems to contain a sequence of encounters with God and promises regarding land (usually belonging to someone else), a family conflict, a famine, a period of sojourning as guests, in which wives becomes sisters, following which water is discovered and pacts and borders are established.

Toldot makes the conflict over resources clear, whether they are prenatal, emotional, alimentary, conjugal, testamentary, or geographic. These twins are bound together in contest, unable to avoid friction, as if still confined to the small space of their mother’s womb, bound together in a tangle of placental vines. Rather than fraternal twins, they seem more like a pair of conjoined or “Siamese” twins, whose connecting tissue makes material the spiritual relationship and challenge described by Torah.


Imagining hyphenated lives

Twins of Greco-Roman epic come to mind, the Remus and Romulus myth a place to start from the world of western antiquity. Contemporary responses to twinning are equally evocative: Phantom Twins (1997) by Irish sculptor Christine Borland invokes the history of childbirth education, echoing Toldot explicitly. But Jacob and Esau are more singular for their role in the genealogy of Jewish tradition. Re-imagining them as conjoined twins rather than fraternal twins raises compelling possibilities.

Conjoined twins are extremely rare, occurring in fewer than one in 75,000 births (or 1 of 200 deliveries of identical twins). Pairs were documented as early as 945 in Armenia, sketched by Albert Dürer in 1512, and separated successfully in Germany in 1689 (images of other conjoined twins here). As natural monsters, they fascinated natural philosophers in the 15th-17th centuries and scientists have frequently surveyed the terrain of their bodies via autopsy, taxonomy, and photography.

Conjoined twins had great entertainment value; indeed, the brothers Chang and Eng (Bunker), the original “Siamese” twins, monopolized the attention of the 19th century. These twins, whose bodies were “hyphenated” by the nearly 5″ bridge of flesh between their chests, were immensely popular celebrities: they starred in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, married sisters Adelaide and Sarah Yates, and fathered 22 children (!) on their jointly-owned North Carolina plantation (more information here or here). Their notoriety prompted the death cast in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum above (and post-autopsy drawing), literary responses such as Mark Twain’s story, “The Siamese Twins”, in which they fight on opposing sides in the Civil War, and even manage to take each other prisoner. The possibility of corporeal symmetry, like that of Chang & Eng, later inspired imaginary conjunctions created by photographic sleights-of-hand, depicting shared bodies – shells of turtles, lobsters or snails, and brothers reaching for one another’s heels (below left).

Though written texts (Torah, and commentaries) are the starting point for my study, it is the eclectic journey through images that stimulates a response to the challenges of Parshah Toldot. It takes little effort for me to traverse the connections from real or imagined conjoined human twins (rehearsing the deception that characterizes their relationship, grasping at heel, “pulling a leg”), to the geological Siamese Twins formation in the Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado, to the iconic boundaries shared by representations of nuclear families (at left: Abraham, Sarah and Isaac flanked by Hagar and Ishmael, and Keturah and her six sons; at right: the brothers Chang & Eng flanked by their respective wives and offspring),

and then to ethical conjunctions of Jewish tradition and the peoples and body of Israel/Palestine.

Tales of Twin Cities

This week a Syrian-Christian acquaintance suggested that I read Arab poetry; I began with some of the work of Mahmoud Darwish, considered by many Palestinians to be their Poet Laureate. An interest in gardens, the environment, and middle-east conflict led me to a line from one of Darwish’s recently translated poems, “The Beloved Hemorrhaged Anemones”, addressing the “people of Canaan”: “it’s your bad luck that you chose the the gardens / near God’s borders, / where the sword writes clay’s tale ….” I heard its memorial lament (the poem is reproduced in its entirety below), and sought to make sense of its allusions: which anemones, how (or why) are they hemorrhaged, near which of God’s borders, inscribed by which battle(s)?

“Hanun” (or “hanoun”) in Arabic, “kalanit” in Hebrew, the anemone (poppy anemone, windflower or crown anemone, Anemone coronaria) is native to the Mediterranean. In the spring (November), the flower blankets the countryside of the north, near Galilee; the effects of urbanization and agricultural practices in Israel have led some to seek environmental protection for it.

And the borders, battles and bloody inscriptions? I located two candidates that speak to me, that read as conjunctions of geography and experience for two communities on the other side of the globe.

On the border between Israel and the occupied Palestinian West Bank territory, the villages of al-Midya and Modi’in Illit share more than the map of the Ramallah district and the music of their names. Al-Midya’s location, to the west of Modi’in, has resulted in the appropriation (1, 2) of Palestinian land to construct a bridge of settlements between Israel and Modi’in, believed to be the site of the tombs of the Hasmoneans (the Maccabees of Hannukah), who resisted Greek Selucid rule in the second century BCE. The blood spilled in that ancient battle is long gone; it takes little effort, however, to imagine the hemorrhaging produced by creation of the settlements that separate al-Midya’s residents and their neighbors from the olive trees, fields, homes and villages lost to Jewish settlements (1, 2).

Little imagination is needed to gain a measure of access to Darwish’s bloody gardens on the border between Israel and Gaza, across which the towns of Sderot and Beit Hanoun face one another. Only a bit more imagination is needed to understand the hyphen of violence that binds these communities as rockets careen east and west across the 4 miles that separate them, across this border they all claim from God, or the hemorrhaging experienced by their residents (reports of the horror they all experience flood the internet, along with international concern about the violence). No imagination is needed to recall the tragic events of November 8, 2006. Only a bit more imagination is needed to understand Darwish’s lament for the people of Canaan, whether the indigenous tribes described in Genesis, the indigenous Palestinians for so many of whom life since 1948 has been their Nakhba, their Holocaust. Little imagination is needed to understand the bridges of texts, traditions, mythologies, propoganda, flesh and blood and tears, and hope, that binds two peoples inhabiting a single geographic body, their God’s body, like Siamese twins.

This d’var Torah on Parshah Toldot is dedicated to the 18 human beings, Palestinian civilians, who died in the gardens on their God’s border on November 8, 2006.

May we all learn to read and re-read what we variously call God’s book (and one another) with much more than a little imagination (and sympathy, empathy, and charity), and may the diverse brothers and sisters of that place find a path to reading themselves not as The Adam of Two Edens, but as two (fraternal, conjoined) Adams in a single Eden, shared somehow rather than destroyed utterly.


The Beloved Hemorrhaged Anemones, Mahmoud Darwish

The beloved hemorrhaged anemones,
And the purple land glittered with his wounds,
the first of its songs: the blood of love shed by gods,
and the last of it is blood . . .
O people of Canaan celebrate
your land’s spring and set yourself aflame
like its flowers, O people of Canaan stripped
of your weapons, and become complete!
It’s your good luck that you chose agriculture as a profession
it’s your bad luck that you chose the gardens
near god’s borders,
where the sword writes clay’s tale . . . .
So let the grain spikes be your eternal army,
and let immortality be hunting dogs
in wheat fields,
and let the stags be free
like a pastoral poem . . .

The beloved hemorrhaged anemones,
and the rocks on the slope yellowed from
prolonged labor contractions,
then turned red,
then water flowed red
in our spring’s veins . . . .
The first of our songs is the blood of love
that gods shed,
and the last is the blood shed by iron gods . . .

This poem is included in The Butterfly’s Burden: Poems by Mahmoud Darwish, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon Press, 2007); “Anemones” and a few others from this collection are available as a download in parallel Arabic-English edition as recently published in the University of Texas’ Bat City Review.

All images in this essay should be live; clicking on any of them should take readers to the original sources.


9 November 2007

A few weeks ago, with the prospect of a long-anticipated gathering in my home of local Arab- and Jewish-Americans, I began a study of Genesis’ central narratives with an ear (and eye) to the ways in which the text and tradition might inform my understanding of relationship between insiders and outsiders, those inside tribal boundaries and those outside them. This year’s study looks to bring Torah into much closer proximity to current events. Though this site has been viewed nearly 2,000 times since its inception in August, I have received a single comment about this approach to study, from Magpie Ima, on the other side of country. Thank you M.I. for your response, and the confirmation of a (virtual) conversation made possible in this virtual community. I agree that these texts from Genesis are profoundly challenging, especially to contemporary Jews who locate themselves somewhere on the broad liberal-progressive continuum of modern Judaism. I felt the challenge keenly as I grappled with Tol’dot this week, and hope that my reflections responded to your interest.


1 December 2007

When I wrote this essay it never occurred to me that there was a trail on Siamese-twin-ism in Jewish tradition. Apparently there is. According to Aish.com, a case of Siamese twins is mentioned in the Talmud (Menachot 37a), and in recent times, the Rabbi Moshe Feinstein used Talmudic sources advise on a modern case in England – in favor of operating to save the life of the only one of the conjoined twins who had the capacity to survive, according to medical experts.



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I’m learning that Torah study does not always take a clear and straight path. Of course one can always walk in others’ footsteps, but I’m looking to avoid the potential ruts created by the tread of centuries of learned feet. This year, I hope to widen somewhat my path to understanding Genesis.

Parshah Chayei Sarah closes the story of Judaism’s “first (nuclear) family”. Sarah dies and Abraham buries her in a cave in Hebron purchased from the Hittites (Genesis 23). Isaac acquires a wife, Rebecca, from the family “in the old country” (Gen. 24), the divinely-supervised love story that typically gets all the attention. But the portion takes a turn seldom examined – it returns to consider Abraham’s “other” family, or families.

And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran and Jokshan and Medan and Midian and Ishbak and Shuah. And Jokshan begot Sheba and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were the Ashurim and the Letushim and the Leummim. And the sons of Midian were Ephah and Epher and Enoch and Abida and Eldaah. All these were the sons of Keturah. And Abraham gave everything he had to Isaac. And to the sons of Abraham’s concubines Abraham gave gifts while he was still alive and sent them away from Isaac his son eastward, to the land of the East. … (from Parshah Chayei Sarah, Genesis 25:1-6), The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, pp. 127-32)

Except for one other similarly brief reference (1 Chronicles 32-33), this passage of Genesis is the only description of Keturah and her sons, the only information provided about the remainder of Abraham’s intimate life (which extended over a considerable time, producing six sons). Who was Keturah? What is the legacy of her union with Abraham?

Our text continues to relate the life of Ishmael, with whom Abraham appears (in spite of the gaping silence in the text since the expulsion in Gen. 21) to have managed to maintain a continued relationship. Upon Abraham’s death, Ishmael and Isaac together bury their father in the cave of Machpelah, and Ishmael’s 12 sons – 12 chieftains in their own rights – and their progeny people the land as far as Egypt (Gen. 25:7-18). But Keturah is a marginal figure. Indeed, she is nearly absent from tradition, as she is from our pictorial history. Even a cursory search turns up countless images of Sarah and Hagar, but only a single image of Keturah, in the Venice Haggadah of 1609:

Keturah and her six sons, along with Hagar and Ishmael, are relegated to flanking the “first family”, Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. And even here Keturah is only partially in view.

Rashi erases Keturah entirely by conflating her with Hagar via a contorted reading, restricting her status to concubine rather than wife since she had no wedding contract (Gen. Rabbah 61:4). This approach is mystifying; there’s no mention of wedding contracts for any of Abraham’s wives in Torah (unlike Isaac’s), although Sarah has priority in the text as a first partner. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the U.K., is a familiar and welcome voice of tolerance in interfaith matters. But Rabbi Sacks, in his own exploration of the connections between Judaism and Islam raised by the parshah, relies on Rashi and “the sages” to slip past Keturah and focus instead on the midrash of Abraham’s role in Isaac’s choice of his second wife (Fatima) (Rabbi Sacks’ commentary can be found here). The D’var Tzedek commentary on Chayei Sarah by Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman, featured this week by the American Jewish World Service (located here) takes on the rabbinic debate about Hagar-Keturah’s identity. Yet even this progressive commentary grounds itself on the meaning of Hagar’s name – “stranger” – and suggests that Jews look to the fiction of the “strangers” of our world (such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Monica Ali and Khaled Hosseini) as well as midrash to “enlarge our sense of possibility and encourage us to identify with the stranger”. I agree with this view of the importance of a varied diet of good fiction, but even here Keturah is absent.

So what of Keturah, whose name means “fragrant”, with whom Torah tells us Abraham chose to spend his final years, who bore him six sons? How might a modern American Reform Jew make sense of the narrative of Abraham’s extended family and the implications of its web of relationships?

“Where Nature Knows No Boundaries”

My own search for Keturah turns up only bits and pieces. I am intrigued by a referencer to the “Yakult Midrash,” which suggests that each of Abraham’s three wives descended from a son of Noah: Sarah, a daughter of Shem; Hagar, a daughter of Ham; and Keturah, a daughter of Japheth. How tidily this medieval midrash connects the entire family which survives the Flood with the entire family of tribes who people the mideast; how remarkably generous, how “modern”. I suppose I am not surprised to find that the approach of this midrash is similarly employed in the roughly contemporaneous map of the world contained in the 15th-century Nuremburg Chronicle, in which Noah’s three sons support the perimeters of the (known) world.

A little more effort reveals a genuine surprise: Keturah “survives” in the Negev, transformed into the green oasis known as Kibbutz Ketura. It seems fitting that Abraham’s third and final partner, another woman from outside the tribe, should be the namesake of a kibbutz whose progressive policies towards religious pluralism have garnered national awards for religious tolerance, an intentional community that is also the home of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which co-sponsors with Hazon the Ride for Peace, Partnership and the Environment.

Reports that Arava’s diverse student body is often challenged by Israeli governmental profiling of Palestinian and Arab students and scholars are disturbing (information here); I’m relieved that Israel’s Supreme Court has rejected such discriminatory practices, since it matters to me that Israel be a just society. The efforts of Arava’s alumni to launch their own peace and environmental projects through the Arava Peace and Environmental Network (APEN), and its blog (“Where Nature Knows No Boundaries”), are also encouraging. APEN’s steering committee includes Arab and Jewish alumni, who continue to meet in various locations in Jordan, the occupied Palestinian territories, and Israel. Since 2005, APEN projects have included Negev Bedouin Education, Galil Organic Farming, Acco Rain Water Harvesting, Aqaba Urban Planning and West Bank/Israel River Restoration, and similar peace and environmental projects in the West Bank and Jordan. These projects, grounded in an understanding of the shared interest in the environmental integrity of Israel and its neighbors, are wonderful examples of the peace-building visions of the post-Holocaust and post-independence generation of young people. That they are taking responsibility for an environmentally just Israel is something to celebrate.

Arava’s website is an amazing network of links between mid-east environmental & peace projects and organizations. Among these is a link to the Shalom Salaam Network, which offers the following guidelines:

We should look for things that we have in common and unite us, and not those that divide us
We should not defend positions, but aim to explain things others find incomprehensible
We should not accuse each other, but understand that members of the group don’t make political decisions for their group or country
We should aim to close gaps, and not open them

These help me make sense of the complications of Abraham’s lives (and wives), and the intricate dynamics of the Abrahamic “family”. I have a more complete picture of Keturah now.


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The stories that mean most to us bring us back to our own unintelligible and yet immeasurably meaningful lives. Arthur A. Brown, “Storytelling, The Meaning of Life, and the Epic of Gilgamesh

Next week a group of Reform Jewish-Americans and Christian and Muslim Palestinian-Americans, residents of the greater Philadelphia area, will meet in my home to begin (I hope) the process of becoming neighbors. While the gathering is intended to be informal and introductory, there is still intellectual and spiritual preparation to do. I wonder if it is a coincidence that the date for the first meeting was, after many fits, starts and changes, eventually set to follow a week’s study of Parsha Vayeira.

These weeks spent with the life of Abraham in Parshot Lech Lecha and Vayeira are challenging for the concentration of colorful episodes, their juxtaposition of the soap-operatic, the profound, and the profoundly disturbing in the texts. Last week we left Abraham on the verge of elevation to cultural icon, his transformation from Abram to Abraham realized by circumcision (his embodiment, literally, of the covenant with God), on the verge of transformation from tribal chieftain to national patriarch. This week Abraham’s transformation is completed with the birth and near-sacrifice of Isaac. But how much takes place along the way!

Chagall’s biblical histories

The pace of the episodes in Parshah Vayeira (Genesis 18:1-22:24; JPS translation) can leave a reader breathless, and I turned to Marc Chagall’s numerous illustrations of the Hebrew Bible (produced mostly in the 1930’s, published after 1956) to catch my wind within his visual history. In various cycles of lithographs, etchings and colored drawings (a click on any of the images should take you to its source), Chagall addressed:

  • the challenge of the couple’s infertility, and the visit of three angels to their tent to announce the eventual birth of their son (Gen. 18),
  • the complex story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom (in which Abraham and God debate the destruction of Sodom, Lot defends the angels against the Sodomites, who are later destroyed for their wickedness (Gen. 18:16-19:29), and Lot’s daughters seduce their father (Gen. 18:16-19:36))

  • Abraham sends Sarah on a second trip into a Pharoah’s harem, the second “wife-sister” episode with Abimelech (Gen. 20), following which
  • Sarah bears Isaac (who like Ishmael before him is circumcised), and then works to have Hagar and Ishmael expelled from the community to insure Isaac’s preferred inheritance (Gen. 21), and finally
  • the aqedah … Abraham’s final trial of faith: the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22)

These images offer the chance to explore the week’s portion through a single artist’s lense, and demonstrate Chagall’s straightforward journey through the Jewish narratives of his traditional Russian background. But one of Chagall’s later works, the “Sacrifice of Isaac” (c.1965), refracts a more complex vision of Parshah Vayeira, reading the aqedah through the three “Abrahamic” traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In this single frame, Chagall presents simultaneously the central sacrificial narratives of the three “Abrahamic” religious traditions: the sacrifice of Isaac in Judaism (witnessed by Sarah, at the left), the sacrifice of Jesus in Christianity (carrying the cross, just right of center), and the sacrifice of Ismail in Islam (carried by Hagar, in the upper right corner). While some use Chagall’s earlier images of Abraham and the angels as the paradigm of the “open tent”, the symbol of multi-faith connection and shared values, it seems to me that this complex painting opens a window on the inter-textual “cultural glue” that binds the three traditions. This later Sacrifice seems to bring the study of Vayeira to the verge of a paradigm shift for the sheer breadth of its vision.

This image stuns me, and I race to look at the equally stunning text and commentaries to which it relates – Robert Alter’s translation is provided below (in my condensed version). In spite of its length, it is possible to “hear” the thematic and poetic echoes between the two stories:

  • Abraham is put in the position of losing both his sons in spite of having circumcised each of them into the covenant with God;
  • neither mother receives a warning or explanation for the treatment of her child;
  • Abraham rises early in the morning for each trial, which includes the absence of an essential saving element eventually supplied, and discovered suddenly, by divine intervention (water for Ishmael, the ram for Isaac); and
  • through each boy Abraham receives (indirectly or directly) a blessing of powerful successors.

And there are other resonances between the narratives, beyond translation (some mentioned in the translator’s notes): the boys are referred to equally tenderly as a “lad” (yeled), both boys receive names associated with God’s hearing (Isaac, the “laughter” heard by God; and Ishmael, “God will hear”), and Abraham’s ability to hear is critical in both trials (he must listen to Sarah’s voice with respect to Ishmael, and to God’s voice the aqeda). On the basis of the many echoes and parallels shared by the Ishmael and Isaac stories, I wonder if the special claim Jewish tradition asserts on behalf of Isaac as Jacob’s favorite (and the Jewish people as God’s favorite) obscures the extent to which Torah speaks otherwise. Rashi explains God’s command to Abraham, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac” (Gen. 22:2):

Your son. He [Avraham] responded, “I have two sons.” He [God] said to him, “Your only one.” He responded, “This one is an only son to his mother and the other is an only son to his mother.” He said to him, “Who you love.” “I love them both,” he answered. Then, He said, “Yitzchok!” Why did He not immediately reveal [this] to him? So that He not confuse him suddenly, and become bewildered and deranged [….]

Rashi’s midrash reflects Abraham’s sensitivity to the needs of both of the mothers of his sons, Abraham’s love for each of his sons, and God’s care for Abraham’s paternal needs as well. Rashi’s point of view amplifies what the text makes clear: that the two stories are more united by their numerous echoes, rhymes, and parallels than they are separated by difference. I am curious about how the other faith traditions treat the stories.

Islam & the sacrifice of Ishmael

According to my limited research, knowledge of and access to Islamic sources, Islamic texts and tradition share the gist of Rashi’s midrash: Abraham/Ibrahim loves both his sons, as does Adonai/Allah. The Qur’an (Koran) repeats its own variation of Ibrahim’s terrible test, which Muslims understand to require that Ismail be taken and bound for sacrifice (source). Traditional Islamic commentaries relate that Ibrahim later visited Ismail’s household to confirm his choice of a spouse (rejecting the first wife, approving the second; this story is also transmitted in Jewish midrash), and that father and son later worked together to build the Ka’aba, viewed by Muslims as the first structure dedicated to the worship of God. Muslims commemorate annually Ibraham’s obedience to Allah’s command to sacrifice his son in the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca and the annual festival of Eid-ul-Adha, offering prayers, Qur’an readings and the ritual sacrifice of sheep (literally or symbolically). The Ka’aba has since become a symbol of unity for Muslims – all prayers, no matter when or where they are performed, are oriented in its direction. Though the Qur’an never mentions Hagar by name, the ordeal of her search for water is symbolically honored by travelling between two hills near the Ka’aba (the Sa’i, or “hastening”) during the Hajj.

Christianity: Sarah and the “new” covenant

Biblical scholar Irene Pabst’s recent study of the interpretation of the Sarah-Hagar story in rabbinic and Christian patristic literature provides an interesting twist on the obvious, surface resemblance between Isaac and Jesus as sacrifice. According to Pabst, the Christian fathers contended that Hagar was rejected just as Israel and the first covenant (Judaism) were rejected in favor of Sarah, the Church and the New Testament (the second covenant). This patristic approach builds on the Synagoga-Ecclesia dichotomy central to early Christian theology, clearing the way for the development of a Christian identity independent of the Church’s Jewish origins.

So what can one make of Chagall’s reference to the sacrifices central to the three traditions? The presence of so many women in the painting is noteworthy: Sarah, Hagar and Mary are all clearly visible, as is each one’s distress. It may be that the artist seeks to remind men of the impact of sacrificial ordeals on their women. Or, it may be that Chagall is speaking to the three traditions, reminding them that God (as angel) is listening to the voices raised in each community’s ordeal, and that they cannot hide within the space of their own pasts, pretending that they have exclusive access to divine favor, forgetting that God hears all of them, sees all of them, accepts the sacrifices of all of them. For the time being, this latter speculation will be my model for approaching Vayeira in general; it will inform my participation in the meetings I hope will create a community of neighborliness for the Jewish- and Palestinian-Americans within my reach.

Peace Tent Banner, Textiles for Peace, UK

From Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (2004), pp. 102-11:

” And the LORD singled out Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken. And Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age [….] And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac [….] And Sarah said, “Laughter has God made me, Whoever hears will laugh at me” [….] And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. And she said to Abraham, “Drive out this slavegirl and her son, for the slavegirl’s son shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac” [….] And God said to Abraham, “Let it not seem evil in your eyes on account of the lad and on account of your slavegirl. Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice, for through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed. But the slavegirl’s son, too, I will make a nation, for he is your seed.” (Genesis 21:1-13)

“And Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, placing them on her shoulder, and he gave her the child, and sent her away, and she went wandering through the wilderness of Beersheba. And when the water in the skin was gone, she flung the child under one of the bushes and went off [….] And she sat at a distance and raised her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad and God’s messenger called out from the heavens and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the lad’s voice where he is. / Rise, lift up the lad / and hold him by the hand, / for a great nation whil I make him /”. And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water, and she went and filled the skin with water and gave to the lad to drink [….] (Genesis 21: 14-21)

“And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And He said to him, “Abraham” and he said, “Here I am.” And He said, Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering [….] And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son [….] And Isaac said to Abraham his father, “Father!” and he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son” [….] And Abraham raised his eyes and saw and, look, a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns, and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up as a burnt offering instead of his son [….] and He said […] I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed [….] And all the nations of the earth will be blessed through your seed because you have listened to my voice.” (Genesis 22:1-19)


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Sometimes the Jewish calendar is a complete mystery to me – the complexity of the efforts to coordinate the cycle of lunar months and leap years with traditional observance has kept Jewish scholars, astronomers (1, 2 ) and astrologers (1, 2, 3) busy for centuries …

Carved on stone tablets, paved on ancient synagogue floors, illuminated, or printed, surviving images of the Mazzaroth (Zodiac), charts, tables, moveable wheels testify to our predecessors’ zealous search for the new moon and pursuit of the exact measurement of time for practical, ritual and mystical use. (A click on any of the images above should lead to their sources).

A recent explanation of the calculation of leap years by way of reference to the Western musical scale (major mode), while intelligible to the musician in me, leaves me doubtful on the spiritual front.

What does register is the sense of “space” I feel in the month of Cheshvan. Sometimes called “the empty month”, Cheshvan is the only month in the Jewish year with no holidays. The “emptiness” of Cheshvan is welcome not just as a respite from the concentration of holidays during the month of Tishrei (Rosh Hashonah, Yom Kippur, Succot, Simchat Torah), nor the extra time I have to indulge my taste for Jewish iconography, but primarily because the energy committed to finding meaningful paths to observance during intense holiday season can now be devoted to the renewed study of Genesis.

This year, committed to studying the connection between tradition and social action, I am especially interested in the the language of action – what the biblical characters do, and what circumstances do to them. I am listening also to the ways in which Torah describes what God does, in particular, how God engages in a range of relationships with all mankind (not just with the Israelites).


Lech Lecha: call and response

Noah’s story may be central to the education of children, but Abraham’s is one of the defining narratives for Jewish adults:

And the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth [lech lecha] from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and those who damn you I will curse, and all the clans of the earth through you shall be blessed.” And Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him …. Bereshit 12:1-4 (from Parshah Lech Lechah, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, pp.62-63)

Richard McBee‘s The Call of Abraham, (1980), expresses the ability of Avram of Haran to hear “the still, small voice” calling to him. Avram acts, following divine instruction to “go forth”. Gathering his wife, nephew, and extended household, Avram sets out on the open road. This journey is geographical, eventful, and spiritual. Avram and his household travel through Canaan, into Egypt, and back.

Along the way, Avram:
– persuades his wife Sarai to allow herself to be taken into the Pharoah’s harem as a wife (for which the Egyptians are punished with plagues and Avram is enriched greatly) (Gen. 12:10-20)
– parts ways with his nephew Lot following a dispute over grazing land (Gen. 13:1-12)
– battles the four kings of Canaan, and makes peace with Melchizedek, king of (Jeru)Salem (Gen. 14:1-24)
– performs the Covenant Between the Pieces (Gen. 15)
– fathers his first son, Ishmael, by his wife’s servant Hagar (Gen. 16:1-16)
– executes the covenant of circumcision on himself, his son Ishmael, and all the other men of the household (Gen. 17).

An event-filled journey, but with profound spiritual consequences. Throughout the trip, Avram continues to hear the voice of God, who reiterates a set of similar promises. In Haran, Avram is promised land and successors (Gen. 13:14-18). Later, Avram is promised the land and descendants as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15). Finally, God promises to multiply [him] greatly’, for righteous conduct and circumcision, and Avram and Sarai are thus transformed into Abraham and Sarah, patriarch and matriarch (Gen. 17).

I wonder why these repeated promises are necessary. Recognition that Avram’s journey is, from the outset, uncertain and full of risk is a commonplace in traditional interpretation of this week’s portion. Rashi addresses the triple blessing God promises Avram at the first call in verse 2, “And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing”:

2. And I will make you into a great nation. Since traveling causes three things: 1) it diminishes procreation, 2) it diminishes money, and 3) it diminishes fame (lit. name), therefore, he required these three blessings, namely that He blessed him concerning children, concerning money, and concerning fame.

But why so many promises, why the repetition of rituals of covenant? A traditional answer is that Avram’s journey is one in which, like that of all Jews, traverses the path from (immature) loyalty to family to (mature) personal loyalty to God (ie. Rav Avraham Fischer, discussing Rav Levi’s midrash Bereshit Rabbah 39:11, in”Leaving or Going?“).


On the Road: risks and rewards

John Strotbeck, from Congregation Or Hadash, PA, slips sideways from this narrative of Abraham’s spiritual transformation; he compares these circumstances to “Let’s Make a Deal” (Behind Door #1, 2003, TorahQuest).

Abraham’s predicament seems to me more like ‘The Lady [Patriarch?] and the Tiger”, in which uncertainties are reduced at each stage in the journey, but the stakes are raised, made more personal, and more physical. For the departure from family and homeland, Avram is promised the abstract blessings of fame, land, and progeny. The promise becomes more specific in the context of dealing with the “family business” of sheep herding: share the land (for now) with Lot, have it all, and progeny (this numerous) later. Matters are most concrete and immediate following the birth of Ishmael: walk with Me now, circumcise all males now, get your son now, father the nation. Uncertainties are resolved, for the time being.

What strikes me is that each of these encounters follows Avram’s engagement with “others”: his family and neighbors of Haran, the Egyptians and Canaanites, the Egyptian concubine Hagar. Author Ken Goffman sees Abraham as a countercultural dropout, a “divine dissenter” (Counterculture Through the Ages, Villard Books, 2004, Radical Torah). But it seems to me that Torah sets him up as a pragmatic pluralist, negotiating the tension between living with multi-cultural reality and maintaining a personal relationship with God. This tension is never resolved: to his death, Abraham is challenged to deal with both the real and the ideal – his world must be grounded in relations with “outsiders”, even to the level of sexual relations; he shares his wife with the Egyptians, and shares a sexual relationship (and first, long-awaited parenting experience) with an Egyptian concubine. Intimacy with his non-Israelite neighbors, his “others”, seems to be an integral part of the journey to which Abraham is called.

This intimacy between Abraham and his neighbors is a special model for the challenges of our time. I’d thought first to explore recent reports of the relationship between the Fayetteville, Arkansas Jewish community and Fayetteville’s sole Palestinian-American contractor, collaborating to build the town’s first synagogue (1, 2, or 3). But the visit to Philadelphia by Naomi Chazan on October 17, 2007 offered a more pressing opportunity.

Brit Tzedek v’Shalom: the covenant of justice and peace

Chazan, former member of the Israeli Knesset (representing the Meretz Party), scholar of political science, advocate of women’s rights, civil rights, religious freedom, and pluralism in Israel, spoke at the Philadelphia Constitution Center on behalf of the New Israel Fund (NIF). With extraordinary clarity, Chazan addressed the four challenges she identifies for the future of Israel:

  1. The challenge of identity … to create a multi-cultural ethos for modern, multi-cultural Israel, and to inject into this identity what makes multi-culturalism truly productive: respect for others, tolerance, human dignity, pluralism, and genuine belief in equality
  2. The challenge of development … to curb the growing economic disparities within Israeli society, to maintain a middle class, to develop economically with social sensitivity, recognizing the connection between social justice and societal cohesion
  3. The challenge of democracy (or government) … to build on the real democracy undergirding Israeli government, but limiting the effects of corruption and endemic political instability; to create rules for coexistence that enable Israelis to live together rather than struggle against one another
  4. The challenge of “the state” … a challenge of citizenship, or confidence … to respond to the growing mental and physical disengagement of Israelis in political life by creating better policies, policies which can provide the moral spine of the state and a genuinely civil society.

Chazan candidly asserted that Israel’s efforts to meet these challenges could not be separated from its conflicts with indigenous and neighboring Arabs. She acknowledged the ‘humanitarian nightmare’ of conditions in Gaza and the West Bank, and suggested that – like American approaches to homelessness, even on the steps of the Constitution Center – Israel must relieve the distress of Palestinians in the occupied territories at the same time as efforts are made to change the political and economic conditions that contribute to such distress. Chazan stressed unequivocally the urgency of the need for peaceful resolution of “the conflict”, expressed her confidence in the possibility of success of the approaching peace conference, but proposed that “peace is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for a just and normal society.”

If Abraham’s journey on his open road is to teach anything this year, it will be how to juggle engagement with the diversity of the world with the pursuit of a singular relationship with Judaism. If Jewish Israeli and Palestinian militarists can put down their weapons and work together for peace (Combatants for Peace), if bereaved Jewish Israeli and Palestinian parents can comfort one another and work together to end the violence that claimed their children (Parents Circle), if Jewish Israeli and West Bank women can work together to produce and distribute olive oil, soap, and needlework (Sindyanna of Galilee), if Jewish Israeli and Palestinian children can study together in Jerusalem (Hand in Hand School), or in the village of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, if the New Israel Fund can commit its human and financial resources to the development of a just society with a moral spine, and if a prominent female Israeli scholar and politician can challenge an American Jewish audience to confront its own issues of identity …. then surely there will be a path to my engagement with “others”, and I’ll look to share this trip.

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