Last year at this moment, I pondered about Abraham failing the test God had set for him. Many commentators take that approach, with reasonable evidence to support the theory that Abraham did NOT do as God wanted.
This year, as I have been following the news and noticing how people are and are not getting along, I wonder if Abraham just got the message wrong. That’s easy for me, as a hearing impaired person, to posit. What if the message hadn’t been what’s recorded in the torah, but if the people who wrote it down just got it slightly wrong?
One of my teachers, Rabbi Mordecai Finley, taught that some of the really ugly stuff in the Torah and the rest of the bible could likely be attributed to people just getting the message wrong, like in a game of telephone.
Another theory is that as the torah sought to bring the arc of the universe closer to justice, sometimes it had to take baby steps – slavery being the biggest example. People weren’t ready to give up slavery yet, but could put limits on it. So the Torah has many limits on how we treat people who are more indentured servants than slaves.
R. Finley also spoke about the torah being our attempt to understand what he calls “the mind of God”— or of the infinite, of the ground of being. But our own human limits can get in the way of imagining the infinite.
So as I think of Abraham listening to the word of God that he hears telling him to take his son, his only son (by Sarah), his beloved son, to the mountain that God would show him, I keep thinking – that message just has to be wrong, on so many levels. If Abraham were going to be the father of a great nation, he would need that son to keep the family tree growing. If Abraham were going to be remembered for his own kindnesses, killing his son would not burnish that reputation. And if he were going to be the progenitor of the people who follow the precept that to save a life is to save a whole world, then child sacrifice is NOT the way to implement it.
How many times do we get the message wrong, so convinced we heard correctly? How often do we assume we are doing the right thing when we learn we were actually completely off track? How often do we respond from our fears and not from a place of confidence? How often do we use these fears to help us get the message wrong?
Another of my teachers, Rabbi Julie Spitzer, z’l, taught the concept of selective fundamentalism: for example, being completely sure that homosexuality is a sin punishable by death, but ignoring that the commandment to observe shabbat is also one punishable by death. Or what was recently described (on Real Time with Bill Maher) as believing some of the bible literally (for example, the homosexuality ban) and some of it metaphorically (shabbat observance). I myself, taking the lesson of another teacher, Rabbi Michael Robinson, take the torah too seriously to take it literally, but use it as the guideposts in how to live a life and structure a community and society based in justice, kindness, compassion, peace and love.
This year, I hear the cry to both love our neighbor as ourselves and to love the stranger as overwhelming messages for good. That we need to see each other as humans with tzelem Elohim, the spark of the divine, that each of us has a holy purpose. And that this message may never have been more important and timely than it is today.
We know the damage of not hearing that message, of selecting a group of people for hatred and derision and punishment and dehumanization.
Let me tell you a story from the Talmud that illustrates this:
One day, R. Eleazar, son of R. Shimon, was coming from the house of his teacher, riding leisurely on his donkey by the riverside, feeling happy because he had studied much Torah. He chanced to meet a very ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, Sir.” R. Eleazar, however, did not return his salutation but instead spoke to him, “How ugly you are! Are all the citizens in your town as ugly as you are?” The man replied: “I do not know, but go and tell the Artisan who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel which you have made.’” When R. Eleazar realized what he had done he got down off the donkey and threw himself to the ground before the man and offered, “I submit myself to you, forgive me.” The man replied: “I will not forgive you until you go to the Artisan who made me and tell him, ‘How ugly is the vessel which you have made.’”
B. Taanit 20a
This tale teaches that unless we actually inhale Torah, and breathe in its messages, we will become like R. Eleazar: ugly in thoughts, even if deep in knowledge. Indeed, the narrator first identifies the man as ugly, perhaps indicating a societal, cultural piece that might contextualize R. Eleazar’s unseemly behavior. If so, the tale instructs Jewish leadership to spurn the mores of the dominant culture.
But a question that remains unanswered by the story is, “Why would anyone, let alone someone steeped in Torah, be so dismissive, so inhuman to a person with a physical imperfection?” and by extension, to people who are different, who are Other? What makes us recoil when we see someone who looks different? What makes us cross the street when we see someone who is a different color? While the tale is clearly teaching that ugliness is not about physical appearance, but about what is in our hearts and on our lips, it points out a real problem. Too often, the first impulse upon seeing difference is not to celebrate diversity, but to seek to categorize it as a person who is “less than”—less than the speaker, less than the dominant culture, less than human.
Erving Goffman, in his book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, describes the societal act of categorizing people: when we see a stranger, first appearances make a difference: we immediately start to sort them according to our assumptions about them. If they appear different in a “less desirable” way—we generally reduce the person from a whole, normal person to a “tainted, discounted one.” The attribute becomes a stigma, “an attribute that is deeply discrediting.” Goffman notes that a person with a stigma is considered “not quite human,” which leads society to discriminate and thereby reduces the person’s life chances and quality of life, and then, and adding insult to injury, people generally blame these losses on the stigmatized person rather than on society’s reaction to the difference.
Throughout history, we Jews have been treated as the Other-–there has always been some excuse to hate us. Millennia of being persecuted, killed, forced to convert, dehumanized.
If the Other is defined within power relationships, then Jews have generally been under, rather than over. Jews, from 587 BCE until 1948 CE, have been at the bottom of any comparison with the dominant culture, almost our entire, very long existence, and for so many different reasons, depending on where and when. Our professions as money lenders and tax collectors, our roles in various courts that brought us into and out of royal favor, our very separateness – we became either mysterious and untrustworthy or arrogant and untrustworthy. We were too clean (and so didn’t get the plague) or too dirty so that our skin turned black. We were too smart or not educated enough. We were too religious or about to lead people into secular society. We were too sex obsessed or too strait-laced. We were too interested in money – as capitalists, communists AND socialists. In 2008, when the world went over the fiscal cliff, some of us were glad most of the people who testified in Congress did not have noticeably Jewish names.
And all of this inability to be seen as “normal” led to our deaths over and over and over again. I’m not going to catalog them: we know about the destruction of the temples, the Bar Kochba revolt, the Crusades, the progroms, the forced conversions, leading to the Shoah.
So we know intimately how dangerous it is to be a member of the outgroup. And with that knowledge and that experience ingrained in our genes, we have been at the forefront of every social justice movement the world has ever known. Because we know what it’s like to be killed like Matthew Shepard, just because he was gay, or beaten up like John Lewis when he marched for civil rights, or lynched like too many names to list, because of the color of their skin, or told that rape is not really a serious crime, just because we have two X chromosomes. We know. We know it in our bones.
At the same time, within Judaism, we have always had our own others: women, people with disabilities, non-Jews, people who observe differently from us, Sephardim. We have to be vigilant to be willing to thoroughly investigate our “remarkable relationship with both the Other and ourselves” so that we can reach a point when we do not need to use the Other to elevate ourselves or scapegoat those different from us. We are watching some of this at this very moment, with all the action in Israel around the ability of the Women of the Wall to pray according to their custom at the Kotel, our holiest place. The powers that be, and the ones who interpret the bible literally, are forcing not only women, but those who pray differently from the ultra Orthodox to the back of the bus, or the back of the Wall.
We have to guard against the separation from the Other because our sacred texts—while bringing us the story we read today of child sacrifice—bring loudly the lessons of loving our neighbor as ourselves and loving the stranger and protecting the stranger. Indeed, caring for the stranger, along with the widow and orphan, is among the most often repeated commandments in the entire torah. Because, we are reminded, we were strangers in Egypt, and all the lands of the world since.
Antisemitism, according to my teacher Dr. Robert Levy (and many others), is embedded as part of the western cultural code. That’s why it’s different in every generation: as one explanation is disproven, another is created, because letting go of this hatred is very hard. Racism faces the same sort of embedded nature in its hatred. The ways in which people of color have been controlled in American history should remind us of our own past: from slavery to Jim Crow (or ghettos and laws preventing our participation) to mass incarceration. We could find many of the same findings about all the other isms that make up in and out groups.
I found a recent example reported in the New York Times, in an article about a museum exhibit about New York’s response to the AIDS epidemic: the writer, Hugh Ryan, found the exhibit lacking in authenticity and noted that
“If we cannot face the root issue — that we let people die because we did not like them — AIDS will become a blip on our moral radar, and this cycle will repeat every time we connect an unpopular group with something that scares us.”
Change AIDS to the Holocaust in that sentence and see how it resonates. Then he shared a poignant experience and observation:
“A few months ago, I watched a man agonize over the prospect of sitting next to a couple who appeared Middle Eastern on the subway; 30 years ago, that look of fear and hate could easily have been directed at my boyfriend and me.”
How many of us have experienced that feeling? For being Jewish, an immigrant, gay, female, having an accent, or walking with a limp?
Humans will ALWAYS find reasons to hate someone, especially if they are different. The challenge for us is to see each other as the image of God, to see each other as worthy of our love. To embrace the concept that each interaction has the possibility of asking for and offering love.
Until we can open ourselves to see each other as neighbors we love as much as ourselves, until we remember what it was like to be strangers in a strange land, until we remember how hard it is to change behavior, to change cultural codes, and then to commit to doing so, until we can sit down and break bread—or tortillas with our neighbors, we will continue to live under the shadow of Otherness.
Let us listen to the messages that help us tip the balance of the universe toward love, toward good, toward justice. Let us use Abraham’s experience of misunderstanding the message as a reminder to ourselves to evaluate the message and its source and our own hearts so that we can help bend the arc of the universe in the right direction.
Infinite Source of goodness,
help us to see the good
in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us.
Teach us to cultivate a discerning mind
to know right from wrong;
and a listening heart
open to love and forgiveness.
Guide us to walk in Your ways with integrity,
ever faithful to the promises our forebears made. (CCAR Machzor, Yom Kippur Morning, p. 180)
And may Your goodness inspire us to do what is just and right.
 Soncino translation with adaptation by author.
 Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1963)., p. 11.
 Goffman, Stigma, p. 12.
 Goffman, Stigma, p. 12.
 Silberstein, “Others Within and Others Without,” p. 8.
 Hugh Ryan. How to whitewash a plague. New York Times. 8/4/13. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/opinion/sunday/how-to-whitewash-a-plague.html?hp&_r=0. Accessed 8/3/13.
Marian Blanton says
The scholarship you bring to each thoughtful sermon inspires awe in the reader. Yasher koach for looking at the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice from so many perspectives, dear Rav.