Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lech Lecha 05

The Torah Portion Lech Lecha (Genesis XII – XVII) begins with God telling Abram “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great and you will be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless you and curse them that curse you and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”

Later in the portion come the story of Hagar and the birth of Ishmael and of the birth of Isaac – Ishmael is held to be the founder of the Arab peoples, and Isaac of the Jewish, and therefore the Christian peoples, so all three of the Western religions look to Abraham as their ancestor – he is a blessing to the world because he belongs to the world.

From this beginning, the history of animosity and persecution between the three Abrahamic faiths seems a distortion of God’s intent. Diversity, including religious diversity, must somehow factor into God’s plans for humanity, yet we continue to operate as if, somehow, religious differences are rooted in error, and only those who hold to the “true faith” are following God’s path.

Often our position as Jews in this religious conflict reminds me of the three monks who took a vow of silence. As night fell, one turned to a servant and told him to light a lamp. The second monk said “we are not supposed to talk,” and the third monk said “I’m the only one who hasn’t spoken.”

We Jews remind me of the third monk – when we speak of religious differences and persecution, we focus on what has been done to us, and say “we’re the only ones who don’t persecute.” In fact, though, throughout history we haven’t really needed the others to persecute us – we’ve done a good job on our own to our own. In the early years of the Common Era Pharisees argued and fought with Saducees, Hellenists were opposed by traditionalists, and divergent sects such as the followers of Jesus were hounded as heretics. Later, in the 18th Century Jewish enlightenment, the Maskilim, or “enlightened” Jews fought with Talmudists, and Mitnagim fought with Chasidim. Today in Israel the ruling Orthodox are still fighting a rear-guard action against all other approaches to Judaism, and of course we have the century-old antagonism between Jew and Arab that has cost both sides so much.

In modern times our internal antagonism has abated somewhat. Ashkenazim and Sephardim live side by side, and have adopted some of each others’ customs, food, etc. Western European Ashkenazim such as German and Austrian Jews have mostly dropped their antipathy toward those from Eastern Europe, and, outside Israel, at least, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews live peacefully together, and show signs of learning from each other.

Maybe it’s time for a genuine effort at interfaith outreach and understanding, and I can’t think of a better place for that to start than here In addition to the religious diversity in our own temple, we live in an area that is at least as religiously diverse as most outside the big cities. Just in this area I know, and I suspect you do as well, not only Jews but Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, agnostics, deists, and atheists, and we all seem to be living together pretty well.

This Fall we have had and will have some outstanding opportunities for interfaith encounters. On Wednesday, November 16, Rabbi Postrel and Father Jim Beebe of St. Patrick’s in Incline created an interfaith Thanksgiving service, held in our Temple. On Saturday, December 10, we will be hosting a celebration of the formal installation of Rabbi Postrel as our Rabbi, and we have invited not only Rabbis and Cantors from around the area and other parts of the country, but also local clergy as well. The next day Father Beebe will be installed as the new Rector of St. Patrick’s as well. Then at the end of December, Chanukah begins as Christmas Day ends – what an opportunity to share both holidays with our non-Jewish friends.

In business and in politics there is a growing recognition of the power of dialogue as a solution to problems that have seemed unsolvable. One author describes dialogue as “a conversation with a center rather than sides.” Maybe it’s time for the world’s religions to undertake a serious dialogue, one designed to celebrate and learn from diversity rather than to attempt to eradicate it by taking sides and trying to prove whose view of God is the “right” one, and maybe a place that dialogue can start is here.

We call the patriarch “Avraham avinu” – Abraham our father – but the Torah clearly says that Abraham is not exclusively our father any more than I am exclusively the father of one of my children and not of the others – the concept is ridiculous.

“I will make you a great nation…and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Later in the parshah, God renames Avram Av raham – the father of a multitude of nations. “My covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” I think we forget that part about all the families of the earth shall be blessed. God clearly does not intend to institute one single way of worship – Abraham is the founder of monotheism, and of all the Western religions. If the Jewish people are “chosen,” it is because we are singled out for the fulfillment of this mission. Perhaps it is not an accident that, of the three great faiths, we are the only one that has been persecuted, but not, for the most part been persecutors of anyone but ourselves - -maybe that has positioned us to be the brokers of peace and the agents of the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. If not us, then who? If not now, then when? And if not here, then where?

Let’s start here, let’s start now.

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