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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah, Day 1

The High Holidays offer an opportunity to restore ourselves and to contemplate what it means to be Jewish, particularly what we can learn from biblical examples. And who could be more Jewish than Abraham, our first patriarch? But what makes him so? He communicates directly with God of course. And if God takes him to be Jewish, and worth talking to, that should be good enough. But, though he circumcises Isaac, as reported in today’s passage, Abraham lived before the Torah, the midrash, and all the beliefs and practices they specify, and we associate with being a Jew. Called by God to his unique role, Abraham defers to authority even without a Jewish rule book.

The Abraham we encounter this morning is the father of two sons but the husband of the mother of only one of them. That is precisely what prompts Sarah, anxious that Ishmael will compete with Isaac for their father’s legacy, to insist that Abraham “drive out this slave girl [meaning Hagar of course] and her son.” Though the act “seemed evil” to Abraham, God insists that he listen to Sarah and reassures him about the fate of his son Ishmael, if not about the boy’s mother Hagar. But that prompts him to comply and Ishmael’s future rivals but does not replace Isaac’s.

As we know, biblical narratives are often compact in storytelling but rich in meaning. Or at least that is what the tradition of midrash and the convention of the d’var have taught us, making us permanent students of our canonical texts. Much as I take pleasure in close reading, I want to explore, beyond today’s Torah portion, how Abraham is understood as a Jew, and what that means for us.

Whenever we think of Abraham, and whatever we think of him for the potentially dangerous conditions in which he places his sons—Ishmael and then, of course Isaac—we accept him as essential to our story. He represents the way we became Jews and have been seeking, to this moment, to make the best sense we can of our commitments. Luckily, Jewish scholars are probing how we do so, with a recent turn in the direction of new ways to understand what it means to be Jewish. Thus, our best social scientists are inviting us to ask of ourselves not “How Jewish are you?” in the manner of conventional survey research featuring, for example, questions about synagogue affiliation, ritual observance, holiday celebrations, and dietary habits. The style now is to ask not “How Jewish are you?” but “How are you Jewish?” Or, what do you do that represents the way you see your relation to the Jewish past, and what kind of Jewish identity and practices best suit the commitment you have decided to make?

For an academic conservative like me, this sounds suspiciously like asking students to choose the books they will read in a course, or to make up and grade their assignments. I still believe in the traditional authority of teaching even while I welcome what students contribute to the organization of learning.

So, recognizing the value at times of being “student centered” (in the vocabulary of higher education today) I can accept the way that the great talmudist Adin Steinsaltz found himself in a “How are you Jewish?” moment. He was considering a plea to join his weekly midrash class from a Jerusalem professor who feared he might not be eligible. The professor confessed to Steinsaltz that he ate bacon “every Shabbos.” Is it “every Shabbos?” Steinsaltz asked. “Yes, every Shabbos” was the answer. “I have a busy week,” the professor said, “and most days I barely have time for a cup of coffee. But then the weekend comes and I fix myself a great breakfast—and I include bacon every time.” There is this response from Rabbi Steinsaltz: “It says in the Torah that we should honor Shabbos. [Your] way is surely not my way, but I suppose it has some merit to honor Shabbos with bacon than not to honor Shabbos at all.”

Steinsaltz spurns judgment and makes his sly sense of humor a resource for focusing on “How are you Jewish?” Here is another example, also with a culinary accent. Some of you know of my fondness for the New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, who made the best of having come from Kansas City in maintaining a Jewish identity. He called the Jews he knew as he was growing up “Farm Club Jews,” reflecting the status of the city’s minor league baseball team in relation to the real players, and real Jews, in New York and other big cities. But Trillin was unashamed of how his family was Jewish in their Missouri outpost. He conveyed as much in a talk he gave once at a JCC in Chicago. It was called: Midwestern Jews: Making Chopped Liver with Miracle Whip. Following his remarks someone came up to him to say that the title was a useful metaphor. “It’s not a metaphor,” Trillin replied, “it’s a recipe.”

A recipe, we know, is a prescribed way for preparing food, a format for understanding how ingredients interact, and what a dish should look and taste like. Of course, we don’t always follow the recipe, but it is our most familiar platform for what we do in the kitchen. A metaphor, on the other hand, is meant to be suggestive, an invitation to a reader, listener, or viewer to construct meaning from the association of two seemingly very different objects. No doubt the chopped liver with Miracle Whip was understood by many as a metaphor for Jewish assimilation. In the adaptation of the traditional recipe—and the substitution of Miracle Whip for schmaltz—is the history of Jews in the United States, from Kansas City to Queens.

Trillin’s playful rejection of such an interpretation signified for him the ambiguity in his own Jewish identity, between what he experienced in a Russian immigrant family with its lingering if ambivalent synagogue membership and his devotion to local barbecue. Trillin admired the rabbi at his father’s conservative synagogue and his advice about the importance of “continuity” in Jewish families. But for Trillin “continuity” turned out to be the pleasure he took in both of his daughters’ graduation from Yale, where he himself had gone to college. How Jewish has Trillin been according to the conventional criteria of survey research? Not very. How is he Jewish in the manner of the new approach? Perhaps enough to qualify. That is, in the stand-up, if not quite Borscht Belt, manner of his prose and in the way that he represents what he took from his family, or what he named in his wonderful autobiography as “Messages from My Father,” the chief one being “You might as well be a mensch.”

My goal has been to report on the latitude some observers hope for today in Jewish identities. I am proposing that an occasion like this morning is a time for pondering the How Jewish Are You?—”How Are You Jewish?” difference. Indeed, as I will explain below, the activity itself of looking at the way we tell ourselves our story is a good response to the new question.

The old question—“How Jewish Are You?”—and the research it supported would have made little sense to Abraham, living as he did long before organized Judaism, with its commandments, Torah, mitzvot, synagogues, and High Holiday services. But the question “How are you Jewish?” is one we can address on Abraham’s behalf, looking first at it from an occupational perspective. Abraham never held a job but he had, according to a well known observer of American Jewish experience, a professional disposition.

For Alan Dershowitz, the famed Harvard Law professor and media celebrity, the answer to the question of “How is Abraham Jewish?” is obvious. It is by being a lawyer, the first Jewish one in Dershowitz’s recent declaration of professional pride and ancestry. As an arbiter of Jewish identity, Dershowitz is a talmudist of kind, in his case in the courtroom and the op-ed page—and last year in a study of Abraham. He finds a version of his own professional abilities in his subject, particularly when he negotiates with God about the fate of the sinners and the righteous in Sodom. Abraham is logical and shrewd, with a measure of chutzpah to challenge authority. In the case of Sodom and the extent of God’s punishment of its citizens, Abraham shows he understands and can apply the rules of justice and proportionality.

True enough, Abraham is more compliant than defiant in subsequent episodes, the one we read today and, of course, Isaac’s close call. Dershowitz finds, as have many KI members over the years, that in both cases Abraham is lacking moral initiative. In the end, Dershowitz cannot reconcile Abraham’s inspirational defiance in the Sodom case with the compliance we see later. That only proves that Abraham is like us, coping with competing values. Dershowitz is certain that “There is a common core of being a Jew” and what he calls the “Abrahamic characteristics” are well represented, whatever Abraham’s flaws, in their rebellious and justice serving lawyerly side.

But there is another Abraham to contemplate, distinguished not professionally (so to speak) but prophetically. Steinsaltz, the authentic talmudist, honors Abraham for making Judaism a monotheistic faith, or remaking it as one. He protests that the well known midrash on Genesis that has Abraham shattering the plaster idols in his polytheistic father’s shop is misunderstood. Monotheism didn’t replace polytheism as a new step in acknowledgment of the divine. It was the original religious impulse, ready for a new role in Judaism.

Steinsaltz names Abraham “The Renovator.” When we “renovate” we renew or revive something. A wag might say that Calvin Trillin’s mother “renovated” the recipe for chopped liver she inherited from her Russian parents. And Steinsaltz would appreciate the joke. But he has in mind renovation as restoration, a return to the origins of belief. Attending synagogue and participation in High Holiday services is an activity of renovation, considering the many pressures we feel from life today redirecting our attention from our foundations. For Steinsaltz, renovation is an activity of historical and personal renewal, and in the case of Abraham destroying the idols was the essential step in the making of the Jews.

Steinsaltz speaks paradoxically of the “the ‘modern’ world of the ancient past” in which Abraham lived. The city of Ur in Mesopotamia, on the banks of the Euphrates, was an “advanced culture” with opportunities in philosophy, science, and commerce. But it was also an “intellectual world of polytheistic religion . . . sophisticated and corrupt,” as Steinsaltz puts it. “Abraham found himself believing in a single God,” Steinsaltz continues and “It was not a new discovery on his part; on the contrary, it was a reaffirmation of a very old truth, one that had almost been forgotten and was probably considered by his contemporaries as barbaric and primitive.” So, for Steinsaltz, “Abraham was not an innovator but an ultraconservative, like someone belonging to a cult of ancient origin.” But he also represented something very new: “He was,” Steinsaltz says, “a prophet [calling] for a renewal of faith, a return. . . to the divine Oneness. He tried to restore the faith of the ancient past. . . .”
So, it isn’t law as a profession that is the place to observe Abraham the Jewish patriarch but in history itself. And it isn’t Abraham’s lawyerly “chutzpah”—prized by Dershowitz—that is a strong sign of his “common core as a Jew.” For Steinsaltz it is Abraham’s resolute monotheism and the modesty it prompts that matter the most. He believes in “one essence that takes on the dimensions of the utmost grandeur [the] psyche can conceive.” It yields a distinctive Jewish disposition: “This fundamental stance of the human before the holy . . . is the primary sensation of ‘little me’ which is the true feeling of every human being when facing the mysterious beyond.” That strikes me as a fine response to the question “How are you Jewish?”

We have Abraham the lawyer and Abraham “The Renovator.” I am not politically naïve. Some of you no doubt find unwelcome the idea of Abraham as “ultraconservative.” Abraham, our patriarch, an ally of Ted Cruz, Sarah Plain, and the Koch brothers? But Steinsaltz, underlining the boldness of Abraham’s step, means to designate a form of ethical behavior that puts in place a foundation for progressive social relations. When he is not praising Abraham as a lawyer, Dershowitz calls him a “fundamentalist” for his preference for God’s wishes at the expense—or so it seemed at the time—of the lives of his sons. So, we classify our Jewish heroes with the terms we have, according to the meanings we can find in the times they lived.

Our terms and syntax matter, which is where I began. Thus, if we ask ourselves “How Jewish Are We?”—in the mode, again, of survey research, what do we ignore, neglect, or miss about our relations with Judaism? Is our Judaism measured, aggregated, and presented in survey results? Or is it self-directed, personal, and the subject of narrative? And when we ask “How are we Jewish?” I would say one way is as readers, when we return to our canonical texts week after week, and year after year, for insight into our past and ourselves. “How are we Jewish?” By gathering here and reading Genesis together, and probing its meanings.

Abraham’s encounter with Hagar and Ishmael is told in fewer than 300 words, or a little more than a handful of Tweets. But we all know how hard the Torah is to read. We take it to be a characteristically Jewish task. We are all conservatives and fundamentalists to the degree that we take our texts seriously, and continue to be hospitable to the d’var itself as a format for reading together. It is the most analog of genres—no PowerPoint, no animation.

Today’s portion reminds us of what we need to bear in mind about the history of human communications. Dershowitz’s Abraham is a clever speaker in the ways he encounters God in negotiating for the lives of the Sodomites. In today’s portion, though, he hardly speaks at all. But as any d’var is designed to show, formal speech is a useful resource for reflection and discovering what we think about Jewish experience. As a sibling of the academic lecture, now routinely vilified as an outdated obstacle to learning, the d’var deserves recognition as part of what we want in ritual continuity. But there may come a time when at this point in the service KI congregants will be invited to take out their smartphones and participate in an online video game based on Genesis 21.

Distant as we are from Abrahamic Judaism, and ambivalent as we may be about the rule-based version of ancient and modern forms of Judaism, we are always at work on “How are we Jewish?” That is reflected in this moment and place, when we agree to study our texts and traditions, to discover individually the “little me” and celebrate together the “little us” that makes us members of a people. It is now a byword of personality theory that narrative matters to identity. But it was the great political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who named the behavioral and social meanings of this insight. “I can only answer the question ‘What I am to do?’ he said, “if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story do I find myself a part?’”

Of course, we share the story of Abraham with Christians and Muslims. But there has been no dilution of its impact even among those Jews who may be uncertain about what Abraham represents for belief in God. So, here is one last sign of what it means to subordinate the question “How Jewish are you?” to “How are you Jewish?” There are different ways to live in Abraham’s story. Dershowitz, perhaps speaking for many of us, says: “Even my agnosticism is Jewish, because the God whose existence I wonder about is the Jewish God.”

We are here to worship, but we can wonder as well, adjusting the ratio of worship to wondering as we do in fine tuning a recipe, sometimes perhaps turning to an unexpected ingredient like Miracle Whip.

However we arrive at our ways of being Jewish it is as Abraham’s descendants. Mesopotamia to Michigan doesn’t show up—at least in that form—on Google maps. But it is still an image of how we began and what that means for how we want to be Jews.

—Steven Weiland
October 2016

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