Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Jewish Geography

In this week's Torah portion, Va-Yeitzei, Jacob leaves Beersheva and heads

north towards Haran, in Mesopotamia (today's Iraq) to find a wife. As he

gets closer to his destination he meets some shepherds and asks them if they

know Laban the son of Nahor, Jacob's uncle. They reply that they do indeed

know him and tell him some of what's going on with the family.

This may be the first example of "Jewish geography." I once heard someone

state that any two Jews in the world know a third Jew in common, and I have

not yet seen this assertion proven false. It may take you ten or fifteen

minutes but sooner or later, if you meet another Jewish person, you can come

up with someone that you both know. As an example of how Jewish geography

works, two of the members of Kehilat Shalom were active participants in different Hillel Foundations 

which I directed, one at the University of Virginia and one at American University. A past president of 

Kehilat Shalom has a cousin who is married to my cousin. Several members have parents, cousins, 

or sibling whom I know in one way or the other. There is really a sense that we are all one, big, 

extended family.

I think that this sense of community is one of our great strengths. I am

pretty certain that anywhere I go, if I don't know someone, someone else I

know does. If I need advice or get in trouble, I know there is someone I can

call on who will help me out, even if they don't know me, because of a

mutual friend. Despite our disagreements over politics, religious practice,

and everything else under the sun, we still remain one family.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: The Trickster is Tricked

One of the cardinal rules of Jewish preaching one learns in rabbinical school is never to preach against the text. In other words, if the Jewish tradition sees an act or character as positive, one should not give a sermon or write a commentary saying the opposite. Similarly if the tradition sees a character as evil, one cannot legitimately claim Jewish sanction for portraying him as good; the classic example would be a sermon portraying Pharaoh as a "tragically misunderstood hero."

But sometimes this rule is hard to follow. Our Parasha this week, Toldot, tells us the familiar story of how Jacob swindled his brother Esau out of his birthright. He does this in two ways. First, when Esau comes home hungry from a hard day of hunting, Jacob forces him to sell him his birthright before he will give him any of the lentil stew he has just finished cooking. Second, when their father Isaac sends Esau out to hunt again and bring him something to eat "so that my soul will bless you", Jacob and his mother Rebecca collaborate in an elaborate plan to trick Isaac into thinking that Jacob is Esau. In both these cases the behavior of Jacob cannot but trouble us.

What is interesting is that immediately before this story, Isaac tricks Abimelech, the king of Gerrar. Perhaps Abimelech is not too bright. Several chapters earlier Abraham instructs Sarah to tell Abimelech that she is his sister rather than his wife, fearing that they will kill him in order to take her. Now Isaac does exactly the same thing, but when Abimelech catches Isaac and Rebecca "in the act" he discovers that once again he has been tricked.

And so the deceiver is himself deceived. We have a tendency to treat others as they treat us. While karma is not formally a Jewish concept, there is a sense in the Bible of measure for measure. Or as my friend and teacher Father James Walsh, SJ, of Georgetown University says: "there is no reward and punishment in the Bible, there are consequences."

The consequences of Jacob and Esau's quarrel over the birthright have been with us for centuries. Esau asked his father if he has only one blessing. Isaac may have indeed had only one, but God has many. May we learn to respect those of other faiths and may they learn to respect us as well.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Abraham and the Settlements, Or How to Use the Torah to Prove Whatever You Want

The first academic article I ever published, back in 1984, was an analysis of the use of the beginning of this week's Parasha, Chayyei Sarah, in Israeli religious circles. The Parasha begins with the death of Sarah in Hebron. Abraham, describing himself to the locals as a "stranger and sojourner," buys the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite as an "achuzat kever," a family burial plot. But the word "achuza" is significant because it evokes permanent ownership and the right to hand it down from generation to generation.

So this Biblical story clearly supports the building of Jewish settlements in Hebron. Abraham bought the land, he has the right to pass it on to his descendants. We Jews are his descendants, the land belongs to us by right, end of story.

So says the religious (i.e., Orthodox) settlement movement.

Not so fast, says the religious (i.e., Orthodox) peace movement. Abraham bought the land, even though it had already been promised him by God. If God had promised him the land, why didn't he just take it, since it was his by divine fiat? Nevertheless he bought the land, because he valued peaceful relationships with his neighbors. He knew that simply taking the land by force would lead to conflict, which he sought to avoid. Therefore, this text clearly supports recognition that the Palestinians have rights in the land as well, and that Israel needs to seek some sort of mutual accommodation with them.

Which interpretation is correct? I suspect that how you read this text will depend on how you are already predisposed to read it. Which interpretation speaks to you?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Brothers and Rivals

A number of years ago the late Cardinal Rene Lustiger visited Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. This in and of itself was remarkable. Cardinal Lustiger was born in France, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, in 1926. During Word War II and the Nazi occupation of France he took refuge among Catholics and ultimately converted to Catholicism. His parents were both imprisoned in concentration camps; his mother died, his father survived. Lustiger became a priest and eventually a bishop and cardinal, but he always acknowledged his Jewish roots and went to synagogue on his parents' Yahrzeits to say Kaddish in their memory.

Chovevei Torah is on "Open Orthodox" rabbinical school and they certainly proved their openness by welcoming this halachically-Jewish cardinal to visit and address the students and faculty. During the visit Cardinal Lustiger quoted Pope John Paul II's statement that Jews and Catholics are brothers and that it is the duty of all Catholics to respect their older brothers. Rabbi Avi Weiss, the head of the Yeshiva, responded that in the Torah the older brother usually got the short end of the stick and maybe it was time for the Jews to be the younger brother!

The pattern of the younger brother supplanting the elder is a strong motif in the Book of Genesis.In this week's Parasha, Vayera, Isaac is the favored son though Ishmael is older.  Jacob is the favored son though Esau is older. Joseph, too, is favored, though of course he is only the 11th out of 12.

When Esau in a few weeks discovers that Jacob has stolen his blessing, he asks "do you have only one blessing, my father?" It is a good question. Must it be the case that God loves those of one particular religion more than those of all others? Or has God more than one blessing?