How fast, we Jews, forget!

The shameful treatment of would be immigrants to our country continues. While I have no high opinion of Trump, an understatement, it is beyond my understanding why he nurtures this venomous hatred against these people who flee to preserve their lives and the lives of their children. Is it all in the name of his white supremacist attitude, best expressed in the slogan of “Make America White Again?”

As a Holocaust survivor, I cannot help but compare Trump’s racism to that of Hitler’s who, in similar manner, sized up the threat of Judaism as a threat not only to Germany but to the world. One of his more famous antisemitic mentors, Richard Wagner, the great composer, expressed the threat of Judaism and the Jewish people by coining a new word: Verjudung, meaning something like “jewishing” the otherwise pure world…I hate to think what a totally white America would look, feel and act like!

Because of Jewish ethics and more particularly because of our past history in which we came to experience and hopefully to learn what rejection for ethnic reasons feels like and produces, Jews must not and cannot turn their back to migrants fleeing for life.

I am disappointed that on the local, national and international level few Jewish voices have been heard to condemn our governments’ treatment of these poor refugees at our southern gates. Have we forgotten what rejection feels like?

Here then are reminders:

Back in 1938 the plight of the Jews in Germany had become known. Rumors had it that Jews in Germany were sent to concentration camps. Auschwitz had not been built yet and so the worst had not yet happened. There was much talk about the necessity of creating safe havens for the Jews but talk did not suffice. There was need for action.

It was on President Roosevelt ‘s initiative that an international meeting was convened in July 1938 in Evian-les-Bains, France, to request commitments from the assembled nations to accept Jewish refugees from Germany.

And so 32 nations came together joined by 24 voluntary organi-zations that participated as observers. Also 200 journalists attended. Hitler endorsed the conference and even allegedly promised to help the Jews leave his country. It was reported that he said, “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [the Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

The conference ended in failure. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic which offered help, none of the other participating nations made a commitment about accepting Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. For Hitler this was a victory as it seemed to demonstrate that no one desired an influx of Jews to their country. Useful propaganda!

Two months after Evian – the Sudeten was given to Hitler by British prime minister Chamberlain. 120,000 formerly Czech Jews became stateless. In March 1939 Czechoslovakia was occupied and 180,000 more Jews came under Hitler’s rule. Then came Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On September 1, 1939 WW II broke out. Holocaust and 6 million Jewish dead followed. Have we, Jews, learned anything from Evian? Do we not remember?

Our treatment of the refugees at our southern border is a test of American humaneness and civilization and we are flunking it.

The story of the Saint Louis Ship should be an other reminder for us Jews of our history of a people fleeing from destruction and being refused to be given a haven of safety and a secure life.

During WW II the ship, the St. Louis, owned by the German Hapag (Hamburg-America Line) was a German luxury ocean liner that carried over 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in 1939 trying to escape the Holocaust. The ship’s destination was Cuba in the hope that the refugees would debark and settle there. Having arrived there, the ship docked in Havana’s harbor but the refugees, with the exception of some Spaniards, Cubans and US citizens with Cuban visas, were not allowed to disembark. US government officials interceded with Cuba but to no avail. What now?

The ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, a seemingly very decent human being, now took the ship to the US and to Canada, trying to find a nation that would accept these Jewish refugees fleeing for their life. Both nations refused the ship’s landing in their respective harbors.

In view of these refusals, no alternative was left for the captain but to return to Europe. The UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and France accepted a few of the ships’ refugees. Unfortunately, the Nazis in their lightning fast war caught up with these Jewish refugees who thought they had escaped the clutches of Hitler. Statistics show that 254 of those who were forced to return to Europe were murdered during the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Sobibor. The rest died in various slave labor camps, in hiding or in attempts to evade the Nazis.

Let me end this blog by reminding ourselves that we Jews, too, were once on the run from death. Should not our empathy for these folks at our southern border motivate us to speak out loudly against their mistreatment?

I do not understand that Melania Trump, a mother herself, has not been willing or able to speak out for a more humane treatment of these suffering folk. Jared and Ivanka Kushner, both allegedly Jews, have remained silent. I do not understand that the fathers and mothers, employed by ICE, lend themselves to such inhuman treatment as separating children from their parents.

America, where are we headed?!

Jewish Origins Without Revelation (Part 2)

I will begin this essay by dealing in abbreviated form with Jewish origins. To ask about origins is to ask the question: where do we Jews come from? Where are our historical roots? What is the first documentary evidence about Israelite existence? Since the heart of Judaism’s existence is Torah and Torah is our source for the existence of God and his alleged special relationship with the Jewish people, we need to inquire about the Torah’s origins.

I will try to respond to the above questions drawing on both Jewish and non-Jewish scholarship.

It should be clear that in my effort at a non-supernatural reconstruction of Jewish history I will not deal with phenomena such as divine revelation or divine interventions in human affairs because, these belong into the realm of faith and not documentable historical events.

But even documentable historical facts call for interpretation and interpretation is not mathematics! It is always, at least to some extent, subjective because, like everything else in life, it is human and thus suffers from human existential limitation.

Let’s scroll back to the Near-East in pre-biblical times. In an extant letter within a correspondence between the ruler of a Canaanite city-state and his powerful overlord, a pharaoh in Tel el-Amarna, probably pharaoh Akhenaten (d. 1336 BCE), in Upper Egypt, we read, “There are marauding habiru tribes here who cause damage to our land and its farmers.”

While we do not have a response from this unnamed pharaoh, this sentence introduces us to the term HABIRU which, even without sophisticated knowledge of linguistics, corresponds by and large to our term HEBREW. The Canaanite letters forming the term Habiru are related to the Hebrew term ‘ivriy from which our word “Hebrew” is derived. Interestingly, the Hebrew ‘ivriy, in turn, derives from the Hebrew verb ‘avar which means “to move, crossover, pass over.” What do semi-nomadic tribes do? They move, they cross over, they pass over land.

The Habirus were semi-nomads. With their cattle they crisscrossed the land looking for fertile areas, settled here and there, let their cattle graze, and when nothing was left for the cattle to eat, moved on to the next fertile spot. No wonder that the local Canaanite farmers considered them intruders and asked pharaoh for help to keep the Habirus and their herds away.

It is likely that the earliest historical ancestors of the Hebrews were these Near Eastern semi-nomadic Habiru tribes. Avram, later to become Abraham, (approx. date between 2,000 and 1,700 BCE), who with his family and tribe had moved from Ur of the Chaldeans to Haran in Syria and settled there was subsequently told by the LORD to move on.

Genesis 12:1-3 is a seminal chapter for my thesis. It is here that the LORD (i.e., YHWH, name of God allegedly revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush in the Sinai peninsula) ordered Abraham to

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you…”

And so, according to Gen 12:4, “Abraham went, as the LORD had told him.” Thus, from Haran in Syria, Abraham’s family/tribe traveled south, to the Land of Canaan, allegedly guided by the LORD.

Some scholars suggest that the person of Abraham is a personification of a migratory movement. Semi-nomads migrate, remember! It is a well established fact that different Near Eastern tribes worshiped and followed their particular God. The time frame we are considering here is one in which polytheism was the generally practised form of religion in the Near East.

In the Bible, the stories about Abraham are followed by the tribal stories of Abraham’s son Isaac and his wife Rebecca. These, in turn, are followed by the stories covering the exploits of their son Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel whose twelve sons become the eponymous ancestors of the so-called Twelve Tribes of Israel. Their daughter Dinah did not become ancestress of a tribe.

Now to a quick forward in biblical history. The book of Genesis reports that the Twelve Tribes, during a devastating famine in Canaan where they had settled, migrated south to Egypt where there was food available and where they established themselves under favorable circumstances. Without going here into the details of many associated stories like, for instance, the Joseph narratives, we are told that eventually they became enslaved in Egypt. How so?

Upon arrival of the Hebrews in Egypt, an unnamed Hyksos-related pharaoh ruled over Egypt (the Hyksos invaders’ reign in Egypt: 1730-1570 BCE). The Hyksos people were of Semitic ethnic background, (like the Habirus/Hebrews), which explains the favorable welcome they extended to the Twelve Tribes, by now known as Israel. When the Hyksos’ relatively brief dynasty was terminated by one Ahmose who expulsed them and re-established the pre-Hyksos native Egyptian royal dynasty, the Israelites fell into disfavor. The biblical narrative conveys this development rather laconically: “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8f.) This unnamed new Pharaoh was in all probability Ramses II, a ruler generally considered to have been a megalomaniac, suggestion based on the ubiquitous statuary of his person found all over Egypt.

This is not the proper place for a detailed account of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. Based on biblical chronologies which do not agree with each other, approximately 400 years.

As a result of the alleged Ten Plagues which God brought down on Egypt, the last of which was the death of the Egyptian firstborns which included Pharaoh’s son, the slaves were released and traveled toward the land of Canaan, located north of the Nile Delta. Still scrolling forward, the liberated slaves stopped over at the Sinai desert where, on Mount Sinai, (exact location to this day not identified), according to the tradition, Moses received both the Written and the Oral Torah, containing among other laws, the famous Ten Commandments.

After Moses’ death, the liberated slaves under the leadership of Joshua, followed by the so-called Judges (military leaders), engaged in the conquest of the land of Canaan whose possession had been promised to Abraham and his posterity. According to Deut. 7:1-5, God’s promise of giving to the Israelites the land of Canaan took place as prophesied. It was fulfilled by means of what in our time would be called “ethnic cleansing” or the destruction of the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. It would seem that despite temporary setbacks here and there, in the end everything went as planned and the liberated Hebrew tribes, by slaughtering the natives in their land with God’s help, achieved God’s plan of coming into possession of the land of Canaan. It should be noted that apart from the biblical witness to these events, none is preserved in extra biblical documentation.

The two biblical books of Samuel tell us about the transition of the liberated tribes from functioning as a loose confederation to a monarchy, first under king Saul and subsequently under king David who became the intermediary between God Yahweh and the people Israel. The previous direct theocratic rule of Israel was now modified.

David was a very astute politician. Having conquered the city of Jebus, capital of the Jebusites, he established it as the political capital of the newly conquered country, as well as its religious center. This was accomplished by bringing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments from Sinai, previously held by the various tribes in rotation, to this city and renaming it Yerushalayim, “Inheritance of Peace.” It was a brilliant move in as much as it brought the Twelve Tribes into a closer relationship with each other, both politically and religiously, the latter by means of designating the city as the pilgrimage center for the three ancient Israelite pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, (Passover), Shavuot (lit. “Weeks,” commemorating the giving of the Torah) and Sukkoth (Feast of Booths, a reminder of Israel’s desert wanderings).

Solomon, David’s son and successor, built the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem that took the place of the movable desert sanctuary (‘ohel ha-mo’ed or Tent of Meeting). This was undoubtedly a further effort to unify the tribes and to strengthen the newly created geo-political nation. As presented in the Bible, it was done in response to God’s desire to dwell in a house.

After Solomon’s death, the misbehavior of his son Rehoboam, resulted in separation of the northern and southern tribes and the formation of two distinct countries.

Note: The ten northern tribes, calling themselves Israel, fell to an invasion by the kingdom of Assyria in 722 BCE whereas the remaining southern tribes, calling themselves the kingdom of Judah, fell to an invasion of Babylonia in 586 BCE.

Back to king David now and my reconstruction of Israel’s history.

A newly established nation needs a constitution or founding document that conveys to its own country’s population, as well as to its geographical neighbors, the raison d’etre for its existence. Such a document explains the justification for its incursion into and its establishment in the geographical and political space held by its previous owners; the salient events in history that led to and legitimize the conquest; the civil and religious legislation that would from here on guide its society in its pursuit of daily life; last but not least ,the relationship between God, king, nation and each individual.

It is here that king David’s and king Solomon’s historiographers went to work. By combing through the Hebrew tribal records, oral and perhaps also written, they found treasures that lent themselves for such an undertaking. Scouring the oral and written histories of Mesopotamia, in the north, and Egypt in the south, as also the myths and legends of the conquered land of Canaan itself, turned out to be helpful.

Their most important discovery was the Abraham (the Habiru?) stories, beginning in Genesis at chapter 12. “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… so Abram went as the LORD had told him.” According to Gen. 15, the commanding voice of the divinity said to Abraham, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess,” etc. And in Gen 15:18 a further promise, “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land from the River of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kennizites, the Kadminites, the Hittites, the Perrizites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

The divinity’s alleged promise to Israel now fulfilled, was incorporated into the country’s founding document or, as I call it, the Constitution of the new land of Israel – the Torah.

Note: If you would like to comment, please address them to me directly by e-mail.

Jewish Origins Explained Without Reference to Revelation: A New Approach

Preface

The next few blogs will be dealing with the above indicated title. You may ask yourself why so. Certainly not in order to persuade anyone to understand Judaism as I do! I am not a Jewish missionary! However, from conversations with fellow congregants I have become aware that there are Jewish persons who, similarly to my understanding of Judaism, reject the supernatural elements in our faith but decided to maintain their Jewishness in terms of adherence to Judaism and membership in a synagogue congregation.

Now the question arises: is it possible to maintain one’s Jewish faith while jettisoning belief in a supernatural God as the Torah and TaNakh (Hebrew for Bible) present this God to us? Clearly this is impossible without one’s necessity to rethink Jewish origins and religious development.

In the following essays I will try to convey to folks who wrestle with this issue that yes, indeed, it is possible to remain a Jew, to read certain faith affirmations in the siddur without being a traitor to one’s faith, or a hypocrite. Jewish history and its resulting faith can be understood without one’s having to make intellectual sacrifices. One can be an agnostic (a person confessing lack of absolute knowledge, the preposition “a…” meaning without) or an atheist, (a person living one’s life and belief system without the biblical God).

Introduction

On the Jewish high holiday of yom kippur the Day of Atonement (in October 2013), during the worship service, after one of the Torah scrolls had been taken from the aron hakodesh, the holy Torah ark or holy Torah closet, there arose something like a collective gasp emanating from the congregation. Three Torah scrolls tumbled from the Torah shrine’s open doors with one of them partially unscrolled, touching ground and being slightly damaged.

Catastrophe! What next?

Why is such an accident considered a disaster? Because the Torah (the hand-written Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses, (Genesis through Deuteronomy), is the centerpiece of Judaism without which the Jewish religion could not exist. Without the Torah and a minyan, (an assembly of a minimum of ten Jewish adults), public worship cannot take place according to Jewish tradition. Torah is the greatest treasure the Jewish people possess. Torah is referred to as etz chayiim, a “tree of life for those who hold on to it.” As a sign of contrition for having let this happen the tradition calls for a congregational fast of 40 days.

One of the earliest mentions of this practice is found in a responsum (a rabbinic response to a question submitted to a rabbi or a body of rabbis by a congregant or a congregation) of Rabbi Israel of Brunna (present day Brno, capital of Moravia in the Czech Republic, 15th century). According to this responsum the fall of a Torah scroll is something for which one must repent not just as an individual but by the congregation. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (18th century) known as the CHIDA explains that by fasting, the congregation repents for the lack of care and respect which allowed the holy object to fall. The tradition of 40 days of fasting is derived from the time that Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for 40 days while receiving the Torah from God, without eating or drinking. Even though in our time this quasi command is not exactly followed – the times they have changed! – people will perform alternate practices of teshuvah (repentance) such as offering monetary gifts to the synagogue or fasting a shorter length of time than 40 days. To have let this happen was a deplorable sign of disrespect for the Torah that demanded repentance as ordered by Jewish minhag or tradition.

Our synagogue leaders decided, rather than calling for a congregational fast, to use the following weeks for special education sessions concerning Torah, its origins, history, values and sanctity.

It was to be my honor to initiate this special educational unit by giving one or more sermons on Shabbat morning on the subject of Torah.

And so I did. My first sermon dealt with how the Near Eastern tribe of the Habiru developed into a theocratic nation presided over by Israel’s second king, David, around the year 1,000 BCE, something I want to deal with in the following essay very briefly. This was followed by a session dealing with David’s and king Solomon’s reign and the initial formation of Torah as the religious and civil constitution, as it were, of the so-called newly formed United Kingdom. It is here that my reconstruction of Israel ‘s history offers elucidations of much that has been puzzling to thoughtful Bible readers. I might add that my understanding of the beginnings of this first version of Israel as a geopolitical entity shows some resemblance to the formation of our country, its Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Before we go any further with this we need to agree that Judaism as well as Christianity teach that their respective religion’s origins came by way of revelation from the biblical God. So, for instance, as the Torah scrolls are about to be returned to the Torah ark, one of the congregants holds up high the partially opened Torah scroll for everyone to see its written text while the congregation chants in Hebrew, “This is the Torah that Moses set/placed before the people Israel [al piy adonay] by order of the LORD , through Moses.”

Note: The literal translation of the Hebrew in italics above is an idiom that reads “according to the mouth of.” When LORD is found written in English Bibles as used here it stands for the four sacred letters Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh usually transliterated as Y-H-W-H and representing the name of God as revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush. The tradition calls for the Torah reader to pronounce these four letters as adonay, the Hebrew word for “LORD” in 1st person plural possessive form or actually “my lords,” followed by a verb or adjective in singular. (More about this a bit later when we will discuss Judaism’s only faith affirmation, called the shema.)

It follows that the words “set, placed, given” in this literary context are synonyms for “revealed.” Based on this text sung in synagogue and found in many other biblical places that deal with God’s spoken conversations with Moses, the Torah was given to Moses for the purpose of its transmission to the people Israel in order to serve the people as instruction and guidance for life, as well as religious law. It follows that the word “Torah” when translated into English (or any other modern language) needs to be translated as one of the three nouns given above depending on the literary context in which it is found. Let me mention here that one of the gross errors found in the New Testament where reference is made to a Hebrew Bible text, the ever repeated translation of the word “Torah” is given as law.

It could be said that Torah in an ultimate sense is not just about religion but represents guidance to a way of life as, allegedly, demanded by the biblical God.


Note: Please direct your comments or responses to my e-mail, waziff at aol dot com. Thanks.

Pesach: History, Myth and Meaning

Pesach, the Hebrew name for the Jewish holiday of Passover has come and gone and now offers me an opportunity to discuss its historicity, its mythological elements and its possible meanings for us moderns, as I understand it. It is in the Book of Exodus, the second book in the Hebrew Bible, that the story of Pesach (so called from here on) is told. For me, it is the Pesach story and the subsequent liberation and the Exodus (Latin for departure, in Hebrew yetziyat mitzrayim) from Egypt of the Jewish slaves that represents Judaism’s “root experience.” Given the fact that Christianity is Judaism’s religious offshoot and, as such, appropriated its antecedent Jewish history, Pesach is also Christianity’s foundation, witness the fact that the first part of every complete Christian Bible consists of the Hebrew or Jewish Bible containing the Book of Exodus. The Hebrew name of the book is shemot, meaning “names,” deriving its name from the first significant word in the first sentence of that book.

I have often been asked whether the Pesach story within the Exodus narrative is historical. Without going here into fine details, my response has been YES, albeit with a qualifying remark suggesting that as is the case with much religious literature, related events having an historical kernel, are often exaggerated and mythologized. Considering the time of origin of Exodus which in all probability is the middle of the 13th cent. BCE, this should not surprise us. The same kind of exaggerations are found in Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and other Middle Eastern religious stories. This said, we should not be surprised to find that the Jewish liberation story falls into the same literary milieu. This is not to suggest, however, that the Jewish story’s center, the liberation of the Jewish slaves, is not historical.

Remains, however, the question why what is described in the Bible as an incredible and therefore allegedly miraculous event is nowhere mentioned in Egyptian history of which we have plenty of documentation in terms of ancient monuments, wall, sarcophagi and papyrus inscriptions. One possible answer to this question might just be the ancient Middle Eastern rulers’ reluctance to make known to future generations their countries’ defeats, political mismanagements or miscalculations.

The fact is that Egyptian history nowhere mentions the Jewish slave’s departure from Egypt and thus their liberation from slavery. Given the number of slaves liberated, as indicated in the Book of Exodus having been six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children (Exod. 12:37) suggests that the total number of Hebrew slaves leaving Egypt was somewhere around one million eight hundred thousand people, considering three persons per family. This is an enormous amount of slaves in view of the total population of Egypt at that time having been estimated at only three million people. It is highly unlikely that 3 million people were able to maintain a slave population of say 1.8 million!

This problem’s solution has been found to lie in a possible mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “thousands” – alaphim in this particular literary context. Without going into the technical linguistic details here, scholars suggest that the number of slaves leaving Egypt was closer to 5,000 than 1.8 million.

Egyptian records consisting of correspondence between border guards in the eastern Nile Delta where border fortifications have been excavated, call for reinforcements to stem the flight of Egyptian slaves toward the land of Canaan. Could some of these slaves have been the Hebrew slaves referred to in the biblical story? Probability points in that direction. Based on this correspondence, the numbers of fleeing slaves in the low thousands make much more sense than the hundreds of thousands the biblical narrative suggests.

At the light of the above it can be concluded that the kernel of the Pesach/Exodus story is historical.

There is no need to dwell in any length on all  the miraculous elements in the Exodus narrative. Leading up to the actual departure of the slaves, there are the Ten Plagues, culminating in the death of all the firstborns in Egypt while the Jewish slaves’ children are saved when God himself slays the Egyptian first borns (Exod. 12:29). The parting of the Reed Sea (proper name for the body of water called in the Bible the Red Sea) is another alleged miracle from above, saving the fleeing Israelite slaves from the pursuing Egyptians. Rivers of ink have been spilled trying to explain what happened and Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematographic depiction of the miracle is, while admirably done, not very persuasive.

Is Israel mentioned anywhere at all in Egyptian historical writings? The answer is YES. On a victory monument of pharaoh Marneptah (1213 – 1203 BCE) discovered in 1896 at Thebes, also called the “Israel stele,” the hieroglyphs in line 27 are translated as “Israel.” The name Israel on the stele is mentioned as one among other enemies of Egypt, now defeated. The literal translation of the line reads, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;” It is not clear just who this Israel was or where it was located. The text does not correspond to any such defeat mentioned in the Bible.

Let us now reflect upon the meaning of Pesach and Exodus.

In short, it is a celebration of freedom. Slavery of any kind has no legitimate place on earth. For religious people the mandate to freedom for every human being comes from God and the book of Exodus is the locus of this mandate for Jews and Christians.

As is the case with parables and legends both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, careful reading of the texts brings out contradictions and elements that do not make sense. This kind of literature was written millenia ago and our criticisms are often anachronistic. Had we lived “then,” we probably would have believed just as those ancients believed. This said, I am suggesting that parables and legends first have to be understood within the cultural context of their own time and secondly only in terms of how we, in our time, understand them.

The Haggadah our family used this past Pesach (The Concise Family Seder by Rabbi Alfred J. Kolatch) suggests that the essence of Passover is a message for the conscience and the heart of all humankind about “the deliverance of a people from degrading slavery, from cruel and inhuman tyranny… of the tyranny of poverty and the tyranny of privation,

of the tyranny of wealth and the tyranny of war,

of the tyranny of power and the tyranny of despair,

of the tyranny of disease and the tyranny of time,

of the tyranny of ignorance and the tyranny of [skin] color.”

And so, although it is the unnamed Pharaoh of old who is the tyrant of the Haggadah, it is not he alone of whom we speak at the Pesach seder. There are other tyrants and other tyrannies from which and from whom we need liberation.

To make myself clear, let me give you two widely disparate examples of what I mean by “liberation.” I had a cousin in Haifa, Israel, who had never learned to drive a car. He yearned to be independent from his mother or father having to “sacrifice” some of their time to take him around. Requesting that I intercede with his Mom on his behalf, I did just that only to have the experience of speaking to a wall. Aunt Steffi’s response to my words was, “I would not be able to sleep knowing that George is out in a car by night. I would not have a moment of peace knowing that he is exposed to danger on a highway. The answer is NO. I never will allow George to get a driver license.” You, the reader of these words, should know that my cousin George was only two years younger than I! As I see it, this was a mother’s selfish tyranny from which George needed to come free to become a mature adult..

One other example should explain what I mean by Pesach’s invitation (or is it a mandate?) for us to liberate ourselves from acquired intellectual imprisonment. By now it should be clear to any Jew in this our great country that our “Number One” leader is not only a racist, a misogynist, a white supremacist and also a malevolent cretin. And yet there are organized groups of Jews who support and follow him. In my quest for understanding this phenomenon, I fairly recently asked a Republican friend how he finds it possible to remain a Republican, given the fact that his party has sold out to the devil. His response was, “I vote Republican because the Jews in the south have always voted Republican.” I regretted hearing this because this kind of answer is not an answer from a responsible Jewish citizen, in my opinion.

The examples range from the ridiculous to the very serious. Pesach is a time for responsible reflection, preferably within the physical context of fellow Jews, on issues ranging from the private to the communal. It is also an opportunity to get to know each other as we share our lives’ complexities with friends in an effort to better understand and to grow toward responsibly lived Judaism and so also toward responsible country and world citizenship.

If this past Pesach helped you in such a direction , I am happy for you. If it did not, make sure next year’s celebration will.

Abraham in Interfaith Dialogue

A few days ago I ran into an acquaintance with whom I had a brief conversation about interfaith dialogue. In the course of our conversation he used the term “Abrahamic religions.” At other times I have also heard the phrase “the Abrahamic faiths” referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Having been involved in interfaith conversations myself, these phrase trigger in me a number of thoughts. I do not know the origin of their usage but their meaning is clear enough as they points to Judaism, Christianity and Islam being sibling religions, as it were. In Judaism, Christianity and in Islam Abraham occupies a key position and so suggests a basic commonality between them.

This commonality is generally seen as something positive in as much as it holds the potential for interfaith respect at a minimum, and a feeling of religious brother-and sisterhood at best. It suggests the possibility if not a mandate for peaceful coexistence and cooperation in our common need to confront all kinds of dangers we humans face. Sadly enough, the opposite has been taking place as the three religions oppose, denigrate and fight each other.

Contrary to many folks’ expectations, the religions that claim common origins are precisely the ones that are in tension with each other. Islam, the youngest among the three, belittles and attacks both Christianity and Judaism in the Qur’an, its holy book, as religions who tampered with the original holy texts given to them by God Allah (Sura 3:81-56). There are Qur’anic texts that warn Muslims from having social relationships with practitioners of Judaism and Christianity… The New Testament, especially in its gospel of John, is stridently anti-Jewish… Judaism, in some of its holy scriptures ridicules other ancient Near Eastern religions as examples of gross superstitions. In the Hebrew Bible there is no criticism of either Christianity or of Islam for the simple reason that neither Christianity nor Islam existed prior to the 1st cent. CE, i.e., before Christianity and later Islam came into existence. However in the post-biblical Jewish rabbinical literature we do find statements slanderous of Jesus and Christianity.

In this connection it is worth observing that no animosity exists between Judaism and say Hinduism whose respective sacred texts hold nothing in common. The same is true for Christianity and its relationship say to Confucianism. No animosity there either. So also Islam, to my knowledge, has no quarrel with Buddhism, etc. O n the other hand within Islam itself we find deadly animosity between the Shia and the Sunni movements, both of which claim Islam as their religious legacy and fight each other in the name of Allah.

Let me then restate here that it is precisely religions that claim common origins that are the ones that are in conflict with each other because their interpretations of these common origins vary from each other. The newer interpretations often segue into formation of sects and into new religions that claim to be correctives to previous expressions, take on new names and announce to the world ultimate truths only they hold. These latest revelations from divinity become ultimate authority trying to eclipse precedent expressions of faith by means of missionary teaching or worse, violent conflict.

How does the personage of Abraham relate to all this?

In Judaism, which is not a monolithic religion, Abraham is often claimed as its founder. I would rather vote for Moses and the Exodus from Egypt as the founding experience of Judaism. There are Jews who see in Abraham the founder of monotheism. He is one of the three patriarchs (with Isaac and Jacob) or eponymous ancestors of the religion. He is the role model of the person who obediently carries out God’s instructions. His obedience goes so far as being willing to sacrifice his own son Isaac to God. He lives according to God’s laws by faith before the Torah is given to Moses on Mount Sinai. He is the first to practice circumcision. It is to him and his progeny that God promises possession of what is commonly called the Holy Land. Because of Abraham’s merits, God grants to the people Israel and to its later expression, the Jewish people, his covenant or special relationship with him and so also the promised land. There are other promises too numerous to mention here.

In Christianity, which is not a monolithic religion either, Abraham is seen as the role model of human faith and obedience to God. In that sense he is the prefiguration par excellence of Jesus, the Christ. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac is proleptic of God’s subsequent willingness to give His son Jesus as a sacrifice for the redemption of humankind. And Isaac, Judaism’s second patriarch who according to the biblical text is willing to be sacrificed, foreshadows Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross for the salvation of humanity. Thus, according to Christianity (cf. the apostle Paul’s writing), the Abraham story foreshadows its actualization in Jesus Christ. Actualization is, of course, of greater value than mere prophecy! Given this Christian valuation, Christianity and the Christian people supercede and displace Judaism and Jews from their special relationship to God. The covenant with the Jews is annulled and instead, established with the Christian Church, i.e., the Christian people.

In Islam, which is not a monolithic religion either, Abraham is the believer par excellence who obeys God Allah. The term Islam means submission and Muslims are the people who in following Allah’s word in the holy book called the Qur’an (or recitation) submit to the divinity. In Muslim theology, Abraham, in Arabic Ibrahim, is the first who submits to Allah’s word and so, here also, is the role model for what it means to live in submission or surrender to God. Also, however,  Abraham, or rather Ibrahim, in Islam’s teaching is thus the first Muslim, having totally surrendered to Allah’s will. Whereas in Judaism it is Abraham’s son Isaac who was to be sacrificed, in Islam it is Abraham’s and Sarah’s older son Ishmael (in Arabic, Ismail) who was to die and so, by submitting to be sacrificed, Ishmael becomes the eponymous ancestor of Muslims. Ibrahim and Ishmael built the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, in the city of Mecca. Jerusalem is the place from where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven after his Night Journey from Mecca and thus the Dome of the Rock, from where the prophet ascended and the nearby al-Aqsa mosque are the third holiest shrines for Muslims, the second holiest site being the al-Masjid an-Nabawi (Mosque of the Prophet) in the city of Medina. Because it is Allah’s word in the Qur’an, transmitted to humanity by the prophet Muhammad, it is by virtue of these words being the latest divine revelation, that the Qur’an displaces both the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament. According to Muslim scholars, the Qur’an corrects both the Jewish and Christian Holy Scriptures where they had been tampered with and so restores the antecedent original revelations from God.

These three sets of religious affirmations, all three claiming to have issued from the God of the Hebrew Bible and the Jews, the trinitarian God of the New Testament and the Christians, and from Allah, the Qur’an’s God of Islam and the Muslims, respectively, do not agree with one another. In the minds of each of these religions’ literalist readers and practitioners, their God and their scripture calls for unquestioning acceptance and adherence. Figurative and/or metaphorical exegesis of holy book texts are not permitted. In that kind of religious fundamentalism it is “we” (believers) against “them” (unbelievers). Every reading and sermon of these divisive texts underlines and perpetuates separation and superiority, two disturbing and destructive attitudes.

Returning now to modern interfaith dialogue, it is my contention that problems of this kind, rather than to be swept under the rug, must be honestly confronted and discussed, before lasting improvement in interfaith relations can be achieved through inter-faith conversations. I do not believe that sitting around a campfire, holding hands and singing “kumbaya, my lord” will get us anywhere.

The regular reading in mosque, church, synagogue or at home of these divisive texts perpetuate misunderstanding and mutual alienation. Only the honest facing of the divisive texts, their learned study and discussion which involves historical context, perhaps even their elimination altogether or, at the least, critical annotation in Bibles, New Testaments and Qur’ans, will advance mutual respect and rapprochement. Perhaps I am asking for the impossible.

This said, I recommend the teaching of the great Rabbi Tarfon (1st to 2nd cent. CE), “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either,” (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:21).

Congratulations are due to those interfaith groups who are courageous and dedicated enough to undertake that difficult and risky task.