Transforming Our Divided Community - Rosh Hashanah Talk at Hill Havura (in residence at Lutheran Chu
Jewish New Year Day 1 Talk, 5766
at Lutheran Church Of The Reformation, East Capitol Street, Washington DC, NorthEast
"Transforming Our Divided Community: From Contentious to Capacious"
(C) Ari Roth
Shana Tova. It is very good to be with you for this beautiful, participatory service. The parsha we read on this first day of Rosh Hashanah speaks to a cleavage in the family. A household disunited. Genesis 21 opens happily enough; with a miracle; an unlikely birth. There is joy and laughter in beholding a new creation. Then comes disequilibrium; a historic and symbolic rift. I want to address that rift; that cleavage; in our time today -- because rifts seem to have been very much with us this summer -- indeed this whole year -- in a way that's felt more disfiguring, more worrisome, more ALTERING perhaps than anytime in recent memory for us as Jews.
And yet this is a Hopeful Talk: "Transforming Our Divided Community," with the subtitle: "From Contentious to Capacious" -- a hopefulness that aligns itself with the month of Elul - the month of Atonement - as I encountered in an earlier torah portion, parshat Shoftim - or Judges - for a d'var torah given 3 weeks ago on the confluence between judgment and atonement as dictated by our calendar - What I took to be a Truth & Reconciliation process embedded in our tradition that forces internal analysis and deep contemplation for an authentic coming to terms. That was the upshot of that earlier d'var torah -- and I want to mention it -- as it's of a piece with the hard-bitten optimism I'm sharing with you today. Still, two d'var torah's in three weeks amounts to a 'lotta quasi-pre-rabbinic Judaism for one Trouble-Making Producer-Playwright, wouldn't ya say!?
No matter. My experience these past eight months (since leaving the JCC and finding a home on H Street, Northeast at the Atlas Performing Arts Center and culminating, in a sense, here today at Hill Havura, where my family and I have been happy to be welcomed so warmly) has left me feeling hopeful and touched by a newly expanding sense of community – civic and spiritual -- even amid the historic divisiveness we've been experiencing in this year of the Iran Nuclear Deal; of difficult Israeli elections that wound up making a pit-stop into our own bitterly-divided House of Representatives; Israeli elections that wound up taking prisoners, in a sense; an election with casualties, setting the clock back on dissent in Israel; on free expression, and the charting of an alternative direction, and we've felt the percussions of that here.
With all that fractiousness, you might ask: "So do you still have reason for optimism? Or, in responding to Mosaic Theater's tagline for the season: "The Case For Hope in a Polarized World." You might say, "Really? That's some pretty fierce polarization!"
And still I maintain, yes: There is a case; for hope; and transformation. If we earn it. If we look at ourselves and our troubles deeply; because we look at ourselves and our troubles deeply -- because the torah compels us to, on an annual basis -- there is reason to believe that renewal and repair for our extended household are just around the corner. And that belief is born out by what's brought me to this side of town; this birth of a new theater company -- a multi-cultural meeting place for art and transformative theater with a gentle Jewish touch-point -- born in the wake of a long-running controversy that seemed part of lager drama -- a drama we're collectively writing that has the potential to end with wholeness; from contentiousness to capaciousness; where we're all the co-authors.
Of course I could be wrong. This could be a naïve misreading of the biblical text (and a misreading of the last 8 months). But one thing we do know; there's no single correct way of interpreting text; or what we deduce from events in our own history. We divine our future as we define our past. So let's look at our history.
As we do, we might see something of the wisdom (or just historical inevitability) in our making space to accommodate difference; of the value conferred by our Talmudic tradition of deliberation and debate, even as it's led to hardened divisions (where the reconciliation is in the multiplicity of oppositional positions that remain). That would be a recipe for Pluralism in our tradition. (Or as one Palestinian-European friend of Muslim and Christian background wrote to me recently: "That's the power of the Jewish people: no docile loyalty to a doctrine, but constant reflection and reevaluation.") Or has all that divisiveness taken a toll? Has it been a contributor to our historical weakness? Has our inability to create a synthesis led to the diminishing of the Jewish people?
How do we read today's portion and the story of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael? Do we emphasize the capaciousness, or the contentiousness in our torah portion today?
Our history as a people does seem to be that of a House Divided. In a relatively recent book called The Synagogue in America: A Short Historyby Marc Lee Raphael, we learn that rifts, splits, factions, and an ever-evolving tension between tradition and modernity have been a defining characteristic. That internecine conflict -- arguing ourselves into a frenzy -- has been a source of humor and entertainment for years as well.
You've heard the clichés: 2 Jews; 3 opinions. Or the story: A Jew is shipwrecked on a desert island. Ten years later, a passing ship notices his campfire and stops to rescue him. When the captain comes ashore, the castaway thanks him and offers him a tour of the island. He shows off the weapons he's made for hunting, the fire pit where he cooks, the synagogue he built where he prays, the hammock where he sleeps. On their way back to the ship, the captain notices a second synagogue. “I don’t get it,” the captain asks; “why did you need to build two synagogues?” “Oh,” says the Jew, “that's the synagogue I wouldn't be caught dead in.”
What bounty. What waste. And what a good joke.
Speaking of Laughter. Let's look at how today's parsha about Abraham's Divided House begins. With the words:
"And Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born. And Sarah said, "God hath made laughter for me; everyone that heareth will laugh on account of me. Who would have said unto Abraham that Sarah should give children suck; for I have born him a son in his old age. And the child grew and was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport."
"Va-teyreh Sarah et Ben Hagar Ha-Mitzrit asher yalda L-Avraham M-Tzachek." The verb "making sport" is more literally "to mock." Using the same letters/derivation (Tzadi - Chet - Koof – M-Tzachek) as Yitzchak. The words are twins. So are Ishmael and Isaac; too much alike. Traditionally, the rabbis believe Ishmael to have been guilty of idolatry. Or jealousy. "Ishmael laughed derisively at the feasting and rejoicing over the child Isaac, inasmuch as he was the elder son and heir to his father's estate. Hence Sarah's desire to drive him out of the house."
She demands from Abraham that he expel both Ishmael and Hagar from the household. God promises Abraham that Ishmael's descendents will be made into a nation, for he, too, is Abraham's seed. Abraham expels Hagar and Ishmael; they wander in the desert and eventually run out of water. Ishmael is about to perish from thirst when an angel "opens Hagar's eyes" and shows her a well from which to give Ishmael to drink. Ishmael is saved. He grows up in the desert, becomes a skilled archer and marries an Egyptian woman. Ishmael will go on, indeed, to be the leader of a great nation, far more plentiful than the children of Israel. What does this tell us?
In her book The Curse of Cain, Regina Schwartz bemoans what she calls the Torah’s scarcity principle—this painful idea that there can be only one land, one covenant, one blessing. It is, as she suggests, the dark side of monotheism.
Perhaps we are too much a people of One Truth/One Way/My Way/Or the Highway -- too "Mono-Ideational" -- dispensing with our Talmudic training and the notion that there are many perspectives or narratives that might co-exist. Just how Pluralistic is our faith? How have we reacted historically to the development of alternate religious expressions?
With pretty violent opposition, that's how.
Let's consult with Dr. Wikipedia as we review the long trail of schisms throughout Jewish history:
• Second Temple era (70 AD) A time when the Jews lived under Persian, Greek, and Roman power. The main internal struggles were between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; who argued about whether there was life after death; as well as the Essenes and Zealots, who quarralled over armed resistance vs. a contemplative transcendance. All were at violent logger-heads with each other around a whole host of philosophical and practical matter, leading to the confusion and disunity that ended with the destruction of the Second Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem by Rome.
Schisms within the Jewish life have defined our history.
• Karaite Judaism (7th to 9th Century) bitterly rejected the rabbinic tenet that an Oral Torah (oral law) was transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai along with the written scriptures - the Tanakh was all to them. Accordingly, they rejected the central works of Rabbinic Judaism including the Midrash and the Talmud. The division, you could argue impacted the growth of Judaism for centuries.
• In 1648 Shabtai Tzvi declared himself to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah whilst living in the Ottoman Empire. Vast numbers of Jews, known as Sabbateans, believed him; but when under pain of a death sentence in front of the Turkish sultan Mehmed IV he became an apostate from Judaism by becoming a Muslim, his movement crumbled.
• Hasidim and Mitnagdim The arrival of the Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760) on the scene in Eastern Europe would herald the commencement of a sea change in what is known today as Haredi Judaism. Even though he did not write books, he succeeded in gaining powerful disciples to his teachings that were based on the earlier expositions of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572) known as the Ari who had based much of his Kabbalistic teachings on the Zohar. The Baal Shem Tov came at a time when the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe were reeling in bewilderment engendered by the two notorious Jewish false messiahs Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank (1726–1791) .
The Mitnagdim (deriving from the word NEGED or against) were those who were oppose/d to Hasidim. The bitterness and animosity between the two ran deep for centuries; they lived in the same communities but we're separated. When confronted by mutual threats, such as from the secular Jews of the [Enlightenment] or by the onslaught of Communism and the Holocaust, or faced by secular Zionists, Hasidim and Mitnagdim worked together. When the outside world does not threaten them, their battle of ideas resumes as an intellectual debate. Each group has its own unique method of yeshivastudy and communal life, no matter where they establish.
• Orthodox versus Reform (then Conservative vs. Reform), Eastern Europe versus Western Europe. A profound cultural schism was created between the more westernised English, German and French-speaking Western European Jews and their more religiously observant Yiddishspeaking Eastern European brethren whom they denigratingly labeled Ost Yidden. These schisms and the debates surrounding them, continue with a different ferocity in all Jewish communities today as the Reform and Orthodox movements continue to confront each other over a wide range of religious, social, political and ethnic issues.
And our schisms on Israel precedes the founding of the state: There's Christian Zionism, Cultural Zionism, General Zionists, Labor Zionism, Religious Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Secular Zionism, and of course, Anti-Zionism
Cut to President Obama two weeks ago, putting our history, and the recent months of rough debate in perspective, as Congress was returning to take up discussion of the Iran Deal:
"Sometimes fights within families and among friends can be more heated than fights with people that you don’t care about — it’s been true in my family, anyway. And so even over the next several weeks, as we get to the conclusion of the congressional debate, I think it is important for everybody to just take a breath for a moment and recognize that people on both sides of the debate love the United States and also love Israel."
How significant it is that every Jewish New Year we read of this situation; this eviction and this close call with Ishmael on the brink of death? We are compelled to revisit the fraternal divide; the Patriarch and his progeny unable to live under the same roof. The wife and The Other Woman -- with the clear pecking order -- the household stratification; we are reminded that all in the home will not be treated equally, and that two people will emerge from a single source and occupy much the same land -- this shared paternal lineage will yield problems. Yet the chapter begins with Laughter and Miracles! And a cognition of the Other -- And that God will provide the well. There will be resource and sustenance enough.
What to make of a hope for rapprochement between Isaac and Ishmael? Because four chapters later (in Genesis 25) Ishmael and Isaac do meet again, at the Cave of the Machpela (in the field of Ephron; today, Hebron) for the funeral of Abraham who dies at the ripe old age of 137. We don't know what is said between them. But we learn of Ishmael's plentiful descendants. The children of Abraham will grow up near each other, but worlds apart.
And so in this annual meditation, we don't see an easy call to a seamless synthesis of opposing world views in the House of Abraham. Our religion may not be all that capacious, after all. But there is also the realization that God will provide. There will be water enough. There will be a well. There will be modern miracles. Desalination plants. Drip irrigation. Resource sharing; not resource hoarding. And there will be a continually individuating Jewish people, forever renegotiating its relationship to the non-Jewish world, be they Democrat or Republican; Christian Zionist or religious Muslim. Ours is to be aware of a common kinship with every group outside of our own. We get all that on this first day of Rosh Hashanah.
So that's the measured message of hope and instruction for all of us at Mosaic Theater, as we contemplate our launch and the continuation of our acclaimed yet controversial Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, journeying away from our birth center on 16th street, NW, planting roots in a new quadrant and throughout the city, as the Festival travels beyond the Atlas to Woolly Mammoth, Arena Stage, AU, UMD, GMU, and maybe even Bowie State. How are we to make meaning of the banishment? No longer at the Community Center, we are still part of the community circle; part of a larger cultural and spiritual cohort.
Born from a cleavage, our new Mosaic is now free to be that thing: an intentional fusion of communities coming together, forging experiences of common reckoning and reflection; brought together by art and urgency. That this has been possible to establish says something powerful about our city, our community, our country; the bountiful times we live in. It is a heartening, challenging, and significant moment.
But a final thought, as we turn back to our parsha, and look at the actual, knotty, and challenging work that we'll be producing this season that -- like the story of Isaac and Ishmael -- is neither Feel-Good Talk of Tolerance, nor will all the plays conclude with Happy Hollywood Endings.
"The Case For Hope?" Will our plays truly live up to that billing? Because in the plays we dramatize, the fractiousness is real, the breaks are strong, and the movements toward resolution, healing, and wholeness… well, they're the stuff of real life.
• Whether in the drama of Rwanda (UNEXPLORED INTERIOR) -- and a young man of Tutsi background going back to his Hutu best friend now in prison, to find out who killed his grandfather; and the shocking discovery he makes.
• Or in THE GOSPEL OF LOVINGKINDNESS -- as a neighborhood comes together in the wake of another untimely death of an African-American teenager -- with visitations from Ida B. Wells, an emissary from the Civil Rights Movement -- still the question: Can healing come from such tragedy?
• Or in our plays from and about Israel that speak to bitter divides (WRESTLING JERUSALEM, or I SHALL NOT HATE, ERETZ CHADASHA/THE PROMISED LAND, and AFTER THE WAR...)
Sometimes divisions are lasting and profound. Which makes the coming into wholeness in their aftermath all the sweeter. How we come to recognize and make peace with those scars in the terrain makes all the difference. How well-mediated and synthesized our separations are foretells the kind of future we'll have in "living with difference."
Let's end with two concluding excerpts Aaron Davidman's WRESTLING JERUSALEM, which opens our Voices Festival in January. As we move from divisiveness to wholeness; from fractiousness to Oneness. First, a rabbi:
"Judaism is my religion. In this religion we worship of YHVH. The Hebrew legers of God’s name. YHVH is not the God of what is. YHVH is the God of what ought to be. The God of Becoming. The God of possibility. The creative force of transformation. Adonai Echad. We are God. Why do so many people throughout history hate the Jews?! They ask me. Because we DON’T accept the world as it is. Because, as Rabbi Heschel taught us, the greatest sin in this life is the sin of despair. Because our heritage is a heritage of shit-stirring. Because we revolted against our captivity in Egypt. We broke the circle of slavery: Moses. We broke the circle of human sacrifice: Abraham. We broke the confinement of the dark ages into the Enlightenment: Spinoza. We broke the class system in Russia: Trotsky. We helped break the race barrier in the United States. We drained the swamps in Eretz Yisrael and built an amazing country here in the Middle East! We are inventors. We are creators. We are storytellers. We are agents of change. We are light unto the nations. Light!
This is my Judaism. My Judaism in NOT a Judaism of expulsion and land grabs; My Judaism is not a Judaism of concrete walls and settlements; My Judaism is not a Judaism of cluster bombs and armored bulldozers; My Judaism does not bomb UN shelters; My Judaism is not a Judaism of massacre. My Judaism sees the sanctity of all life. My Judaism calls for compassion and generosity. My Judaism builds bridges not walls. My Judaism says Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Elohainu, Adonai Echad.
Next, a kibbutznik:
"I used to read the paper. To follow politics. I don’t even watch TV anymore. I don’t listen to the news. It’s...I cannot. I have only to work in the kitchen. I am a dishwasher. To read my books. And listen to music. You like Bob Dylan?! Wow. Okay. He’s deep. My girlfriend loved Bob Dylan.
I don’t have a girlfriend right now. I have nightmares. So...it’s not so easy. To be with me. To sleep by my side. I have to...find my way. First. Then, maybe, some day...I’ve had therapy. Lots of therapy. I only lasted in the army for six months. Six months. And after that I thought I would go to India. All my friends go to India after the army. I thought I would go to “find myself.” But then...if I can’t find myself here, how I am going to find myself in India?
It was on Ben Yehuda Street. In high school. With my friends. And...you know what means piggua? ...A bomber...exploded himself. And because I happened to be...just at the corner...protected by a wall...I am here. I...exist. But my two friends...
You know, in Torah, in the Bible, there are 3 commandments to love. You know this? Only 3, in the whole Bible. Love who? Love God. V’ahavta et Adonai. Okay. That one is obvious. Don’t have to believe in God, by the way, just love God. What’s Number 2? Love your neighbor as yourself. V’ahavta l’rayachah Kamocha. No surprise there. May be difficult for some...but... What’s the third? Love your parents? No. Love your wife, your husband? No. Your children? No. The Stranger. V’ahavtem et haGer. We are commanded, commanded, to Love the Stranger.
To love Ishsmael - as we would love Isaac.
Judaism is a survivor religion. It has overcome so much; atrocity; holocaust; pogrom; race hatred -- It is a refugee religion, continuing to be reborn from strife and schism. Let us remember to love the Mosaic that is a collecting of all of our splintered parts. We are not Mono-Ideational. We are multi-variegated.
We are indeed living through some difficult disagreements, which have led to schisms, banishments. But we are resilient. And our history is the richer because of our abilities to reinvent creatively.
May our conflicts be well-mediated. May we find room to focus on the future; not get stuck for casting blame about the past. Let us celebrate what we've achieved, and work to repair and refine that which is not yet whole. It is our task, our legacy, and our proud history.