We’re Not Dead Yet: Asking and Arguing is Religious Living
Rosh Hashana Morning 5775 – 2014
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
Reading the words of the Akedah – the passage from Genesis that depicts the Binding of Isaac – is a tradition that dates back more than a 1000 years!! 1000 years of Jews reading the same passage over and over again.
One wonders how it can continue to have meaning. And yet, surely there is something to be said of a brief section of Torah that continues to inspire generations of Jews – not to mention rabbis who are called upon to remark on this passage.
This Rosh Hashana, this New Year, I want to speak not of the actions that occur in this dramatic encounter with Abraham and Isaac, but I want to redirect our focus this morning to the character of Abraham and share several stories — some from our tradition and some a bit more contemporary – that will give us insight into why he is such an important model for us today and everyday.
So what can we learn from the ancients who created his persona? Why is Abraham held up not only as the person who will be the father of our people, but, also and more significantly, that Abraham is to the archetype, the individual who personifies what the essence of Jewish living should be.
Let me begin with a story that is not quite as old as our dear friend Abraham.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who some of you may know from his numerous books and teachings on God, Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, loves to tell this story. In the 1960s he was a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College, studying in New York.
Having come from a classical Reform background in Detroit, he was less familiar with Talmud than some of his more traditional classmates.
One afternoon he ensconced himself in a little hole-in-the-wall Kosher restaurant near the school in the Lower East Side of NYC to study.
Parked at one of those large Formica tables and working his way through a big tome of Talmud, he noticed an older man with a just-off-the-boat accent, wearing a beard, a black hat and coat, sitting a few tables away. There was practically no one else in the place.
“Nu, young man,” said the onlooker, noticing Kushner’s papers and large volume of the Talmud, “I see you are a student.”
Startled by the interruption in his train of thought, the future Rabbi Kushner looked up and managed a quiet “…Yes.”
“So,” said the older man, “if you are a student, let’s have an argument.”
The ‘startle’ Kushner felt suddenly turned into ‘confusion.’ “But I’m Jewish, too,” he quickly said. And added: “And I believe in God.”
“Okay,” said the older Jewish man, “so then I don’t.”
Kushner was now thrown entirely off balance. It was as if he had invited him to a game of chess. “You want the white pieces? OK. Then I’ll take the black.”
Remarkably, in some religions – far too many of them, actually – the pieces of the game only come in one color. Everyone plays one side of the board, or they can’t play at all.
In Judaism, there is simply no other way to understand religion without a back-and-forth discussion; without an argument or a dialogue between two people who care deeply about the important questions at hand.
Today, there are many important ideas and questions we grapple with. Politics, here and abroad; economics for the good of the nation and the good of its citizens; the ethical actions of our sports heroes and the franchises they play for; our military presence across the globe and our police departments here at home; the rights of immigrants and women and gays and those who wish to legalize marijuana; and those who wish to outlaw abortion. The list is endless.
Those many years ago in that small restaurant, my colleague simply didn’t understand the point his would-be chess partner at the time was making. Only later, he shares, was it that he came to understand that religious dialogue – what some call arguing — was how Judaism endures.
It was and remains for Rabbi Kushner — as it should for all of us — the most sacred of religious acts. And it begins in our tradition with our friend Abraham.
I am fond of saying that Judaism speaks with many voices, and that we are not just inheritors of a sacred tradition, but shapers of it, as well, with the voices we contribute to the ever-unfolding history of Jewish ideas. Sometimes our voices are among the chorus of others. And sometimes ours is a lone voice that speaks out against what others have said before us. Such was true when the Reform movement began. It was true 2000 years ago when the rabbis first emerged, and it was true nearly 1000 years before that in the days of Abraham.
Abraham, as you probably know, was an idol breaker. Perhaps the most famous midrash, the most well known Biblical story that isn’t in the Bible, is the one of Abraham breaking his father’s idols.
It is a wonderful rabbinic story written nearly 1500 years ago that gives to Abraham the strength to give voice to his sense of what was true – even in the face of many voices saying otherwise – including his own father’s.
Abraham’s father, Terach was an idol-maker. Once he had to travel, so he left Abraham to manage the shop. People would come in and ask to buy idols. Abraham would ask, ” What kind of god do you wish to buy?” They would tell him and then he would ask: “How old are you?”
The person would say, “Fifty,” or “Sixty”. Abraham would reply, “Isn’t it sad that a man of your age wants to bow down to a one-day-old idol?” Each visitor to the shop would feel ashamed and leave.
One time a woman came with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, “Take this and offer it to the gods”.
Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them.
When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. “Who did this?” he cried.
“How can I hide anything from you?” replied Abraham calmly. “A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, “I’m going to eat first.” Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces.”
“Are you making fun of me?” asked Terach, “These idols can’t do anything.”
Abraham replied: “You say they can do nothing. Your ears should hear what your own mouth is saying. Indeed, they have no power at all! “
(Midrash Bereishit 38:13)
Abraham’s shattering of his father’s idols becomes an imperative to each of us. And his sharp words to his father remind us that sometimes we do not act as we know we should.
When we are confronted with ideas that do not sit right with us, we must not remain silent. We, like Abraham, must stand up to those who would have us settle for worthless clay –whether it takes the shape of government policies on immigration that are outmoded or cultural norms that tolerate domestic violence against women or gun manufacturing practices that jeopardize the safety of those who seek to protect us.
Abraham is distinguished in Jewish tradition for being an “Ish Tzaddik” a righteous man.
What makes Abraham a Tzaddik, a truly righteous person, is his Chutzpah.
According to Rabbinic tradition, Abraham was 13 years old when he destroyed the idols of his father. Years later, when God was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argued with God.
“Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham asks.
“What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will You sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of them? Far be it from You to do such a thing—to bring death upon the righteous as well as the wicked, treating them all alike. Far be it from You! Will not the Judge of all the earth do justly?”
[from Genesis 18]
God relents and allows that for the sake of 50 righteous people, the city will be spared. Over and over again Abraham continues to challenge God – until, for the sake of ten righteous people, God agrees to spare the cities.
What makes Abraham a Tzaddik, an exemplary righteous man, is not that he is perfect, but that he is willing to argue his position; he is willing to take a stand and speak out for the sake of his convictions. Even against his God.
In Hebrew, the word HELEK means PART. A MAHLOKET, an argument, is, literally, a parting between two sides, one helek and another helek.
In Pirkei Avot in the Mishnah it says:
Kol mahloket shehi l’shem shamayim, sofah l’hitkayem;
Any argument that is for the sake of Heaven, in the end it will succeed;
Kol mahloket she-lo l’shem shamayim, ayn sofah l’hitkayem;
Any argument not for the sake of Heaven, will in the end not succeed.
Now, “succeed” is not exactly what the text says. It says l’hitkayem. That word carries the sense of “existing,” as in “the argument will continue to exist – it will endure.” What can this mean?
An argument fought for the sake of Heaven – that is, for ultimate Truth and Goodness – will in fact never end. It will never cease to exist.
As long as both sides push each other toward a truth that is greater and more profound than any small-minded agenda either side could bring to the table, then the argument itself –the mahloket–will keep producing new and authentic paths of living.
Among the most famous rabbis of the Talmud were Hillel and Shammai. Hillel and Shammai brought questioning to an even higher level than many of their peers. Their personalities are best understood from the Talmudic story of the man who came to them seeking to convert to Judaism.
In tractate Shabbat 31a we find the following story:
“On one occasion it happened that a man seeking to convert to Judaism came before Shammai and said to him, “I’d like to convert to Judaism, on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.”
Shammai, insulted by this ridiculous request and who happened also to be an engineer, threw him out of the house, but not before chasing him away with the builder’s measuring stick that was in his hand.
The man, still determined, then came before Hillel. When he got to his place, he also asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.”
Hillel and Shammai disagreed on most matters of Jewish law. In fact, the Talmud records over 300 differences of opinion between Beit Hillel (the House of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the House of Shammai). In almost every one of these disputes, Hillel’s view prevailed. Yet Shammai’s position is preserved in the text.
Despite the frequent differences of opinion between the inclusive interpreter of Torah and the strict literalist, one matter they both agreed upon was that argument, the back and forth struggle to grasp the essence of truth, was in itself the quintessential religious act. There could be no Judaism without questions, without arguing over the answers. To stop arguing would mean that Judaism had also ceased to be.
Rabbi Les Bronstein, the chair of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, says: In serious Judaism, we don’t “resolve” good, important arguments. We keep them going. Without our arguments, without questions, we would cease to exist, not as human beings, of course, but certainly as Jews.
A final story:
The Hassidic rebbe Simcha Bunim once went on a walk with his disciples. Along the way, he and his entourage encountered a group of Jews engaged in casual conversation. Simcha Bunim said to his disciples, “Do you see those Jews over there? They’re dead.”
The disciples were confused. Finally, one of them spoke up: “What do you mean, dead? They look perfectly alive to me.”
“They are dead,” the rebbe said, “because they have stopped asking questions and searching for the right answers.” The Hassidim walked on, pondering his statement.
Finally, one of the bolder disciples approached the rebbe and asked, “Then how do I know that I am not dead?”
The rebbe turned to him and answered, “Because you asked.”
We who are here this morning are not yet dead. Asking questions, challenging and sometimes breaking from the old ways, is THE quintessential Jewish activity. Arguing is, for the living, a deeply religious activity!
Our community has endured for millennia despite brutal animosity, exile, homelessness and near destruction because we have asked questions and we have continued to search for meaningful and honest answers to all of life’s questions – great and small. Our community will continue to do so only if we are part of that conversation, that argument, that struggle to keep asking.
May the New Year inspire us to add our voices to this sacred task.