SERMON DELIVERED FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2018 – CHAI SOCIETY SHABBAT
WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE
In May, a distinguished guest speaker made quite a stir with his remarks at the graduation ceremonies of the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion Los Angeles campus. That speaker was Michael Chabon, celebrated author of critically acclaimed novels like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Telegraph Avenue and Moonglow, as well as non-fiction such as Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.
Chabon’s speech, entitled, “Those People, Over There,” offered a stinging rebuke of the time-honored Jewish project of setting and enforcing boundaries. He described Judaism this way: “The whole thing’s a giant interlocking system of distinctions and divisions and the means—through prayer and ritual, narrative and commentary—of drawing them. The whole story begins with three mighty acts of division: day from night, heaven from earth, sea from land. After that it’s all boundaries and bright lines, from the bookended candle-lightings of Shabbat to a woman’s monthly mikveh, from circumcision to the bar mitzvah ceremony, from the Four Questions to the bedikat chametz [the ritual search for, and extermination of, leaven before Pesach], from the shearing of a bride’s hair to the intricate string-webs of an eruv [the physical boundary of a Jewish neighborhood]. This night is not all those other nights. This is a woman, no longer a girl. We are not those people, over there.”
It is a fascinating and not-inaccurate portrayal of our religious enterprise. Learning to distinguish day from night, right from wrong, holy from profane, kosher from treyf is quintessentially Jewish. The act of Havdalah, which means to separate or distinguish, is not reserved only for Saturday nights when we mark the sunset boundary between the Sabbath and the new week; Havdalah is a Jewish approach to living. A Havdalah mindset has enabled us Jews to define ourselves as distinct even as we have endeavored to find the best ways to get along in diverse societies for thousands of years. Particularly in America, we Jews have struggled to locate the best balance between fitting in and assimilating, between honoring our distinctiveness and excluding ourselves from the opportunities of modern life.
Chabon said: “I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers.” Elaborating: “I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence, for jazz and Afrobeat and Thai surf music, for integrated neighborhoods and open borders and the preposterous history of Barack Obama. I am for the hodgepodge cuisines of seaports and crossroads, for sampling and mashups, pastiche and collage. I am for ambiguity, ambivalence, fluidity, muddle, complexity, diversity, creative balagan [a great Hebrew slang word meaning ‘mess’ or ‘chaos’]. Even when it comes to my own psyche, the only emotions I really trust are mixed emotions.”
So far, so good, right? But the controversy erupted over what came next, as Chabon made his case in favor of intermarriage (“An endogamous marriage is a ghetto of two”), and against Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank (“Security for some means imprisonment for all”). Some of those in attendance walked out. Reform Jewish leaders continue to experience blowback over the choice of commencement speaker. And the September issue of Commentary Magazine ran an article called “Saving Judaism from Michael Chabon.”
I, for one, am all in favor of provocative, respectful speeches and think they give us an opportunity to lean into challenging conversations. I’d much rather hear what a Michael Chabon has to say than to silence anyone with a controversial point-of-view.
Having said that, I found Chabon’s argument—as I find much of Chabon’s writing—entertaining, provocative, mind-stretching, and, at times, maddening. Especially frustrating for me was his curious refusal to explore the positive value conveyed—sometimes—by walls and barriers, by separation and distinctiveness, instead hewing strictly to a simplistic, binary logic: borders bad, commingling good. I would have hoped and expected a writer and thinker as gifted and nuanced as Chabon to acknowledge the good in preserving our Jewish uniqueness (without devolving into the worst tendencies of tribalism). That would have been refreshing.
We should celebrate both Jewish distinctiveness and the Jewish ability to thrive in diverse environments by adapting to new cultures and traditions. We should celebrate Israel’s wildly multi-ethnic demography and its uniquely Jewish character, acknowledge Israel’s need for extraordinarily vigilant security and the long-term moral and strategic detriments conferred by its ongoing presence among millions of Palestinians in the West Bank. (One can wholeheartedly desire Palestinian self-determination and still conclude that Israel acts justly when it erects walls in self-defense.) Why does it have to be a binary choice? Why can’t we Jews express concern for the universal welfare of all humankind, irrespective of nation or ethnicity, creed or doctrine—and at the same time, preserve and cultivate what’s unique, beautiful, and inspiring from within the Jewish tradition?
This week’s parasha, Vayera, manages to identify this tension—making a strong case for both the universalistic and particularistic dimensions of Judaism. It’s a long parasha, a kind of anthology of adventures in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, starting with their celebrated hospitality to three wayfaring strangers who turn out to be divine messengers, who announce Sarah’s pregnancy at the improbable age of ninety (Abraham was 100!); going on from there to the famous confrontation between Abraham and God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (and if ever there were an example of Jewish people reaching past their tribal boundaries on behalf of others, this story is it); proceeding from there to the miraculous birth of Isaac and concluding with the harrowing binding of Isaac story.
The emotional heart of the Torah portion comes when—shortly after Isaac’s birth, circumcision, and weaning—Abraham, at Sarah’s insistence, drives the Egyptian handmaid Hagar, together with their son Ishmael, from their tent, out into the wilderness. The story then reverts almost immediately back to Isaac, and Ishmael will become a bit player in the story of the Jewish people, but not before God gives this assurance: “Your descendants will be designated through Isaac, but the son of the handmaid I will also make into a great nation, for he is also your seed.” That son, Ishmael, by the way, will be identified by the Qur’an as the progenitor of the Muslim people—a patriarch to them as much as Isaac is to us.
Such is the destiny of Abraham, and such our destiny as his descendants: to exist in relationship with many peoples and yet to have a particular interest in one people, the Jewish people. The two relationships, our relationship with the other peoples of the world, and our own people, do not mutually exclude. They coexist. We are both a nation among the nations and a light unto the nations, both citizens of humanity and a unique people among humanity.
I have sometimes opined that Judaism has no monopoly on religious Truth with a capital “T.” Plenty of other spiritual pathways, philosophies and practices have divined meaningful avenues on parallel roadways to the Divine. I have experienced what can only be called spiritual communion listening to Bach in Carnegie Hall, hiking in the Rockies, and reading Shakespeare. But the reason we do not get up on Shabbat mornings and open Hamlet, inspired as the literature may be, truthful as it may speak when it comes to the deepest understandings of the human condition, is because we have our own beautiful and inspiring literary heritage, and we call that Torah. I won’t stop reading Shakespeare, listening to Bach, or praying from mountaintops, but I also need my synagogue, my Torah, and the music of our prayers.
I can only imagine that Abraham and Sarah, father and mother of the Jewish people, but also parents of a multitude of peoples, would want nothing less for their children.