judaism · sermon · theology

Abraham and the Paradox of Jewish Evangelism

A priest, a monk and a rabbi are debating which of their religions is the correct one. They decide to settle it with a contest to convert a bear to their religion.

The rabbi tries first. Two days later, the priest and the monk end up visiting him in the hospital.

The rabbi says: “OK, maybe I shouldn’t have begun with circumcision.”

Let’s set aside the foreskin jokes, because I don’t think the rabbi would have had much better luck with a lady bear. Isn’t it a strange fact of our religion that we almost never set out to proselytise?

We, of course, welcome all sincere converts, and this synagogue is happy to encourage anyone on their spiritual journey. But you won’t find us outside Asda, handing out flyers with words from the Mishnah. And you certainly won’t turn on your TV to see a rabbinic televangelist warning you about the perils of pork.

But if you think you have stumbled upon spiritual knowledge, don’t you want to share it with the world? Who are we to zealously guard the secrets of the universe?

Even if you take a more humble approach to Judaism’s teachings, and think they’re just as good as any other people’s, there must be something particularly worthwhile about Judaism for you to log in to this morning’s service rather than watching Bargain Hunt. (Wait, don’t go, I promise this is going somewhere!)

That strange paradox of Judaism – that we have a universal truth but don’t seek to spread it – is encapsulated in the story of Abraham.

This week, God tells Abraham: “Go out by yourself. I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing.”[1]

Then, in the next two verses, as if a parallel to the first, God says: “All the families of the earth shall be blessed by you.” Then Abraham goes out with Lot and Sarah.[2]

So… does Abraham go out to bless himself or does he go out to bless others? Which is it?

This is the great tension in Judaism. Do we exist only for Jews? If so, why are we trying to change the world? Or do we exist for humanity? In which case, why aren’t we trying to make everyone Jews?

Our midrash plays with this tension. Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic explorations of Genesis, contains an unusual parable. In it, Rabbi Berekhyah compares Abraham to a tightly sealed bottle of perfume. The bottle was left in the corner and nobody smelt it. As soon as it was moved, its fragrance was emitted. This, says our midrash, is what it was like when God told Abraham to go out from place to place and make his name great in the world.[3]

Makes perfect sense, right? No? Fine, let’s unpack it.

Abraham is a tightly closed bottle of perfume when he starts out in Haran. At this stage, Abraham has encountered God. Abraham has realised that the idols amount to nothing and the Creator of the Universe is a singular and invisible presence. He is somehow pure and untouched. The Pagans have not affected his beliefs, and he has not affected theirs. He is hermetically sealed.

Then God tells him to lech lecha – to go out. Abraham moves around out from Haran and down to Shchem and Be’ersheva in the land of Canaan. As he moves between these places, others get to smell him. They encounter the truth that Abraham has learned about ethical monotheism. God is one and just! Now everywhere he goes people can get a whiff of this knowledge.

Only there’s another problem. Bottles of perfume don’t emit their scent because you move them. They only work when you open them. In this analogy, the balsamic bottle that is Abraham still remains sealed. How is he spreading his fragrances everywhere if he hasn’t even opened up?

I don’t think the editors of our midrash have made some mistake. I think they are telling us something profound about the Jewish paradox. We have a truth that we want others to know and yet we don’t want to convert anyone. Our role as a light unto the nations is that we go from place to place, showing others who we are, but not changing anything about who they are. We are still Abraham, that sealed bottle, going out from Haran, somehow expecting others to smell our perfumes but not opening up wide to spread our scent.

The very word “evangelism” is a Greek one, meaning good news, referring to the Christian Gospels. The early Church actively went out on recruitment drives, telling people about Jesus and his message. We have no such good news to share. What would we say to people? “Rejoice! God has commanded you to pursue justice and only eat unleavened bread in the springtime!” Jewish evangelism seems somehow a contradiction in terms.

And yet we do go out and share our beliefs. We are happy to expound our Torah to anyone. We expect to transform the societies we are in. When we speak out for justice wherever we live, we are very much hoping that others will take note of our concern for the stranger and adjust their actions accordingly. How can we reconcile this desire to change others with our lack of desire to convert them?

Perhaps the problem isn’t perfume metaphors and paradoxes. Maybe the issue is how we understand Judaism’s mission. Abraham wasn’t sent out to turn others into Jews. Abraham was sent out to be a Jew.

Abraham had to go out and be different, to hold a truth that no one else held. Even when he passes it on to his children, they each hold a different truth. Isaac becomes the founder of our Judaism. Ishmael becomes the founder of Islam. They go out holding different truths, both contradictory and complementary. Abraham’s revelation of God’s unity is a realisation that this universal God can never be captured by one person in a single truth.

Abraham’s mission wasn’t to make everyone Jews. It was to enable everyone to be themselves. It was that all these other nations could celebrate their differences, just as Abraham loved his own.

That is our task today. We don’t say to the nations: “we want you all to be Jews.” We say: “we want you all to be you.”

We are models of difference in a society where we are not a majority and in a world where we are not dominant. Our role is to show how to conduct that uniqueness in a way that demonstrates dignity.

This is our evangelism. That is the truth we hold and that we want to share. That difference is a wonderful and treasured thing. From our differences, we are blessed. And in our differences, we bless each other.

So go out from Haran and share that sacred truth. And don’t worry – you don’t need to go circumcising bears.

This sermon is for Parashat Lech Lecha. I will give this sermon on Saturday morning 31st October 2020 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue, and a shortened version the night before for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue.


[1] Gen 12:1-2

[2] Gen 12:3-5

[3] Ber Rab 39:2

judaism · sermon · torah

Adam, Eve, and binary gender

The story of creation is probably the most well-known and most misunderstood of our Torah. Full of powerful imagery, t he Talmud says that it is forbidden to study the text alone because it is too easy to misunderstand.[1] Because it is so close to the High Holy Days, many Jews miss this reading in our liturgical cycle, having been exhausted by the great process of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, all festivals crammed together into a very short period of time.

The danger of Jews not hearing these texts and of religious leaders not teaching them is that people go away believing that the version we pick up from our surrounding culture is the only version of events. The story of Adam and Eve, in particular, has such currency in that all of us have likely imbibed a version of their story. We have seen paintings in art galleries of European-looking men and women covered with fig leaves. We have heard the stories told in different ways through popular culture.

The story we are accustomed to is one of binary gender. God made a man on the seventh day of creation. God then made the first woman out of Adam’s rib. They are a model of the natural male-female binary in the world and an example of the heterosexual monogamy God has intended for all of us. I am not going to question whether that is a legitimate or authentic tradition. None of us can say we speak with divine authority, so we have to be able to live with different and contradictory interpretations. What I do want to do is offer up an alternative version of the story of Adam and Eve: a Jewish, rabbinic, midrashic version of the story.

I’m sure it goes without saying that, in the progressive Jewish tradition, these stories are considered metaphors. The question is, however, metaphors for what? The stories we tell are important. If we tell stories, even metaphorical ones, of gender as fundamentally binary, and the natural order as fundamentally patriarchal, then we give credence to that worldview. We betray our feminist values and exclude our congregants who don’t fit into that binary. The rabbinic version of the Bereishit story does not only go against the grain of that perspective, but fundamentally overturns it.

First of all, it is not clear from our story that Adam was the first man. The word “adam”, as it is used in Genesis 1, acts as a noun, not a name. It speaks about a person, a human being. The word shares a root with “adamah”, meaning earth or clay. Adam, therefore, might best be translated as “earthling”.

Nor is it clear that Eve was the first woman, or that she was created from Adam’s rib. The biblical telling of her creation is somewhat inconsistent. In the first version of the story, in Genesis 1, a man and a woman are created at the same time. In the second version, in Genesis 2, Eve is created from Adam’s rib. The rabbis picked up on this strange disjunction. They also noticed that in the second version, when Adam meets Eve, he says “this one at last is the bone of my bones and the flesh of my flesh.” That word “at last”, in the Hebrew is “pa’am”[2], which could mean “this time around.” Our sages inferred therefore that the two stories tell of different relationships: the first of one between equals; the second of one with a dominant man and subordinate woman.

So, first, what was this relationship between equals? The rabbis suggest that man and woman were not just made at the same time. They were, in fact, the same person. The original human being, according to their midrash, had one body, two sets of genitalia and two faces.[3] Professor of Talmud, Daniel Boyarin, calls this person “the primordial androgyne.” Rather than binary gender being the model of original humanity, the first person is intersex.[4]

What then happened to this original intersex person? According to another midrash, they were split into two: Adam and Lilith. Notice that Lilith is not cut from Adam but that both are cut from each other: our original progenitors are equals.

The Ballad of Ben Sira, a medieval religious text that combines previous mythical traditions, tells the story this way:

“When the first man, Adam, saw that he was alone, God made for him a woman like himself, from the earth. God called her name Lilith, and brought her to Adam. They immediately began to quarrel. Adam said: “You lie beneath me.” And Lilith said: “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” And they would not listen to one another.As soon as Lilith saw this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled.”[5]

What follows is a high-speed chase across the world involving angels and monsters. Ultimately, Lilith fights against Adam, the patriarchy and even God to become liberated. Undeniably, some tellings of this story are misogynistic, painting Lilith as a demon and a baby-killer, but the fact remains that a crucial part of the Jewish tradition is the story of an empowered woman who refuses to be subordinated. Our model of gendered relationships is a complicated mess of power struggles and queer subversion. It is, really, much closer to the relationships people really have.

The rabbinic tradition on creation tells us stories about intersex people, gender confusion, and resistance to patriarchy. Right now, the telling of those stories matters greatly. The government is debating an update to the Gender Recognition Act. When it was first passed in 2004, this act was a great sign of progress. It enabled trans people to legally change their gender on some certificates. As it stands, however, that process is highly medicalised and expensive. The new legislation would enable trans people to ensure that their gender is reflected on their birth certificates without having to jump through great hoops.[6]

This might seem like simply a bureaucratic change, but it has invoked great ire across the political spectrum. Underpinning much of the backlash is the idea that gender is both binary and innate. For the ideological opponents of the upgrade to the Gender Recognition Act, a gender cannot be changed. Much of their discourse has been quite hateful and aggressive. Transphobic abuse has become exceptionally loud, especially online.

What we can say in response to this is: in our religious tradition, binary gender is deeply disputed. In rabbinic Judaism, the first person was intersex, and transitioned from being one intersex person into two people: men and women. In our religious tradition, gender is complicated and malleable. Perhaps, armed with Jewish understandings of human nature, we may be able to push back against some of this hate.

Shabbat shalom.

androgyne-56a55f455f9b58b7d0dc900a

I gave this sermon on Saturday 6th October at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community. A congregant helped correct some of my understanding of the GRA. If you would like to speak out in support of the GRA, you can respond to the consultation using Stonewall’s resources.

[1] Hagigah 11b

[2] Gen 2:23

[3] Leviticus Rabbah on Genesis 2

[4] Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel

[5] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/lilith-lady-flying-in-darkness/

[6] https://lgbt.foundation/gra