interfaith · sermon · torah

Who gets to be Jacob?

I am told that, as a toddler, whenever it came to game-playing, I had to be Postman Pat. No matter what the game was, I insisted on playing that friendly gentleman with a black and white cat. As I grew up, I had to compete with other children for different parts in our roleplay. We couldn’t all be the robbers, somebody would have to be the cops. Not everyone can be the Yellow Power Ranger and we can’t all be Ginger Spice.

Those were, at least, the parts we competed for in the 1990s. It was fairly low stakes, but it seemed quite important at the time.

But it’s nothing compared to the fight for roles that went on in the 5th Century CE. This big broigus was not just between two individuals, but between two whole religious groups: the Jews and the Christians. That battle was played out in two foundational texts of our traditions: a sermon by St Augustine of Hippo on the Christian side and the midrash, Bereishit Rabbah, for the Jews. Both were determined that they were Jacob, and the other side was Esau.

Which one would get to be Jacob?

At stake in this question is an ancient prophecy, told to Rebecca while she was pregnant: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will emerge from your body. One shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.”

When Rebecca gave birth to Jacob and Esau, she was not just birthing twins, but rival nations. A strong one and a weak one. An older one that would serve the younger.

We have Esau: the hairy, ruddy hunter. We have Jacob: the smart, younger upstart.

The contest over Isaac’s blessing and birthright laid out in our parashah was more than a competition between siblings. It was a war between peoples.

So which one is the Jews? And which one is the Christians?

As far as the Jewish texts are considered, Jacob must be the Jewish nation. Meak and smart? That’s us. Gentle but witty? Sounds Jewish. He even changed his name to Israel. Bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel, klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, daat Yisrael, the laws of the Jews. Surely Jacob must be us!

And meanwhile Esau… well, he’s Rome. He changed his name to Edom, which, granted, is on the other side of the River Jordan in Mount Seir, but was the birthplace of Rome’s most wicked emperor and Temple-destroyer, Hadrian. And look at those Romans. They’re the hairy, barbarous, fighting ones. They’ve got their swords and their empires, just as Esau had his bow and his field.

Bereishit Rabbah, our classical midrash on Genesis, spells it out for us.

Two proud nations are in your womb, one is proud of his world and one is proud of his kingdom. Two prides of their nations are in your womb – Hadrian amongst the gentiles and Solomon amongst the Israelites.

We’re Jacob. We’re the one that God has chosen. We are the descendants of Solomon, proud of the world of Torah and obligation. They’re Esau. They’re the other brother. They’re the descendants of Hadrian, proud of their ill-gotten Empire.

Except, of course, for one obvious problem. Jacob is supposed to be the younger brother. Aren’t we, the Jews, clearly the older sibling? Our revelation is much older than the Christian one and the kingdom of David long predates the Caesarian Empire.

This fact was not missed by our Christian interlocutors.

Foremost among these Christians was St Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was a Father of the Christian Church, a theologian living in North Africa. His ideas were definitive in Christianity for many centuries, and people of all religious stripes still reverentially refer back to his writings. As far as Augustine was concerned, Jacob had to be Christendom. Israel, God’s treasured child, was the Church.

True, says Augustine, the Jewish nation sprang from Jacob, but since then, they have gone on to become Esau. They’re the elder people whom God has rejected. Esau was born shaggy and hairy, which means full of sins. Just look at the Jews – that’s clearly them!

Augustine continues: the prophecy promised that the elder would serve the younger, but that never happens in the biblical text. Esau goes on to become very rich and both wind up blessed in their lifetimes. Clearly, this refers to events that had not yet transpired: that the real Jacob would go on to have the upper hand. Now look at the world of Augustine, where the Christian Empire spans the globe and the Jews are a fractured diaspora in their lands. Surely this is the proof that the Jews are now Esau, serving their younger brother, the Christian Jacob.[1]

This battle of biblical exegesis probably sounds quite twee today. After all, why should it matter which of our religions gets to be Jacob? But this battle for religious identity and purpose shaped interfaith relations in medieval Europe.

If the Jews were Esau, then the Christians had replaced them as Jacob. Judaism was superseded, no longer necessary, and its practitioners were hairy remnants of an outdated doctrine. As Esau, the Jews were a savage menace who needed to be tamed by the genteel, pious Christians in their role as Jacob. This Christian doctrine was the theological basis for Jewish subjugation in Europe.

Faced with such hostility and oppression, it was only natural that medieval Jews felt the need to double down and insist that they were still Jacob. They imagined that Christian dominion would only last so long but that the Jews would ultimately triumph. They could still be Israel, despite what was said about them.

The modern era has seen reconciliation between Jews and Christians. Over time, theologians and historians on both sides have come to emphasise their kinship over rivalry. Perhaps, in the conflict over who got to be Jacob, these twin religions forgot that they were, in fact, siblings. Perhaps, still stuck in childhood contests, our communities had ignored the way the story ends.

By the time of the story’s completion, Jacob and Esau are no longer warring for the same birthright. They have both struggled, and lost, and achieved their own blessing. In maturity, Jacob and Esau meet again and wrap their arms around each other. They weep as they realise that God’s blessing is not finite. They never needed to fight over it.

After 2000 years of struggle, perhaps we Jews and Christians can reach the same intellectual adulthood. The campaign for who is the favourite brother can be put aside as we realise that we are on twin paths. We are both children of the same Divine Parent.

Perhaps we cannot all be Postman Pat, or Ginger Spice, or the same Power Ranger. But everyone can be Jacob.

I will give this sermon at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue on Shabbat 21st November 2020 for Parashat Toldot.


[1] ‘Sermon on Jacob and Esau’, Jacob Rader Marcus and Marc Saperstein, The Jews in Christian Europe, pp. 33-34

judaism · sermon · theology

The importance of not respecting different opinions

This is Interfaith Week, and many of my religious buildings across the country are holding similar services to this one. In most places, I suspect people will talk about the importance of respecting differences of opinion. You have your views, I have mine, but we can all get along. All religions have their own truths. It might be customary to say it, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Not all ideas have the same value. Some ideas are wrong. Some ideas are dangerous. Some ideas must be challenged as soon as we encounter them.

This week, we read a passage in the Torah with a violent history. In it, Jacob and Esau fight over who gets their father Isaac’s birth right. Jacob, the younger brother, tricks his dad into giving him his blessing. He dresses in his brother’s clothes, puts hair on his arms so that he’ll feel rougher, and puts flour on his tongue so that his voice will sound deeper. With the help of his mother, Rebekka, he kills an animal, makes some sweet meats and cons his father into giving him a blessing that was meant for his brother. When Esau comes in, Isaac is distraught to realise that he has given the blessing to the wrong son. Esau begs him to bless him, but Isaac insists that he can’t retract his blessing from Jacob. Instead, he gives him a new blessing: “You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.”[1]

This story became more than a tale of sibling rivalry. It became the basis of bloodshed lasting centuries. Jacob took another name: Israel. As a person, he stood in for the whole of the Jewish people. Esau had another name: Edom. As a person, he became a symbol of Christianity and Rome. For centuries, that was the optic through which Jewish-Christian relations were viewed: as a struggle between two brothers for a blessing that could only be held by one of them. The Jews, Israel, insisted that they were the sole bearers of the blessing from God. Christians insisted that they had broken off the yoke of Torah when their Messiah came, and that they had replaced Jews as God’s chosen people.

This had real consequences for people’s lives. If Christians had replaced Jews, then Jews were a stubborn remnant of a bygone age; a people destined to be destroyed. St Augustine of Hippo, one of the Founders of the Church, argued that Jews should be allowed to live only as evidence, in their degraded state, of the superiority of Christianity. This story of Esau replacing Jacob was so influential on European thinking that, some argue, it helped to legitimate the Nazi genocide.

This month saw the five hundredth anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five these to the church door, demanding reformation of the Catholic Church. His ideas were so important. Luther was somebody who realised that ideas are powerful. He was responding to a time when the established Church used people’s fear of death to pay for a better place in the afterlife. The abuse of religion was creating a deeply hierarchical and unequal society. Luther wanted to challenge that. He realised that not every religious idea had to be respected. Sometimes they need to be resisted.

Luther was also a notorious antisemite. In his later life, he used his power as an academic to incite race riots against Jews. His ideas were adopted for centuries in justifying racist violence. When the movement he founded, Protestantism, gained the upper hand in Western Europe, his ideas were used to attack Catholics. Unfairly caricatured as automatons doing the bidding of the Pope, Catholics were denied access to citizenship, and imprisoned as foreign infiltrators, in many countries. Luther’s great idea – that religion should not be used to wield power – became subverted to serve its opposite purpose: of entrenching power.

Still, his ideas gave birth to our own religious movements. The Unitarians here draw their roots from Protestantism, wanting to take Luther’s best ideas to their radical conclusion of a religion grounded in equality and acceptance. Liberal Judaism, too, was inspired by Protestant reformation. Our forbearers wanted to create a Judaism without sexism or nationalism. Since then, we’ve tried to also create Judaism that embraces LGBT people and champions just causes like the rights of migrants and workers. I know that many of our Christian friends here share that ambition.

This leaves us with a question: how do we know if an idea is any good or not? If we’re not going to automatically respect differences of opinions, what grounds can we have for disagreeing without creating exactly the kind of competition between Jacob and Esau, that caused so many generations of suffering? I’d like to propose a test for conversations in interfaith dialogue: do our ideas support existing power structures, or do they resist them? Do they bolster the powerful or diminish them? There are questions on which we can agree to disagree – none of us knows for certain what God really is, or what the afterlife is like. But we can challenge our ideas about this world: do they make our world more just, more equal, more compassionate, and more peaceful? If not, can we really sanction them?

This, I would hope, could be the basis of a better model of interfaith. Rather than accepting differences, let’s challenge each other to live up to the best of the values we share. In the spirit of the prophetic tradition that has inspired us, let’s push each other to speak truth to power. The reformation brought about the idea that religion should not be wedded to power. Let’s take it to the next stage, and insist that religion be used as a weapon against power. Let’s work together to fulfil a religious mission of eradicating inequality, championing the cause of the oppressed, eliminating hunger and poverty, bringing about a world where all people are treated with the dignity they deserve. That would be a world that truly respects difference.

[1] Gen 27:40

ipswich church
Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House

This sermon was given as part of an interfaith service organised by Suffolk Liberal Jewish Community, and held in the town’s beautiful Unitarian Meeting House. After the service, an Anglican minister pointed out that I had not made clear that current Christian doctrine had tried to rid itself of its supersessionist ideology. I think it is important to note that much of the work challenging offensive ideas in Christianity has been done by Christians themselves, especially by Catholics at Vatican II. I am grateful to him for this constructive feedback.

high holy days · judaism · sermon · story · torah

The binding of Isaac… and Ishmael

Life is sacred. It is not just meaningful, though it is that. Nor is it simply beautiful, although it can be. Life is sacred. Given by God, uniquely to everyone in existence, with a specific purpose. Our lives – the lives of everyone in this room, and everyone we know, and everyone we don’t – are loving gifts from our Creator. With them, we can either repair or destroy the world.

I hope that we’ll be able to come out of this Holy Day season more aware of the sanctity of our own lives and of everyone else’s. spiritual ideals to the fore. But whose lives are sacred? Whose lives do we truly value, and whose lives do we treat as disposable? It can be harder to see the sanctity in some lives than it is in others. It is harder – perhaps hardest – to see sanctity in the lives of people we don’t know. There are people we forget and erase before we’ve even had the chance to see God’s spirit in them.

The Torah portion for this week, the Aqedah, is an example of such a problem. One line sticks out for me in this parashah. In this story of the patriarch Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son on the altar, it is perhaps the most troubling. It seems innocuous at first. But I keep coming back to it, and the more I come back to it, the more it bothers me. The text says:

Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah.[1]

Take your son, your only one… The text says that same phrase three times. When the angel intervenes and speaks to Abraham, we hear:

Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For I now know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me.[2]

Your only son…

After Abraham sacrifices a ram in the place of Isaac, the angel speaks again:

Since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore…[3]

Again and again, ‘your only son.’ But that’s impossible! Abraham does not have only one son. Isaac is the younger of two children. Abraham has an older son, Ishmael. In only the immediately preceding parashah, Abraham sent away Ishmael and his mother Hagar. Has he forgotten them already?

This problem has bothered rabbinic commentators too. Rashi, the medieval French commentator, offers up a story:

“But I have two sons,” Abraham said.

“Your only one,” was the reply.

“But each is the only one of his mother!”

“Whom you love,” he was told.

“But I love both!”

“Even Isaac.”[4]

The conversation he puts in Abraham’s mouth is really the conversation of the reader with the text: doesn’t Abraham have another son whom he loves? How can Ishmael be erased so flippantly and insensitively from the text? Rashi suggests a number of solutions:

Perhaps lest Abraham’s mind reeled under the sudden shock. Further, to make his command more precious to him. And finally, that he might receive a reward for every word spoken.[5]

Yes, God is speaking like this to calm Abraham down. If he just blurted out: “Go and kill Isaac!”, Abraham might not have had the strength to do it. So God breaks the commandment down, gently feeding him each bit. But Rashi’s answer doesn’t tell us the most important detail: what on earth has happened to Ishmael?

Some rabbinic commentators have tried other approaches. Some suggest that we could translate יְחִֽידְךָ֤ not as your only one, but as your favourite one.[6] But the root of the word יְחִֽידְךָ֤ is אחד – one, and it doesn’t mean favourite in any other context. We can only really translate it that way if that’s what we want it to mean. And is that what we want it to mean? Do we want to think of Abraham, the father of all nations, as choosing a favourite between the children that will create Judaism and Islam? Does it actually make the text that much better?

Not only is God asking Abraham to kill Isaac, but God has already erased Ishmael. Can that really be true? Is that the God we believe in and worship?

It bothered me so much I went for lunch with a Muslim friend to ask him what he made of it. How did his tradition, that holds Ishmael in such high regard, deal with this troubling passage? I asked: “what does your tradition say about the binding of Isaac?”

“You mean Ishmael?” he said.

“No, no,” I said, “Isaac, who Abraham takes up Mount Moriah to sacrifice.”

“Ishmael,” he countered, “who Abraham takes up Al-Haram…” He grinned at me. “I know your tradition says something different…”

It was so funny. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the Islamic story might be different. We took out a Quran and read the story as it appears:

Abraham said, “Indeed, I will go to where I am ordered by my God; Who will guide me. My God, grant me a child from among the righteous.”

So We gave him good tidings of a forbearing boy. And when he reached the age of exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.”

And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead, We called to him, “O Abraham, You have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good. Indeed, this was the clear trial. And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, And We left for him favourable mention among later generations: “Peace upon Abraham.”[7]

It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it? But there’s a new problem: this text doesn’t mention Ishmael either. It doesn’t mention Isaac, but it doesn’t mention Ishmael. In fact, it turns out that in the early days of Islamic jurisprudence, the interpreters were undecided. 135 authoritative readings said it was Isaac; 113 said it was Ishmael. But gradually the weight shifted, and by the 10th Century, everyone agreed that it was Ishmael.[8]

So here we have two contradictory traditions: a Jewish tradition that erases Ishmael and an Islamic one that erases Isaac. What do we do with this? How can we reconcile these stories?

I think the Tosefta, that first text of rabbinic commentary, offers a compelling answer. The sages were dealing with a problem of two contradictory schools of thought – the House of Shammai said that a room was unclean and the House of Hillel said a room was clean. The Tosefta reaches this conclusion:

Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.[9]

David Hartman, a rabbi from the Bronx in New York, suggests this means we need to be able to hold multiple contradictory ideas at once. Whereas Western philosophy tries to drive everyone to one conclusion at the expense of all others, Jewish thought teaches that all words about God are words of God. Judaism teaches us to sustain and embrace contradiction.[10] We learn to build a heart big enough that it can include all voices, especially the voices that we might want to drown out.

So perhaps that’s an answer to my problem. We need to reconcile these two contradictory stories: Isaac was offered up as a sacrifice, and so was Ishmael. Isaac was Abraham’s favourite son, and so was Ishmael. Both a source of blessing, both blessed, both their lives sacred, both our traditions sacred, all stemming from one God.

The Torah says that Isaac was Abraham’s only son because, in a way, there only ever was one son. That one son was both Isaac and Ishmael. Some Christians say that the sacrifice of Isaac prefigured the crucifixion of Jesus, or represented it.[11] Yes, let us include that truth too. Rather than try to erase difference, let’s embrace the tension of contradiction and recognise what is sacred in every story. The message is the same in all of them: a rejection of violence, opposition to the sacrifice of human life, reverence for the God who created us all.

I think this religious analysis has some important political implications. Two years ago, the former Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, published a book called ‘Not in God’s Name’. The theology of it was subtle and beautiful. He used stories like those of Isaac and Ishmael to suggest that all people were meant for their own blessings. He extrapolated this to thinking about religion: that nobody should make an exclusive claim to truth – that Jews, Muslims and Christians should all be able to respect one another.[12]

But from this solid foundation, Jonathan Sacks went in a troubling direction. He said that people should not try to make exclusive claims to truth, and then focused most of his book on criticising Muslim terrorists for doing that. Of course, I agree with his opposition to such terrorism. But given that his book was inevitably going to be read almost entirely by Jews, shouldn’t he have said more to challenge his own community? In the way he set it out, it felt very much like he was accusing everyone else of carrying out violence, without acknowledging that we, too, are imperfect. Such rhetoric only encourages division and continues the cycle of hate.

It turns out that Jonathan Sacks did not just make a rhetorical error. Earlier in the year, he recorded a film for Mizrachi Olami, a far-right religious nationalist party in Israel, where he encouraged Jews all over the world to join the organisation on a march through Jerusalem.[13] This is an annual march, drawing thousands of people, who run through the Palestinian part of the city in the east, intimidating residents and shouting racist slogans. On this day, shops close and streets clear as people prepare for violence.[14] Under pressure, Jonathan Sacks eventually agreed that he would not actually march with the group, but continued to produce promotional material for them.[15] I have to seriously question what this does to suggest that different religions can be blessed, or that all lives deserve respect.

I think that if we are going to build a heart of many rooms, it must at least be big enough to accommodate the grievances and frustrations of Palestinians. We must be able to see how we can be oppressors, as well as victims. We must confront all the contradictions that living in this modern world involves.

I spent August studying Hebrew in Jerusalem. It is a place that really confronts you to deal with contradictory truths. I spent my days in a university where I learnt so much and met so many exciting people. On my breaks, I’d stare out over the garden. That university overlooks a refugee camp, full of high-rise buildings, crowded with people who have been stateless since the War of 1948, and surrounded by a concrete separation wall.

I found myself feeling safer wearing a kippah than ever before, and at the same time so much more uncomfortable. I quite like wearing the kippah in England, where it feels like a symbol of difference, personal piety and a reminder to live up to the best expectations of others. In Jerusalem, where the religious-right are in power and wield religious symbols to trample on the rights of various people, my clothes took on a new meaning I didn’t like. I know of one rosh yeshiva, a rabbi heading up a study-house in Jerusalem, who wore only half a kippah, to reflect the conflicted place he felt, torn between the religious and secular worlds, externalising his inner turmoil.

I want to be able to live with these tensions, but it is not an easy feeling. Maybe that’s necessary. Dealing with contradictions means being uncomfortable. There is something frightening about truly believing that life is sacred. It means knowing that we are special, unique and placed here by God. But it also means acknowledging that this is true of everyone, including of people whose stories might contradict ours.

This year, may we build hearts large enough to include those stories, and all stories of struggle. May we learn to see the sanctity in all lives and, above all, may we find a way to peace.

Shana tovah.

ram

[1] Gen 22:2

[2] Gen 22:12

[3] Gen 22:16-17

[4] Soncino 108

[5] Soncino 108

[6] Sefaria; JPS

[7] Qur’an Surah As-Saffat 37:99-111

[8] Reuven Firestone, ‘Journeys in Holy Lands’, pp. 153-151

[9] Tosefta Sotah 7:7

[10] David Hartman, ‘A Heart of Many Rooms’

[11] e.g. Jung, ‘Answer to Job’

[12] Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZr_lsT6vkE

[14] http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.791549

[15] http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.789728