interfaith · sermon

Where Abraham came from

Once there was, and once there wasn’t. In the long-distant days of yore, when haystacks winnowed sieves, when genies played jereed in the old bathhouse, fleas were barbers, camels were town criers, I softly rocked my baby grandmother to sleep in her creaking cradle…

So begin Turkish folk stories. And this is a folk story, although whether it is Turkish, you will have to decide.

This is the story of our common ancestor, Abraham. For as long as there have been followers of his mission, there have been people telling his story. Across trade routes and migratory passages, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Samaritans and Druze exchanged legends of the man who made monotheism. 

These stories could be more valuable than coinage because they allowed people to connect across boundaries of language, ethnicity and religion. He could be called Avraham, Ibrahim, and everyone would know who you were talking about. There weren’t right or wrong versions of the story – only different iterations of the same truth.

That story, as we know it, begins today. It starts when a man named Avram sat in his ancestral home in Ur. He heard a God he did not know call to him and say: “Lech lecha! Go! Get out.”

“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those that curse you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

Avram pilgrimages from there to many places: through Canaan, Jordan, and Egypt. He meets many people: friends, enemies, family, and angels. To mark his changed status, Avram receives a new name: Avraham. The father of many nations. God promised him that he would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. He would have as many children as there are grains of sand on the shore.

And, indeed, just as God had promised, Avraham’s spiritual descendants now comprise over a third of the globe. Those who affirm monotheism and lay a claim to this spiritual tradition started in his name call themselves “Abrahamic faiths.” Their stories and beliefs, although disparate, fall under the banner of a single prophet who taught of a single God, revealed through history, known by good deeds.

Because of his great international fame, many places claim to be his hometown. There are various cities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon named “Ur,” or with variant names, that say they are Abraham’s father’s house, from which he went out on his mission. 

One such city is named Urfa. It is located in the modern-day state of Turkey, in a southeastern corner inhabited largely by Kurds, and bordering Syria. It has been Akkadian, Armenian, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman. About seven years ago, I was lucky enough to visit the place.

It is stunning. The entire city is built around a cave where, the locals say, Abraham was born. According to their legends, Abraham was birthed there in secret to avoid the wrath of the wicked king Nimrod. 

Around the cave, there is an incredible mosque complex. Beautiful off-white stones form curving arches, high ceilings, and expansive courtyards.

There are carved streams with carp in them. A local told me that these had been there since the time of Abraham. The Pagans had attempted to burn our prophet alive, but God intervened. As they set alight a bonfire with Abraham at the centre, the flames became water and the logs became fish. Today, if you eat any of the fish in the surrounding streams, you will instantly go blind.

I was certainly not going to test this superstition.

I went during the month of Ramadan, as pilgrims wandered around the site. It remains one of the most blissfully spiritual places I have ever been. I went through the mosque and into the cave. 

Around me, some men were doing the raqqas of Muslim prayer. I prayed as a Jew, mumbling Hebrew verses as I faced the spot where our patriarch was allegedly born.

Nobody batted an eyelid. We were all praying to the same God at the site of a shared prophet. I felt on some level that Abraham himself would have approved. This was the movement he had spawned. Uniting people in love of their One Creator. 

That unity, however, is threatened. Overhanging my time in Turkey was the heavy weight of nationalism. Over the last century, Turkish authorities have attempted to homogenise the country – transferring their Christian population to Greece; imposing taxes specifically on Jews to push them to move to Israel.

The country today has a virulently ethno-nationalist government that only briefly allowed the Kurdish minority some relative freedom to speak their language and live their culture. When Erdoğan launched counter attacks against ISIS, part of his goal was to crush Kurdish rebellion and extend Turkish military control.

Turkey is not unique. Nationalism has defined the politics of Europe and the Middle East for over a century. Entire groups seem increasingly set on defining themselves by ever narrower criteria, and enforcing the boundaries of who belongs with greater violence. 

This nationalist tendency permeates religious thought too. There are those who want to claim Abraham only as their own. There are those who try to say that they, and only they, have access to the true religion. There are people who want to pretend they are exceptional, and that with their difference comes claims to land, wealth and military might.

What could be more antithetical to the message of Abraham! This prophet sought to unify. His mission was one of going beyond borders, defying the lies of national gods and bringing people together under the truth of something beautiful and transcendent. 

There are many stories about Abraham. These stories can place him all over the world and ascribe to him all kinds of miracles. These stories can be used to bridge divisions and form common purpose. And they can be used to foster conflict and hatred.

We must be careful with which stories we tell.

Shabbat shalom. 

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