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 · theology · torah

Go for yourself

Trying to get by with biblical Hebrew with modern Hebrew speakers is difficult. Among a group in Jerusalem this summer, I tried to coax out a dog, saying “Lech lecha, celev.” The Israelis around me burst out laughing. “What? What did I say?” I asked. “Nothing,” they said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

I had just repeated the first words of our parashah, when God instructs Abraham to get out of Haran and go to Canaan. Without context, the expression was bizarre. Phrases that were once meaningful in this language can lose their sense. But, for our commentators throughout history, this specific phrase has been perplexing. Without the vowels we might think it is emphatic – a repetition of the same verb, telling Abraham “go, go, get out.” But the Masoretic markings are quite clear. This is not “lech lech” but “lech lecha” – which could be read ‘go to yourself’, or ‘go for yourself’, or ‘go as yourself’… It is a strange construction.

Ramban suggests that it’s just an idiom of biblical Hebrew. He points to other examples in Jeremiah and Deuteronomy where similar constructions are used. But that answer feels disappointing. Why this idiom? And why here? Every idiom has a purpose, even if that purpose isn’t even entirely clear to the native speaker.

The answer I like best comes from Rashi. Rashi says “go for your own benefit, for your own advantage”. This puts the rest of the sentence into context: “and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” Don’t go for their sake. Go for your own sake. But when you go for your own sake, when you go knowing that you are seeking out a blessing for yourself, then everyone will receive that blessing too.

It calls to mind the distinction between charity and solidarity. That idea was summarised by Lilla Watson, an Australian indigenous rights activist, in her address to the UN Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1985: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Watson herself has challenged the attribution, saying that it was thinking that had come out of collective work by indigenous women in Queensland over a long period of time.

Indeed, differentiating between charity and solidarity has long been a feature of thought for oppressed peoples. Charity, seeking to help people for their own sake without any regard for your own, is surely a noble feeling. But it leaves the person who gives it feeling better than the one who receives it. For the one who gives it, it leaves them feeling helpful, assuages their conscience, and contributes to a sense that they are doing the right thing. For the recipient, it can leave them feeling powerless, pitied, supported, and not treated as a full human being.

Charity is ultimately, too, not that helpful to the one giving it. It turns human interaction into a form of sacrifice, based on guilt, self-effacement and pity. It forces people to ignore their own lived realities and struggles, and put themselves at a position of distance from others.

While charity can address material needs in a positive way, it reminds everyone of the power relations that caused the need for charity in the first place. It reminds the donor of their power and the receiver of their lack. It can even reinforce those structures, as the impoverished turn to the donors as a source of wealth rather than looking to their own talents. The donor can impose restrictions on how the money is used or on how the receiver might conduct themselves in ways that ultimately secure the authority of the donor.

Solidarity asks us to “lech lecha” – to go for ourselves, to go as ourselves. It asks us to come to problems as full people with our own issues and concerns that we need to address. It asks us to treat everybody as if they, too, are going for themselves: full human beings who have a great deal in common with us and their own unique purposes.

Solidarity requires both parties to feel vulnerable together. It asks that the person motivated to give charity considers their own interests and what stake they have in changing the current circumstances. It also asks both parties to work together: they have a common interest and need to empower each other. Solidarity places people’s self-respect and cooperation at the centre of organising change.

Rambam picks up this theme in his eight levels of ‘tzedaka’. The word ‘tzedaka’ is often translated as ‘charity’, but it shares a common root with the word for ‘justice’. The concepts of charity and solidarity are held together by this same word, so Rambam needed to spell out the differences between different forms of giving. Like the indigenous activists of Australia, Rambam puts solidarity on a much higher level than charity. He considers “empowering others with meaningful employment” to be the highest level of tzedaka. Unlike giving into the hands of the poor, empowerment such as this ensures that everyone’s dignity is preserved, and everyone benefits from the work.

So it is that G-d says to Abraham: “Go for your own sake and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” When you go out considering your own self-respect first and foremost, it follows that everyone else can act from theirs. Abraham does not go out to save the world. He goes out to save himself. But by being prepared to take risks for his own soul, he sets an example and sets the wheels in motion that everybody can seek out G-d’s blessing.

That is how the nations became blessed through Abraham. As we approach the challenges of our day, we should seek to ask the same questions as he was forced to. What do I really need? What does G-d require of me? How can I see others as full human beings and respond to their needs? How can I go for myself, so as to be a blessing for others?

Go for yourself, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through you.

white horseman nahum gutman

I gave this sermon on the morning of Thursday 18th October at Leo Baeck College for Parashat Lech Lecha.