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 · torah · Uncategorized

The most boring part of the Torah

Genesis 10 is the most boring part of the Torah. Gandhi said it sent him to sleep. Militant atheists hold it up as a paragon of inane irrelevances. Although it is very clearly part of this week’s section of the Torah, everybody skips over it. You won’t hear any Liberal or Reform synagogues read it out this weekend. Even Chabad’s lectionary, known for keeping in even the driest sections for the sake of tradition, skips over Genesis 10 as though it’s not there.

It’s the genealogies. The lists of all the people who begat other people from Noah to Jobab. All the sons of Shem, Ham and Japheth roll off the tongue and over the heads of the readers. We can see why people would want to cut it out. In the rest of this section of the Torah, God floods the planet, Noah builds an ark, saves Noah, along with his family and favourite animals, then dramatically hangs a rainbow in the sky to symbolise a promise never to destroy the world again. At the end, after we’ve skipped over Genesis 10, the people attempt to build a tower so tall it can reach Heaven, only to be struck down and separated into many nations with many languages. By comparison with everything else, Genesis 10 is boring.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read it. The Torah is a carefully crafted text. Nothing gets in there by accident. The genealogies aren’t just a list of names that break up two well-known stories; they’re integral to the Genesis narrative. They tell us something deep about what kind of book the Torah is, who it’s for, and what makes it different from every other book that’s gone before. I find that in the boring bits, whether in a book or a relationship or a friendship, you find out the most important stuff. You find out who somebody really is.

It might help to put this text into the context of other Ancient Near Eastern prologues. It was common, in the civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean, to begin with a list of people. These were the kings and their years leading up to the present day. For people in these societies, years were marked by the reign of their rulers and stories were told in relation to kingdoms. The Torah begins differently. The ancient Israelites were suspicious of monarchy and authority. They only managed a brief spell under a united kingdom, preferring instead to unite by their loyalty to God rather than to a person. For them, authority comes not from might but from history and tradition. So their story does not begin with a list of kings. It begins with a seemingly innocuous list of ancestors.

On closer inspection, these ancestors are not really people at all. Look, for example, at the descendants of Ham: Cush, Mitzrayim, Put and Canaan. These names are familiar. We know Mitzrayim as Egypt, the place our ancestors left in the Exodus. We know Canaan as Palestine, the place they entered. Put, according to Josephus, was the founder of Libya. Cush is commonly identified with Sudan. These are the nations of north-east Africa.

We see too the names Babel (Babylon), Accad (Akkadia) and Ashur (Assyria). These are the names of nations in the Near East. Later, scholars will come to identify Ashkenaz with Germany and Tarshish with Spain. The point is clear: this is a universal text. It is a story not of one great empire and its kings but of everybody. In this, the most boring bit of Torah, we find its most essential message: universalism. We are, all of us, part of this planet, sharing in its fortunes. We are, all of us, the children of Noah, descended from one common ancestor, connected by a universal God.

It encourages us to value unity in diversity – we may all come from a common ancestor, but we have gone in many different directions, all of which are to be celebrated. I think that’s the reason why it’s sandwiched between the stories of Noah and Babel. In Noah, people are violent and angry, so God floods the whole world. We realise that if the world floods, we all drown together. Our fates are so deeply intertwined that whatever we do to the world will affect all of us. In Babel, everybody speaks the same language and tries to build a tower together. But they are so single-minded that they subject everybody to the same conditions. They have no respect for difference or the unique dignity of each other, so God must separate them and diversify their languages. They needed difference.

Genesis 10, the history of all the nations of the world, combines the two messages of universalism and diversity. Yes, we all come from Noah and yes, we are all different. Yes, we share in this world, and yes, we are all part of different and exciting nations. Yes, we are all the same. And, yes, we are all different. This is a message that we can all share in what’s good in the world if we can all see what’s good and different in each other.

The nations of the world will, inevitably, look different in a decade to how they look now. The UK will most likely leave the European Union. Catalonia may or not become independent. Perhaps our Scotland will hold another referendum; Ireland and Northern Ireland might re-examine their borders. We will probably see new movements to restructure states all over the world. New nations will unite, new nations will split.

Separating or uniting need not be inherently good or bad things. What matters is the spirit in which they are done. If people split based on malice and anger, as did the generation before the flood, they won’t succeed. If people join out of a desire to be homogenous and to force everyone to conform, as did the generation at Babel, they will fail. Only if they can respect difference, uniting in a spirit of diversity, will people succeed.

tower of babel