Friday, December 24, 2010

A New Book of Torah: Shemot 5771

Dear Friends:

I'm visiting relatives this week, but wanted to remind you that Torah study will be conducted as per usual at 9:00 AM tomorrow (Saturday) with a brief minyan followed by our encounter with Parashat Shemot. Rabbi Dan Sklar will be present for leadership and assistance.

In this week's portion, a king arises over Egypt "who knew not Joseph." Under his watchful eye, the Israelites multiply so as to arouse the fear of the Pharaoh who tries to subjugate the people: first by calling for the death of the male children, then by imposing upon them corvée (forced labor) "in mortar and bricks."

Too many times throughout Jewish history, our people has endured its share of Pharaohs, of kings who had no appreciation for the positive contributions of our people to history, religion, culture, science; who would rather suppress than encourage the indomitable Jewish spirit.

Now is not one such time.

And yet dangers lurk.

I believe that we Jews living in America today are faced with unprecedented opportunity and public encouragement; at the same time we are a minority population awash in a multicultural sea of which Christianity is the dominant wave. On this Shabbat Shemot that intersects with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, please use the Comments section of our blog to offer your reflections on what it means to be Jewish in America today. Are we in any way like the Israelites in Egypt in this week's portion? Or are we free of the enslavements of the past once and for all?

I wish you Shabbat Shalom from my chilly outpost away from home.
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Friday, December 17, 2010

Vayechi 5771

Dear Friends,

The Torah portion Vayechi that concludes the Book of Genesis gives us a cause for hope and a cause for despair.

Hope, in that for the first time since Cain slew Abel, the broken families of the Book of Genesis find themselves reunited in the touching scene of Jacob bestowing blessings on his children as he lies on his deathbed (even if some of those blessings are more like sharp-tongued condemnations).

Despair, in that, ominously, we realize we have come to the end of the good old days for the people of Israel for a very long time to come. The family is in Egypt. After the beatific funeral scene for Joseph, we realize with a dawning dread that in the forthcoming opening lines of Exodus we will meet the "king who knew not Joseph" and our enslavement and torment will commence.

We Jews have spent more time in history living in states of relative Powerlessness than we have in positions of national, sovereign Power. Our Powerlessness led the Talmud wisely to conclude that "the law of the land is the law," a principle that enabled Jewish communities to survive even under sometimes hostile regimes that marginalized its Jewish residents, depriving them of full citizenship or economic parity.

I am now going to share with you a powerful, disturbing reflection on the interplay between Jewish power and Jewish powerlessness, in this scathing posting by Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Dr. Hartman is one of the world's preeminent advocates for Jewish pluralism. Please read it, reflect, and comment below.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

What No Rabbi in the World Outside Israel Would Ever Say (09/12/2010)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

More Theological Musings / Parashat Vayyigash

Shalom Readers,

Continuing a theme that we introduced last week, I have been drawn to the comfort seen in Joseph's "God talk," the way in which the character of Joseph evolves from a self-centered teenager into a man who understands that his abilities and his leadership derive from the Kadosh Baruch Hu, Holy One of Blessing.

Consider Joseph again in this week’s portion Vayyigash. By the time we reach the climactic scene of the Joseph story in our reading, Joseph has finally learned that he is more than his accomplishments. Recall that much earlier, Joseph, the obnoxious brat, dreamed of rising to power over his brothers and all too eagerly would crow about his destiny to anyone who would listen. Now Joseph has grown into a man of means, a ruler second only to the Pharaoh of Egypt, able to throw his weight around and play power games, which he did with his brothers in last week’s portion.

But this week the games come to an end. Joseph reveals his identity in the emotional scene you described. Simply and without pretense he announces, “I am Joseph.”

When the brothers respond in slack-jawed disbelief, he insists, “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt.” And further: “This was all God’s doing… “God sent me before you came so that I could save you.”

Joseph has come to see his own success as God’s providence, situating him in order to save his family. Surely Joseph knows that he is an intelligent, talented, charismatic man whose leadership saved Egypt from national ruin. But in the end, he offers no triumphal boast. He can only thank God with humility.

I believe that Judaism has no quarrel with a person climbing the ladder of success and even wielding his influence for good causes, but my teacher, Rabbi Les Gutterman, has pointed out that Judaism would also ask us to remain “open to the possibility that we may well be where we are at some critical moment in time because of some divine mandate that only we can carry out.”

As we consider Joseph as an inspirational role model of a mature, sensible faith, I'd also like to draw your attention to a question I was recently asked on my anonymous Ask the Rabbi forum provided by social media outlet Formspring. The questioner asks, "What do you think of atheists and agnostics?" I enjoyed tackling this challenging subject. I hope you enjoy, and keep your questions coming. Again, click here for the link.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

God Talk and Parashat Miketz 5771

In our ongoing cycle of readings, the Torah's chief concern these days is a Hebrew named Joseph who rose nearly to the top of the political hierarchy in a non-Jewish land, as reported in this week’s Torah portion, Miketz. Most remarkable about Joseph’s ascension to the center stage of Egyptian political life is his candor about his faith, his open acknowledgment of God. From the Palace to the peasantry, Joseph brings God to Egypt’s dinner tables.

While in Egypt, Joseph, having endured two years of imprisonment in the royal dungeon, heeds the Pharaoh’s summons. His eyes still adjusting to the palace light, Joseph receives Pharaoh’s challenge: “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” Joseph, standing in a court of idolaters and sorcerors, at the seat of a nation that enshrines its Pharaohs as gods, replies without flinching: “Not I!” says he. “God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare” (Gen. 41:15-16). As Joseph proceeds to offer an interpretation for Pharaoh’s dream, he interjects along the way: “God has told Pharaoh what he is about to do” (41:25); “God has revealed [it] to Pharaoh” (41:28); “the matter has been determined by God, and God will soon carry it out” (41:32).

The beloved 20th-Century scholar Nehama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, points out that through this deliberate, repeated invocation of God, “even Pharaoh took the hint,” saying: “…Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you” (41:38-39). As Leibowitz puts it, “Pharaoh, king of Egypt defers for the first time to the supreme King of kings” (Studies in Bereshit, 442). Joseph’s courageous, outspoken references to God impress this most idolatrous of ancient societies, from the throne to the throngs.

A number of years ago, another Joseph emerged in a similar political position. Senator Joseph Lieberman’s openly acknowledged Jewish piety made a similar impression in American life. Many Jews took Lieberman's public religiosity as a point of pride. But before long, his God-talk started to freak some people out, Jews in particular. For some, it was too much: it’s one thing to request Saturdays off; it’s quite another to recite “Shehechiyanu” (even in English) on national TV.

Why do so many Jews feel uncomfortable with God-talk? Most of us rightly wish to see the separation of Church and State enforced at every level, and justifiably fear the damage done to this essential principle at the hands of fundamentalists. Jews work especially hard to protect civil liberties, ensuring that public schools and courtrooms do not become bastions of Church indoctrination. God-talk has appeared threatening or obnoxious to the Jews, when it has really meant, “our God – not yours.” Most of us rightly wish to avoid, as well, a rigidly doctrinal approach to religion, where the fervor of belief determines who is a good Jew. For these reasons and more, many Reform Jews speak of God haltingly, if at all.

But why should any Joseph’s personal devotion to God—abundantly evident, but never with the intention to missionize—elicit not joy, not pride, but discomfort?

Now more than ever we could benefit from welcoming God-talk into our lives: in routine affairs, in religious school, and at home. Even as we try to express that God is everywhere, we teach by word and deed that God does not belong in daily discourse, in our education, or at home. We say that God is everywhere, but we confine God to the synagogue. No wonder our conceptions of God often remain stifled, nebulous, and child-like well into our adulthood.

When I advise bringing God-talk into daily life, please do not hear me clamoring to bring the Bible to the courtroom or benedictions to the classroom…. Far from it. I’m talking about recognizing a Power higher than ourselves, finding a sense of Purpose in our actions and in the world, seeing the Potential for holiness and divinity in a world too often obsessed with the mundane, or worse, the vulgar.

America, despite its banner “one nation, under God,” celebrates the self so as to blur the line between self-respect and self-aggrandizement. America promotes hard work and self-reliance, but too often it rewards egotism, ruthless self-promotion, and the worship of celebrity. What was so refreshing about Joseph Lieberman—and his biblical namesake—was the insistence that their glory and honor derived not from their merit alone, but, ultimately, from God.

Maybe our reluctance to welcome God-talk into our daily lives comes from a sense that God is to be found only in the spectacular. It’s a notion enforced by Bible-literalists, faith healers, and even, on occasion, by our own prayer book. Sometimes, looking in vain for a supernatural sign, we miss the Presence of God in the godly deeds of a caring person, in the daily miracle of new life and life renewed, in the triumphs of intellect and compassion over ignorance and bigotry, in the artist’s brushstrokes and the poet’s arrangement of words, in the architecture of Creation, in the human capacity to dream.

A famous passage relates that the prophet Elijah finds God not in wind, or earthquake, or fire, but in a "still, small voice" (I Kings 19:11-13). By getting away from spectacular depictions of God—the impossibly majestic celestial Deity, all knowing and all powerful, who works miracles and wonders, who rewards the good and punishes the wicked—we open ourselves to more subtle forms of divinity. We begin to see the potential for God in the least expected places. It is, after all, in a dungeon that Joseph first perceives God in his life. Even in Egypt, Joseph learned, there was room for God.

We do agree that God-talk can be problematic in our public schools. That’s why we send them to religious school, goes the answer. But few Reform Jewish religious schools make the exploration of God—we call that theology—even a peripheral part of the curriculum. As part of an ongoing revitalization of our religious school curriculum, it will be essential—and exciting—to have God acknowledged, discussed, debated, and taught in our religious school, as a centerpiece of our religious education. Jews have always honored study as a religious experience. It is said that in prayer, we speak to God; in studying Torah and the sacred traditions of Judaism, God speaks to us.

Children want to talk about God—they want to wrestle with Big Questions: Why are we here? Why does suffering exist? Why choose good over evil? In sprawling late-night conversations with my college roommates, I discovered that these questions all lead to an exploration of God. In our religious school especially, God is too big to ignore.

The same holds true in our homes. We cannot leave the religious education of our children entirely up to the Temple (excellent as WRT's program is). So if we want to help our children learn morality, goodness, holiness, mitzvot, responsibility, and the other attributes of godliness, we’re going to have to talk about God! For many, the birds-and-the-bees talk is easier. It’s certainly more straightforward. How do we begin?

We begin with those big questions. Explore the questions deeply before trying to formulate grand answers. Children already know the questions—our first job is to listen and ask along with them. Sometimes simply asking the questions will elicit a deeper understanding of God.

Rabbis David Wolpe and Harold Kushner have each written excellent books on talking to our children about God, in ways that perhaps our own religious-school education never covered. Kushner, for instance, resists the familiar teaching that “God is everywhere,” noting that it “has given rise to more ludicrous misunderstandings in the minds of children than perhaps any other theological proposition ever uttered. Children have been quoted as saying, in fear or in glee, that God was in the bathtub, in the dark closet, in their sandwich….” Kushner invites us to rephrase the question, asking not “Where is God?” but “when is God?” “To ask ‘when is God?’ suggests that God is not an object, but a quality of relationship, a way of feeling and acting, that can be found anywhere, but only if certain things (study, gratitude, self-control, helpfulness, prayer, etc.) are in evidence at that particular moment” (53-54). How we could all benefit from such theological reflection, and from sharing such ideas in our homes!

God belongs in our lives, in our religious schools, in our homes. From Joseph we learn that God can thrive even in polytheistic, idolatrous Egypt, if only given an ardent dreamer and an outspoken advocate.

May God thrive here as well: in dream, in word, and in deed.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Vayeshev/A Response

Dear Friends,

It's a little before Shabbat here in New York to which I have just returned after a lovely Thanksgiving celebration with my family in New England. I received a response to my ecumenical Thanksgiving sermon to which I would like to respond in some detail by way of a word about Parashat Vayeshev which we will examine tomorrow morning at Torah Study (usual time, usual place!).

Parashat Vayeshev introduces us to the narrative of Joseph, the Bible's great interpreter of dreams. The narrative unfolds in a quasi-chiastic structure of three pairs of dreams in which the second dream of each pair usually functions to confirm the first....

a. Joseph dreams (of domination of his family): first of sheaves of wheat, then of stars and celestial bodies;

b. The Baker's & Butler's dreams: of loaves of bread, then of cups of wine;

c. The Baker's & Butler's dreams (symbolizing their fates of doom or release) are fulfilled;

d. The Pharaoh's dreams: of cows, then of ears corn;

e. The Pharaoh's dreams (symbolizing plenty and then famine) are fulfilled;

f. Joseph's original dreams of rulership are fulfilled.

Thus: a corresponds with f; b corresponds with c; d corresponds with e.

Further: every dream-pair includes one element of GRAIN (wheat, bread, corn), the staff of life, which is the central motif of the Joseph narrative as it represents the agent that differentiates between life and death, national fortune and national catastrophe, and ultimately freedom and national sovereignty vs. slavery/foreign domination....

The character of Joseph is celebrated for two principal qualities: his visionary quality (in that he dreams big dreams and also "sees" how to transform dreams into reality) and in his acuity as a dream-interpreter, understanding that each dream is a symbol. Pharaoh's "cows" or "ears of corn" are really years; Joseph's stars and moon are really family members, and so forth.

This is an elaborate way of teaching that the Biblical mind was acutely attuned to symbolism and metaphor. So much of the Biblical literature--like the dreams in the Joseph story--is meant for the reader/interpreter to understand as symbol or metaphor, NOT LITERALLY. All sophisticated literature demands of its readers a sensitivity to the symbolic. In large measure, it is precisely this quality that elevates a book to the status of celebrated literature.

Knowing this perspective will be helpful as you read the way in which I respond to a person who took the time and thoughtfulness to respond to another recent posting. Here you go:

in the vanguard said...

Rabbi Blake,

That you can preface so many words with these, "This Myth, this Master Story, has inspired countless generations," when describing the Exodus out of Egypt, shows a complete disregard of the words of our Leaders, Prophets, Judges, sages of the Mishnah, of the Talmud, Midrash, Books of Codes of Law, and of all those prolific authors who wrote mountains of books regarding The Book - The Torah. At least make the statement with a little bit of restraint, with a little humility - on a day of thanksgiving.

-- With respect, (1) no denigration of our sacred Scripture is intended by the use of the word "Myth." As I endeavor to make clear in my sermon, all civilizations have their cherished "Master Stories." Myths are essential tools by which cultures and religions make sense of their origins, explain their place in the world, and give expression to their innermost values. I do fully expect that some readers will view my presentation of Scripture as "literature," let alone as capital-M "Myth" or "Master Story" with ruffled feathers, calling my words audacious. But, again, in academic circles, a historical-critical and literary approach to the Bible is buttressed by two centuries of scholarship. All the more so on Thanksgiving should we be willing to look unflinchingly at the formative stories of our people.

Who would you cite for reference for your wild assertion? I can only guess they are non-Jewish historians or some rather recent rabbis, who never spent a day in yeshiva studying The Torah, and then they too will have used non-Jewish sources for this wild assertion.

Far from it! Most of the scholars who have been most formative in my understanding of the Bible are rabbis and Jewish scholars, both living and long dead. Even as early as Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th C. Spain), you can find examples of classical Jewish exegetes attuned to the human authorship of the Torah. Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated, in part, for acknowledging this in 17th Century Holland. A slew of 19th Century scholars, both Jewish and Gentile, have made arguments that in any respectable academic environment are regarded as "airtight" when it comes to the authorship of the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, I am indebted not only to Rabbi David Wolpe, but to 20th and 21st scholars like Richard Elliott Friedman, Nachum Sarna, Rabbi David H. Aaron, Ph.D., Michael Fishbane, Robert Alter, and James Kugel (the last of whom in this list is a professor at Harvard University and a faithfully practicing Orthodox Jew.) I highly commend to you Kugel's wonderful book, "How To Read the Bible" -- see for details. I have read the great classical Rabbis, as well, from the Mishna and Tosefta to the Talmud and compendia of Midrash; from Maimonides to the Chasidim. I read these texts, too, with a critical eye. You owe it to yourself not only to read the ancient sources but to study some modern scholarship by respected Jewish academicians before you tear apart their arguments. Otherwise you are only arguing from a position of ignorance.

Why wild? Why is it, then, that almost all of Western civilized people (as well as billions in Asia) regard our Bible as the core of their beliefs? How did it, no, how COULD it have come about, that millions and millions of people, Jew and Gentile, have come to believe in what the Torah stands for, so much so that until today it is the most widely distributed book in the entire world? HOW DIS THAT COME ABOUT?

Because it started with a myth?? People buy into myths so readily? Does an entire generation, generation after generation, for centuries and millennia, of Jews and Gentiles, buy into a myth for myth's sake?

I am sorry, but the argument you offer here makes absolutely no sense to me. You are basically saying, "Because millions of people believe something to be Divinely authored, there's no way it could possibly have been authored by humans." You reason that widespread acceptance of a premise constitutes proof-positive of that premise's factuality. How absurd! Millions, probably billions, of people believe or have believed plenty of stuff that's factually untrue. Until Copernicus definitively proved them wrong, millions of people persisted in their belief that the sun revolved around the earth and not the other way around. Indeed, even after Copernicus' hypothesis was proved true once and for all, vast numbers of ignorant people insisted on their rightness. Or consider this: surely hundreds of millions of Christians believe that THEIR Scriptural tradition--they call it the "New Testament" is also the product of Divine Revelation. As a Jew, you necessarily reject this premise; you do not believe that the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles of Paul are "true" in the same way you view the TaNaKH and, especially, the Pentateuch. Therefore, I conjecture, you believe that millions upon millions of the worlds' Christians believe in a falsehood (the divinity of Jesus as the Christ) based on their reading of their own "Master Story." You would surely accept the precept that just because millions of Christians believe something to be true, that doesn't make it true -- would you not?

The real reason that millions of people "buy into a myth" is because the Master Story told in the Hebrew Bible is an inspiring and inspired story, in places a work of literary genius, with timeless lessons and laws that have bettered human civilization, both in the time they were composed and throughout the ages. Again, to call a text a Myth is not to denigrate it; it is to praise it! Furthermore, religious institutions and authority figures throughout history have made it their own vested interest to present their own Holy Writ as the alleged "Word of God." By so doing, authorities and religious institutions have acted to shore up their own influence and power.

I would go into the etiology of this astounding phenomenon, only not now. Now I just want to make the point I started out with - that a more open-minded approach would be appropriate, I believe, if it is coming from the pulpit where your convictions can influence many young and old within your sphere of influence and responsibility. That is to say, being that your assertion flies in the face of so many who accept the tradition for accuracy, surely you could find an angle that leaves this aspect open for at least some discussion, rather than shutting it down outright.

The bottom line is this: just because you DON'T WANT TO BELIEVE that something is true doesn't mean that it isn't! Lots of people hate the IDEA that our sacred texts are of human origin, but that doesn't mean that they aren't. You have not given one specific response to the actual evidence demonstrating that the Bible stories are not necessarily historical, certainly not accurate to the exact way the Bible relates its own sense of history. In your view, is archaeological evidence simply irrelevant to our study of Biblical history? Should it be viewed with skepticism or tossed out when it patently conflicts with the Biblical record? The great Maimonides advised that we must accept truth from whatever source it comes. When science or philosophy led Maimonides to a certain conclusion, he believed that our understanding/interpretation of Scripture must necessarily change, conforming to new scientific knowledge.

A final thought: I'm eager to influence young and old within my "sphere of influence and responsibility." One of my heroes, Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) wrote passionately on the need to remove the veil of ignorance about the origins of Scripture from adults and children alike. He wrote in a letter to a friend (dated 1836):

“The course to be taken, my dear fellow, is that of critical study; the critical study of individual laws, the critical examination of individual documents--this is what we must strive for. The Talmud, and the Bible, too, that collection of books, most of them so splendid and uplifting, perhaps the most exalting of all literature of human authorship, can no longer be viewed as of Divine origin…. For the love of Heaven, how much longer can we continue this deceit, to expound the stories of the Bible from the pulpits over and over again as actual historical happenings, to accept as supernatural events of world import stories which we ourselves have relegated to the realm of legend, and to derive teachings from them or, at least, to use them as the basis for sermons and texts? How much longer will we continue to pervert the spirit of the child with these tales that distort the natural good sense of tender youth?” (Abraham Geiger & Liberal Judaism: The Challenge of the Nineteenth Century, compiled with a biographical introduction by Max Wiener, translation from the German by Ernst J. Schlochauer. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962, p. 84).

I believe it is my responsibility for us not to stuff fairy tales down our children's throats; too many of them will grow up to be people of intellectual acuity and deep learning, but will reject Judaism on the grounds that the Bible does not resonate for them as a plausible historical actuality. When, like the Bible's Joseph, they are permitted to utilize their own vision, intellectual acumen, and interpretive abilities to understand the deeper, often metaphorical or symbolic Truth contained in our holy writ, their relationship with the Bible is often redeemed for great good and blessing. Helping cultivate in other learners--young and old--that kind of positive relationship with our sacred texts is, I believe, a mission that lies at the very heart of my work as a rabbi.

May every day be for us a day of thanksgiving.

May the blessings of Thanksgiving continue in our midst! For starters, I give thanks for your open exchange of ideas.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Wishes to You

In lieu of parasha reflections this week, I bring you words that I shared from the pulpit of the Scarsdale Congregational Church at their annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service this week.

I wish you a most blessed Thanksgiving holiday.

Jonathan E. Blake


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Good evening. Shalom. Salaam Aleikum.

Friends, you know this story, this freedom story. It begins with a water-crossing.

On November 9th, 1620, after two arduous months at sea, the Mayflower sighted the scrubby coastline of what we call Cape Cod. Outfitted in austere black and white, stovepipe hats and shoes with buckles, freedom-seeking Puritans established Plymouth Plantation. Meager of skill and meager of tools, the Pilgrims cobbled together cabins, cold and leaky. A punishing winter stymied all attempts at agriculture. Disease swept the colony. Of the 102 Mayflower passengers, only half survived the first winter.

But a “friendly Indian named Squanto helped the colonists,” a classic textbook explains. “He showed them how to plant corn and how to live on the edge of the wilderness. A soldier, Capt. Miles Standish, taught the Pilgrims how to defend themselves against unfriendly Indians” (America: Its People and Its Values, as cited in Charles C. Mann, “Native Intelligence,” Smithsonian Magazine, online edition, December 2005).

Squanto taught the Pilgrims to fertilize the soil by burying fish heads alongside the maize seeds. The colonists grew so much corn that it became the cause for the first Thanksgiving, a three-day harvest feast held the next fall, in company with local Indians with whom the Pilgrims were living in peace. They played Indian games like football. They hunted wild fowl like turkey and made the roasted bird the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table. They baked pumpkins into pies.

Thus was the American Thanksgiving born.

That, anyway, is the story we tell--inaccurately, according to historians like Simon Worrall and Charles Mann from whose eye-opening articles in Smithsonian Magazine I have drawn liberally in presenting the following, less familiar picture:

The Mayflower passengers were not Puritans and the name “Pilgrims” would not be applied to them until the late 18th century. They were Separatists. Unlike the Puritans whose name derived from their wish to purify established doctrine and ceremony of the Church of England, the more radical Separatists “split off from the mother church to form independent congregations, from whose ranks would come the Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and other Protestant denominations” (Simon Worrall, “Pilgrims Progress, Smithsonian Magazine, online edition, November 2006).

A band of Separatists had escaped England for the Netherlands in 1607, and only after thirteen years and much trial and error did the Mayflower successfully set sail. Even after sighting land “the hapless Mayflower spent several frigid weeks scouting Cape Cod for a good place to land, during which time many colonists became sick and died” (Mann).

They did not wear black and white or stovepipe hats or shoes with buckles. “They dressed in earth tones—the green, brown and russet corduroy typical of the English countryside” (Worrall). Following English custom, they did not bathe, and were hirsute and smelly, especially next to the smooth-skinned, fastidiously clean Indians who greeted them with an admixture of suspicion and disgust.

The colonists failed at agriculture because they were not, principally, farmers. In fact they had neglected to bring any cows, sheep, mules, or horses. (They may have brought pigs.) Equipped with flimsy rods and lines, they had intended to make a livelihood by exporting salted fish back to England. In fact it may have been they who taught Squanto the technique of fertilizing the soil with fish heads and not the other way around.

His name was not Squanto. It was Tisquantum, and even that was not likely a name given at birth. Tisquantum means “spiritual rage.” When he introduced himself to the colonists, “[I]t was as if,” one historian has put it, “he had stuck out his hand and said, ‘Hello, I’m the Wrath of God’” (Mann).

Tisquantum’s reasons for assisting a community of Europeans cannot be ascribed to pure altruism. He was sent by Massasoit, the sachem or Indian chief of the Wampanoag tribal confederation, to the Indian settlement of Patuxet, where the colonists established Plymouth.

Tisquantum knew Patuxet. It was his home.

Almost seven years earlier, in this very place, a man named Thomas Hunt, the lieutenant of Captain John Smith of Pocahantas fame, had massacred Indians, taking Tisquantum hostage at gunpoint with eighteen other Patuxet villagers, forcing them into the hold of his ship and kidnapping them to Spain where he planned to sell his cargo as slaves. Saved by Spanish priests who intended to convert him, Tisquantum escaped to London where he was taken in by an Englishman who taught him our language. More than five years after his kidnapping, Tisquantum successfully booked passage on a vessel bound for New England.

When he finally arrived home, what he saw astonished him. Southern Maine to Narragansett Bay had become one great ghost town, a “cemetery 200 miles long and 40 miles deep” (Ibid) with skeletons littering the countryside. His hometown “Patuxet had been hit with special force. Not a single person remained” (Ibid). He finally encountered a handful of ragged survivors who sent for Massasoit. The chieftain explained that a pestilence had raged for three years, killing up to ninety percent of the people in coastal New England. Historians now believe that the epidemic was viral hepatitis spread by the spoiled food of European settlers. Massasoit had once presided over as many as 20,000 tribal members; now his entire confederation could not muster even 1,000 (Ibid).

It is in this historical circumstance that we should contextualize Squanto’s “friendly residency” among the Plymouth colonists and the so-called first Thanksgiving. Both Massasoit and Tisquantum had their motives. The former hoped to use the colonists as allies against the Narragansett Indians, sworn enemies of the Wampanoag confederation, and Tisquantum, with his fluent English, made the logical go-between. For his part, Tisquantum hoped to reconstitute his home community of Patuxet which, you will recall, was situated at Plymouth. By relocating the major Wampanoag settlement, Tisquantum hoped to strip the rulership from Massasoit. To this end, during his year in Plymouth, Tisquantum covertly fomented mistrust of Massasoit among fellow Wampanoag and simultaneously tried tricking the colonists into attacking Massasoit.

Meanwhile, “[b]y fall the settlers’ situation was secure enough that they held a feast of thanksgiving,” modeled after European harvest festivals. Apparently “Massasoit showed up ‘with some ninety men,’ most of them with weapons. The Pilgrim militia responded by marching around and firing their guns in the air in a manner intended to convey menace. Gratified, both sides sat down, ate a lot of food and complained about the Narragansett.” And that, says historian Charles Mann, was the first Thanksgiving (Ibid). There was lots of corn. There was no turkey. The pumpkin they did eat was boiled. The holiday was not repeated next year; only later was it revived, and, and despite Washington’s proclamation of the holiday in 1789, it was not institutionalized by Congress until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

They may, however, have played football, so at least one present-day tradition gets it right.

The bitterly ironic epilogue to this story, as Mann reports it, is that while Tisquantum was busy sowing maize seeds side-by-side with the settlers, Massasoit was unwittingly sowing the seeds of his people’s destruction. By concluding a first-ever Indian treaty permitting a permanent settlement in New England, Massasoit made possible waves of European immigration courtesy of the beachhead in Plymouth. Over “the next decade tens of thousands of Europeans came to Massachusetts. Massasoit shepherded his people through the wave of settlement, and the pact he signed with Plymouth lasted for more than 50 years. Only in 1675 did one of his sons, angered by the colonists’ laws, launch what was perhaps an inevitable attack. Indians from dozens of groups joined in. The conflict, brutal and sad, tore through New England” (Ibid).

It was not only European growth and guns that did in the natives; the settlers’ germs took the heaviest toll. Lacking any natural immunity against European-bred diseases like smallpox, Indians died in ferocious epidemics.

“Why didn’t they teach me this in school?”

That was my first reaction to encountering this material and perhaps it was yours too. Our Thanksgiving narrative is not really history but rather what Rev. Kalajainen described in last year’s Thanksgiving sermon as “a composite of fact and imagination and good storytelling.”

It is, in other words, a Myth, capital “M,” which means a Master Story. No mere fairy tale, a Myth is the Story that a People tells about itself to explain its origins, understand its place in the world, and express its innermost values.

We need our Myths. We also need to destroy our Myths.

Friends, you know this story, this freedom story. It begins with a water-crossing.

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but God freed us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” For centuries we languished under the taskmaster’s whip; then, armed with holy power, we were redeemed: God’s signs and wonders in Moses’s hand, God’s words in Aaron’s mouth, God’s spirit in Miriam’s music. Spared the bloody final plague, we fled under the cover of night, more than a million strong--600,000 men of fighting age alone, the Bible reports--marching to the water’s edge. Moses raised his staff; the Sea parted. We crossed to safety while the waters closed in over Pharaoh’s pursuing chariots.

This Myth, this Master Story, has inspired countless generations. In it, early Christians found a spiritual antecedent for the saving power of Christ: as God had delivered a nation from bondage with the blood of the first-born, so too would the blood of the only-begotten one deliver the faithful from their bondage to sin. The African-American community adopted the Bible’s Exodus narrative to express its innermost longing for a hero who would deliver them. “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land/Tell ol’ Pharaoh/Let my people go!”

The Myth has elemental power. The indomitable pull of human freedom; the will to cast off all that shackles the human spirit; the inexorable judgment of human tyrants: these themes inspire us to this day.

That we were slaves undergirds the Torah’s most frequently repeated precept: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9, etc.) In Judaism, empathy and ethics arise out of the experience of slavery.

The only problem is, it is not likely that we were ever slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.

According to historians and archaeologists there is no evidence that the Exodus ever took place. Whatever did happen did not happen the way the Bible says it happened.

Skepticism about the Biblical account is nothing new; in the halls of academia, scholars have subjected Scripture to historical-critical scrutiny for the better part of two hundred years, and the science of Biblical archaeology has grown over the last century into a celebrated discipline drawing upon billions of investment dollars in Israel alone.

Rabbi David Wolpe articulated all these points, more or less, to his congregation in Los Angeles on the morning of Passover almost ten years ago, to considerable uproar. Reflecting years later on the ensuing brouhaha, Wolpe said:

Endlessly reiterated is the mantra ‘absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.’ In other words, the fact that we have never found a single shred of evidence [of an Israelite encampment] in the Sinai does not mean the Israelites were not there.

This is nominally true. We have found Sinai evidence of other people who predated the Israelites, and while it is improbable that 600,000 men crossed the desert 2,500 years ago without leaving a shard of pottery or a Hebrew carving, it is not impossible….

However, the archeological conclusions are not based primarily on the absence of Sinai evidence. Rather, they are based upon the study of settlement patterns in Israel itself. Surveys of ancient settlements--pottery remains and so forth--make it clear that there simply was no great influx of people around the time of the Exodus.… Therefore, not the wandering, but the arrival alerts us to the fact that the biblical Exodus is not a literal depiction. In Israel at that time, there was no sudden change in the kind or the volume of pottery being made.… There was no population explosion. Most archeologists conclude that the Israelites lived largely in Canaan over generations, instead of leaving and then immigrating back to Canaan (As cited on, emphasis mine).

Additionally, no Egyptian documentation exists that speaks of an Israelite enslavement or mass departure--and the Egyptians kept meticulous records of which many have been excavated.

So where does the Myth, the Master Story, come from? Some have conjectured that a very small band of refugees of Egyptian slavery, perhaps Israelites, eventually made their way to their homeland and their story found its way into the national narrative of their Canaanite brethren.

My personal conjecture is that the story was composed by and for Jewish people living under a documented example of displacement and subjugation, in the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BCE--in which case the narrative of a long-since-passed Egyptian slavery functioned as an allegory for a present-day condition, giving hope that God’s judgment would depose the tyrannical Nebuchadnezzar and allow God’s faithful to cross the Jordan to freedom.

As with the Thanksgiving story, one appropriate reaction is, “Why didn’t they teach me this in school?”

The answer is because we need our Myths. They embody what we as a nation, a religion, a civilization most cherish. The truths they convey are eternal truths. As Wolpe memorably puts it: “Knowing the Exodus is not a literal historical accounting does not ultimately change our connection to each other or to God. Faith should not rest on splitting seas. At the Passover Seder we declare: ‘In each generation, each individual should see himself as if he (or she) went forth from Egypt.’ The message does not depend upon whether 3 or 3 million individuals left” (Ibid).

To analogize: haven’t you ever read a story that changed your life? That gave you sudden insight into the human condition, the world, the Divine? For me, those life-changing stories include Shakespeare’s Hamlet which says as much or more as any work of literature about what it means for a human to be or not to be. “Fiction” usually outclasses “non-fiction” when it comes to conveying essential Truths.

Or consider Henry Thoreau’s Walden. Would it change your impression of the rugged outdoorsman at the center of the autobiographical narrative to learn that during his period of so-called seclusion by the titular pond, Thoreau regularly accepted care packages delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mother?

We read and re-read great stories because, historical or not, great literature has the power to change our lives and change the world.

Put most concisely: Our Master Stories, our great Myths, are true, as Rabbi Larry Kushner likes to say, “not because they happened so much as because they happen” (paraphrased)-- because the Master Stories continue to inspire, teach, and lead the way for people of faith who seek a connection to God’s presence in history and God’s ongoing engagement in our lives.

At the same time, a healthy mistrust of Myths would serve us well--as would an eagerness to tear down a false edifice. Learning the truth should not frighten a person whose faith is firm, whose faith transcends the literal and draws strength from the wellspring of the symbolic.

Moreover, we need to differentiate between “Eternal Truth” or “Ethical Truth” and historical fact. “A tradition cannot make an historical claim and then refuse to have it evaluated by history,” Wolpe reminds us. “It is not an historical claim that God created us and cares for us. That a certain number of people walked across a particular desert at a particular time in the past, after being enslaved and liberated, is an historical claim, and one cannot then cry ‘unfair’ when historians evaluate it” (Ibid).

All the more should we confront with unflinching directness those who would misappropriate the Myth for unethical ends or political gain. Conflating “Master Story” with History, too many people mired in their Biblical literalism would use a reductionist Myth of Israelite manifest destiny--of mass Exodus and mass conquest of Canaan--to justify the enlargement of borders and the dispossession or marginalization of non-Jewish residents who also call the Holy Land home. Rather than deriving from our Master Story the quintessential message, “You shall not oppress the stranger… for you know the heart of the stranger,” they rely on utopian Biblical borders to lay claim to disputed territory -- even if it means that more than a few may end up designated Outsider, Sojourner, Stranger.

And too many people would use a reductionist Thanksgiving Myth of Indian-Pilgrim cooperation and celebration to gloss over the real history between European settlers and Native Americans: a history of raids and cross-raids, of guns and germs, furs and fishing, of internecine squabbles, of displacement, disenfranchisement and even genocide.

This is not just a twenty-first century problem. The early generations of Plymouth settlers did not hesitate to explain the obsolescence of the Natives as proof-positive of God’s providence, a vindication of European “civilization” over Native American “savagery,” a justification of their worldview, their official Myth, capital M.

We need our Myths and we need to destroy them.

Faith does not demand that we abdicate Reason or suppress critical thinking. The world needs more people of Reason who also orient themselves toward Faith, toward elevating the life of the spirit. A modern religion that embraces both Faith and Reason gives us powerful tools to address the challenges of our time.

A modern religion that embraces both Faith and Reason gives us everything we could ever need in order to locate God’s presence in this glorious and confusing Universe, and to access our God-given faculties to address a shabby little world desperately in need of human hope and human help.

May your Thanksgiving radiate, around your table and into the world, the light of Harmony, Peace, and, above all, Truth.

One Myth, however, you have my permission to leave be.

No matter what, tell the chef that the turkey was delicious.