Friday, October 29, 2010

CHAYEI SARAH 5771 - On Marriage and How We Read the Bible


Sermon delivered at Westchester Reform Temple, 10.29.10

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Two weeks ago I spoke about Ishmael, the result of a brief relationship between an eighty-six year-old Abraham and his Egyptian maidservant Hagar. Sarah, desperate for a child, permits their union but promptly regrets it when Hagar becomes pregnant. When Abraham is ninety-nine and Ishmael thirteen, Sarah miraculously gives birth to Isaac. She unsympathetically casts Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, and that, more or less, is the end of that.

Parashat Chayei Sarah begins with Sarah’s death. Isaac, now fully grown, takes a wife and Rebecca moves into his tent. Toward the very end of the portion, the Torah drops one of those great “They never taught me that in Sunday school!” lines, informing us that “Abraham took another wife whose name was Keturah” (Gen. 25:1).

The Rabbis turned cartwheels to make sense of this plot twist. Rashi provides the most famous rationalization, that Keturah was a secret name for none other than Hagar -- thus solving two problems with one imaginative little interpretation.

(1) It mitigates Abraham’s complicity in kicking Hagar out of the tent, showing that although their relationship ended abruptly, Abraham carried a torch for the mother of his first child.

And (2) it portrays Abraham as less of a Don Juan, living out his twilight years with an appropriate companion, who, like Abraham, had become eligible for Social Security benefits.

However, all this is midrash, commentary between the lines. The Torah speaks for itself. Abraham and his young bride immediately got down to business and Keturah ended up giving birth to six children. What’s more, the text further references other children born to Abraham by concubines who are given parting gifts at the time of Abraham’s death, even though he does not include them in his will.

One of the reasons we come back to the Torah week after week is because we see ourselves in Biblical characters, in all their human complexity, their nobility and frailty. The Bible illuminates the human quest for meaning and spiritual connection in lives beset by the ordinary wear-and-tear of raising a family and putting food on a table, as well as the upheaval visited on ordinary lives by death, betrayal, and national catastrophe.

What couple struggling with infertility does not see themselves in Abraham and Sarah? What person with a toxic in-law does not see himself in Jacob? What refugee from Hurricane Katrina would not see herself in the The Flood and what refugee from tyranny would not see himself in The Exodus?

Still, Abraham’s love life startles us a bit. I mean, two full-fledged wives, one openly acknowledged extra-marital affair, and a goodly number of concubines, all bearing children? What to say?

Before we rush to judgment, let’s do what we must always do when reading Torah, which is to consider the text not through the lens of twenty-first century mores but rather in the context of its time: both the time in which it was written, the Iron Age, the first millennium BCE, and the time the writers wished to portray, the Bronze Age, the era of the patriarchs and matriarchs, somewhere between 1,600 and 2,000 BCE.

Through this lens, it quickly becomes clear that no matter how much we identify with the human drama of the Bible, the literature nevertheless conjures up a time and place and culture vastly removed from our own, in which animal sacrifice, slavery, and polygamy were par for the course.

One reason the Torah doesn’t bat an eye at Abraham consorting with concubines and siring a brood with a brand new wife a chapter after burying Sarah is probably because these choices reflect certain norms of Biblical society. So while love and lust may not have changed much over the past 4,000 years, the relationships that polite society deems acceptable have changed, as have the institutions that define and safeguard the norms for those relationships.

The Bible is a wonderful tool for imparting wisdom to people seeking a spiritual dimension to living. I cannot imagine a week without refracting its words upon my life. Biblical wisdom shapes the way I look at the world.

At the same time, we ought not apply, wholesale, Biblical standards of love, fidelity, sex, childrearing, and marriage to today’s debates about the same.

For starters, the Bible knows of no institution called marriage! Rabbis living almost two millennia after the time of Abraham first defined marriage in our religion. Another almost two millennia later and we stand at a crossroads about what constitutes a marriage--specifically, whether or not we shall consider homosexuals eligible to marry.

At the center of this debate, critics of gay marriage have placed our own Bible. Citing the Book of Leviticus which in two places condemns men who would engage in homosexual intercourse (in one of those two places mandating the death penalty), they argue that homosexuality offends so-called “Judeo-Christian values.”

Turning to the story of Adam and Eve, they quote: “The Eternal God said: ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make him an ezer k’negdo, a complementary helper.” “...Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife.” I’ve heard this passage reduced to a sound bite: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” glossing over the larger principle that it is not good for a person to be alone and that having an ezer k’negdo, a complementary helper, is nice, and, well, helpful.

The Jewish case against homosexuality and gay marriage finds widespread acceptance in Orthodoxy. Yet even in Reform circles, where homosexuals can become rabbis and cantors and where rabbis and cantors feel encouraged to officiate at gay commitment ceremonies and weddings (where legal), the matter still attracts controversy.

Dr. Eugene Borowitz is one of the most brilliant and revered rabbis that the Reform Movement has ever produced. Now well into his eighties but still teaching at the Hebrew Union College in New York, Borowitz is often called the leading Reform Jewish theologian and ethicist. He is an award-winning author and once upon a time served as Rabbi Jacobs’ rabbinical thesis advisor.

He has also been an outspoken critic of homosexuality within Judaism and an opponent of gay marriage. Since he began teaching at HUC in 1962, he would not sign the certificates of s’micha, or ordination, of those rabbinical students who self-identified as homosexual. In his essay entitled, “On Homosexuality and the Rabbinate, A Covenantal Response,” he reasoned, “[T]he marital relationship is the one that most closely mirrors a Jew’s sacred, covenantal relationship with God, reinforcing ‘our special devotion to the heterosexual, that is, the procreative family.’” And rabbis, he further reasoned, “‘ought, more than all other Jews, to be exemplars of living by the Covenant.’” (As quoted by Vivien Orbach-Smith, cited on

Last spring, a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College, Molly Kane, did what every student must do before graduating: deliver a “senior sermon” in front of the college community--fellow students, professors, rabbis, cantors, and guests. All of your WRT rabbis have undergone the same rite of passage, in some cases with psychological scars to show for it.

Molly challenged the status quo on the issue of marriage equality.

“Why is it,” Molly asked, “that though 57% of people under the age of 40 are in support of marriage equality we can’t pass this legislation? Are we waiting for our generation to come of age before insisting on equal rights for gays and lesbians? We’re stalling for time. I admit to falling victim to this mindset. It will just take time, I tell myself. We’ll get the rights, eventually. But, then incidents of homophobia snap me out of my complacency.”

Molly went on to name some of those incidents, which, while upsetting, pale in comparison to the tragic case of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who chose to end his life after his classmates violated his privacy by uploading a video of a homosexual encounter, only the latest example of young people literally bullied to death by a society that still has a long way to go in combatting homophobia, especially against boys and men.

Like Molly, I do believe that change is coming. A majority of my generation, and certainly of the next generation, just don’t get bent out of shape over homosexuality. We have openly gay friends and we love them. We think it’s high time to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and legalize gay marriage.

So, when enough of the people I know in their thirties and twenties and teens muster the initiative to vote the way they feel, it’s only a matter of time before the laws change. But even if Bob Dylan was right (and he was, about so much!) that “the times, they are a-changin’,” well, they’re not a-changin’ fast enough, so why keep silent now?

But back to Molly Kane’s sermon. Molly is a smart student who knows her Bible and somewhere along the way she correctly deduced that the Bible speaks in many voices and that not all voices are given equal weight in Jewish tradition.

Many passages in the Rabbinic literature, to wit, depict Rabbis with opposing views facing off one against another, each trying to trump the other with the sharpest Biblical prooftext. The Talmud even records debates over which principle in the Torah is the most important.

And in those debates, you will never find a Rabbi saying that the Levitical opposition to gay sex is the Torah’s essential teaching; not even close. What’s more, the word used there to categorize homosexuality,to’eivah, usually translated “abomination,” also denotes minor infractions like eating non-kosher food and engaging in heterosexual sex while the woman is having her period.

There is a tacit hierarchy to Biblical law and we all know intuitively that the Ten Commandments rank higher than sha’atnez, the Deuteronomic prohibition against wearing garments that mix linen and wool.

Lots and lots of Rabbis, however, both ancient and modern, lift up one principle in particular, the one Ben Azzai called the greatest principle in the Torah, the one with which Molly concluded her sermon: “...we are all one people created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God.”

The Bible makes its own best argument against itself. Because if we hold fast to our belief that we are all one people created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and not only that we believe this but that weelevate this teaching above all other principles in the Torah, then our attitude toward homosexuality and yes, gay marriage, must conform to our belief.

Leviticus condemns homosexual activity, because the ancient Israelite priestly cult thought it a deviant practice. Nowadays we recognize that homosexuality and heterosexuality are innate orientations: not lifestyle choices but facts of life. Vast evidence both scientific and anecdotal confirms that gay people can’t just convert to straight. A person’s sexual orientation should be affirmed no differently than a person’s skin color. About things like this any person has a God-given right to say, “This is who I am. Deal with it.”

Elaborating, our colleague Rabbi Yoel Kahn has written:

“I do not believe that God creates in vain. Deep, heartfelt yearning for companionship and intimacy is not an abomination before God. God does not want us to send the gays and lesbians among us into exile — either cut off from the Jewish community or into internal exile, living a lie for a lifetime. I believe that the time has come: I believe that God summons us to affirm the proper and rightful place of the homosexual Jew and her or his family—in the synagogue and among the Jewish people.

...Let me be clear; I do not propose merely that we politely overlook the historical Jewish teaching condemning homosexual behavior, but that we explicitly affirm its opposite: The movement from Toeivah[abomination] to Kedusha [sanctification].…” (“The Kedusha of Homosexual Relationships,” CCAR Yearbook, 1989).

True sanctification of homosexuality would necessarily include joining gay couples at the chuppah. We have to get past the tired old argument that legalizing gay marriage would somehow undermine the institutions of marriage or family. Gay people don’t want to make society “more gay” and they don’t want to dismantle the family.

Advocates for marriage equality have but one agenda: to secure the same legal recognition, rights, and privileges extended to heterosexual married couples, like tax and insurance benefits and hospital visitation rights. Rabbi Kahn further notes that encouraging commitment, stability, and openness does not undermine the institution of family; it enhances it! (As cited on

Ah, but I keep getting away from Molly Kane. After concluding her sermon, Molly had to undergo what every student on the New York campus of HUC must, a dreaded “sermon review” in which anyone present may offer comments, questions, and critiques, sometimes bruising ones.

Rabbi Eugene Borowitz had sat in the congregation that morning last spring. At the sermon review downstairs, he stood up and declared her sermon “brilliant” and “compelling.” He spoke from the heart about his own ideological journey over the past two decades, a journey from opposition to affirmation, a journey in which he did what liberal, thoughtful people of faith sometimes do: he changed his mind. And then, last April 22nd, in front of more than 100 witnesses, he followed up his testimony by signing the eleven-year-old certificate of ordination of a practicing rabbi in New York City who had withheld his document in solidarity with his gay classmates.

Reform Judaism says our faith is a work-in-progress, and that our religion must constantly undergo scrutiny in the context of the times in which we live. Borowitz’s spiritual evolution illustrates that the thoughtful Reform Jew must never desist from the sacred journey that a modern, progressive faith demands.

Times change. Beliefs change: sometimes subtly, over the course of centuries; sometimes dramatically, over the course of a single lifetime. Old Biblical words, inextricably rooted in Biblical soil, should stay there. Polygamy and concubines should remain exactly where they are, in Abraham’s tent. The Levitical rejection of homosexuality should remain exactly where it is, in the Book of Leviticus, alongside much other arcana of priestly purity.

Some Biblical wisdom, in contrast, springs eternal, summoning us to our core convictions:

Love another as you love yourself.

It is not good for a person to be alone.

We are all one people created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Guest Blogger Rabbinical Student Leah Citrin - Parashat Vayera 5771

Dear Friends,

WRT Torah Study alumna Leah Citrin writes this week's posting from her perch in Jerusalem, where she is in the first year of her rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

After returning from a 32 hour trip to Bethlehem last Friday, I promptly called Rabbi Blake. A while back, we discussed the possibility of a guest blog appearance (or two) during my Year In Israel. Wanting to share my Bethlehem experience, I figured now was as good of a time as ever to offer. Turns out, I was pretty lucky because my message ties in pretty nicely to Vayera, this week’s Torah portion.

Although there are many rich stories detailed in this jam-packed parasha, I am actually not going to take us past the first few verses. “When Abraham saw the men he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them [Gen. 18:2].” Not only did Abraham run to greet these three strangers, be he also invited them to bathe, rest, and eat. He ran around gathering all of what they might have needed.

So the first thing to point out is that Abraham is only three days removed from a very painful surgery (hint: most males experience it when they are eight days old). For him to be running around doing anything is, as I understand it, a great feat. Not let’s add in the second part: these three men are total strangers. Abraham goes out of his way to provide these passers by with the very best hospitality he can offer. This story of hachnasat orchim, or welcoming the stranger, is tied directly to my experience in Bethlehem and can absolutely offer us something this week. I had the opportunity to, among other thought provoking things, be on the receiving end of some incredible hospitality.

After a long day of listening to speakers and touring Bethlehem, we set out for dinner at The Tent restaurant. Eating with our host parents, Jamila and Abdifata as well as their seven year old granddaughter Dana, my friend Dusty and I engaged in as much conversation as was possible with their limited English and our complete lack of Arabic. We asked about their story and their life in Bethlehem. What was immediately clear was their excitement for hosting foreign guests. They continuously made mention of all their previous visitors and how great it is to meet diverse people from many other countries. We learned about their enjoyment of travelling to Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem before movement restrictions were imposed, making it impossible for them to leave the West Bank. Abdifata teaches Islamic religion at the Lutheran school in Bethlehem, and Jamila used to spend much of her time in women’s empowerment groups and dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians. Her philosophy is based on the premise that “People get along. The government gets in the way.” This family is living evidence of that message.

Once dinner was over, we headed back to their house, which has been in the family for more than 100 years. It started with tea. Then there was chocolate. Next came the box of cookies. We politely nibbled on some of what Jamila presented us with, despite being incredibly full from a delicious and filling dinner. Then she brought each of us an entire plate of fruit. I quickly reached my consumption limit and Dusty was not far behind. We sat and we talked with Jamila and Dana as we ate, and watched the two of them lovingly interact. Later, Dana’s mother came down (they live in an apartment upstairs from Jamila and Abdifata) with Lean, her youngest child who was about nine months old. Watching all of them, all I could think about is how these children will group up: surrounded by a warm and loving family. But will they also be suffocated by movement restrictions? Will they ever experience life outside of Bethlehem? Will they grow up hating Israelis or will they build the foundations of peace as their grandparents have tried to do?

We have such a long way to go on the road to peace, but surely, this incredibly hospitality is a start. Connecting on a human level, I believe, sets the foundations for other types of bridges to be built. Most Palestinians are not terrorists. Most Palestinians want peace. I can say that until I’m blue in the face, but unless more people get to see and experience it firsthand, I’m not sure much will change.

And what about us, as North American Jews? Do we do a respectable job welcoming the stranger? Would we be as open to hosting people from “the other side” as my Palestinian host family? How might that change the outlook of the situation?

My trip to Bethlehem was thought provoking, meaningful, important, and worthwhile and, most of all, rooted in my dedication to listen resiliently and look past glaring differences in the search for commonalities. I would be happy to answer any questions about my trip, as this has provided only a miniscule glance into the time I spent in Bethlehem.

You can read more about Encounter programs here:

Friday, October 15, 2010


“Call me Ishmael.”

When Herman Melville wrote the most famous first sentence in American literature, he was riffing on this week’s Torah portion, Lech-Lecha.

Who is Ishmael? In Moby-Dick he is an itinerant seafarer, an outcast of his own making. He sounds like a real downer, a dour and restless man with a tendency for unprovoked violence.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately knocking people’s hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball” (Moby-Dick, p. 2).

That is the Ishmael of Moby-Dick. Now meet the Ishmael of Lech-Lecha. Sarai, you will recall, had borne no children and now is old. In desperation for an heir she permits her husband Abram to conjugate with Hagar, their Egyptian maidservant, who quickly conceives. An angel announces that Hagar will bear a son--Yishma-El, meaning “God listens.” The angel also prophesies: “He will be a wild ass of a man / his hand against everyone / and everyone’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12).

Ishmael grows up in this uncomfortable blended family and, as we know, Sarai, now called Sarah, eventually conceives and gives birth to Yitzhak, Isaac. When Isaac enters the family Sarah turns on Hagar and Ishmael. Fearful that Ishmael will steal from Isaac’s inheritance, Sarah throws mother and son out of the tent, into the desert. The Torah describes the boy crying at the top of his lungs, abandoned in the wilderness. We will not meet Ishmael again until he shows up at Abraham’s grave.

Here we see the seeds of strife between Ishmael and Isaac, estranged brothers of a common father.

Islam and Judaism are Abrahamic faiths. Muslims claim lineage through Ishmael and Jews through Isaac. How prophetic the Torah seems, setting the stage for two great peoples, two great faith traditions, whose hands for far too long have been upraised each against the other, who rather than standing side-by-side have turned their backs each on the other.

Just look at our backyard. All of us have gotten caught up in the fracas over Park 51, the proposed building of Cordoba House, an Islamic Cultural Center in Lower Manhattan.

The rupture in Jewish-Muslim affairs is hardly new; we have all grown up in a time of ever-increasing discord between Ishmael and Isaac. We have lived through Muslim nations time and again mustering their planes and tanks and missiles to destroy the fledgling Jewish State. We have seen the Palestinian national cause take up the most vile and undignified ways of making known its demands--through kidnapping, hijacking, violence, and propaganda, and systematic rejection of a negotiated peace.

We have seen the rise of Islamic terrorist networks, of which Al Qaeda represents only the latest, if most notorious. We have seen demagogues turn a blind eye and allow anti-Semitism to escalate unchecked within their borders, or, worse, to engage outright in Holocaust-denial and other crimes against our people.

I am no cockeyed optimist. As a rabbinical student living in Jerusalem fifteen years ago, I remember being awakened from a sound sleep on three separate occasions when Palestinian suicide bombers blew up buses crowded with Israelis on everyday routes to work and school and grocery shopping. I walked on streets stained with their blood and witnessed the anguish of Israelis who somehow summoned the will to respond with dignity and restraint amid bottomless grief. I harbor no illusions about Islamic terrorists and no limit to the prayers of sympathy I would give to the victims’ loved ones if I thought they would bring any comfort.

“There’s good news and there’s bad news,” says my teacher, Professor Paul Liptz. “The good news is that extremists probably represent, at most, ten percent of the world’s Muslim population. The bad news is that there are 1.57 billion Muslims, which means that there may be more than 100 million who subscribe to the most dangerous expressions of an otherwise noble and beautiful monotheistic faith tradition.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, last month delivered a powerful speech about Jewish-Muslim relations that you can read online.

“I am not one who says that the perpetrators of the 9/11 atrocity were men who happened to be Muslims. This is too simple,” Yoffie said. “They were adherents of a radical Muslim group; their ideas were shaped and their actions motivated by their understanding of Islam. We oppose their ideas, just as we oppose religious extremism in all forms, and we are committed to combating them.”

“But the point is that we do not tar all Muslims with the brush of extremism because extremist strands of Islam exist in their midst. To do so is to engage in the kind of stereotyping that has plagued us as Jews throughout our history, and that we reject, categorically and unequivocally.”

Friends, I could spend all evening sermonizing about the existential threat posed by Islamic extremism. A number of my colleagues apparently did just that during the High Holidays, including a rabbi named Shalom Lewis, who serves a Conservative synagogue in Atlanta. Lewis’ sermon has been spreading like wildfire on the Internet; perhaps someone you know sent you a copy. It has been called “extraordinary..." "...a beacon of moral clarity.” In it, Rabbi Lewis likens the threat of extremist Islam to Naziism and exhorts his listeners:

“We are at war… yet too many stubbornly and foolishly don’t put the pieces together and refuse to identify the evil doers. We are circumspect and disgracefully politically correct. Let me mince no words in saying that from Fort Hood to Bali, from Times Square to London, from Madrid to Mumbai, from 9/11 to Gaza, the murderers, the barbarians are radical Islamists. To camouflage their identity is sedition. To excuse their deeds is contemptible. To mask their intentions is unconscionable.”

As you can tell, Rabbi Lewis is a gifted writer and a powerful preacher and I understand why his message has resonated. Further, I admit that little he says in his sermon strikes me as factually incorrect or baseless or paranoid. He makes some excellent points, and he makes them well.

But I have two problems with his remarks. One, the lesser problem: I dispute Rabbi Lewis’ claim that “too many … stubbornly … refuse to identify the evil doers.” No, we know who the bad guys are in the war between jihadist Islam and the West and we have not held our tongues in mealy-mouthed politically correctness. This accusation strikes me as glib at best, false at worst.

Two, the greater problem: It is very easy to stand up in front of a Jewish audience and preach a sermon denouncing extremist Islam. But a rabbi’s responsibility is not only to speak with moral clarity, but also to help his congregants become better people and better Jews and I do not see how Rabbi Lewis’ message does that. Does the Jewish community need another sermon about the evils of Islam, right now? Maybe… maybe... but certainly not that message alone and nothing more.

A rabbi has a responsibility to address unchecked malevolence, all the more so when it poses a threat to our people. Extremist Islam certainly provides one example. But a rabbi also has a responsibility--yes, even a higher responsibility--to address evils and failings within the Jewish community.

And I am standing here tonight to say that with regard to our fellow Muslim-American citizens, with regard to Muslims worldwide, with regard to the respect due the people of Ishmael, we--the American Jewish community--we have gone astray.

We have gone astray by allowing the bigots to set the tone of the debate in the controversy over Park 51. I am not saying that everyone who opposes the project is a bigot; many are reasonable, sensitive and tolerant and I respect that there exist opposing points-of-view within Reform Jewish congregations including our own. But we have allowed the most unreasonable, insensitive, intolerant voices to lead the way.

We have gone astray by rushing to judgment about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the project’s chief exponent. About him, Yoffie said something that everyone in the Jewish community needs to hear:

“He is a ... moderate by any definition. What is happening now is that many are searching through his 30-year activist history to find things he has said that could discredit him. And let me say clearly: he has said things that I oppose and find offensive. But if he is not a fitting partner for dialogue then there are no such partners. And I am distressed by those in the Jewish community who continue to believe that we should only talk to and approve for dialogue those who agree with us on every point and who have never made a problematic statement about Judaism or Israel. We don’t need dialogue with those people. We need it with people like Imam Rauf, who are reasonable, sensible, and courageous - even though, to be sure, we often don’t agree.”

We have gone astray by misappropriating the Holocaust to justify opposition to the Park 51 project. Many of you have heard the argument that when Carmelite nuns set up a convent at Auschwitz--literally on the camp itself, inside a building used to store canisters of the Zyklon-B gas used in the showers--Pope John Paul II understood that a convent on the site of a death camp, a mass grave, would be offensive to Jews, and instructed them to move off-grounds.

Many in the Jewish community have analogized the convent to Park 51. But the lesson we should take away, as Yoffie says, “is exactly the opposite.” Ground Zero is a mass grave, hallowed ground for Americans of all faiths. But the whole point of the Carmelite controversy is that the nuns originally had decamped on the grounds itself, and then were told to move off-site ... but nearby. In fact, their new convent was built just across the road from Auschwitz--less than the 2 ½ blocks separating Ground Zero from Park 51, and within plain view of Auschwitz (unlike 2 ½ crowded New York city blocks separating one building from another).

Please understand, this is not bleeding-heart liberal Blake taking down the conservatives. Far from it. This is a plea for reason and respect no matter your political allegiances. Listen again to Yoffie who makes so much sense:

“It is obviously true that more liberals than conservatives support Cordoba House, but that is far from the whole story. Mayor Bloomberg supports the mosque and he is an independent. Governor Christie of New Jersey supports the mosque and he is a conservative Republican.... Josh Barro, writing in the on-line edition of the conservative magazine National Review, argues the conservative case for the mosque. Conservatives, he said, believe that private property should be used as the owners see fit; they also believe that using arcane land use laws to oppose construction for private purposes is a misuse of government prerogatives. According to Barro, for conservatives ‘the proper question is not “Why here?” but “Why not here?”’”

We have gone astray every time we have forwarded an e-mail filled with blanket accusations about Muslims, Islam, mosques, or the Qur’an without fact-checking first, without responding to the sender for clarification about the original author’s identity and motives, and in this I include the persistent, unsubstantiated allegations about President Obama’s religious leanings. In fact, we have gone astray every time we have received any such e-mail without challenging the sender to stop forwarding it and to renounce it to the people from whom he or she received it.

We have gone astray every time we have spoken about Muslims, Islam, mosques, or the Qur’an if we have never had personal associations or friendships with Muslims, have never studied Islam, have never set foot in a mosque, and have never read the Qur’an, not even in part. It is easy to denounce what we do not understand, and especially easy to cherry-pick the most inflammatory passages from another faith tradition’s holy scriptures from a position of ignorance. The Qur’an, to refine my point, is replete with beautiful and uplifting teachings that we Jews embrace as our own, like “honor your mother and father”; it also contains passages that, read literally, can be used to justify xenophobia and violence.

I shudder to think of what an ill-intentioned ignoramus would make of our own Torah, which on the one hand is replete with the most beautiful and uplifting ethical wisdom, and the other hand, also mandates death by stoning for homosexuals and wayward children, and genocide for Canaanite infidels. Every time we speak about Islam, Muslims, mosques, or the Qur’an out of ignorance we diminish hope for any real interreligious dialogue. We alienate our would-be partners, exiling them into the wilderness.

Please don’t cast out Ishmael howling into the desert. For there, the Torah teaches, a boy abandoned grows up to become a wild ass of a man, prone to his most violent impulses, capable only of lashing out with his hands against everyone and everything.

Should you wish to share this sermon with people in your e-mail contact list, it will be online in the next few days. Get the word out, and add your own plea for dialogue in place of demonization. Together we can change the tenor of the conversation.

For the voices of intolerance grow louder. But we are Reform Jews and we can do better.