CHAYEI SARAH 5771
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 http://rabbisteinman.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/the-sermon-heard-around-the-world/.)
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 http://arguingequality.org/chapter7.htm.)
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.