by Julie Roth (Princeton, NJ)
First Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5770/2009
I speak this morning out of a deep and complicated love for the State of Israel.
I first fell in love with Israel when I was 16 years old, traveling on an arts program for seven weeks. I remember the tangible feeling of ancient history coming alive beneath my feet and the power of being in a Jewish country where the secular cab drivers said Shabbat Shalom and young soldiers, a few years older than me, protected a country built by heroic pioneers so that there would never again be a Holocaust. I can still feel the wind at night in the Negev desert and on the rooftops in the old city of Jerusalem where I imagined what it was like to wander in the desert and receive the Torah at Sinai and where I finally stood in the place where I had directed my prayers for so many years.
And then at age 29, I lived in Israel for a full year, studying in rabbinical school with my Israeli and South American classmates. Although it was a required year of study, only one-third of the American students came. I was afraid to go to Israel that year – it was the height of the second intifada and suicide bombings were a regular occurrence – but I felt to be the kind of rabbi I wanted to be, I had to go. The Dean of the rabbinical school told us at our Orientation that this year we would develop a mature love for Israel, not the infatuation of a quick tour of the Dead Sea and Ben Yehuda Street, but the love of a fifty year marriage, the love of commitment in good and bad times, a love built on scars as well as joyful memories. That year I marveled at street signs bearing the names of the rabbis I studied in the Talmud and I made a new friend who later became my husband. That year I avoided buses and movie theatres to minimize my chances of being killed in a terrorist attack. I prepared for the US war with Iraq by learning how to use a gas mask in case Saddam Hussein unleashed nerve gas against Israel. At the end of the year when I returned my unused gas mask, as instructed, at the lingerie counter of the local department store, I laughed to myself, thinking is this what it means to have a mature love for Israel?
And now, seven years later, I am challenged to grow in my love for Israel in new ways. While there is much to talk about regarding the settlement and the threat of a nuclear Iran, my focus today is not political. This morning instead I want to focus on what it means to live with conflicting viewpoints and the importance of dialogue about Israel both within the Jewish community and across the Jewish and Muslim communities. This is not the first year I have turned to the Torah readings on Rosh Hashanah and remarked to myself that the conflict between Sarah and Hagar, between Ishmael and Isaac still haunts us today; that the words jump off the page because of their resonance with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But each year, as my own relationship with Israel changes and matures, I see the story with slightly different eyes.
This year, my reading of the story of Ishmael and Isaac is informed by something Imam Sohaib Sultan, the new Muslim Life Coordinator here at Princeton said to me last January in the middle of the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. We were speaking about the great effort that was being made by Muslim and Jewish students to plan a joint public event despite our radically different views of the war. In the end, there was not one word the Muslim and Jewish students could agree to say publicly so we decided to stand together in silence, for fifteen minutes, outside Firestone library to honor the relationship we had built through dialogue and to express our shared hope that there would soon be an end to the loss of life on both sides of the conflict. I was explaining to him how hard it was for me personally and for many members of the Jewish community to speak publicly about the suffering of the Palestinians while still feeling loyal to Israel and her right to defend her citizens. Sohaib responded by saying that the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities could only be sustained, could only grow to the degree that we were willing and able to hear each other’s conflicting narratives. That is why I am so struck by the fact that the central narrative that we read on Rosh Hashanah, the story of the binding of Isaac– the troubling and quintessential test of Abraham’s faith– is told from a completely different perspective in the Muslim tradition.
In the Torah, Abraham does not tell Isaac in advance what he plans to do. There are no details about whether Issac fully cooperated or resisted, but we call this story the binding of Isaac because Abraham binds Isaac to the altar before raising the knife to sacrifice him. In contrast, in the, Qu’ran, Abraham’s son knowingly and voluntarily submits to being sacrificed; there is no need to bind him to the altar, rather he prostrates with his forehead to the ground. Significantly, it is unclear in the Qu’ran which son is being sacrificed. The majority of Muslim commentaries claim it is Ishmael, not Isaac, who submits to this ultimate test of faith. But there are a minority of commentaries, some prominent, that claim it was Isaac. Though it is tempting to simplify matters, to present a stark contrast between Isaac and Ishmael, between Judaism and Islam, I think it’s important to highlight here that even within the Muslim tradition there are multiple and conflicting voices.
As Jews, as much as we struggle with this story, we hold it sacred; we believe it is Isaac who is the direct link between God and Abraham and us; the link to the promise of being a great nation in the Land of Israel. So what are we supposed to do with the information that Muslims tell this same story from a different perspective? How can we hear and understand that Ishmael was almost sacrificed, without losing all the claims staked on our own version of the story? As liberal, post-modern Jews who see the Torah as a sacred inheritance, but not as the literal word of God, it may be possible for us to acknowledge the truth of our own story and the truth of the Muslim story. But the challenge is to not let the existence of multiple sacred stories erode our own sense of truth while at the same time not denying or at least not ignoring the truth for the “other.” I am not claiming that this is easy to do, with regard to religious beliefs or in any situation where we have a conflict enmeshed in competing narratives, but I am saying that I believe to move forward, to heal, to hope for peace, we must try to stand in that space of conflicting narratives, to learn from each other by talking and by listening.
Sometimes, our challenge comes not from a conflict between narratives, but from the conflict revealed within our own story. In the chapter preceding the binding of Isaac, we read the story of Abraham kicking Hagar and Ishmael out of the household, sending them into the desert with only bread and a skin of water. Whether or not Ishmael is at fault, the text makes clear in the very next verse that it is not possible for both sons to stay and inherit within the same land. Sarah says to Abraham, garish ha-amah hazot v’et b’nah ki lo yirash ben ha-amah hazot im b’ni, im Yitzchak, “Cast out the slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son, with Issac.” After so many years of living side by side in the same home, Sarah does not even refer to Hagar and Ishmael by name, but rather as the “slave woman.” What does it mean when we are unable or unwilling to refer to the “other” by name? What is the Torah suggesting here by showing us that Hagar the Egyptian is the one enslaved and we are the ones who hold the power?
Sarah’s request greatly distresses Abraham, but God affirms that Sarah is right, that Isaac is meant to be the primary heir and Ishmael must go. God also assures Abraham that God will make Ishmael a great nation as well. The Torah underscores that there are hard realities that cannot be avoided if the Jewish people are going to inherit the Land of Israel. I still wonder why Abraham had to send Hagar and Ishmael away into the desert with only bread and a skin of water, placing them in a desperate, life-threatening situation. Is it to highlight that God hears Ishmael’s voice too? We could debate whether Abraham should have sent Hagar and Ishmael away more compassionately and in a sense that is what the Torah is asking us to do by including Abraham’s actions and their consequences. Our tradition is telling us pieces of both sides of the story and asking us to struggle with the full complexity of what happened.
After many years of separation, Isaac and Ishmael meet again, briefly, to bury their father in the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 25:9). The cave of Machpelah is located in Hebron, near the village of Beit Omar, where Osama Abu Ayash, one of the Palestinian participants in The Parents Circle – Family Forum lives with his wife Antisar. The Parents Circle – Family Forum began in 1995; “it is a world precedent where bereaved families, victims from both sides, embark on a joint reconciliation mission while the conflict is still active.” These several hundred families include Osama, who was tortured by the Israeli Defense Force and his wife Antisar, who lost two brothers in the conflict; they initially protested their brother even allowing a Jew in his home and later, after hearing the stories of several bereaved Israeli families, came to understand, in their words, “that the pain was the same pain, the suffering the same suffering, and the tears the same tears.” The hundreds of families also include Robi Damelin, an Israeli mother who lost her son David while he was serving on reserve duty in the Occupied Territories. Hesitant to join the group at first, Robi eventually wrote a letter to the mother of the Palestinian sniper who killed her son, a letter that was hand delivered by two of the Palestinians from her dialogue group; in the letter Robi wrote, “I am the mother of David who was killed by your son. I give this letter to people I love and trust to deliver, they will tell you of the work we are doing, and perhaps create in your hearts some hope for the future. I hope that maybe in the future we can meet.” I bring the example of The Parents Circle – Family Forum because of the powerful example they set for us by what they do. In the words of the groups’ Israeli co-founder, Roni Hirshenson who lost two sons in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “If we who have paid the highest price possible can talk to each other, than anyone can.”
In the Talmud, the idea that the difficult case proves the easier case is called a “kal v’chomer.” Put in other words, according to Talmudic reasoning if bereaved Palestinian families can talk to bereaved Israeli families, then Jewish and Muslim students at Princeton can speak to one another. And if the Muslim–Jewish dialogue program at Princeton can aim to increase our understanding of each other and create an environment where competing narratives can coexist, than all the more so within the Jewish community we should be able to speak openly about our different views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More than any specific moral lesson or matter of Jewish practice, the Talmud teaches on every single page, by recording majority and minority opinions in conversation with each other, that the Jewish tradition values a multiplicity of voices.
I believe that the time for the American Jewish community to speak about Israel with only one voice and the time to support Israel by never talking about the suffering of the Palestinians has passed. Our sacred texts ask us to remember that even our enemies are also human beings. There is a midrash that speaks about the angels celebrating the destruction of the Egyptians after the ten plagues and the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. God stops this celebration saying, that the Egyptians are also My people. For this same reason, we take a drop out of our wine cups as we recite each of the ten plagues at our Passover seders. This tradition teaches us that if God can show compassion towards the suffering of the Egyptians without being disloyal to the Israelites, so too we can have compassion for the suffering of the Palestinians without being disloyal to the State of Israel.
There is a sparkling glimmer of hope immediately before our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, a quick story of a peace treaty between Abraham and Avimelech, King of the Philistines. Their direct communication and reconciliation models for us the type of direct conversations for the sake of forgiveness that our tradition demands of us at this time of year. After Abraham reproaches Avimelech for the well of water which the servants of Avimelech had seized, Avimelech responds, lo yadati…lo hegadta li, v’ lo shamati, “I did not know, you did not tell me, and I did not hear of it until today.” Avimelech’s words underscore our dual responsibility to both tell each other the complaints in our hearts and to listen to what we are being told. One of the most powerful teachings of the Jewish tradition is that we must seek forgiveness from family, colleagues, and friends, and even adversaries directly; this often requires us to listen to another side of the story that may be different from our own. As hard as it can be to know, to tell someone, to listen, I hope we will all be inspired by the courage of the bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families in the Parents Forum – Family Forum, by the committed students in the Muslim-Jewish dialogue program at Princeton, and by the conflicting opinions lovingly recorded on every page of our sacred Talmud. I hope we will be inspired to engage in even the difficult conversations – to speak and to listen with the hope that by honoring each other’s stories we strengthen our relationships with “the other” and with each other; we bring healing to ourselves and to the broader world. May this be a sweet New Year for all of us. Shanah Tovah.
Rabbi Julie Roth is the Executive Director of the Princeton Center for Jewish Life/Hillel. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, she has lived in New York City, Boston, and Washington where she worked for Hillel on the local and international levels. She and her husband Justus love living in Princeton with their twin boys, Ilan and Rafael.
Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2005, Rabbi Roth is a recipient of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and holds a BA in Comparative Religion from Brown University. Her passion for pluralism, Jewish life, and multi-culturalism make campus work an ideal match. When she’s not building a framework for a vibrant Jewish campus life, Julie enjoys ballroom dancing, swimming, movies, and cooking vegetarian food.
This essay was delivered as a sermon at the Princeton Hillel in September, 2009, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.