Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Sermon – Day 2 Rosh Hashanah 5780

Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, is one of the most confounding books of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, when read at a very deep level. We are taught that our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were these great men, to be revered as the founders of our people. We are particularly to revere Abraham, who was tested by God ten times and passed all the tests. Abraham was a truly righteous man, after all. Or was he? 

Yesterday we looked at his earlier career a bit, and explored the possibility that Abraham was a survivor of abuse as a child. If so this might have impacted his ability to function as a parent. Research suggests that as many as one third of abused children become abusive parents.

We already know from having studied the text over the years, that Abraham is a fervent believer in God. In Parashat Lekh L’kha, God tells him to go, and his response is Vayashkeim Baboker, he arose early in the morning, eager to fulfill God’s demand. What is odd, is that in an earlier part of Parashat Vayeira, from which today’s reading comes, when God tells Abraham that God is about to destroy Sodom and ‘Amorah, Abraham negotiates with God to try to save them.

Yet, when God tells Abraham, “take your son, your only son, the one you love, take Isaac, and offer him as an offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” Abraham’s response? Vayashkeim baboker. He arose early in the morning, eager to do his mission.

The Rambam, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, in Hilkhot Deot, tells us that all except the most righteous should follow a middle path in life, avoiding extreme acts. And clearly what happens here is a great example of why we should follow that advice.  We are taught to believe that Abraham was a most righteous individual, and that he passed all ten of God’s tests, but did he really?

He didn’t hesitate to challenge God about the survival of Sodom and ‘Amorah, yet when it came to sacrificing Isaac?  Rabbinic tradition teaches that Abraham learned and followed all of Torah in the academies of Shem and Eber.  I find this tradition very hard to accept, for several reasons, which come from Vayeira, which, coincidentally, was my B’Mitzvah parasha.

When it came to the command to do the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, why doesn’t Abraham ask, if he knew all of Torah, and followed it, “God, aren’t you going to forbid child sacrifice in Sefer Vayikra?  Why are you asking me to do this?” Instead, vayashkeim baboker. He rushes off to do this. 
When we look at the Midrash on this text, we see some interesting things. Isaac, knowing he is about to be sacrificed, shows some wisdom. He says, “Father tie me tightly, so I don’t flinch and nullify the offering when you bring the knife down.”  He knows his father is going to kill him, and he doesn’t want it to be in vain.

But this also reveals another issue.  Is this wisdom, or is Isaac already a victim of child abuse?  Some scholars suggest Isaac later has PTSD. Some suggest he has developmental disorders. Some rabbinic commentators suggest he is 37 years old at the time of the Akeidah. If so, and he is so stoic, there is clearly something wrong. Most middle aged men would not be so stoic about the reality that their father is about to kill them.

When I write modern Midrash, I look at what the text says, but I also look at what it does not say directly.  So let’s look at all the things that happen after the Akeidah.

God never speaks to Abraham again.
Isaac never speaks to Abraham again.
Sarah dies immediately afterwards.
When we next see Isaac, he is living in B’er L’hai Ro’i, where Hagar, his stepmother, and Ishmael, his half-brother live. Presumably he was so traumatized by the events he left his father and went to live with them.

After Sarah dies, Abraham marries a third wife, Keturah. Rashi, the commentator par excellence, suggests that this is none other than Hagar, but I find it hard to believe, given all the abuse that Abraham put Hagar through. I believe this is a separate woman.

So, Abraham eagerly did this test that God commanded him to, but in the process he lost everything that was important – he lost his entire family. Sure he had his money and property, and he has his domestic servant Eliezer, but those cannot replace his family.

And he NEVER made any attempt at Teshuva, at repairing the damage done to his family.  Of course, with Sarah, there was no opportunity. She heard about the Akeidah and promptly died. But Abraham knew where Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael were living. He could have attempted to connect with them and make some form of amends.

Yes, Isaac and Ishmael do bury Abraham. But I buried my father too.  We all have a holy obligation to bury our fathers, even when they are abusive.

Mahzor Lev Shalem has a Yizkor prayer in memory of a parent who was hurtful. We will highlight that prayer before the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur.

Jewish law states that for you to forgive someone they must first ask for forgiveness. However, there are times when people are not able or willing to ask for forgiveness. This was the case with Abraham. But where does that leave the person who was harmed?  You can stay angry, hurt and suffering, of course.  Or you can seek help to work through the trauma.  You may never be able to truly forgive or forget the harm that was done to you, but with the help of professionals and time, the intensity of the pain can be lessened. But it is vital that if you have suffered trauma at the hands of others you seek professional help. Trauma is a poison that eats away at you, and will eventually kill you from the inside out.  

Suicide rates, especially in the military communities, are very high these days.  If you are experiencing thoughts of self-harm, extreme stress or other emotional pain, please seek help. I know it can feel very daunting to do so. But please remember that the Torah tells us that we are to LIVE. And for those around you, remember that saving a life takes precedence, so if you see that your partner, your child or parent, your friend, is hurting, you MUST take action.

I pray that as we enter this New Year, we see increased healing and less hurt, and that we all enjoy a healthy and happy new year.
Shana Tova Umetuka

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Sermon – Rosh HaShanna Day 1, 5780

There is a Midrash, about Abraham, when he is younger, living with his father, Teraḥ. He went to his father’s shop and smashed all but the biggest idol there. Then he took a stick, and placed it in the hands of the biggest idol. When Teraḥ came into the store, he asked Abraham what he had done.  Abraham replied, “but father, I didn’t do it, your idol did!”  Teraḥ replied, don’t be silly boy, how could an object of wood take a stick and smash the other idols? So Abraham replied, “but if it’s just an object of wood, why do you worship it?”

This pithy story is designed to bring humor to a serious situation. It is written to highlight Abraham as a soldier of God, a hero of monotheism. But it can be read in a different light as well.

We could see Abraham as a troubled child who is misbehaving for some reason, willfully destroying his father’s property. Does he have a developmental disability? A mental health issue? Or – is he a victim of abuse at the hands of his father. Children have been known to respond to abuse by destroying things of importance to their abusers. Perhaps that is the case here as well.

This then leads to the question of why we read the selected reading from the Torah today. Our liturgy for Rosh HaShanna states that today is the birthday of the world. Perhaps we should read the story of the Creation. We read that it is Yom Teruah – a day of Shofar Blasts. Should we read something about Temple/Mishkan rituals? Malkhuyot – Kings – the section about kings? But no, we read about Abraham and Avimelekh, along with the birth of Isaac. 

Of course this sets up the reading of the Akeidah for the second day, but that doesn’t have a huge direct connection to the day either. But this section for the first day really has little to nothing to directly do with the day.

So let’s explore the story of Abraham and Avimelekh instead to see what we can learn. Avimelekh was a Philistine King. Recent news has reported that the Philistines were in fact European invaders of the Middle East. This is in fact not new scholarship, but it was in the news recently. The implications of this are startling.  White European Imperial/Colonial attacks on the Middle East have been occurring for much longer than originally thought, for well over 4,000 years. And we still have not learned our lessons. White European peoples have colonialized or attempted to colonialize every indigenous people in the world, always with disastrous results.

So if we go back to Abraham, when we read about him in earlier chapters of Bereshit/Genesis, we see that he travels with a large army, and so he should not be in fear. He can stand in the face of nearly any enemy and prevail. Yet, something strange happens here.

In the desert, control of wells is life. Abraham’s servants dig new wells, yet they are closed up in an attack by Avimelekh’s men.  This is a hugely aggressive act. It is tantamount to an act of war. Avimelekh has thrown down. He has told Abraham, I’m here to take your land from you, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Abraham confronts Avimelekh, and Avimelekh puts the blame squarely in Abraham’s lap. Classic bully! He says, “I don’t know who did it, and you never told me about it, and I only just heard about it today!” In other words, Avimelekh is saying, if this is so important to you, why didn’t you come to me sooner? It’s YOUR fault, not mine! Avimelekh is in no way interested in appeasing Abraham. Clearly he knows what his men were doing and knows why they did it – he told them to.

But Abraham’s response is really startling. First he gives Avimelekh flocks and cattle, and they make a pact. Then Abraham sets aside seven sheep for Avimelekh. Avimelekh can’t figure this out, and the reader is to be baffled as well. He asks Abraham why? Abraham states that these are a sign that he, Abraham, dug these wells.  In other words, he is buying the wells back, or paying a ransom, to Avimelekh. He is treating this like a business transaction. Abraham is rich, so what are some sheep and cows to him?

But, if we see Abraham as a survivor of domestic abuse as a child, then this looks very different. Avimelekh is a King. He has a huge army, bigger than Abraham’s. He is mightier than Abraham. He is like a father figure.

So Abraham can only stand up to him so far. But in the end, even though Abraham may be LEGALLY in the right, in practical terms, he knows that if he resists, he will be beaten. He is the little child facing abuse at the hands of the abuser again. So he uses the defense mechanism he learned that works. He appeases.

Avimelekh makes NO attempt at Teshuva in this text.  This has bothered me for many years.  I have highlighted this point in many sermons in the past. But this insight of Abraham as a survivor of abuse is new this year, due to work I’ve been doing as a communal advocate recently.

Seeing Abraham in this light makes the story in this Torah reading make much more sense. Teshuvah does not occur, because it CANNOT occur here. So Abraham, as the survivor of abuse, must work to make his own peace.

But is he successful?  We will explore this more in the sermon for the second day.

May we see a year where domestic abuse is ended, where families learn to live in harmony, a year where all learn to read the true messages that Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis carries, not just the fundamentalist ones of unflawed religious heroes, so that we may all grow and learn derekh eretz, proper ways of conducting our lives.

Shana Tova Umetuka – A Sweet and Happy New Year.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

My Great Journey – Elul 5779 Edition

I have not written about my transition for a while. We are in the Hebrew month of Elul, a time of Ḥeshbon HaNefesh, of deep introspection, as we approach Rosh HaShannah, less than two weeks from now. I have written about this topic a little bit before but it’s been on my mind lately so I thought I’d write about it today.

I am frequently around amazing younger women. Some are trans. Some are cis. Some queer, some not. But when I’m around them, the feeling I have is usually the same. I wish for the impossible – I wish I could be who I am now, but younger, able bodied, single, and free of my obligations.

When I came out as trans, a lot of people asked me if I would now engage in open or polyamorous relationships. I have been in a monogamous relationship for close to 36 years now. I asked them why they would ask me that. The answer was pretty common. I was transgressing societal norms by transitioning, so wouldn’t I also transgress other societal norms?

So let’s look at “societal norms”. These are largely imposed by “The Church”. That may be the Vatican, or the Anglican. We’ve heard terms like Puritanical, Victorian and the like. In fact Church law has deeply affected Judaism.

Anyone who has read the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, knows that polygamy was originally allowed in Judaism. It wasn’t until the Takanah, the deep decree of Rabbeinu Gershom in the Tenth Century that polygamy was outlawed for Ashkenazic (western) Jews. It is still practiced by some Eastern Jews however. This was Jewish Law imposed by the Church.

Note that Jewish Law never allowed polyandry (more than one husband). The Torah mentions cultic Pagan rituals as the reason why. Presumably, also the issue of determining paternity would be a factor. We didn’t have DNA testing back then. Patrilineal descent determined inheritance, so knowing the father with certainty was a must. BUT, we do not justify Torah law with science or logic. Neither do we override it with the same, no matter how strong these arguments might seem.

In any case, people were asking me if I would transgress societal, e.g. Church norms. But I’m not a Christian. I’m a Jew. In fact, I’m a rabbi. As such, I’m expected to live to a higher standard, to be a moral example for society. Every Jewish movement has moral and ethical expectations for their clergy. Even if they acknowledge and accept certain things from members at large, clergy are held to a higher standard.

I am a pluralistic rabbi, ordained from the original Pluralistic Seminary, The Academy for Jewish Religion. We have ethical and moral standards as well.  So being unaffiliated with a religious movement does not free me to act as I want.

Pirke Avot, the last tractate of the Talmud, asks, “Who is the mighty person? The one who manages their inclinations.” I make no claims of might, but I do try to manage my inclinations.

I do personally believe, as the Torah describes, that people were intended to have more than one mate, and that monogamy is an artificial state. But the civil law, religious law and ethical standards are things I am obliged to follow. In addition, I’m a retired military officer. A recent Supreme Court decision states that I am subject to recall to active duty for Courts Martial if I violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  All this to say that even if I WANT to be in a polyamorous relationship, it’s inadvisable.

Susan and I have discussed it, too.  She does not support the idea. We have been together too long, and I value our relationship too much. So despite my desires and beliefs, I continue to manage my inclinations, using whatever might I may have, and toe the line.

In any case it’s an impossible dream to be young and healthy, and I’m sure that those amazing young women aren’t really interested in a broken old trans woman anyway.

May we all be blessed with health, happiness, pleasure and all permissible good things in the coming New Year!