Challenging Religious Conceptions, a Midrash
The past few days in Jerusalem have been tragic. On Monday a Palestinian bus driver was found hanged inside his bus. While Israeli police are currently saying it was a suicide, the circumstances surrounding the whole situation are odd, and Palestinian media has argued that he was murdered. Riots broke out in many Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem following the bus driver’s death. On Tuesday, two Jerusalemite Palestinians attacked a West Jerusalem synagogue during morning prayers, murdering five Israelis with a gun and meat cleavers. And there have been a handful of other less-reported attacks and subsequent violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the city.
The escalation of violence has accompanied increasingly vitriolic rhetoric from segments of Israeli and Palestinian societies. Social media pages of Jewish neighborhoods that border Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods are full of comments calling for the expulsion of Palestinians from the city, the destruction of their homes, and the building of Jewish neighborhoods (all while quoting verses from the Bible to justify their positions). In the West Bank and Gaza, the attackers in the synagogue were hailed as heroes and candies were passed out in celebration; some religious leaders have happily provided religious justifications for the attacks
We have seen so much negative rhetoric and violent action justified in the name of the nation and in the name of God. When we allow ourselves to voice words of violence, words of celebration at the other’s tragedy, words calling for the destruction of each other, we allow these words to take root in our hearts, and this violence in our hearts has opportunity to pass to our hands. Words that speak no peace, can seek no peace, can bring no peace.
This bloody cycle of violence, all in the name of God, reminds me of a midrash I recently read by a Quaker woman, Marion McNaughton. It is based off of a Torah portion from this past month. A midrash is an act of interpretation that was often used by the rabbis as they looked for answers to certain questions. It is a way to interact with the text on contemporary issues, and to try and tease out other meanings and understandings from scripture.
And with a heavy heart Abraham went to his wife Sarah and said, "God has told me to take our son Isaac, whom we love, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering."
And Sarah said, "A shrewd move. This God is no fool. This is Her way of testing you. What did you say to Her?"
And Abraham replied, "I said nothing. I want God to know I will obey Him without question. I will do as He commands."
And Sarah threw up her hands in despair and said, "Abraham, you are a bone-headed fool. What kind of a God do you think you are dealing with? What kind of a god would want you to kill your own son to prove how religious you are? Don't be so stupid! She's trying to teach you something; that you must challenge even the highest authority on questions of right and wrong. Argue with Her, wrestle with Her!" But Sarah's words smacked to Abraham of blasphemy, and he went into the mountains with his son Isaac.
And Sarah said to God, "You are playing with fire. He is too stupid to understand what you are up to. He won't listen to me and he won't challenge you; if you don't stop him, he will kill our precious son. Is that what you want?"
And God said, "Sarah, they have a long journey to the mountains; I'm hoping one of them will see sense."
And Sarah said, "Like father like son. You'll have to send an angel."
And it came to pass as Sarah foretold, and the angel of the Lord spoke to Abraham the first time and told him not to kill his son. And Abraham sacrificed a ram as a burnt offering. And the angel of the Lord spoke to Abraham a second time and told him his offspring would be as numerous as stars in the heaven and would possess the gates of their enemies. And the angel of the Lord spoke to Abraham a third time and said, "Because you were ready to kill your own son in the name of your God you will be known as a great patriarch and millions will follow your example. And they will believe that He is indeed a jealous and a demanding God, and they will willingly sacrifice their sons in His name and to His glory. And there will be bloodshed and slaughter in all the corners of the earth."
And Abraham returned to his wife Sarah and said, "God is well pleased with me for I am to be a mighty patriarch."
And Sarah said nothing. But she took the garments of Abraham and Isaac that were stained with the blood of the ram, and she carried them to the river to be washed. And the river ran red with the blood of generations to come, and Sarah wept bitterly.
And God came to Sarah at the water's edge and said, "Sarah, do not weep. You were right. It will take time. Meanwhile hold firm to what you know of me and speak it boldly. I am as you know me to be. Many generations will pass and a new understanding will come to the children of Abraham, but before then I shall be misheard and misrepresented except by a few. You must keep my truth alive."
And Sarah dried her eyes and said, "As if I didn't have enough to do."
While some might find this method of interaction with the Biblical text to be disrespectful to their understanding of Scripture, I ask you to bear with me. This is a fictional conversation, one that teases out some of the tension within the text, and explores the concept of violence, and questioning ourselves. I don’t presume to be part of the “few” tasked with keeping truth alive; I do strive for kindness, mercy and truth as modeled in the life of Jesus. It’s easy to be critical of others, of religion, of God. But when we see shortcomings, failures, and faults, we have an opportunity to live, to speak, to act in a different way.
In Judaism there is a value called tikkun olam, a call to repair and transform our world. We cannot do this without questioning the actions of those around us, particularly actions carried out in the name of God.