I was first introduced to the drama around the founding of the modern state of Israel as a teenager, when I read Leon Uris's novel Exodus and literally could not put it down. It was the summer time and I was a camp counselor. I used to read some of the book every day to all my kids. Can you see a bunch of fiveyear-old boys sitting on the grass in a circle hearing about Zionist freedom fighters? Although I loved the book I realized later in life that it presented a very one-sided view of the terribly complicated issue of Israel. 1
This is a very dangerous and complex subject, and I beg your forbearance as we enter into it together. This is not a topic I would have risked preaching about if one of you hadn't handed me an article from Time magazine last year and asked me to write a sermon about it. The Time magazine article was about Abraham, and about the Middle East. I knew very little before I began to prepare this talk. After some fairly serious research, I feel I know even less now. I am most willing to stand corrected.
"Next year in the Promised Land," is what Jews say to each other during Passover, the springtime feast that commemorates the Jewish deliverance from slavery in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs. And the Promised Land they are referring to is that little plot of land in the Fertile Crescent we know today as Israel, that tiny nation where so much history is layered upon layer, it could easily be made into a museum. It is not, however, a museum. People who have been there tell me that one wants to remove his or her shoes walking most anywhere Israel. Every step is on someone's holy ground particularly in the great city of Jerusalem, the site of so much Jewish, Muslim and Christian sacred history . . . "the navel of the world" where God issued forth the first ray of light. There is the City of David, there is the Dome of the Rock where the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven at the conclusion of his famous "night journey," where Adam is buried, and where Solomon built his temple. Right over there is Mount Olive, where Jesus prayed, and Golgotha, where he was crucified. There is the western wall the Wailing Wall where davening Jews talk to God, and where the pope recently slipped a little prayer for peace between ancient stones. Over there is the Al-Aksa Mosque, the third holiest in the Muslim world.
Israel, therefore, is not just a geographic location. In its current incarnation it is a political entity based on ancient memory and hope; a center of the cosmos that has been won again and again by warfare. Israel has always represented for Jews their covenant with God. In the 20th century it took on particularly poignant meaning as a potential safe haven from the world's apathy and hatred in the aftermath of the Nazi Final Solution. It is therefore a nation whose existence evokes a visceral reaction from Jews and Gentiles alike. But to be fair, there is tremendous political complexity just calling "Israel" by that name.
In ancient times Israel was indeed a Jewish holy land. But Jews were banished from Israel almost 2,000 years ago by the Roman conquerors, cast into a Diaspora all over the middle east and beyond. The Romans, under the Emperor Hadrian, renamed the region "Palestine" (which sounds in the Arabic language like "Philistinia" hence "Philistines"). 2 The place was populated by all manner of people and tribes, and eventually nomadic Arab peoples. 3 It is, therefore, their home. It has been their home for centuries. They would like to be able to live there, and not just on the West Bank of the Jordan River or on the Gaza Strip.
"Woe Jerusalem," lamented the Psalmist 2,500 years ago, a sentiment echoed by Jesus at the dawn of the Common Era. Thousands of years later, we have no less cause to cry "Woe, Jerusalem" than they did. I claim no expertise or even adequate grasp of what is going on in what we could fairly refer to as Israel-Palestine. But I do care about it.
I care that the title "Promised Land" begins to sound more like a cruel joke than a sacred trust. I care about the savagery committed by all both Israelis and Palestinians, which I find particularly sickening when such acts are committed in the name of the God of Abraham. But we'll get to him in a moment.
The situation in Israel is of immediate and enduring interest to us for several important reasons. As Americans, we are involved emotionally, financially and militarily in the region and that's not likely to change any time soon. As faithful people, we are called to pay at least some attention to places beyond our own borders that are torn by hatred and violence. When we look at this portion of the Middle East, we are invited to ask ourselves, where our own lives do people feel divinely entitled to certain pieces of real estate? Where in our own lives do we maintain a death grip on sovereignty, possessions, power? Where in our own lives have we become addicted to rage and violence as responses to conflict? What kinds of gods do we invoke in order to stay comfortably ensconced within little comfortable tribes of "people like us?"
And foremost in my mind these days is this uncomfortable question: How long are we required to care about the state of Israel and her warring Jewish, Muslim and Christian children? Many of the peacemakers have been assassinated. Treaties are violated before the ink on them is dry. We are barraged by euphemism in the reporting on the region: journalists speak of "escalating tensions" when what they are reporting is outright warfare. The day I composed this sermon there was another suicide bombing with nineteen dead. For the past three years we have had news of 103 suicide bombings by militant Palestinians. The Israelis have responded with their own brutal retaliations against soldiers and civilians. 4
Please understand that I have no solutions for what must be done to restore peace in the region. I have long ago lost the clarity I had at the age of seventeen reading Leon Uris's novel. Both sides seem morally bankrupt to me now, and I hold hope not with the leaders of either faction but with the ordinary people who want peace, and who are creating a grassroots network of relationships and activism to work toward it. We can only hope.
Our own religion is one that not only tolerates, but embraces, the notion of ambiguity. It is a difficult spiritual commitment to maintain, and it earns us some criticism that we are victims of a sloppy moral relativism: if nothing's really wrong, then nothing's really right! To some extent, those criticisms are helpful and accurate. But the endless morass of violence in the Holy Land is, for me, a prime example of the dangers of religious certainty and fundamentalism. The daily bloodshed in the Holy Land because it so often claims (not always, but often) to be justified by God's will helps us continue to choose theological ambiguity as a religious orientation. We have every cause to be suspicious of where the alternative may lead. 5
In many parts of Israel-Palestine, while leaders hold to their one unshakable version of the truth, boys throw rocks with the intent to kill, families wake up to find holes blasted through their homes, and mothers fear to let their sons and daughters wander freely out of eyesight. This we know: generations that come of age living with daily warfare learn to regard life quite cheaply. This we may also begin to realize: people who hate each other on principle are woven together in a fabric of sick intimacy that may prove as difficult to unweave as a spider's web. Obsession with "the other's" evil attributes and lack of right to exist begins to look to me like a kind of insane love affair. What would enraged Palestinians and Israelis in the Holy Land do without each other? Are they even capable of living in peace, being so out of practice and so apparently dependent on murder as a means to address conflict?
Human history is full of horrible stories of one people's oppression of others. Somehow, though, it is always easier to understand when the people are strangers. Not acceptable, of course, but understandable. But how particularly heartbreaking it is when people with a common ancestor take up arms against each other. How extra tragic it is when people whose sacred story honors one of the same major prophets still fail to embrace each other. And thus it is with all the residents of the Israel-Palestine, because all can legitimately claim common spiritual ancestry through the patriarch Abraham, the man whose name means "father of many nations."
Christians, Muslims and Jews the world over could decide to allow Abraham to make us all brothers and sisters. It is an amazing opportunity that so far has been almost entirely missed.
Who is this father Abraham?
We meet him at in the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures, in the book of Genesis, where he is called "Abram" (which means "the father is exalted" -- he gets his new name from God later). And we also meet him in the Muslim holy book, the Koran; a revealed text dictated by the prophet Mohammed in the 7th century.
Let me give you some highlights from Abraham's story that most concern us today. If he really did live, it would have been sometime between 2100 and 1500 B.C.E. He is a 75-year old Mesopotamian man who is called by God to go forth from his native land, where he will be made "a great nation." This seems rather ridiculous to him, as he and his wife have no children. But, ever obedient, he sets out for the land of Canaan. Along his travels, God lays out his plan for Abraham's many progeny. They will be blessed and they will bless him. They will be more numerous than the stars in the sky. And a sign of the trust between them, God requires Abraham to inscribe a sign of their covenant on his body. This is the beginning of the rite of circumcision for Jewish and Muslim boys.
Abraham's life is full and eventful. He becomes wealthy. He is constantly required by God to move to a new place, which he obediently does. There is a little episode with the city of Sodom, where he bargains with God to save the city. As you may recall, this doesn't go so well. However, still no offspring, so wife Sarah encourages Abraham to know her Egyptian servant-woman Hagar in the truly Biblical sense, which he does, producing an heir named Ishmael. God promises that Ishmael will found a great nation through twelve sons, and this is important: tradition will later identify the ancestors of those sons with the twelve Arab tribes.
Sarah, Abraham's wife, miraculously bears a son in her very advanced age: Abraham's second-born. She calls him "Isaac" or "he laughs" -- an echo of her own incredulous laughter when she learned she would be a mother near her ninetieth year. Herein begins a conflict. Jealous and threatened, the Hebrew Bible tells us, Sarah banishes Hagar to the Negev Desert. However, Muslim tradition specifies that Hagar and Ishmael go to Mecca a city later central to the religion of Islam and says that Abraham relocates them himself, and makes visits to them! Both Jewish and Muslim tradition agree that Ishmael and Isaac are present for their father's funeral.
But before Abraham's death, there is his great trial of faith. Abraham, we should understand, is the considered by all of the three monotheistic faith traditions to be the founder of monotheism: "the underlying concept of western civilization." The legacy of monotheism is that "A universal God made it easier to imagine a universal code of ethics. Positing a deity intimately involved in the fate of one's children overturned the prevalent image of time as an ever cycling wheel, effectively inventing the idea of a future." (Time, "The Legacy of Abraham," September 30, 2002).
So Abraham is the first to acknowledge, and to be faithful to, the great I-Am the God that the Jews would come to call Yaweh, that Mohammed would name Allah, and that Jesus would pray to as "Abba" or "Father." In the single most memorable and interpreted episode of his long career as a servant of God, Abraham is commanded by the Divine Voice to sacrifice his son -- in the Hebrew Bible, God specifies, "Isaac, the one you love." This is meant to provide evidence of total trust in the Lord, and total submission or surrender (which is what the word "Islam" means). This kind of radical trust in -- and intimate relationship with-- the one Lord is the hallmark of the Abrahamic traditions.
In the story that is told every year in the synagogue at Yom Kippur, Abraham does take his son scholars suggest that the boy is hardly a boy, but a man in his mid-30's and takes him to the Mt. Moriah to obey God's orders. At the last minute, before Abraham's presumably shaking hand brings the knife down upon Isaac, an angel calls to him from heaven that this will not be necessary; he has proved his faith. Just then a ram appears in the thicket and is sacrificed in Isaac's stead.
There are high holy days commemorating this event in both the Jewish and the Muslim faith, with one important difference: Muslims generally believe that Ishmael, the son of Hagar and Abraham's first-born, was the son saved from sacrifice. Therefore, for Muslims, Ishmael plays a far more central role: it is their direct ancestor whom God chooses to save.
Christians will later take up this theme in their explanation of why Jesus of Nazareth was murdered in the prime of life and at the height of his ministry. Considered by his orthodox followers to be the son of God, Jesus -- like Isaac, or Ishmael -- was presumably a willing sacrifice for some kind of cosmic good, and reparation of the relationship between humankind and the divine.
How sobering it is to think that the one prophet, patriarch and father all of these world religions claim in common is a man whose faith links religious devotion to violence, and whose experience of hearing the voice of God is terrifying rather than liberating. "Is that the model of holiness, the legacy of Abraham: to be prepared to kill for God?" (Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, p.13)
And with a sad heart, that is where I feel I must pause, or perhaps stop. There is so much information, so many warring interpretations of ancient stories about people who may or may not have actually lived. I want to ask why, if such stories are used to justify hatred and mayhem, do we cling to them if not to learn and be changed by them? Where are our new sacred stories, stories of life and solidarity and recognition of common humanity?
These are glorious and instructive narratives, these scriptural stories. But they are also, in the words of Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible, "texts of terror." I appreciate the thinking of Rabbi Richard Hirsh, who wrote in response to the Time magazine article on Abraham, "If we could see all of sacred scriptures as a common record of the universal human search for meaning and not as the revealed word of God, we would recognize that for millennia we have been reading meaning into these texts instead of getting understanding out of them."
On all the holy days of return and repentance and spiritual renewal, whether they be Muslim or Christian or Jewish holy days, I wish all God's children would lift up these scriptures, read the stories with awe and respect, but read them with an intent to be led to wisdom rather than division. Let the stories teach us that it is not necessarily God's nature that changes, but humankind's discernment of that nature. Perhaps the day has come to get beyond trying to learn what really happened in the Bible stories, or to figure out just what they mean, or what they seem to say about one people's claims to rule or exclude the others. Perhaps the day has come to regard them mostly as records of a human nature we hope to have evolved out of, and an understanding of God that is also in profound need of revision.
In the spirit of Rosh Hashanah, may we extend the traditional Jewish blessing to all of the children of Abraham, that they be all be written in the Book of Life for a blessed new year. So may it be. Shalom. Salaam. Amen.
1 Yes, I got fired from that job.
2 Arabic and Hebrew are very similar languages. A speaker of Arabic, I am told, can learn to speak fluent Hebrew in six months. Of note: speakers of Arabic in the region learn Hebrew. Speakers of Hebrew do not learn Arabic.
3 There have always been some Jews in Israel, of course, even when the vast majority of them were in the Diaspora. The very word "Arab" is complicated, too. It is a kind of catch-all term that actually refers to seminomadic people of various ethnic and national identity.
4 Israeli leaders have borrowed American rhetoric from the War on Terror to justify their actions: further evidence that our nation is bound with theirs in an important political and emotional relationship.
5 Another complication and one I only mentioned when giving this sermon is the fundamentalist Christian conviction that Israel is the location for the imminent reappearance of the Messiah, and therefore must be a land protected from Muslim ownership. This brand of Christian is well-represented in the United States political leadership another messy detail in the landscape of American priorities and loyalties in the region.