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Lech Lecha Sermon

Although much delayed because of Hurricane Sandy here is my sermon from Friday, October 26.

This Shabbat we read Lech Lecha.  It begins with the story of Abraham’s call.  It is unclear why Abraham is called and so the rabbis spin midrashim to explain God’s decision.  In essence they say he is called because he is the first monotheist.  Lost in these commentaries is the meaning of lech lecha.  It means go for your own sake.  Go so that you might discover your true self.  The portion also describes the birth of Ishmael, born to Abraham and Sarah’s servant Hagar.  Because she is barren Sarah instructs her husband to sleep with Hagar so that he might father a child.  Muslims trace their lineage to Abraham through Ishmael.  His name means God will hear.  In the final chapter is the covenant of circumcision.  Both Abraham and Sarah then take on new names.  They are no longer called Abram and Sarai but Abraham and Sarah.  The Hebrew letter hay is added to their names symbolizing God.

This evening I would like to dwell on a rather bizarre episode.  It is what is called the wife-sister motif.  This episode is repeated when we read about Isaac and Rebekah.  Here is that story (Genesis 12:10-20).
There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are.  If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.”  When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very beautiful the woman was.  Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace. And because of her, it went well with Abram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.  But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram. Pharaoh sent for Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?  Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her as my wife? Now, here is your wife; take her and begone!” And Pharaoh put men in charge of him, and they sent him off with his wife and all that he possessed.
Here is our hero Abraham, immediately following the call, saying, “I’m really afraid.  Sarah, go lie to Pharaoh so that I am protected.”  Is it possible that there is a strange parallelism with Sarah’s later command to Abraham that he sleep with Hagar?  Note that Abraham gains wealth and riches because of what he forces Sarah to do.  The text implies that she sleeps with Pharaoh.  All of this makes me think about the treatment of women today.  Recently we have heard many discussions and debates about this.  There are still too many failures found in contemporary world.  It calls to mind as well the biblical episode when Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, is raped and the men, her father and brothers, are more concerned about their honor and station than her welfare.

Today there are some very heated debates about abortion rights, most especially following rape.  A number of politicians have said outrageous things.  A number have made pronouncements based on pseudo-science.  I cannot even begin to fathom what medical literature they are reading.  Still I respect the view of those who hold that the life of the fetus is the same as the mother’s.  I allow that the faith of some, and even of many, will hold differently than mine.  My faith, my tradition, teaches that the life of the mother takes precedence when the mother’s life is endangered.  There is debate of course about what constitutes a danger.  Nonetheless I hold firmly to this hierarchy.  The fetus is a sacred potential life.  The mother is a sacred living life.  Her life is more important.  When such an excruciating choice must be made between mother and child, she takes precedence.  I also hold that ideally mother, father, doctor and perhaps even clergy are best equipped to make that decision together.  In the absence of such an ideal however the mother has the last say because it is her very life and her health that might be compromised.  I do not understand how to view this issue otherwise.  Don’t tell the women I love what choices they must make.  Such views seem to me a diminishment of women.  They belong to the biblical era.  I wish that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob spoke to Sarah, Rebekah and Dinah and asked their opinions and listened to their feelings.  (I agree with Tom Friedman’s recent column.  And for more on the issue of rape read Nick Kristof.)

To add more fuel to this discussion, there was the outrageous attack in Pakistan on a young girl.  All she wanted was a better education.  Actually all she wanted was an education.  In that world teaching a girl, or a woman, is blasphemy.  The Taliban were quoted as saying as much.  This is simply outrageous and disgusting.  I subscribe to the view that progress, and a country’s progress, is tied to women’s empowerment.

We have problems in our own Jewish world as well.  Recently, in Israel, Rabbi Anat Hoffman was arrested at the Kotel for saying the Shema.  Again, outrageous!  Now I certainly understand the arguments of my tradition.  There are issues of kol isha, the voice of a woman and maybe even beged ish, that a woman should not wear man’s clothing.  To be honest I have little patience with these arguments.  I find a woman’s voice beautiful and deeply spiritual.  Our cantor’s voice can help lift our prayers to heaven and our celebration of Shabbat.  It does not interfere with my devotion.  It enhances it.  Any beautiful voice, whether a man’s or woman’s, can help us pray!  There are as well issues of being counted in a minyan, serving as the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) or serving as a witness.  I appreciate these concerns only slightly better.  Here the tradition’s view is in essence that only someone who is obligated can help others with their obligation.  A man is commanded to pray.  A woman is permitted and perhaps even encouraged.  For a man it is a mitzvah.  It is not a woman’s.  Therefore how can she help a man fulfill his mitzvah?  I believe otherwise.  I certainly agree with the tradition that men and women are different.  I reject however the view that excludes women from Judaism’s holiest of obligations.  There must be equal obligations and equal responsibilities.  Judaism will only progress and move forward with the empowerment of women.

I am willing to allow that some will want to pray in synagogues with mechitzahs, that some will insist that their Judaism separates the sexes and will see meaning in only different obligations.  Men pray.  Women care for children.  My pluralism allows for these differences.  The central dilemma then is about the public square.  We can hold different views about abortion and women praying.  But the Kotel belongs to all.  The public square belongs to everyone.  That place must remain forever open.  That is the only solution.  Our ancient Jewish tradition might not allow for this.  It might insist that the public square must be controlled and guided by Jewish tradition.  This is unacceptable.  Our times desperately require such openness.  In our own homes and synagogues we can do and observe differently but in the public square all must be permitted to pray as they find meaningful.

The great irony of our Torah portion is that Abraham also did not understand this.  He acted as though his wife was his property to be bartered.  Instead it was Pharaoh who heeded God’s word.  It was he who sent Sarah back to Abraham.  Perhaps we should keep this in mind when we look to our tradition for answers.

The only solution is a greater openness and pluralism.  We must remain forever open to a diversity of views.  We must protect the public square as a place of discussion and debate, a place where all are comfortable with their own views, and where no one person’s or religion’s or tradition’s view holds sway over another’s.  All this we learn not from our tradition but from outside of it. 

For a different view read the Shalem Center's Yoram Hazony recent Jerusalem Letter.