Rabbi Marla J. Feldman
Temple Beth El, Flint, Michigan
Rosh Hashana morning, 5762.
Just Say No!
Most of us are familiar with the Torah portion assigned to this holy day – Akedat Yitzhak – the saga of the binding of Isaac. We learn of Abraham and Isaac’s journey to the pinnacle of Mt. Moriah, where Abraham was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to prove his commitment to the new covenant with Adonai.
There are many troubling aspects of this story that have puzzled Biblical scholars. We read a few moments ago, “Bayom Hashlishi, vayisa Avraham et einav, vayar et hamakom meirachok.” “On the third day of their journey, Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.” Commentators have asked the question, why did they have to travel for three full days before finding the spot upon which Abraham would sacrifice his son? Why did G-d prevent them from seeing the mountain until the third day?
Most respond that the three days were a test for Abraham – G-d wanted Abraham to think twice about sacrificing the only child of Sarah, in whom the future of the Israelite people was invested. This was not only about the pain of losing a child; Abraham was about to sacrifice the future of the Jewish people, as it was with the descendents of Isaac that the covenant with G-d was made. It was the children of Isaac who were to inherit the Promised Land and become a great nation. According to the midrash, in order to test Abraham to the fullest, G-d provided obstacles in their path and gave him plenty of time to change his mind. Yet Abraham persevered and passed the test in the ultimate act of faith unparalleled in our tradition… but then again, maybe not.
Of course we all know that at the final moment, an angel appears and calls out “Avraham, Avraham! Al ta’as lo meumah!” “Abraham! Abraham! Don’t harm the boy!” With that, the angel shows Abraham the ram to be sacrificed in Isaac’s stead. But this passage raises other troubling questions. Why did an angel come instead of G-d, who had commanded Abraham in the first place? And why does the angel repeat “Abraham! Abraham!” two times, instead of just calling him once, as G-d had done previously?
One explanation is that Abraham was so determined to complete the task ahead that he didn’t even hear the angel the first time. When he didn’t respond, and was about to sacrifice Isaac, the angel called again, more urgently, to stop him, “Avraham… AVRAHAM!” In his zealousness to fulfill the divine will, as he understood it, Abraham was oblivious to everything around him; he failed to hear the angel and failed to see the ram in the thicket.
Perhaps Abraham failed the test as well. What if G-d WANTED Abraham to defy an unjust order? What if the three-day journey was designed to give Abraham time to consider the implications of his actions? What if G-d expected Abraham to challenge the decree, as he had done in arguing with G-d over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? What if G-d wanted Abraham to think for himself?
Some commentators have offered this as an explanation of why G-d sent an angel to stay Abraham’s hand rather than issuing the order directly. G-d was so disgusted with Abraham that never again in the Biblical text does Abraham hear the divine voice spoken directly to him.
Such is the nature of fundamentalism – the radical, unquestioning conviction that one knows the divine will, and the determination to act on that belief regardless of the consequences. We have seen those consequences this week, up close and personal. Our innocence was sacrificed on the altar of religious fanaticism. Fundamentalism is a threat that comes not only from Muslim extremists, but also Christian and even Jewish fundamentalists who cannot tolerate diversity or individuality. They would undermine our way of life, and the most basic elements of our belief system, and we must oppose them.
Paul Simmons, a theologian from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, provides an insightful analysis of the nature of fundamentalism:
“Fundamentalism must be described not only on the basis of doctrine but in terms of its spirit or style… It is a mindset or temperament – a certain style of religious mentality or perspective characterized by an arrogance that considers itself normative in all matters of theology and morals. It is a type of Gnosticism. It is ideological, intransigent and inflexible, expecting and priding itself on doctrinal and moral conformity…
“Fundamentalism is a religious zeal that sees itself as G-d’s movement or agent for the salvation of the world. Thus… Fundamentalism finds kindred spirits in every religion of the world – from Torquemada to the Ayatollah Khomeini and various sectarian and cultic leaders of fringe movements in mainline religions.”
Within the Christian community, this absolutist position finds expression in the censorship of textbooks or films, bombings of reproductive health clinics and the murder of doctors who work in them – all in the name of G-d. It is manifest in the fervor to proselytize and inject this ideology into the political system, giving their beliefs the force of law.
Islamic fundamentalism, as we have seen, opposes the values and freedoms of Western, liberal democracy. It tolerates the persecution, maiming and murder of women in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan in the name of morality. It permits discrimination and harassment directed against adherents of other faiths, as we have seen with the imprisonment of Christians and the decree requiring Hindus to wear a yellow patch under the Taliban regime. It permits coercion and murder under the guise of a holy endeavor.
And yes, even within our own community, religious zealots excuse throwing stones at cars on Shabbat or spitting on women dressed in modern attire, in the name of G-d, and even justify the use of terror to evict Arab residents of “Judea and Samaria” claiming it as the fulfillment of the covenant between G-d and Abraham.
Despite all the negative things that we associate with fundamentalism, there are aspects of it that make it very attractive to the masses that identify with such belief systems. It deals in certitude and absolutes. There are no gray areas: G-d exists; G-d’s will is known; if we do G-d’s will, we will be saved! In many ways, it is easier – there are no decisions to be made; others will tell you what is right or wrong, what G-d expects and what you should do. It provides answers to all of life’s questions in all spheres – religious, political, social, and family relations.
Perhaps most appealing is the sense of mission it instills; the passion that comes from feeling part of something larger than oneself. There is comfort in the bond that forms among those who share the same certainties and purpose.
The alternative to absolutist fundamentalism is liberal relativism. In this system, in which we live, there are no easy answers and no exclusive claim to truth. Basic philosophical questions that challenge all of us are elusive. What does G-d want from us? For the fundamentalist, the answer is belief. For the liberal, the answer is action… but we disagree about which actions. Why do people suffer? Religious fundamentalists would say people suffer because of sin; moral relativists will understand suffering as part of the human condition and focus on how we cope with suffering rather than what causes it. Why do loved ones die? While a fundamentalist might see death as a return to G-d, we will claim that is the wrong question; we ask ourselves how to live our lives rather than why we die.
Relative answers are rarely entirely satisfying, and annoyingly equivocal. But once we give up our absolutes, we must make choices on our own and think for ourselves. There is no guarantee that we are right, that we won’t change our minds, or that others will share our perspective. We might experience loneliness, insecurity, or even despair as we sense our individuality; we are out on a limb, alone with our tenuous beliefs, which are subject to change with each new piece of information we receive. The only absolute we are certain of, is our own uncertainty!
So, if fundamentalism is so much easier than moral relativism, why do we cling so strongly to our belief system and reject the simpler path? Why do we feel threatened by it, instinctively refusing to surrender to easy answers?
In a fundamentalist world, where all is known, there is no room for discussion, and no questioning of authority. For Americans this is disturbing, for the democratic system is based upon open debate. The absence of dialogue or the ability to challenge one’s leaders, makes possible the growth of totalitarian regimes and can lead to misguided missions. Bigotry flourishes in absolutist societies that deny freedom and diversity of thought.
Not only as Americans, but also as Jews, we should find moral absolutism troubling. We cannot accept a system in which there is no room for the individual to strive toward his or her potential. Absolutism stifles the human will to change and grow through our mistakes as well as our achievements. Without choice there can be no integrity, no humanity.
If Jewish fundamentalists throughout history had had their way, there would have been no Spinoza, no Maimonides, no Talmud or Biblical commentaries, and no women rabbis. Isaac would have died upon the altar, and that would be that.
There is another Bible story we traditionally tell on this day. Rosh Hashana celebrates the birth of the world and our miraculous creation out of the void. Part of our birth story is the tale of Adam and Eve. Unlike Abraham, they defied G-d and made a choice to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They rejected ignorance and gave up their blissful, comfortable existence in the garden in exchange for knowledge. They chose mortality over paradise, despite the imperfection, strife, questions and pain that would follow. Had they not made that choice, humanity would not exist.
For us, being liberal is the necessary alternative to fundamentalism. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “liberal” as: “Having, expressing, or following social or political views or policies that favor non-revolutionary progress and reform… that favor the freedom of individuals to act or express themselves in a manner of their own choosing… tolerant of the ideas or behavior of others.”
“Liberal” as we understand it, is not the opposite of “conservative” in the political sense. Rather it is the opposite of “fundamentalist” – we see shades of gray in everything around us! We should stop apologizing for being ‘card-carrying liberals’ and instead we should embrace it, celebrate it and be proud of it.
The Jewish way is not to seek absolute answers to life-questions, but rather to engage in a process of searching within ourselves and in the world around us. Life, for us, is a journey; as we meet others along the way we may gain strength and knowledge and comfort in the realization that others are searching also. Perhaps this was the journey G-d intended for Abraham and Isaac.
But this way of life means risk; we must learn to live with moral ambiguity and uncertainty, and, as we have recently felt, sometimes we will live with insecurity as well. But that is the cost of our freedom.
The war that is being fought today is not about land or political agendas. It is about beliefs and a way of life. It is a war between absolutism and relativism, between fundamentalism and liberalism. And it is being fought not only by terrorists from afar, but also by political extremists and religious fanatics within our own borders.
If we are to learn a lesson from Abraham’s trial, it is this: to pass the test, humanity must sometimes say no. G-d does not want our blind allegiance or blissful ignorance. We have traded our immortality for the freedom to think, as G-d intended us to do. We must not offer up our future on an altar of fanaticism, moral certitude or self-righteousness. Meaningless sacrifice will not sanctify the holy name. Righteousness will not be found in certainty.
As we engage in the battle before us, may we have the strength of our convictions, and the fortitude to live with the consequences. O G-d, bless us in this crusade to preserve our way of life, and may we emerge victorious. AMEN.