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Peter Ochs, Ph.D.

Peter Ochs, Ph.D.

Posted: September 8, 2010 06:52 PM

Every New Year I try to re-read the Old Year like a troubling text of Torah. I mean a text like this one from the prescribed readings for the second day of Rosh Hashanah: "Take now your son, your only son" (Gen. 22:2). The text troubles me not only because God has directed Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering on some mountain, but also because God neglects to mention Ishmael, his other and first son.

Here is what troubles me most about the last year: I have not heard large numbers of American Jews speaking up to defend the rights of their fellow American Children of Abraham. I mean the rights of American Muslims to gather and pray in peace.

What troubles me about last year is actually connected to what troubles me about Gen. 22:2. The text grates on my ears and eyes because it reminds me that American Jews seem to have forgotten that Ishmael is their great-grand-uncle. Both my own people and that text appear to behave unjustly.

Of course, I would not re-read every troubling text and every troubling year if the exercise were a source of pain alone. Every New Year I am reminded of one of the strongest reasons why I cling to this tradition of Torah despite the exasperating parts. The tradition celebrates the "birthday of the world" as a time when those who observe it can assert some influence over what may happen in the year to come. The tradition says the same thing about troubling texts: Jewish traditions of "re-reading" (or midrash) offer ways of asserting some influence over how the texts may affect the behavior of their readers. We have time to consider and apply three strategies for re-reading a troubling "year" the way the classical Jewish sages re-read a troubling Torah "text."

First, recognize that, while the "plain sense" of both Torah and history is forever, the "interpreted sense" alone directs its readers' behavior in the immediately present world.

Anthologies of Rosh Hashanah literature display the astounding range of classical rabbinic midrash, or re-readings, of troubling Torah texts traditionally studied in the New Year. According to the plain sense, God commands Abraham to offer his son as a burnt-offering? One midrash suggests Isaac was actually sacrificed, another suggests he was resurrected, another that Sarah died from grief when she heard. Each reading speaks to its day, however, so the point is not only to read these re-readings but also to learn how to generate new ones that speak to what truly bothers us today.

Second, recognize that those who have sinned are those with the capacity to change -- and to change history.

This is the explicit lesson of Rosh Hashanah: "We have sinned, but repentance and good deeds avert the evil decree." But this is also the implicit lesson of classical rabbinic midrash: "Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple in ruins and said: 'Woe for us! The place that atones for the sins of the people Israel lies in ruin.' Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said to him: 'Do not grieve, my son. We [now] have another way to achieve atonement: deeds of lovingkindness, as it is written (Hosea 6:6) "lovingkindness I desire, nor sacrifice"' (Avot de Rabbi Natan 11a).

I realize that there are visceral memories and fears that keep many American Jews from actively seeking justice for their American Muslim neighbors. But there are other days of the Jewish calendar devoted to prudential judgments about the security of Jewish institutional life in the past and immediate present. The work of Rosh Hashanah is different. It is not to rehearse the limits of human flesh, but to remember the unlimited capacities implied by the New Year: created in the image of the one who creates in lovingkindness, we have the capacity to help re-create our world in that image. American Jews have this capacity.

Third, a community's capacity to change history is signaled by its capacity to re-read Torah. The capacity to re-read emerges out of the practice of reading Torah as it reads itself.

Gen. 22:2 says, "Take now your son, your only son." Ishmael is missing. But Gen. 21:11 shows something else. When Sarah tells Abraham to cast Ishmael out along with his birth-mother Hagar, "the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight on account of his son." His son Ishmael, with no mention of Isaac! God assures Abraham, moreover, that God will make Ishmael "a nation" (Gen. 21:13), reiterating the assurance of Gen. 17: "As for Ishmael, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly." All we learn of Abraham's active relation to Isaac is that Abraham heard God's call to sacrifice him.

Reading itself, the Torah suggests that it is God, not Abraham, who chooses Isaac -- and not Ishmael -- to bear the seed of Israel's blessing. God, not Abraham, enables Sarah to bear Isaac in old age, and God, not Abraham, stays the hand that would sacrifice him. God provides justice for Ishmael -- protecting his life and blessing him with his own nation -- but God reserves the people Israel for Isaac. By himself, Abraham prefers Ishmael.

I do not presume that the Torah proclaims some timeless message when it reads itself in this way. But I trust it may offer cloudy hints -- whispers -- that have meaning if and when they help resolve our troubled readings: such as the grief I feel, on this day, over Gen. 22:2 and over the plight of American Muslims who fear for their safety when they gather to pray. I hear the texts whisper several things:

  • That, like Abraham, I -- and perhaps other American Jews -- have reason to feel for Ishmael as much as for Isaac. I have reason, in other words, to speak to my local Muslim neighbors as brethren.
  • That, imitating "the Judge of all the earth" (Gen. 18:25), I should seek justice for my Muslim neighbors, speaking out against whatever threatens their freedom to pray in peace.
  • That, if I do these things, I may see that my neighbors are ready and waiting to do the same, declaring in the words of the Qur'an: "Peace and salutation to Abraham!" (37: 109); "We gave him the good news of Isaac, a prophet, one of the Righteous" (37: 112).
  • And that, if I do these things, I may best fulfill the "work of repentance" that sanctifies this year's Jewish New Year: re-reading the old year and some old habits in ways that may merit a very deep renewal.