Playing From The Center

 A Jew, a Christian, a Muslim and an Atheist walk into a bar . . .

 I hate to disappoint you but I can’t tell the rest of this joke. Actually I don’t have joke. I wanted to find a good joke as a lead to my sermon but sadly most of what I was looking for was not funny or even worse, offensive. Maybe that’s because in our day and age it’s very hard to find anything funny about religion, politics, the economy or the plethora of combustible social situations plaguing our world, our country and our cities.

With every newscast, podcast, tweet, post and sermon I am reminded all too often that our world is uncomfortably teetering and feeling very unbalanced. It is under these uneasy feelings that as an American, as a Jew, and as an inhabitant of our planet, I am witnessing our ideologies and our theologies move rapidly in two directions—to the extremes—to the far right and to the far left. And with the widening of this chasm we are not only losing our center and losing our balance, more tragically we are losing the glue that holds us together.

Before I go any further I want to clarify something. I have probably been more nervous about giving this sermon than any other I have given. This is due to how personal this topic is to me and how difficult it has been to write. Nonetheless as I traversed the month of Elul—the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah—I found myself steeped in the arduous task of self-reflection. The more I thought about the state of politics and religion in our world, the more I knew that I had to tackle this topic and I had to unveil myself to all of you in the process.

The reality is we live in world of extremes—ISIS, Boko Haram, Sunni vs. Shia. We live in a world where hundreds of thousands are dying in Syria while hundreds of thousands more Syrians are fleeing extremism. We live in a world where a fundamentalist Christian, a federal employee, would rather go to jail than do her job. We live in a world where an Orthodox Jewish extremist murders a sixteen-year-old girl for marching in a Gay Pride Parade. We live in a country that is being bombarded with rhetoric from our potential presidential candidates preaching with zeal their far right and far left agendas.

Now if you have been listening to my sermons, reading my articles, or have been privy to my Facebook posts, you know I am an unapologetic supporter of the United States of America, the State of Israel, of Zionism and of the Jewish people. And if you have been listening to my sermons, reading my articles or have been privy to my Facebook posts, you know that I haven’t always been so moderate in my beliefs. Sometimes I feel that I have fallen captive to more extreme emotions and more extreme behavior. I wrestle with this!

With reading materials spread over every surface of my office I struggled to find that text or that story that could help me put my thoughts into form, pen to paper and actually write this sermon. As I began to lose hope of finding a gem of a story or an old sermon to draw inspiration from, I spotted a manila folder, tucked into my filing cabinet. There it was in a folder marked “Sermons from Nana.”

My Nana, of blessed memory, had sent me sermons for years. She would hear or read sermons from the great Rabbis of the Los Angles Jewish community: Rabbi Jacob Pressman, Rabbi Harold Schulweiss, Rabbi Edgar Magnin, Rabbi Harvey Fields, Rabbi Max Nussbaum and Rabbi Max Vorspan. After hearing about or reading a great sermon, Nana would call the different synagogues and request copies of these sermons so she could send them to me in the mail. All through college and rabbinical school I would get letters with sermons attached and sometimes a $5 bill to boot!

So there I was, scouring through this file, when I came across a thirty plus year old sermon by Rabbi Max Vorspan[1] that illustrated a stunning interpretation of the Akedah—the story of the binding of Isaac. The title of the sermon was: Can Extremism Really Be the Will of God: A Personal Response to the Akedah.

I can only imagine, but I am fairly certain, that at the time it was written many thought Rabbi Vorspan’s sermon was an unnecessary and an exaggerated attack upon the extremists within the Jewish community. But on rereading the sermon and in light of the tendencies in the world since it was written, I think that it has a certain prophetic quality. For in these last years, fundamentalism and fundamentalists have hijacked Christian, Muslim and Jewish life. In these last years, fundamentalism and fundamentalists have hijacked the political debate both here in the United States, in Israel, the Middle East, and throughout the world. 

The Akedah, our Rosh Hashanah Torah story, teaches that Abraham rose up early in the morning in order to answer God’s instructions to sacrifice his treasured son Isaac. The commentary teaches that Abraham awoke early because he was well rested. 

So much of this story is perplexing, especially as a father who has beloved children. Let’s be honest—a story that highlights Abraham’s faith through unthinkable acts is disconcerting to the modern reader.  For me, this year in particular, I am finding one part of this story to be the most puzzling—how could Abraham possibly have slept well when he was facing the fact that he was going to kill his beloved child the next day?

The rabbis and commentators answer: “when a person knows that he is doing the will of God he can sleep the sleep of the innocent, no matter what his mission is."

Excuse me? Did I read that correctly? Did our commentary mean to say that if we hear God’s voice clearly telling us to do something extreme, that we will be so content in our mission that we will sleep like a baby?

Let’s see what we think about this when it comes from a different voice: A Shiite Muslim terrorist was quoted as saying the same thing recently. He said: "If one is sure he is doing God's will, he can kill without the slightest sense of unease."

It was with this juxtaposition that I found Rabbi Vorspan's sermon more than just a response to the Akedah. I found his thirty-year-old sermon to be profoundly current as a contemporary caution to all of us. No one is potentially more dangerous than the one who confuses God's will with his own. No one is more dangerous than a fundamentalist—an extremist!

In The Book of Blood and Shadow, Author Robin Wasserman writes: "most fundamentalists, most extremists are individuals who want to substitute what they believe for what you believe . . ." She expounds that a fundamentalist is not only someone who wants to substitute what he believes for what you believe, "but even more so is someone who thinks he knows the will of God better than anyone else.” 

With this in mind I turn back to the Akedah, the near sacrifice of Isaac, which is one of the peak moments of the Bible. A father is called upon to make the supreme sacrifice, not to kill himself but to do that which is much harder—to destroy his son, the bearer of his legacy, the guarantor of his future.

It is in this context that Rabbi Vorspan professes his central objection to the Akedah account. He says: “I do not believe that the Biblical God could have imposed such cruel and ruthless behavior upon Abraham, and I do not believe that the same Abraham who defiantly challenged God on behalf of the wicked people of Sodom and Gemorrah would have supinely agreed to butcher his own innocent and dearly beloved son without putting up a battle. Yet according to the text, Abraham seemed to be quite willing to perform the gruesome deed, and with eagerness went ahead with the mission. Abraham arose early, as if he couldn't wait.”

What really happened?

 Rabbi Vorspan’s midrash asserts: “that Abraham, is a missionary, a missionary for an un-seeable and unknowable God, who had appeared to him in Mesopotamia and on whose behalf he had made considerable sacrifices. He had obediently abandoned his parents, his comfortable home in a metropolitan city, and had moved to a distant rustic sliver of land where he had become a nomad chief. He had obeyed the will of God as he understood it, even going so far as to perform a painful circumcision operation on himself.”

“But now Abraham looked about him and he was dissatisfied. What had he really accomplished? His missionary zeal had produced a small band of converts, but all around him were the vastly more powerful pagan cults. Why were they more successful? They were imposing on their adherents even more rigorous demands than he. The pagan gods were demanding not just the sacrifice of a foreskin but human beings. The god, Moloch, was even successfully imposing the sacrifice of children as burnt offerings. No wonder all feared and worshipped his power and his might.”

Rabbi Vorspan asks: “How was Abraham to meet the challenge of these competing faiths? Slowly there germinated in his fevered imagination the conviction that Adonai, more powerful than any other god, was making upon him a demand even more extreme than Moloch, one that would make all the populace stand up and take notice. In his heated brain, there surged the driving thought: Pagan priests are slaughtering other people's children; Adonai is asking of him a sacrifice immeasurably greater, to sacrifice his own son for whom he had waited so long, the apple of his eye, dearer to him than life itself.”

“God had called upon him once and for all to demonstrate his faith, and he would not be found wanting. All went as planned until the final moment of decision. As the knife was about to descend, Abraham was struck with a powerful revelation: It was not God at all, it was his own ego that had been determining his behavior.”

“He was laying on God his own desire to stand Adonai, our God, up against the other gods, and himself against all other priests. It was not Adonai, who was jealous for his own status; it was Abraham who was jealous. It was not God’s will that he was performing but his own.”

At that instant Abraham heard God call out to him. “AI tishlach et yadcha el hanaar—Don't harm that lad.”  Don't harm the lad with your extreme convictions.

At this point in the sermon Rabbi Vorspan exclaims, "That this is the real message of the Akedah."

At its core the message is understandable to the man of faith and conviction. The story teaches the value of following God’s will as we see it. But Rabbi Vorspan teaches that we must always agonize over the possibility that we are confusing God's will with our own. Abraham had rejected idolatry and had now almost become an idolater himself. That is what idolatry is: following one's own will and considering it to be God's.

I am sure that my psychologist and rabbinic friends would say that one's views of extremism are often related to one's own personality. The zealotry Rabbi Vorspan was alluding to and warning us against is not passion, it’s not deep seated belief, but rather the conviction that one is acting as a messenger of God, and this type of zealotry fills me with distrust, skepticism and fear.

Students of Jewish history and students of world history know what damage religious and political extremism has done in centuries past. And today religious, political, social and emotional extremism is exerting undue influence in the United States, Africa, Russia, Europe the Middle East and in Israel.

In particular (and sadly) the tradition of civility, tolerance, mutual recognition and cooperation between religious movements and ideologies in Judaism, is now being replaced with non-recognition, contempt, accusations of heresy, and separatism. 

 Rabbi Melissa Weintraub asserts that there are three patterns that prevail in the current American Jewish conversation about religion and in particular Israel. She makes a very compelling argument why these patterns should urgently concern us and what we can do about it. She writes:

The first and most common pattern is avoidance. Dodging the “Death by Israel Sermon” is just one example. Most Jewish social justice organizations have explicit policies to avoid Israel. It seems every week another institution bans Israel from its listserv. Even what presents itself, as apathy among millennials, is often a mask for avoidance: “Oh, that nasty conversation? Who wants to go there?”

The second pattern is open antagonism: vilification, ad hominem attacks, quoting each other out of context, disputing motives, distorting each other’s positions to reckless caricatures.

The third could be called “avoidance 2.0” and refers to the widespread tendency to congregate, conference, and talk exclusively to those with whom we agree. We splinter into self-affirming nuclei of our respective organizations, each of them morally superior and self-certain, talking past one another, and now and then colliding in frustration and hostility. Rival camps rally and take pride in the numbers of those who are with them, while dismissing those who aren’t as dangerous, ignorant, malicious or loony.[2]

While I have never shied away from the Israel topic or an Israel sermon, because as most of you know, I am driven by deep convictions, I do find myself struggling to preach and teach more centrist positions. As my fears and concerns for our future as a people, for the future of our homeland grow more palpable, I find myself sometimes uncomfortably leaning towards more extreme viewpoints on many issues. And to be honest this frightens me.

Rabbi Weintraub notes that these patterns that we see emerging in our Jewish communities are enormously costly and debilitating. It doesn’t take a rabbi or sociologist to deduce that we are unraveling relationships and institutions, corroding community, and generating cynicism, distrust and fear. We are alienating potential allies and turning people off, particularly younger generations of Jews. We are engendering fatigue and burnout among activists of all stripes as well as the broader public. We are obstructing and distracting from genuine problem solving and drowning out creative thinking. Resources that should be used to negotiate intelligent ways forward are instead used to attack or simply fight for the chance to be heard.

Several times a year I am invited to have dinner with four other Jewish professionals. Two of us are rabbis, but I am the only pulpit rabbi while my rabbinic colleague is an educator of the highest degree. The other three colleagues lead and/or have led some of the most significant and influential Jewish organizations locally, nationally and internationally. Our gatherings are energized by our passions, our deep-seated traditions and the diversity of thought and relationships we bring to the table. We are recovering members from orthodox, conservative and progressive communities. We are evolving politically, religiously, emotionally, and spiritually moving to the right and left. While we are a diverse group we are all staunch supporters of Israel yet we are liberal and we are conservative, we are dovish and hawkish.

Our dinners start with a cocktail of some sort followed by great food, usually a nice bottle of wine or two, good desserts and fellowship. We hug each other when we meet and most importantly we hug each other when we part. We hold nothing back as we laugh loudly and spar intellectually with gusto. We don’t hide behind any pretense or predisposed posture. We are honest and forthright. We listen to each other and we learn from each other. It is one of the most professionally and personally inspirational gatherings that I am honored to be a part of.

Just last week we all gathered in the city for one our epic dinners. My colleagues all remarked how surprised they were to see that at this time of the year I would create the space to join them. I simply said I wouldn’t miss these dinners for anything. I also admitted to them that I need sermon material and I couldn’t find a better group of colleagues to help in this search.

One of the participants in this group of five, who for various reasons I will keep anonymous, shared the following with the rest of us and gave me his permission to use it as I saw fit. He wrote:

"It is perhaps the saddest of statements that this is what made my evening memorable. As an avowed centrist who believes that issues and perspectives around the state of Israel are increasingly played in the “end zone” of the left or the right, it was truly uplifting to engage in a conversation in the other 100 yards of the field where most of us reside and play. The trouble is that we have been relegated to the sidelines for too long.

The issue is that the discussions we engage in about our beloved state of Israel are mired in constant absolutes. If I support J Street I am perceived as a left wing lunatic, and if I support AIPAC I must be a right wing fanatic. If I support the New Israel Fund I love the Arabs more than my fellow Jews, and if I attend a ZOA meeting I want to exile the Arabs to another country. This is how we have been hijacked and conditioned to think.  And we wonder why young people don’t want to engage in the Israel debate. I understand that there are many reasons why they don’t want to engage but one of the greatest has to be the example we have set with our inflammatory accusations that whistle back and forth like bullets on a battlefield.

Well at what point is enough - enough? At what point do those of us who want to play the game on the field reclaim the radical center where we can actually listen to one another and, heaven forbid, maybe even be open enough to change our minds.  We have grown and changed as a people for thousands of years but when it comes to Israel our evolution has stalled and unless we kick start it I fear that the topic of Israel will just be an item on the menu of diaspora life that no restaurant will ever be able to serve."    unquote

I was hoping to find some good sermon material and what I got was an incredibly well thought out and beautifully articulated statement of what was going on in my heart and mind. I don’t believe that this means every perspective is deemed equally convincing or valid. But this theology does demand of us intellectual humility, the ability to embrace our limitations and uncertainty, recognition that truth cannot be known through only one voice but rather only through rigorous search and deliberation.

And God tested Abraham . . . that is our test that we must pass—the test of the moderate. AI tishlach et yadcha el hanaar - Don't harm that lad. This means that God is not necessarily on the side of the most aggressive, the most militant, the less tolerant, the most dogmatic, and unyielding. This means that God is not necessarily on the side of the most passive, the most progressive, the most compromising.

A community’s destiny does not rise and fall based on how it handles its times of harmony and consensus, but on how it responds to its moments of greatest discord and disagreement. We are now in such a moment. How we meet this challenge will impact the Jewish people for generations to come. Yes, we will yield—when better ideas come along. We will compromise—for peace. We will change—when conditions make it right. We will be tolerant and understanding of those who disagree with us. We will listen and not get defensive. And Judaism will thereby grow and flourish and cross-pollinate as it always has done in the best of times. 

I will never be apologetic about my love and support for the State of Israel!

I will never be apologetic about my love and support for the United States of America!

So I say in front of all of you:  Al cheit shechatnu l'fanecha—Forgive me if I have vilified or dismissed someone for having an opinion different from mine.

I say in front of all of you:  Al cheit shechatnu l'fanecha—Forgive me when I have succumbed to my extreme voice and raised the knife too quickly rather than be open to the ram stuck in the weeds showing me another voice that needs to be heard.

Now together, with me, I ask that we test this proposition; that we commit to acknowledging our sometimes extreme behavior and that we commit to hearing the moderate voice of our tradition and our God. I ask that we make a strong and courageous commitment to those who want to play from the center of the field.

We have to be able to prove that our convictions will be as strong as those of the fanatics, of those who want to play from the end zone. We have to be able to prove that our sincerity will be as deep and that our faith—though less uncomplicated—will be as compelling.

As Rabbi Vorspan taught thirty years ago: “We must pass that test because we represent the Jewish Community. We are AMCHAH-ONLY WE. We are the center and the centrists. We represent the Jewish present and its future.”

“May God be on our side because if we are not right, if we do not make it—there is no future.  Al tishlach et  yadchael hanaar. . .Don't hurt that lad. We won't. That is our prayer and our conviction.”

Kein Yehi Ratzon and Shannah Tovah


[1] Rabbi Max Vorspan was an American rabbi, professor, historian, and administrator at the American Jewish University, and leader in the Los Angeles Jewish community.[1] He was the founder of the Pacific Southwest Region of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, and the co-author of The History of the Jews of Los Angeles.[2] To say the least he was a rabbi of great prestige.

[2] Rabbi Melissa Weintraub is a member of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America faculty, the founding director of Encounter, and an independent Israel engagement consultant, educator, facilitator and trainer.