Ark or Tent? Rosh Hashanah First Day
Thursday, 24 September 2015 | 11 Tishri, 5776
Rosh Hashanah Day One 2015 / 5776
Ark or tent?
Rabbi Ralph Genende
And every day the world grabs you by the hand and says: “This is important” and “this is important.” “This is where you should be putting your energy” and “This is where you should be directing your priorities.”
And every day you’ve got to yank your hand back and put it up against your heart and say – “No this is important, this is what really counts! I will be guided by my heart, directed by my principles, driven by my faith.” Life isn’t just about getting the logic right although clarity of mind and clear thinking are of course critical. It’s about getting your heart and mind in synch.
At the beginning of recorded history Noah stood up, built an ark despite the cynics and sceptics. He was a righteous man, (ish tzadik bedorotav – איש צדיק בדרתיו) a Tzadik for his time and generation.
Ten generations later the first Jew, Abraham, burst onto the world scene. He too dared to be different. He was called an עברי a Hebrew, someone who chose to live on the other side, the word עברי comes from עובר as in מעבר לים on the other bank; He wasn’t transgender but he was a trans-Jew!
Both were heroes, but it’s Abraham that we are named after, that we remember today in our Torah reading. It’s Abraham not Noah who was the first Jew. He is our founding father, our hero. Abraham isn’t remembered for an ark but for his tent, a flimsy fragile temporary structure open with entries in all directions like a Chuppah.
There are two ways, two approaches to the world – the way of Noah, the ark-method, building yourself a secure and sealed structure to protect yourself from the wild waves and violent storms out there: It’s a sensible path but one based more on logic of the mind than language of the heart.
Then there is the way of Abraham, the tent open to and welcoming the winds of change but firmly planted on the ground with a strong tent pole and pegs like a steady moral compass. An open tent, an open heart and an open mind. Abraham is the model of compassion, he pulls his hands back to his heart. He is a massive intellect but in the end we remember him not for his magnificent mind but his exquisite heart, his creative chesed.
You can insulate yourself in an ark, oblivious to the world and its problems, protective of your own family and the property or you can open yourself to the world out there, embrace it, let it change you as you change it.
The kind of Judaism I believe in has always understood that you can’t stop the winds of change, but as Bob Dylan put it in Forever Young, you can ensure that you have a strong foundation, a firm tent, when the winds of change shift
An open Orthodoxy as opposed to a closed one knows what it is to be a global Jew that the world’s problems are our problems that we can’t go on using our planets’ resources as if they were infinite. We Aussies are almost as wasteful, reckless and feckless in our consumption of natural resources as the Americans. Our footprint is clumsy and large. Oscar Wilde’s acerbic retort could be applied to us – America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilisation between…We were given this earth לעבדה ולשמרה to work it and protect and safeguard it for future generations (Genesis 2:15). So remember: Reduce, reuse, recycle and eat less red meat – it’s good for you and your planet.
And open Orthodoxy knows you can’t close the ark against the world’s most pressing global challenge today: The mass displacement of people, the greatest number of refugees since War World 2. All these dreadful images etched on to our collective minds, seared into our consciousness from the lifeless pitiful body of the 4 year old Syrian Kurdish boy Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach in Turkey, to the chaotic scenes at the at the railway station in Hungary.
They have sparked an intense, important and long overdue debate in Australia about our responsibility to respond to the cargoes of hapless people and to rethink our policies on asylum seekers. In Australia as across the world the people led the way and our government responded positively. I am heartened by the wave of compassion that has swept the world but the issues are complex, the problem growing and it’s going to take resilience and determination to sustain goodwill and not to suffer compassion fatigue. And to apply the same kind of compassion to those now stranded on Nauru or Manus Island. People of all faiths and ethnicities have to continue to make space for one another, to honour our shared humanity. Fail this and we will have failed one of the fundamental tests of humanity. Fail this and we have failed the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers” something close to Jewish hearts.
Of course part of the complexity is that a large portion of these refuges will be Muslim and while I’m afraid of and oppose a Muslim caliphate fear of all Muslims isn’t a defence. If we are not part of the solution in reaching out to moderate Muslims, of helping integrate Muslim refugees and migrants into our lifestyle and helping find a way to reach young disaffected Muslims, then we are part of the problem. Stereotyping Muslims is as bad as stereotyping Jews. We are after all the “People of the Book”, nuanced readers of reality. I draw strength from the leadership of the ICV, I draw strength from the young thoughtful Muslims I meet, from the young American Muslim leaders leading regular visits to the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem to learn about Zionism and Israel. They assure us it’s not too late; we can still stem the tide of Islamic anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism. I pray they are correct because it’s going to take all the positive good-will and ingenuity we can muster.
It’s easy to resort to black and white responses but that’s the way of Noah – you are in the Ark or you are outside. That’s not the way of Abraham who from the beginning of his mission reached out to the world around him, converting and accepting his neighbours while remaining resolute in his pursuit of justice, compassion and righteousness.
Judaism since Avraham has always resisted the easy way – Just as we prefer a twisty Shofar, a כפוף to a straight one. Gimme a twisty curly shofar any time! Give me the long and winding road – a straight line may be the shortest path between two paths but it isn’t necessarily the best way between two moral poles.
And being straight may be easy and comfortable but it doesn’t mean we reject Jews who aren’t straight but GLBTI. One of the fundamental challenges today is that of the inclusion of GLBTI individuals in the Jewish tent.
Orthodox Judaism has always embraced the traditional and Biblically-based definition of marriage as that between a man and woman; and that homosexuality is forbidden. Does this mean that there is no place for the gay individual in Jewish life or for the Orthodox gay couple in the Orthodox community? Is it only Adam and Eve? Is there any place for Adam and Steve?
It’s easy to say – “It’s against the Bible and Judaism, that’s it.” It’s a lot harder to say that to a sincere gay individual, to your son who has come out or to your sister who is living in a gay relationship. It’s a fearsome challenge, because if homosexuality is genetically wired as overwhelming evidence suggests how can a caring God demand they go against their nature? Indeed it has been suggested that the verse may only apply if the individual is acting out of free choice not compulsion ( אונס). And we need to recognise the vulnerability of young gay individuals, to affirm their right not to be alone לא טוב היות אדם לבדו , not to be driven to despair and suicide, but to establish loving relationships even as we ask of them and their heterosexual peers to show restraint in the public expression of their sexuality.
I don’t know why God created us differently and why the Torah decreed homosexuality forbidden. But I do know that the reality of the 21st century is that there are GLBTI Jews, that there are practising Orthodox Jews living in same-sex relationships.
I do know that Orthodox Jews don’t stone sinners today even if they are desecrating Shabbat or committing adultery. In our shule we don’t ask people if they ate the abominable (to’evah) shrimp cocktail or had their name on the Ashley Madison site before we give them an Aliyah.
So who knows what the future holds? Being flippant I could remind you that in the certain states in the USA gay marriage and marijuana were legalised on the same day. After all, Leviticus 20:13: If a man lies with another man he should be stoned. We have just been interpreting it incorrectly all these years…
Being serious I would rather err on the side of compassion than be a religious warrior without compunction. I will leave it to God to judge who is right.
There is a fascinating Talmudic discussion about whether women can blow the shofar. While the Halachik debate focuses on obligation and responsibility there is another debate going on in Orthodoxy today about inclusion, leadership and spiritual role models.
While the ultra-Orthodox’ s position is generally that Noah steers the ark and Mrs Noah doesn’t even have a name, the Open Orthodox position is look to Sarah. When Sarah fearlessly challenges Avraham and he appeals to God (like many a Jewish husband may be tempted to), God’s response is simple and unequivocal: כל האמר לך שרה תשמע בקולה – Whatever your wife says – goes! (Genesis 21:12)Listen to her voice!
And today across the Jewish world – especially in Israel and USA we are doing just that today. We are paying attention to the learned and thoughtful voices of religious women who are achieving the same and even superior levels of Jewish knowledge to their male counterparts.
While the title these women deserve may be debatable – rabbi, rabbah, Maharat – they are taking on positions of religious leadership in shules across Israel, Canada and the USA.
There is still a way to go; even YU (Yeshiva University) the bastion of Modern Orthdoxy is opposed to women being ordained in any form. In my mind the debate is not about Jewish law but the power to define and control the franchise of Orthodox Judaism, about women sharing the right to decide on our collective future! I look forward to welcoming these women into Australia and in our Shule, into positions of spiritual leadership. They are our “Women of Gold” and a women’s reading of Torah and Halacha can surely only enrich and enliven Judaism for all of us.
We have had women Prime Ministers in Australia and Israel, women running for President of the USA, women occupying highest positions in society, from COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg to CEO of Yahoo Marissa Mayer and Susan Wojcicki of YouTube. Surely the time has come for us to embrace women leaders in our Orthodox shules and institutions…after all they will still remain safely behind the mechitza.
The challenge Orthodoxy faces today is will it focus on the small (and laudably) totally committed 10% of the Chareidi ultra Orthodox or will it reach out to the fractured, bleeding majority, the Jews who are marrying out and walking away. It will be judged in the 21 century by how it responds to these challenges. This is not just a challenge for the religiously committed but for you and me – do you want your grandchildren to be and stay Jewish? How and what kind of Jewish?
When you open the doors like Abraham and Sarah you let in all kinds of influences, some sweet breezes and some toxic winds. It’s a dangerous path because you don’t always know who you are welcoming in and Lionel Trilling has warned if you become too open-minded your brains can fall out…
But I would take the tent of Abraham any day over the ark of Noah hermetically sealed and separated by high walls from the rest of society, from my fellow human beings.
So when the world comes pulling at me and says: “This is important and this is important” I will definitely and unequivocally pull back my hand, turn it to my heart and say: “No this is important, the kind of heart I have, the soul I am growing is one that is guided by the way of positive passion wider inclusion and recognition, driven by my unerring belief in the God and the truth of Torah of Israel and the rich values we continue to share with the world.”
So I will sow the winds driving through my tent with seeds of love and scatter on them our values of dignity and equality, freedom and family, community and connectedness.