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The Bible on Non-Jews: You Might Be Surprised

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Of the 6 weekly Torah portions named for people- 3 are named for non-Israelites: Noah, Jethro and this week Balaam.  You might say, isn’t that just a coincidence? Aren’t the names of the Torah portions taken from the first few words of the portion? But last year I found an exhaustive study of the first sentences of all the Torah portions, showing how many options there were to name for other individuals, options that were not chosen. For example Parashat Vayetzei continues Vayetzei Yaakov  and so it could have been called Jacob, and Parashat Vayigash continues Vayigash Yehudah, and so it could have been called Judah. Clearly the tradition had many options to choose from.

So if it’s not a coincidence that half the Torah portions named for people are named for non-Israelites, what does it mean?  David Perlstein, a local San Francisco writer, makes the case in his book,  God’s Others, Non-Israelite Encounters with God in the Hebrew Bible, that including non-Jews as both heroes and villains tell us something about the Bible’s universalist world view and also about how we should be interacting in our own day.

Many Jews are not conscious of the initial focus of the Bible on the entire world and about how that focus continues in the prophets of Israel. The prophets make the case that Adonai, being the God of the entire world, and not just the land of Israel, cares for all of the peoples of the world. Think of Jonah sent to the people of Nineveh, a city in Assyria, to call them to repent, and prevent their destruction,  even though the Assyrians have just decimated the ten northern tribes. The prophet Amos, for example, addresses the people of Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab, before he addresses the people of Judah and Israel. Their sins also come to God’s attention and God is also concerned for their history. Amos reminds the people, halo kivnei kushiim, you, Israel, are to God, like the Ethiopians. Sure God brought the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land, but God also brought the Philistines from Captor, now called Crete, to their 5 cities on the shores of the Mediterranean, the area of the Gaza strip, and the Arameans from Kir, that is Mesopotamia to their home in Syria.  We focus on God’s relationship with Israel, but that does not preclude God’s care for all humanity.  God has complex and meaningful relationships with non-Jews attested to in Scripture, speaking directly to them, as God does in this week’s portion in speaking to Balaam. Further even the Talmud, written at a low point in intergroup relations, identifies seven prophets to the non-Jewish world.

Thinking about contemporary issues, understanding this universal perspective reminds us of what Perlstein calls, “the dignity of difference”. He urges us to understand that we can express our own faith without denigrating others.  Respecting others does not require us to incorporate their beliefs into our own, but we can gain a great deal ourselves when we reach out in dialogue.

Sometimes people of different faiths are hesitant to talk about religion with each other. They are afraid that either it will lead to arguments about what the “truth” really is, or that it will require them to move to some watered down middle spot between their faiths. Further, many of us were raised with the instruction that it is impolite to talk about religion, and wonder how others will respond if we do.

I have had the experience of participating and leading many interfaith experiences. When local rabbis and priests met regularly for many years for discussions about our different faiths, that lead us not only to understand the other better, but also to have a deeper understanding of our own tradition. Often seeing things in contrast or having to explain them to someone outside the tradition can lead to a special kind of learning. Members of our congregation have participated in Christian Jewish and Muslim Jewish dialogue, and have also reported that it has been a meaningful Jewishly enriching experience. One of our dialogue partners, Maha Elgenaidi, Director of ING the Islamic, Networks Group, recently wrote an op-ed about how Muslims and Jews benefit by reading each other’s holy texts. In dialogue, we have learned to replace the words, “what you believe isn’t true,” with, “that is not in my belief system,” and been able to talk about differences as well as similarities.

The Christian chaplain at USC writing about his perspectives on interfaith dialogue, reminds us that it’s ok if religions differ. He is not comfortable with the often used analogy, that different religions are different paths up the same mountain, because he doesn’t want to minimize the differences between religions. But he says, even if they are different paths up different mountains, when you get to the top of any of the mountains, “you can admire a beautiful mountain range.”

Dialogue can include finding similarities, but it is also ok to identify differences, or even when finding similar practices, to understand that they may be understood differently and have different significance in different traditions.

The desire to affirm our own beliefs without denigrating those of others is the reason for our congregation’s choice of the alternative Aleinu, the one we will chant later in our service. It affirms our mission and purpose, rather than engaging in comparisons between ourselves and others.

This winter we will be launching a Building Bridges dialogue, where a small group of our members will meet regularly over a period of three months with members of a local church for religious discussion. Though we live in a society where the majority of those with a religious faith are Christian, our understanding of Christianity can be superficial and based on popular culture. Similarly the Christian participants may have an awareness of Hanukah and Passover, bagels and Jewish comedians, without a real opportunity to understand Judaism.

Our Haftarah this morning ends with the words, vehatzne lalechet im elohechah, to walk humbly with Your God. It is that humility that enables us to be learners throughout our lives and to be open to opportunities for understanding and dialogue. 

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