Monday, November 17, 2014

Rabbi Dan Alexander's sermon at St. Paul's

We had a terrific Sunday at St. Paul's, with Rabbi Dan Alexander of Congregation Beth Israel giving the sermon (I preached at his synagogue Friday evening, see post below this one). Rabbi Dan also was our guest at the adult forum, and fielded many questions with skill and good humor. Here is the text of this sermon, and the audio can be heard on our website HERE.

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Of Sweetened Words and Theological Humility
November 16, 2014

I am honored and grateful for this opportunity to preach in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Memorial Church this morning. Standing here brings back fond memories that extend back to 1979, when in my first year as Director of the Hillel Foundation at UVA, I met the Rev. David Poist. I count David and also Paula Kettlewell among the clergy I have known the longest and whose acquaintance and friendship I have valued so highly over the years. Your current rector, the Rev. Jim Richardson fills the shoes of his esteemed predecessors with great distinction and, as he does, brings honor to your church through his leadership in the general community, especially in the arena of social justice. His friendship sustains me.

In preparing to speak to you this morning I first thought I would challenge myself by reacting to one of your lectionary readings, not an easy one from the Scriptures we hold in common but one more difficult for me, from your Scriptures and then to see what I might bring to an encounter with a text sacred to Christians but not to Jews. But, as it happened, that encounter led me back to my own tradition and in particular to a rabbinic text, a midrash, that when unpacked reveals some core elements of Jewish self-understanding. My goal in all of this is to make a modest contribution toward better understanding between our two communities. I will speak on the theme “Of Sweetened Words and Theological Humility.”

As you probably all know, Matthew 25:14-30 records one version of the Parable of the Talents. I read the parable, thought about it, discussed it with a few folks, investigated some commentaries and then decided you would be better served if I leave its exposition to teachers from within your faith community while I simply note that the literary form of the passage, a teaching by means of parable, bears similarity to many midrashim, those long or short literary compositions which were delivered in synagogues as homilies during the century when Jesus lived, as well as before and after. In the remarks that follow, I exit the realm of your Testament for the more familiar arena of rabbinic literature in the service of my goal of cultivating the ground of mutual understanding between our faith communities.

What is a midrash? From the Hebrew root meaning to seek or inquire, a midrash is a genre of imaginative rabbinic literature, that is to say fiction, that begins with an inquiry into some aspect of Scripture, some curiosity that arises from an encounter with a passage or a phrase or a word or a letter in the sacred text, some itch that calls for a scratch. The midrash is the literary scratch, so to speak, but a scratch that can shed significant light on the perspective, values and sensibilities that inform the worldview of the author. And one more thing: midrashim (the plural of midrash) fit within the general category of Oral Torah or Oral Tradition, a catch-all term for the sacred literature of the Judaism that arises when the priest and sacrifice-oriented religion of the Second Temple period gives way to the synagogue, rabbi, prayer and mitzvah-oriented religion we now recognize as Judaism. That is, midrash can be fanciful but it occupies a place of high honor and seriousness in the Jewish library.

I chose the following midrash (which was collected in several Medieval anthologies that in turn draw on older sources no longer extant) because it addresses the very nature of Torah. Torah in turn is the Jewish equivalent of Jesus. For it is the Torah, in the sense of the revealed word of God, that contains and represents the covenant by which we Jews derive our identity, our sense of unique calling and our purpose. As we read and unpack this midrash, we will see that it begins with a slight misdirection as it presents itself as a commentary on a verse from the Song of Songs, one of the stranger books of the Hebrew Bible. In its plain sense, the Song of Songs comprises a series of fairly racy love poems. I would like to know which Biblical editor allowed this stuff to pass the canonical screening?! I would like to shake his or her hand.

Well, it would appear that in ancient Jewish circles, these love poems made the canonical cut because prominent rabbis of the day interpreted them as metaphors for the love not between human lovers but the one that characterizes the relationship between the Creator of the Universe and the people Israel whom the Creator chose for covenant. That is certainly the assumed interpretation behind this midrash and the third century rabbis who are quoted in it. The midrash, Part I:

"His mouth is most sweet" (Song of Songs 5:16). It is said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: The moment Israel at Sinai heard the word "I," their souls left them, as is written, "My soul left me when He spoke" (Song of Songs 5:6).

Of course, in the un-interpreted Bible, the sweet mouth belongs to the speaker’s kissable lover. However, to the rabbis it belongs to the Master of the Universe and specifically describes the nature of God’s speech to the people Israel, the sweet words of Torah spoken at Mount Sinai. The word “I,” you probably know, is the first word of the Ten Utterances. By the way, the first letter of the first word Anochi is the silent letter aleph. In some versions of this midrash, the drama begins as the soon as the silent letter reaches the ears of its human recipients. Of course, in the Bible, “My soul left me when he spoke” describes a swooning lover, not revelation at Mt. Sinai, but you are getting used to the rabbinic interpretive move by now. Back to the midrash:

At once, the Word returned to the Holy One and said: “Master of the universe, You are ever alive and enduring, the Torah is ever alive and enduring, yet You are sending me to the dead? THEY ARE ALL DEAD!”

So, for Israel's sake, the Holy One went back and sweetened the Word, as is said, "The voice of the Lord is powerful, the voice of the Lord is stately" (Psalms 29:4), which, as Rabbi Hama bar Hanina explained, means that the voice of the Lord was powerful for young men and had measured stateliness for the aged…. Rabbi Levi said: “Had it been written, "The voice of the Lord is in His strength," the world could not have stood it.” Hence Scripture says, "The voice of the Lord is fitted to the strength" (Psalms 29:4). That is to say, to the strength of each and every person, the young according to their strength, the aged according to their strength, the little ones according to their strength, the sucklings according to their strength, the women according to their strength.

Now it is apparent what drives this midrash, the itch that invites the scratch. In weaving together verse fragments from the Song of Songs and from Psalm 29, the rabbinic authors seek to address the paradox of divine revelation, the odd notion that the One who Creates everything, the Omni-everything Diety would see fit to encounter a band of scruffy former slaves gathered around a mountain in the Sinai peninsula and communicate to them in a manner that results in a book. Does an elephant speak to an ant? Do we humans speak to bacteria? Incommensurate scale and incompatibilities of many sorts make these encounters nearly impossible to conceive of. Along the lines of this kind of thinking, it should be nearly impossible for God to speak to us and even more difficult for us to receive the divine phone call. It shouldn’t happen.

But, as a core concept of Jewish faith, the revelation did happen and did result in a revealed, sacred text, regarded sometimes more narrowly as the Ten Utterances and sometimes more expansively as the entirely of Torah, both in its written /Biblical manifestation and also in its oral, unfolding, post-Biblical sense. But, in the imagined view of this midrash God at first did not, as it were, know God’s own strength. God forgot, one might say, the puniness of the creatures to whom the divine speech was being addressed.

Beyond the humor embedded in this image of a God who does know His or Her own strength, an important point of theology is being made. An implication of this account of revelation that strikes me as significant is that the revelation that results from the human-divine encounter at Sinai, the only one that could allow humans to come away intact, requires a do-over with a necessarily altered version of the Word, a Word subsequently made palatable for human consumption through well modulated sweetening; that is to say, the Word that can be successfully received by finite, mortal, delicate humans is decaf and not full strength and, therefore, no longer the full and unimpeded Truth with a capital “T.” It seems to me that in conflicts over who has the better or truer or only version of God’s word, a humble acknowledgment that no one really has it might help soften the tone of discourse. No one has it because, in the view of this midrash, no one could receive it fully and live to tell the tale. The midrash offers its own variant in parable form, as follows:

Another exposition of "His mouth is most sweet" (Song of Songs 5:16): The Holy One was like a king who spoke so harshly to his son that the latter fell into a faint. When the king saw that he had fainted, he began to hug him, kiss him, and speak softly to him, saying, "What is it with you? Are you not my only son? Am I not your father?" So, too, as soon as the Holy One said, "I am the Lord your God," then and there Israel's souls left them. When they died, the angels began to hug them and kiss them, saying to them, "What is it with you? Be not afraid--'you are children of the Lord your God'" (Deuteronomy 14:1). At the same time, the Holy One repeated the Word softly for their sake as He said, "Are you not My children, even as I am the Lord your God? You are My people. You are beloved unto Me." He kept speaking gently to them until their souls returned. [Song of Songs Rabbah 5:16, 3; Exodus Rabbah 5:9 and 29:4 as quoted in The Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah by Bialik and Ravnitzky]

In this anonymous retelling of the midrash, after seeing the effect of the sternly spoken “I am the Lord your God,” God turns into a loving parent. As a parent, I can certainly recall the unintended effects of my harshly spoken words to my children whose fragility when they were young I sometimes forgot. Perhaps after seeing how mere words affected the Israelites, God, as imagined in this version of the story, summons nursing angels to caress them back to health. Here, the anonymous rabbinic author responds to a persistent Jewish anxiety over the experience of abandonment and distance, an anxiety here situated in the very moment when divinity was presumably closest, when the Word became manifest as Torah, first harshly and then sweetly. To conclude: a midrash is a fiction, a product of human imagination. But, this one, as I ponder it, contains some potential guidance for Jews and Christians as we continue to navigate our sometimes fraught and intertwining spiritual paths, each seeking to authentically heed the divine call we receive through the mediation of our distinct traditions. As we continue on those paths, may we do so in honest recognition of the asymmetries and commonalities which divide us and bind us.

May we all come to recognize the sweetened, do-over nature of the Word as we each define it, the Word revealed uniquely to Jews and the Word revealed uniquely to Christians.

May we cultivate our theologies and engage one another in humble recognition that no one possesses the Truth with a big T.

And may the One whose speech brought forth the world and all that is in it continue to speak to all of us gently and sweetly. And let us say, “amen.”

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