Sermon delivered July 8, 2011
by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block
Tonight’s Torah reading included the hilarious story of Bilaam and his talking donkey. Tomorrow, Nick will read a more serious passage from the same portion. The sorcerer Bilaam, hired to curse the Israelites, continues to be stymied by divine action. Ultimately, when he rises to speak before Children of Israel, he utters not a curse, but words of blessing: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael! “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”
Our Rabbis were so moved by Bilaam’s blessing that they selected his words for the opening of morning worship. The choice is odd. So many biblical verses are uttered by God, and others by our patriarchs and matriarchs, Moses, and the great men and women of Jewish lore. Why, then, would the rabbis designate the blessing of a non-Jew to open our synagogue worship each morning?
Bilaam’s blessing is not the only example of a great and important section of Torah cited in the name of a non-Jew. The Ten Commandments, first appearing in the Book of Exodus, are part of a Torah portion known as Yitro, or Jethro, the name of Moses’ father-in-law. Jethro isn’t merely non-Jewish; he is the Priest of Midian, which is to say that he is the religious leader of an idolatrous cult. Nevertheless, Jethro acknowledges the greatness of our God. Together with his son-in-law, he makes an offering to the one God. The Rabbis could have divided the Torah portions differently, giving the portion with the Ten Commandments a more Jewish name. Instead, they honor Jethro; we call his name each year when we read the Ten Commandments from Exodus.
We may wonder whether the Rabbis were overly impressed by these non-Jews who bless the Jewish people and our God. Our Talmud sages generally lived in times when Jews were sorely oppressed and persecuted. They rarely heard glad tidings from their non-Jewish neighbors. The notion that a non-Jew would praise our God or our people must have seemed miraculous to them. Indeed, the rabbis had a very hard time imagining that Bilaam would praise the Israelites of his own free will. Ancient midrash understands Bilaam to be a wicked character, but one who is possessed, we might say, by the spirit of God. In the ancient rabbinic mindset, Bilaam blesses the Children of Israel against his own will, by an act of God taking over his body.
We live in happier times. Jews of 21st Century America know persecution from our history. Some in our midst lived through the Holocaust, and know anti-Semitism first hand. Thankfully, though, our current experience is not of being surrounded by hatred. Instead, the majority of our Temple members have non-Jewish relatives in their own families. All of us embrace a community of dear friends, some Jewish and others, not. We love the non-Jews who share our lives, and they love us, no less because we are Jewish.
In our own day, we are more likely to hear unjustified praise of our Jewish people than we are to hear hatred. Still, from time to time, Jews receive blessings of non-Jews in ways that may not be appropriate. Let us examine some examples in our own experience.
We have all heard “compliments” that come just a little too close to the anti-Semitism more common in an earlier era. For instance, a well-meaning friend may remark that Jews are particularly intelligent, or that we are especially skilled in business. The speaker may intend to bless us. The reality is more complicated. Anti-Semites have long stereotyped Jews as cunning. We have been said to profit at other people’s expense. We have to find a way to thank our friends for their compliments, while steering them away from characterizations of Jews as a group. Any positive traits one finds in a particular Jew are not blessings inherent in a Jewish birth or upbringing, and they should not be attributed to us as a group. All stereotyping, including positive generalizations, can be turned against us.
In some instances, these group compliments can be quite harmful to the Jewish community. Once upon a time, and perhaps even today, Jewish parents and even non-Jewish parents would encourage their daughters to marry Jewish men. The theory went like this: Jewish men are not alcoholics and they do not beat their wives. To the extent that the exhortation encouraged in-marriage, some may consider it a blessing. However, the stereotype became destructive. Jewish men who are alcoholics may suffer tremendous denial: “How can I be an alcoholic? I’m Jewish!” Jewish women who are victims of domestic violence at the hands of Jewish men may suffer inordinate shame: “How can he be abusive? I married a Jewish man, just like my parents told me.” As a result, the intended “blessing” may dissuade the alcoholic from seeking treatment. The “positive” stereotype may discourage the abuse victim from reaching out for help.
As a Rabbi, I am occasionally uncomfortable when I hear positive statements about Judaism itself. I am told, for example, that Judaism encourages more questioning than other religions, that Judaism is more accepting of people’s differences, and that Judaism inspires its adherents to be more family-oriented. I have several concerns. At one time or another, Judaism is sure to disappoint. Some Rabbi is eventually going to insist that there is only one answer, some congregation isn’t going to be as accepting of differences, some Jew is going to say something bigoted, and another is going to commit adultery. If nobody is perfect, then certainly no entire faith group is without flaw. If our friends idealize Judaism, they may become disillusioned when they confront reality. Blessings that attribute overwhelming positive characteristics to Judaism should give us pause.
In addition, I have found that those who heap such praise on Judaism are often making an invidious comparison to another religion. If I accept the praise, then I may be tacitly agreeing that some other faith is less so. Some people do come to Temple Beth-El after having been hurt in other houses of worship. Our House of God can be a refuge. Even so, Christianity can be stereotyped as unfairly as Judaism. I know Catholic priests who welcome questions. I know Christian churches that are open and welcoming to men and women, liberals and conservatives, singles and married people, heterosexual and homosexual. I know atheists who are as moral as Moses with stronger family values. When non-Jews bless us, we must be careful not to imagine that we are better and that others are worse.
In recent years, we have seen a significant upswing in support for Israel among Fundamentalist Christians. At first, some were concerned that these efforts would be window-dressing for attempts to convert Jews to Christianity. While some such churches harbor some hopes, though, that worry has proved to be largely unfounded. More often, these churches not only pray for Israel, but they also ask God’s blessing on the Jewish people as a whole.
To be sure, Israel can use all the friends it can get. Tomorrow, I am to set off for Israel with our Mayor, Julian Castro, along with a group of local business and community leaders, Jews and non-Jews. I celebrate their support for a secure Jewish State, living at peace among the nations.
Sometimes, though, our people can become a bit too enthusiastic about large-scale showings of Christian support for Israel. I have often heard some version of the following: “After centuries when they hated us, now here is a Christian leader telling his people to love us.”
Yes, our history living in Christian Europe is a terrible tale. And yet, we live in an era when Christians loving Jews is not at all uncommon. We have no cause for falling all over ourselves, head over heels and heads in the sand, just because a Pastor praises us. A Pastor who seeks to impose Christianity in our public schools is not a friend, just because he supports Israel. A Pastor who preaches anti-Arab bigotry and lies to his congregation to discredit Islam cannot be our friend, for we are enjoined to love the stranger, having ourselves been strangers. Lest anybody imagine that I am referring to only one pastor, let me assure you that there are many such leaders in America today. Their blessing is no blessing. We must be wary.
But we are also blessed. From the time that Jethro came to welcome his son-in-law Moses back to the foot of Mount Sinai, we the Jewish people have been deeply enriched by non-Jews who have been our teachers and friends. Maimonides, the greatest Rabbi who ever lived, dwelt among Muslims, and gleaned much of his philosophy from Islamic adaptation of Aristotle. Fifteen years ago this summer, when the Southern Baptist Convention voted that it would “target” Jews for conversion, Rev. Dr. Buckner Fanning ascended this bimah, blessing us with a discourse on religious pluralism and declaring that neither he nor Trinity Baptist Church remained affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Bilaam was not the last or the most praiseworthy non-Jew to bless us.
Today, some our greatest blessings come from non-Jews like Mary Weiner, who join the Jewish community and raise their children as Jews. Mary is exceptional in her volunteer devotion to our synagogue and Sisterhood, but in many ways she is not unusual. Hundreds of non-Jewish men and women in our midst are raising the next generation of Jewish adults. As we like to say at Temple Beth-El, “Not all Jewish heroes are Jewish!”
May blessings ever flow to our Jewish people from God and from all who would bless us, and may the blessings they offer us inspire us always.