Atenea and I got in an argument today discussing the Rosh Hashanah dvar torah we heard, which she loved and which I found myself struggling with. The dvar was about the story of Hagar and Sarah. Briefly summarized, when Sarah struggles to conceive the promised heir of Abraham, she “gives” Hagar, her enslaved Egyptian servant, to her husband, that they might have a son. When Sarah perceives a change in attitude to her from Hagar during Hagar’s pregnancy, she demands Abraham allow her to deal harshly with the enslaved woman, who then runs into the wilderness. Hagar is then rescued by God, whom she calls El Roei, “God who sees me” and she and her son, Ishmael (“God will hear him”) is eventually restored to Abraham’s household, though Ishmael, too, will face the wilderness eventually.
The dvar torah, delivered by Rabbi Tamara Cohen, paid special attention to a reading of Hagar and Sarah’s relationship as one of tragic unequals, sisters in womanhood whose ability to treat one another well is disrupted by the hierarchy between them, what Rabbi Cohen, quoting Isabel Wilkerson, described as a caste system. That caste system Rabbi Cohen paralleled to the Wilkerson’s description of the American system of white supremacy and racism. This reading was a familiar one to Rabbi Cohen, who has for years been exegetically expounding on the relationship between Sarah and Hagar as exploitative and cruel on Sarah’s part, often imagining some sort of reunion and rapprochement, perhaps on Sarah’s deathbed.
Using the works of Black Christian Womanist theologians and anti-racist writings, as well as Jewish feminists, Rabbi Cohen examined her own assumptions as a white, Queer woman rabbi in imagining that coming together of Hagar with Sarah, her oppressor. Would Hagar even want to forgive Sarah? Are we, in imagining this scene, exculpating ourselves from our own mistreatment of the Other, particularly a racial Other? Are we white Jews exemplifying white fragility by demanding that Black Jews and other Jews of color forgive us, that Hagar forgive Sarah?
While offering no tidy conclusions, Rabbi Cohen reflected on the fact that in the moment and community of reconstructing Judaism, she is grateful for the opportunity to do so. Rabbi Cohen praised the Reconstructionist movement’s rejection of the language of Chosenness, and their openness to Torah that can include other theologians, saying how powerful it is that these are shared texts between traditions. She also remarked that we must further the cause of Black Jews’ Torah, and encouraged a post holiday donation to Ammud: The Jews of Color Torah Academy.
The argument between Atenea and I grew out of our sharing of thoughts on the dvar torah in a breakout group. I spoke first, and pointed out that I’m not a Reconstructionist, that I do believe in using language of Chosenness to describe the Jewish people’s relationship with God, and that I felt alarmed by Rabbi Cohen’s use of non-Jewish theologians. I made the point that I believe that we did not by choice and freedom “share” these texts and traditions with Christians. Rather, I believe the texts to have been wrenched from the Jewish context by cultural and physical violence. I did not say that the texts were then forced on Black thinkers by the same forces of violence. Perhaps I should have.
In either case, Atenea pointed out that I had focused on the theological details of Chosenness and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, when Rabbi Cohen’s point had been about the mistreatment and exclusion of Black people and People of Color from our spaces, about Racism more broadly, and in particular about Hagar, a character of great significance to Black Jews and Jews of Color. Rabbi Cohen had called on us not to deflect or be fragile when confronted with our racism. Had I not just done that very thing by refusing to address her substantive point?
The fight, as my father says, was not about the fight. It was about what certain others hear when certain people say certain words, what it sounds like for a white man, Jewish though I am, to say in front of his Latina wife, Jewish though she is, “I am Chosen and others are not.” What does that mean for my family, thought Atenea? What is this man saying about the suffering of people of color like me and mine, the struggle and toil of our lives compared to the ease of his? Is he saying it is deserved? That it is right? That it is Chosen?
I always seem to learn something from Atenea when we disagree. I hope she would say the same, and fear she would not. I want to share what I learned from my wife during our disagreement, because I think it’s relevant to all Torah, especially mine: Whenever we talk Torah, including in one on one discussions, but especially in public discussions, we must, must, MUST be speaking Torah with respect and openness to everyone in the room. We can NOT be teaching a Torah of exclusion, of the smallness of the soul, of ourselves. We must always be teaching a Torah of welcoming, of the soul as expansive, the Torah of Others. If God sees Hagar and hears Ishmael, then we must imitate God. We must see and hear the people all around us, and what they have to teach.