Thursday, September 2, 2010

Abraham the Rapist, a.k.a. A Jewish Woman's Changing Perspective Of The Father of the Jewish People

Today I'm going to write about something that has offended many Jewish (and probably some non-Jewish) people I've spoken with over the years. I'm going to write about my opinion about a Jewish Patriarch and Catholic saint, Abraham. I'm going to write about the fact that Abraham, or "Avraham Aveinu" (Abraham, our father), often called Father of the Jewish People, was a rapist. He is also guilty of enslavement, a particularly nasty and prevalent form abuse or life-long torture. Oh, and I'd better not forget child neglect. And attempted negligent homicide.

Do you find this perspective shocking? Well, it sure shocked the sh*t out of my Aish Hatorah Jewel seminary madricha (facilitator) when I brought up Abraham as a rapist during a lecture she was giving on Abraham as "the father of kindness and hospitality". My rabid Israel supporter friend's ranting, raving and sexually-tinged mudslinging was probably heightened by his reaction to my assertion that Abraham was a rapist.

So in this post, I'm going to write about the evolution of my relationship with and understanding of Good ole' Avraham Aveinu, and how Michael Lerner's book, "Jewish Renewal; A Path To Healing and Transformation" has helped me to understand Abie in a new light that has some inspiring aspects.

Growing up, I didn't know much about Abraham. I knew he was supposed to be an important guy in the Bible, and that he had almost killed his son Isaac because God had told him to. It was sort of freaky, but Abraham had obeyed God and that was good, right? (Come to think of it, my most traumatic memory concerning early Biblical education was probably when our first or second grade teacher told us about how the Philistines had cut Samuel's eyes out. I remember asking how they had done it, and her making a scissor motion with her hands. Shudder. Back to Abe.)

At some point in my teens, the fact that Abraham had been willing to kill his own son struck me for the disturbing bit of child abuse it was. I was growing more and more aware of Judaism's exclusionary, judgemental, rule-obsessed aspects that contradicted my evolving understanding of spirituality. (Of course, I have also begun, in recent years, to see positive aspects of Judaism, as well as how my own understanding of Judaism has been colored by ignorance and internalized anti-semitism AS WELL AS aspects of truth). I watched "The Believer", a film about a young Jewish man who has such antagonism towards Judaism that he eventually joins a white supremacist group and plots to bomb his local shul (synagogue). At one point in the film, he is shown as a child in a flashback challenging one of his religious teachers on the idea of God's mercy regarding Isaac's life being spared rather than sacrificed. He says that even though Isaac's life was technically spared, it was as if he had already been killed by his father in his mind, based on the fact that his father had been completely willing to do it. Or something to that effect.

About four or five years ago, my obsession with identity, as well as my increasingly undeniable Christianity, led me to re-consider my upbringing as a Jew of Color. I looked at beliefs I had and stories I'd been told with fresh eyes. The Book of Genesis, or "Bereishit", did not escape this gaze.

As I read the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and an anger rising deep inside. I was in the midst of struggling with an identity I'd been raised with that had told me I was part of a special people, one who had always been outcast and one who was always the victim, never the aggressor, of exclusion. That identity kept slamming up against the reality I'd experienced most of my life in the European-Jewish diaspora (I am mixed with one Ashkenazi parent, and one protestant-raised African-American). I was often asked if I was Jewish and regarded as an outsider by other community members who automatically assumed I wasn't "in". I was once wrongly barred from attending a synagogue event (although, to be fair, I was dressed in goth-black velvet and ceremoniously holding a lit candle on Yom Kippur). I remember with pride and gratitude my Czeckoslovakian grandmother's anger when she found out, and her actions to rectify the situation. But I wasn't "special" as a member of the Jewish people. I was barely recognized. That look of recognition, knowing, and camraderie often fell to the beige kids around me. No, I was, to quote the excellent website, "an alien among aliens". I felt, and still do to a large extent, that my identity was as a member of the African diaspora.

So there I was, reading Genesis, and BANG! Whoa. There's Abraham holding a person captive. Not only is this woman being detained and carrying out forced labor, but his wife Sarah wants to USE HER to have a child. In my opinion, the Biblical text seems pretty clear. Sarah wants Abraham to procreate with Hagar, WHILE SARAH HERSELF IS PRESENT, in order to create a child that Sarah, not Hagar will claim. And since it is not possible to have consensual sex with one who is being held hostage, this is an act of rape. Horrible, right? But wait - there's more! Some time after Ishmael (the product of this rape) is born, Sarah DOES get pregnant. After her child is born, Sarah has no more use for Hagar or her first "son", and tells Abraham to get rid of them. And he does. He sends them out into the wilderness, without animals, guides or shelter, to die if they are lucky and be found by new enslavers if they aren't lucky.

Growing up as a child of mixed marriage, I was aware that I was an object and a symbol to others. I was a novelty to my white relatives and community members. I was a symbol to others of what peace, love, and the Hippie generation could accomplish. I was also, more subtly, a symbol of how well Whites could take some half-dark messed up child and turn her into something literate, refined, non-threatening and NORMAL (although normal never worked out too well, but that's another post). My color was tricky to some family members. On the one hand, I was one of them, those terrifying and fascinating Negroes. On the other hand, I was so precious and adorable (it's true, I was). I was a valuable commodity whose source, whether my African-American father, or my mentally ill mother, had to be ignored and devalued. Kind of like rock and roll or Native American spirituality, I guess.

So this business with Abraham, Hagar and Sarah really disturbed me. It contributed to my negative view of Judaism as a sectarian, unenlightened, vengeant and violent religion. Not only was I an alien among aliens in my community, but the "father" of my community was some dude who slaved and raped. And sent his half-breed child out to die in the desert. I was supposed to find meaning and goodness in this person?

This was also the point in my life where I was realizing that every opinion I had ever had was probably shared by others, and that I could probably also find these like-minded people on the Internet. So I googled "Abraham, rapist", "hagar, rape" and came up with some very interesting writings from those who shared my opinion(Wikipedia, the books "Sacred Witness", and Hargar, Pregnant and Abuse Woman and Dr. Beverly Bruce's paper, "The Black Church and Women's Theology; Implications for Refugee Women are a few sources you might find interesting). Most of these sites I found were Christian, and a good portion of these essays were from Black women. I tried the search using Jewish keywords but rarely came up with a Jewish perspective that addressed this for what it was.

During my monthlong seminary in Jerusalem, I was introduced to a perspective taken from midrashim. (What's a midrash? There are many gaps that exist in the Torah, and the Tanach (old testament) as a whole. Many rabbinic commentaries have been written about these gaps and inconsistencies; they've come up with a complex form of "midrash" or storytelling to explain the missing or underdeveloped parts of the Torah.) A midrash on Hagar and Abraham says that Hagar was actually an Egyptian princess who fell in love with Abraham while he was in Egypt. She chose to go with Abraham and Sarah as an enslaved woman. In the midrash, her own father, the pharaoh, said that it would be better for her to be enslaved in his house than a princess of Egypt. Hagar was also really thrilled about the idea of spreading her legs for him while Sarah lay under her to symbolically 'conceive' the child whom she would have to give up.

This midrashic perspective is obviously bullshit, but it does demonstrate that commentators KNEW that enslavement was wrong, as was this whole business with child-stealing and casting Hagar and Ishmael into the desert to die or whatnot. This midrash was developed by those who understood that it was wrong and tried to make it seem justifiable. Midrash, however, isn't Biblical text. It's midrash. It's often been presented to me by well-meaning Jewish educators as Biblical fact, which it isn't. It's not quite fiction or fact. Midrash is in it's own category and doesn't change anything for me. What's more, in attempting to justify the unjustifiable while retaining Abraham and Sarah's dignity, this midrash puts forth a scenario that feeds into the slaver-psyche of believing kidnapping and torturing others to obtain forced labor is morally acceptable. White American slavers usually built up a psychological defense against living with their actions by convincing themselves their victims enjoyed being trapped and tortured.

I have also had several frum Jews point out that, hey, Arabic people believe that Ishmael was their father, and am I saying that these people are wrong and denigrating the great loving relationship between their parents Hagar and Abraham? I have read a small amount of material that discusses the position of reverence Hagar enjoys in Muslim and Arabic society. I also came across a story of a vengeful and vicious Sarah chasing Hagar up a mountainside out of jealousy. But these perspectives may be irrelevant. I am not talking about whether or not Biblical scripture is historical fact, or whether Arabs have the same scriptural perspective as Jews. I'm talking about Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in the good old T.O. of RAH.

I will now share with you some insight into how my perspective on Abraham and Sarah changed somewhat during the past year or so.

A year ago, a purchased a book by Michael Lerner called, "Jewish Renewal". And this book blew my mind. I'd be sitting there with my opinions, thinking, "maybe this book will have something in it that all the others didn't that gives me some reason to carry on the Jewish tradition my ancestors fought so hard to bring me", and having little faith that I could ever find what I was looking for. After all, Orthodox texts certainly hadn't helped me in this regard, and even Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist texts all seemed to focus on the positive aspects of scripture and custom while glossing over anything deplorable. So I would sit there and read this book, and my mind kept blowing open in ways I hadn't expected. Here is my own paraphrasing of the perspective Lerner offered in his book, in the chapter entitled, "Abraham and the Psychodynamics of Childhood".

Ok, picture it. The year is around 4,000 B.C.E. or so, give or take a few hundred. A young boy named Abram is sitting in his father's shop, which happens to be an idol shop. The father is away on business or maybe just outside doing some chores. Abram is a rambunctious child who likes to run around, and on this day he accidentally breaks one of the idols in the shop. What happens? Nothing. There is no divine retribution. Abraham figures that the figurines don't have power over him. He's also a bit of a shit-disturber (and also may have an affinity with the archangel Gabriel/Gabriella, who is present in the throat chakra and is passionate about speaking the truth...I have the same affinity). So Abram decides to show his father this new-found truth, and breaks every idol in the shop except for the largest one, in whose hands he places the stick he used to destroy the others.

When Terah, Abram's father, returns, he asks why his son has destroyed all the merchandise. Abram responds that it wasn't him, it was all the idols who smashed each other out of jealousy. Terah responds that this is impossible, since idols don't move of their own power. And Abram then asks Terah why he manufactures idols if he knows they are useless (let's put aside any discussions about the way fetish objects work in various religious and spiritual rites for the moment and just assume these are clay figures with as much power as a Barbie doll).

Terah takes his son to the king Nimrod (I'm not kidding, that's his name), who demands that Abram change his opinion. When Abram refuses, Nimrod has Abram thrown into a fiery furnace. Abram survives unscathed because of God's intervention. This story is also a midrash.

Now here's where the author Lerner's opinion gets interesting. So young Abram survives PHYSICALLY. That doesn't mean he is intact PSYCHOLOGICALLY. This combination of his prophetic zeal and psychic scarring sets a pattern that follows him, to some degree, all his life. He leaves his father's city. He starts his own religion and changes his name to Abraham. He sits in his tent on a hot day after circumcising himself and runs to offer hospitality to others. And yet, during his life, he repeatedly presents Sarai (who later becomes Sarah) as his sister rather than his wife when faced with ruling authorities want to rape her (again, in my opinion, there can be no consensual sex between two people when one who has power of life and death over the other). Abraham did this to avoid the possibility of being killed, but still. She was his wife. Come on, man. He is known as a great and wise man, but he slaves. He rapes Hagar, he consents to let Sarai take Hagar's child for her own, and once Sarah's son comes along, Abraham disposes of Hagar and his first son.

The thing is, he has embarked on a path outside of the familiar. His journey started way back when he was a kid playing around in his dad's shop. He has pledged his life to going beyond false limitations. And yet, a part of him never got out of the furnace. How many times have we read about great male leaders who have done wonders for the masses, but who neglected or abuse those closest to them?

Abraham goes up mount Moriah with Isaac binds him in preparation for sacrifice to his God. Lerner points out that if we look at the original text, we'll notice the word ha'elohim, which can be translated as one of the names for the Hebrew God, but can also be translated to mean, The Gods, as in, The Gods of his past. And when Abraham is about to kill his second son, the voice a messenger of God tells him not to do it. And if we look at the text again, we notice a different word for God, YHVH, which is a name specific to the God who brought the Israelites out of bondage. Lerner asserts that it is the Gods of Abraham's PAST that tell him to sacrifice Isaac, because the God of Abraham's present would NEVER tell him to do something like that.

And at last, Abraham is able to break a chain. He wandered through his life with a prophetic voice, an urge to cry out the truth. Yet along with that, he was carrying those voices of the past; he was carrying one of many, many chains of abuse. Isn't that what most of the world is trying to break free of today? Break the chain.

And as I read that interpretations, one of the things I like about Judaism came back to me. Judaism is a very hands-on religion. It works in the realm of making small changes towards a greater change. The truth is, Abraham was a great man. He was also a scuzzy pig. He was a man overflowing with hospitality and kindness. He was a husband. He was a businessman. He was a survivor of attempted murder by his own father as a child. He was a rapist. He was a slaver. He was a father. And at some point in his life, he was able to break a chain. This doesn't mean that he broke all the chains, or that he was perfect from that moment on. It also doesn't mean that his other actions should be excused, rationalized or denied. His whole story, both the bitter and the sweet, must be preserved, as an example of change that is possible. Because in the U.S. alone, it is estimated that a sexual assault happens every two minutes. Because there are an estimated 27 million hostages in forced work around the world today, not counting those in wage enslavement. Because we have crazy people running around willing to kill their kids for God like Susan Smith, or who sometimes sell their kids because they're the wrong color or the parents are starving or want drugs or just don't care. Because the human race is pretty fucked up, and like it or not, if you're reading this you are probably a member of the human race.

This chain-breaking is what makes Abraham a WORTHY father of the Jewish People, a group of people who have tried through the ages to make their whole lives a work of art demonstrating God's love and beauty, no matter how many times we've fucked up or gotten it twisted.

Are all of my problems with the Biblical figure Abraham wrapped up in a neat little package with bows on top now? Um, no. But it's a start.

And now, as rainbows dance across the sky and angels sing in a choir while delightful sparrows flit through the trees, I realize that this is actually a pretty appropriate post for this time of year, the Jewish month of Elul, where we make special efforts to "repent" or "return" towards God, the source, Love.

Join me next time, when I share about my relationship with the Biblical figures Sarah and Hagar!

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