Rosh Hashanah Success, Some Narrative Criticism, and Bits and Bobs

Rosh Hashanah Success

Photo of a shofar--ram's horn used as a trumpet--Rosh Hashanah liturgy, and a box with pencils and slips of paper.

The Script, the Shofar, and the Tiny Tashlikh Kit

This past Tuesday evening, I led a first-ever Humanistic Rosh Hashanah service in Indianapolis. Taking my family out of the mix, we had 21 people come (26 when you include my household and my sister’s household). We had a short service, lots of challah, apples and honey, and Mrs. Humanistic Jew’s apple raisin honey cake. (We’ve got more planned–Sukkot is coming up, and we’ll be doing a “Sukkah-less Sukkot” on October 4 at Holliday Park in Indianapolis; more details will follow, so stay tuned.)

Some Narrative Criticism

The Forward has a column, “Sarah and Hagar’s ‘Bad Blood’ is Feminism Gone Awry.” The writer notes that it’s a little odd that we have the story of Sarah’s demand that Abraham expel Hagar from the camp as one of the Torah portions for Rosh Hashanah, and, identifying with Hagar in some ways, connects the story to some of the experiences and processing she has undergone in adjusting to the world of Jewish feminists.

I’m hesitant to connect personally to biblical characters in quite this way. I don’t think the appearance of the Sarah and Hagar unit in the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings is terribly difficult to explain from a different feminist lens: the rabbis weren’t thinking about women when they fixed the Torah portions. The rabbis were probably thinking of the thing as a kind of unit: they’re focused on covenant, fulfillment of promises, atonement, and the high stakes associated with Isaac. I suspect they were not especially concerned about Sarah and Hagar per se.

It’s convenient for me that they probably thought this way, because it occurs to me that this unit is, in some ways, actually quite appropriate for Rosh Hashanah, because the character of Abraham is portrayed in a less positive light in these narratives than in some of the prior narratives.

Abraham is, for a good chunk of the narrative in Genesis, kind of a positive character. We don’t view the narrative involving Abraham’s efforts in Egypt to conceal his true relationship with Sarah to be particularly praiseworthy, but it’s worth noting that the biblical narratives often portray positively cleverness like that displayed by Abraham (and later, Jacob, Joseph, Ehud, etc.). Abraham is portrayed as trying to talk down Yahweh, who is ready to (and eventually does) wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah. All in all, not, from the viewpoint even of the biblical narrators, unadmirable behavior.

Then we get Isaac’s birth, the conflict between Sarah and Hagar, the negotiation over Beersheba, and the Akedah. It is now that Abraham starts to be, if you’ll pardon the expression, “guided by voices.” “Don’t worry,” we can imagine Abraham hearing, “about Hagar and Ishmael; Ishmael will be a nation, so I’ve got this. Go ahead–kick them out so I can traumatize Hagar for a while. And, while we’re chatting, about Isaac…”

In other words, reading this narrative through modern eyes, Abraham takes a little turn here. (Even if we made an effort to read the narrative through ancient eyes, Abraham takes a turn, but it’s in service of the broader narrative of Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham.)

This is a remarkably suitable narrative for a rabbinic view of the High Holidays. Why? Thinking about the traditional view of what happens during the Days of Awe, Jews are expected to make amends with their fellow persons, repent, and seek forgiveness from a god who may or may not grant that forgiveness. The length of a person’s life is uncertain, but it’s clear that repentance, good deeds, etc., serve to buttress one’s chances of being inscribed and sealed into the Book of Life and surviving the following year. Atonement as life preserver is baked into the theology of the High Holidays.

And here we are, with Abraham being portrayed as walking out on a limb, with the hope that Yahweh will catch him (metaphorically speaking): Abraham is told to abandon one son to what would seem like certain death, and is told to kill another son outright. Because, you see, “God’s got this one.”

Just like, in the whole scheme of things, the rabbinic theology of the High Holidays is that you shouldn’t worry; if you’ve atoned, “God’s got this one.”

I feel like I’ve got to use distancing language here. I’m not stating what I believe is a correct theology; I’m a humanistic Jew, and I don’t think the universe works as just described.

But I think there’s a reason for the High Holidays to open with the narratives set during a portion of Isaac’s childhood, and that reason may be clarified through a narrative reading of Genesis 21 and 22. (I haven’t addressed the negotiation with Abimelekh over Beersheba. I frankly don’t think I have to–not in a fit of pique, but because we’re dealing with mythic narratives here, and we find frequent little meandering excurses in the biblical narratives to explain how a piece of land got to belong to someone. I don’t think this one terribly different.)

What we get out of those narratives might be different. I’ve criticized elsewhere the notion of Abraham as exemplary character during the Akedah, and I don’t think that critique is in any way diminished by recognizing that the narrative in dealing with Sarah shows him willing to send someone to near-certain death on a promise of “I got this.” (No Lonely Man of Faith taking leaps in Fear and Trembling am I, apparently. I am clearly, however, a gigantic geek.) And to be honest, I sort of like that Genesis 21-22 are the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah, because there’s little I love more than a nice subversive reading of the tradition–and Abraham’s character here sets that up nicely.

Bits and Bobs

Finally, bits and bobs. I’ll be quite quiet here; I know I say that and it doesn’t happen, but for about a week that will be the case. For the next several days, I’ll be in Tucson as a guest of the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle there, helping with High Holiday services and giving a talk. So I just won’t be blogging.

If you celebrated Rosh Hashanah, shana tova to you. If you’ll be fasting, I hope you have an easy fast.