Divre Harav – April/2019

Rabbi Eleazer says, “Be diligent in the learning of Torah. Know how to reply to a heretic. And know before Whom you toil and Who your Employer is.”  Pirke Avot 2:19

On a basic level, Rabbi Eleazer suggests that a Jew should know what we believe and why we believe it, and be able to explain and justify it to one who challenges us. Ultimately, though, he also suggests that the reason for studying Torah deeply is to understand and define our relationship with God (our “employer”).

But what if Rabbi Eleazer had been contemplating engaging with another person of deep and sincere faith, rather than a heretic? It would still be the case that in order to have a meaningful religious conversation, a Jew should be steeped in Torah.  The dialogue, in that case, would not be for the purpose of refuting the other, but rather with the desire to learn about the other’s worldview and even to learn from the other. A full understanding of God is only possible through learning about the covenants that God makes with the world through Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Buddhism, Baha’i, and other traditions.

This positive attitude towards interfaith dialogue and understanding was all but impossible in the ancient or medieval world. At the best of times, other religions were tolerated. Under typical circumstances, religion was intertwined with ethnicity, and protecting one’s tribe meant conflict, subservience, domination, or uneasy temporary alliances with neighboring tribes. The religious faith of one people mandated subjugating the religion of conquered people. A conquered and enslaved people have long memories, so thousands of years after Jewish enslavement by Egyptians, we still tell the story and use the negative memory to promote our set of competing values. A history in which Christianity claimed to be the sole true inheritor of Biblical Israelite religion institutionalized antisemitism. Remnants of this suspicion of Christians can be found in the Hagaddah, especially near the end with the traditional reading upon opening the door to Elijah, Shefokh hamat’ka al hagoyim:

Pour out Your wrath upon those who do not know You and upon the governments which do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his dwelling place (Psalms 79:6-7). Pour out Your fury upon them; let the fierceness of Your anger overtake them (Psalms 69:25). Pursue them in indignation and destroy them from under Your heavens (Lamentations 3:66).

However, a Haggadah entitled “A Different Night” by Noam Zion and David Dishon includes an additional passage said to have first appeared in a medieval (1521) Ashkenazi Haggadah from Worms. although it may have more modern origins. 

Pour out Your love on the nations who have known you and on the kingdoms that call upon your name. For they show loving-kindness to the seed of Jacob and they defend your people Israel from those who would devour them alive. May the live to see the sukkah of peace spread over your chosen ones and to participate in the joy of your nations.

In a world in which antisemitism is increasing, I continue to recite the traditional version. But in a world in which there is more dialogue, understanding, and cooperation between faith traditions than at any time in history, I also recite the second text. May your Passover Seder be filled with love, Torah, and the spirit of God.

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Apikoros – heretic, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, representing the world view that God neither intervenes in human affairs nor holds us accountable after we die.
  • Heima – anger.

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