Moving Beyond Magnificent Myths

by rabbilimmer

Rosh HaShanah 5776: Chicago Sinai Congregation

What is the most difficult question you’ve ever been asked by a child?  Why is the sky blue?  Where do babies come from? Where do we go when we die?  Take a minute and think: how did you respond?  Did you give the full answer, scientifically explaining why the sky seems cerulean? Perhaps you dodged the question, speaking of storks or cabbage patches, convincing yourself a little fib nobly told a toddler was more appropriate than an awkward truth?  Perhaps you heard yourself offer an answer you didn’t believe—speaking of harps and angels and loved ones reunited—when you’re not really sure that’s the case? Did you feel like you gave a good answer, or were you just relieved you ducked a difficult question?

Many of us lie to our children—or are at least not fully honest—because we believe it is the right thing to do. Sometimes we are ambiguous when they ask about age-inappropriate issues; we talk of “The Birds & The Bees,” because we want to spare children details of sexual reproduction that have little to do with matters avian or apian.  At other times, we fudge facts because we fear how they will be interpreted.  I remember how a former congregant shared that when his kids asked if he used cocaine, he lied and said he hadn’t; he was afraid his honesty might open dangerous doors of emulating his behavior.  Sometimes, rather than giving an answer that puts the ‘pain’ in ‘painfully honest’, we talk around the truth.  We don’t believe the best way to answer a simple question is with a straightforward answer.  Part of being a parent, a teacher, a Rabbi—anyone in the position of discussing difficult issues with young people—is striking that balance being helpful and being honest.

Abraham had to strike a balance between being helpful and being honest.  Abraham wanted to help put in place God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  If Abraham chose to be honest—telling Isaac he was walking towards his own death—he could have undermined his own effort, compromised the solitary goal of his arduous journey.  Caught between the virtue of telling Isaac the truth and vice of sabotaging his greater goal, Abraham did what many of us would do: he kept quiet.  Not knowing what to say to his son, Abraham said nothing about his intentions atop the Mountain.  That lack of communication lasted three days, until Isaac finally broke the silence with a straightforward question, “Here are the fire and the wood; where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”  Abraham needed to speak, to say something.  Abraham answered: אלהים יראה לו השה לעולה בני, God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering my son.[1]

God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering my son.  Is this the truth?  Or is Abraham’s answer a convenient dodge of a serious question?  On a simple read, it appears Abraham is not telling the truth: God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac atop the mountain, and here he is pretending he intends otherwise.[2]  Our tradition, however, hesitates to see our noble ancestor as a liar.  Rashi, the famed Torah teacher, explains we should see Abraham’s answer as painting two scenarios, as an either/or statement: God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering; but if not, my son, he will be the sacrifice.[3]  Rashi’s answer is as unsatisfactory as Abraham’s: we don’t know what Abraham wanted to impart to his son, what lesson our story tries to teach.  In one interpretation, Abraham lies to Isaac so his Divine errand is not compromised.  The kindest case is that Abraham vacillates between the fact God commanded Isaac to die and his hope God wouldn’t make him commit the deed.  Any way we understand Abraham’s answer, we are unable to discover the truth, a simple meaning, a solitary moral for us to learn.

Isaac, however, took away a painful lesson from Abraham’s answer: he decided his father was untrustworthy.  Following his father’s fateful response, the son decided listening to his father was no longer worth his time.  As we read Genesis, we see the very last words Abraham ever says to Isaac are: God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering my son.  Following the episode atop the mountain, Abraham returns home; Isaac does not go with him.[4]  Actually, Isaac never sees his father again.  The only time Isaac returns home is for Abraham’s funeral: Isaac, with brother Ishmael, buries Abraham.[5]  If we do not know what Abraham tried to tell his son on their trip up the mountain, it is clear the near-sacrifice of Isaac costs Abraham any future relationship with Isaac.  I imagine Isaac severed communication, cut off his father, because he felt betrayed.  Whether or not Abraham intended his words to be clear or foggy, Isaac came to realize—after the ordeal of being bound and set on sticks with burning fire—that his father was not fully honest with him. The price Abraham paid either for deception or intentional imprecision was never talking with his son again. Even if he thought he was doing the right thing, even if Abraham hoped God in fact would provide a lamb for the burnt offering, Abraham’s dishonesty—or at least lack of complete candor—cost him a relationship with a child he had hoped for over a hundred years.  Abraham’s failure to give an honest answer to a straightforward question cost him any continuing relationship with his son.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is ancient.  But I fear similar tales about our failures to be fully honest with our children are remarkably modern.  Earlier this year, an old, dear friend—let’s call him Ted—invited me for a meal when work brought him to Chicago.  After catching up on personal lives, the subject matter moved, as it often does when Ted and I talk, to Israel. I was surprised by a story Ted told me about an interaction with his niece.  It started when, on Facebook, Ted’s niece “liked” a post about a Princeton program about BDS: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions from Israel. My friend Ted responded viscerally: “You ‘like’ a BDS vote? I don’t get it!”  Ted couldn’t stop there, adding, “You need to do some thinking on this.  This is nothing but the Trojan horse for bigots and Jew haters to deploy against the only democracy in the Middle East.”[6]  Now, that was just the start: from that post onward, the virtual conversation intensified. The Facebook debate ranged from why there was no organized boycott of Saudi Arabi to whether Israel could be called democracy if it occupies the West Bank.  My friend got into a consistent and angry side debate with one of his niece’s college friends: a Jewish friend.  I’ve seen the transcript; it was pretty heated. And so my friend’s niece sent him a private message.  “Uncle Ted,” it read, “I am removing your comments from my Facebook post.  I love you, but please do me the favor of not commenting on things like this in the future.”

Needless to say, my friend was not the least bit happy.  There are certain parts of the thread I’m sure hurt more than others.  I know the whole exchange made Ted feel remarkably out of touch with the lives of his niece and her peers.  Here was a Jew of a younger generation challenging Ted’s perspective, saying, “Most friends and family would agree with you.  But I ask you, Ted, to consider how the world sees Israel.”  On top of this, the young debating partner skeptically questioned if Ted was being completely honest; he challenged that Ted was repeating PR talking-points more borne of right-wing spin than based on real-world actualities.[7]  The gap, the divide between how Jewish Americans of different generations see Israel was made clear—painfully precise—to my friend.  And, worst of all, the young Jews involved denied further dialogue, cut Ted out of the conversation.  With all his passion and opinion, my friend was banished from the discussion.

At this point in the telling, Ted then looked me squarely in the eye, waited for my gaze to meet his so he could be completely clear.  “Seth,” he started, “You are in a unique position. I’m afraid we are losing my niece, her friends, her peers, when it comes to Israel.  I’m afraid that this young generation won’t carry a deep love for the State of Israel.  I’ve learned they won’t listen to me because they don’t believe I’ve been sharing the whole story or telling the entire truth.  But you, you’re a rabbi, you have the opportunity”— he spoke with deeper resolve—“and an obligation.  You can speak to the next generation of Jewish people honestly.  You can point out the complexities of Israel. If you tell the entire truth, they will listen to you; they won’t think your words are spin. And maybe, if you can do this successfully, maybe we won’t lose our own children.”[8]

Todd’s request is specific to our Jewish experience.  But his hope is remarkably human.  For millennia, every parent in the human family confronts communicating with children, imparting important ideals, determining how much truth to tell them, when are the right moments to reveal the sometimes painful fullness of unvarnished truth.  Throughout history, parents—alone, in pairs, united under the banner of “society”—have chosen to hold back the truth in the name of some greater good.  Abraham, I imagine, did so in not telling the whole truth to Isaac.  The Greek philosopher Plato had a name for this phenomenon: in Greek it is gennaion pseudos, translated into in English as, “A Noble Lie”.[9]  A Noble Lie, in Plato’s philosophy, is the type of prevarication intentionally told in the interests of the greater good.  Plato has in mind legends and myths: the kind of society-cementing stories “poets tell and cause others to believe”.[10]  In light of our Torah reading today, we who think Abraham might have withheld the full truth from his son so as not to compromise a mountaintop sacrifice can see Abraham as telling a Noble Lie.

Plato didn’t posit it appropriate for parents to tell their children Noble Lies; he takes a wider view, saying society is often happier believing a Noble Lie than knowing the truth.  If we don’t like Abraham lying to one child, it is hard to embrace the nobility of Plato’s Lie to an entire nation; we who cherish sincerity and honesty wouldn’t want to be a part of any culture that has falsehood at its foundation. [11]  But there might be a better way to appreciate what Plato is attempting to expound.  Classics scholar Desmond Lee claims “Noble Lie” is a mistranslation; he posits the phrase should properly be understood as “Magnificent Myth”.[12]  Plato has been unfairly criticized, Lee argues, for wanting to base society upon a calculated lie; if Plato defends Magnificent Myths, he calls for no pedestrian prevarication. A Noble Lie—any Magnificent Myth—is in keeping with all national traditions, any communal expression of shared values through an embellished narrative.  We all know the legend about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree; his confessing, “I cannot tell a lie,” is itself a lie Americans tell themselves to idealize the icon of our independence.  But we are smart enough to understand that the episode of our Founding Father with a Cherry Tree is a national myth, no bald-faced fabrication.  Taking Plato as teaching not Noble Lies, but arguing for Magnificent Myths, we see the stories we share with our children—the foundation tales we tell an entire society—are not meant to be taken as literally true, but rather as a figurative expression of our most deeply held beliefs and ideals.

I realized in my talks with Ted that we Jews have many figurative expressions of our most deeply held beliefs.  If we are to be honest with ourselves, on this High Day of Holiness, we must admit that for over sixty years we have mostly spoken about the State of Israel in categories and fashions that resemble the Magnificent Myth.  We describe the miracle of Israel’s birth, out of the ashes of the Holocaust, after 2,000 years of exile.  We speak of the Sabra spirit, of the grit and glory of Israel’s pioneers.  We laud films like Exodus or Raid on Entebbe that valorize the noble heroism of young Israel.  But even these Magnificent Myths—our cherished connections to Israel—do not always tell the whole story.  Here, I share my own experience.  I was taught that in ’48 Arabs fled from Israel at the behest of enemy nations who wanted a clear path to drive Jews into the Sea.  Even though I know that to be true, until recently I never learned how the Israeli Army also violently expelled Arab populations from villages like Khirbet Khizheh.[13]  In the days of my youth, the Six Day War of ’67 was lionized as Israel’s greatest military achievement.  It wasn’t until my third decade that I realized that Jewish luminaries—from David Ben-Gurion to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik—considered the occupation resulting from that war to be Israel’s greatest failure.[14]  It is not that Magnificent Myths are untrue; they simply do not tell the whole story.

Young people today seem to know the whole story.  It’s not only that those who come to college campuses or graduate from them perceive our deepest convictions as Magnificent Myths.  This generation owns its own truth that contradicts what we assume as certainty.  Let’s just take my Noble Truths as examples.  I believe Israel is a vibrant democracy—the only democracy—in the Middle East; many young people today can’t consider a country that occupies another people a democratic State. I believe Israel is surrounded by enemies, some of whom seek and will be satisfied only by Israel’s destruction; many millenials instead see Israel as the only Middle East regime with nuclear weapons. I believe Israel has a remarkable role to play in the spiritual life of the Jewish people; too many students experience Israel as a religious autocracy that oppresses minority communities, including Reform Jews like themselves. If I am to be honest, there are plenty who hear even my lefty, liberal take on Israel as just a Magnificent Myth, maybe even a lie.  As we learn from our story of Abraham and Isaac, we risk alienating our children when we are not fully honest with them.  If we do not learn how to be honest—to move past myth and be painfully precise—we risk alienating our children from Israel, and potentially from living a meaningful Jewish life as well.

It is painfully ironic, now that we have a Jewish State after millennia of exile, so many of our young people are alienated from Israel.  That alienation—that spiritual exile from Israel—runs much deeper than a powerful story shared by a friend.  Every article in the newspaper, every poll published testifies we are failing to connect our kids to the State of Israel.[15]  How, then, do we proceed? How do we who love Israel fiercely and hope for its thriving future engender similar commitment in the coming generation?  First and foremost, we need to move beyond Magnificent Myths to a time of talking total truth.  Two thousand years ago, our Sage Avtalyon taught the importance of being painfully precise: אבטליון אומר חכמים הזהרו בדבריכם, Wise ones should be wary of their words, lest their words lead to exile.[16]  When we speak about Israel, we need to be careful: we could be cut off from our kids, we can alienate them from Israel.  Avtalyon says affirmatively what we learn from Abraham in the negative: if we do not tell the complete truth to our children, they will stop listening to us, we risk losing them.  We need to be wise about our goal: inculcating an honest commitment to Israel in the rising generation.  Their commitment needs to matter more than our truth.  And so we must change the conversation.

If we want to change the conversation with our children about Israel, we cannot tell them why they are wrong.  We need to listen to them.  We need to learn from them.  We need to give them straight and honest answers, so we can continue to a deeper conversation about values.  We can move past arguments of interpreting history to a focused discussion of how to ensure Israel can become a thriving, democratic—and potentially redemptive—State, despite the realities that today prevent Israel from attaining our highest aspirations.  What might this look like? For starters, we can admit Israel is imperfect; we have to learn criticism of Israel does not betray Israel’s fundamental right to exist.  Next, we have to realize that the historical narrative we were taught about Israel’s founding differs from what young people learn today.  For example, rather than fight over the details or results of the Six Day War, we should engage this rising generation in the value of moving beyond wars to peace.  Lastly, we should shift despair with the current situation to dreams of a better future.  In place of debating Israel’s relative religious freedoms, we can talk with our children about Israel’s potential to model the tolerance and understanding we cherish.  Instead of arguing over words like ‘territories’ and ‘occupation’, we can discuss how Israel in the past returned land for peace, and hope for a future filled with peaceful solutions that improve life for Israelis and Palestinians.  We should talk about the reasons we have faith in Israel, and the ways we hope Israel can be even better than it is today.  Our children—not too far removed from their own adolescent years and the shortcomings they overcame—will be able to understand the faith we place in the as-yet-unfulfilled promise of Israel just as they appreciate the faith we have always placed in them.

It’s a funny thing about placing faith in our children.  When we do, it usually works.  And when, like Abraham, we fail to trust our children with the truth, they often—like Isaac—learn to trust us no more.  Which brings me back to my friend, Ted.  I called him a few weeks ago to make sure the words I was sharing in this sermon were accurate.  He corrected my text where I was wrong, and added, “Don’t you want to know how the story ended?  I followed your advice and got to a great place with my niece.”  I had to admit to Ted I had forgotten my own counsel.  He reminded me, “You said not to argue about facts and perceptions, but to talk about strategy and purpose.”  Evidently, that worked: a few months after the Facebook affair, Ted and his niece were together at a family gathering.  By then, Ted had lived up to his pledge, had kept his comments to himself about his niece’s Israel opinions.  He didn’t fight with her over what she perceived to be the facts.  Perhaps that’s why she was receptive when he approached her, saying, “First of all, I love you.  Granted, I don’t agree with your take on all this, but that’s o.k.  Still, I do want to talk about your hope for an outcome, and how you’re planning to get there.  Who knows? If we think together, we might find a better way to reach your goal.”

And so different generations talked about a shared goal: creating, ensuring, and fighting for an Israel of meaning.  Once he stopped arguing about historical narrative and competing truths, Ted was able to engage his niece on what really matters: not the past, but the future.  And Ted’s niece—like so many, the vast majority of our young people—desperately wants something positive from of the State of Israel.  Yes, she and her peers want honest answers from us about how history has reached this remarkable place of suffering for two peoples.  But it is the vast minority of the Jewish people who respond to the tragedy of the current day by arguing Israel should be no more; most in this rising Jewish generation desperately want an attachment to, relationship with and love for the State of Israel.  Fostering an honest commitment to Israel in our younger generation is within our reach, because it is a goal shared on both sides of this painful generation gap.  Fostering these real relationships with Israel is especially within our reach here at Chicago Sinai Congregation.  Just hear the reminder—the New Year’s wish—from one of Sinai’s students: “I wish Sinai would do more in the effort on college campus because Sinai has [an important] perspective to offer.”[17]  What is the perspective we share at Sinai?  Our age-old commitment to honest, open, civil dialogue; our continuing dismissal of facile ideologies and majestic mythologies; our constant willingness to confront hard realities, to answer difficult questions, to speak straight and tell the truth.

So let us tell the truth.  Every Magnificent Myth has a shelf life; plainly-stated truths are the best path to true understanding.  Our Reform Judaism was founded three centuries ago out of a commitment to move past mythology, a commitment to be honest, even brutally so, when it comes to religion. If we think of how divisive our conversations about Israel are today, imagine what happened when Reform Rabbis in the 1700’s started publically eating pork! Years later, our commitment to seat women next to men in the congregation—and ultimately to allow them equal status as clergy—continues to rankle many in the Jewish world who keep women behind screens, in balconies.  Reform Judaism moved beyond the myth that women were second-class citizens; Reform Judaism moved beyond the myth that our LGBTQ family and friends were violating religious law by being true to their born identity; Reform Judaism moved beyond the myth that the only way to produce and engage Jewish children was to marry someone who had been born or converted to be Jewish.  Today, at long last, the day has come when we must move beyond more Magnificent Myths: the ones we tell about Israel. Our straightforward speech will not minimize our love, but instead engender deeper affection for Israel because we are willing to be honest about our hopes and concerns for our Jewish home.

Communication is hard. Even when we speak plainly we are often misunderstood. Especially when, as Abraham must have been ascending that mountain, we are filled with anxiety, our linguistic equivocations misdirect more than provide meaning.  On this Rosh Hashanah, may we make sure that when we bring our loved ones with up that mountain, we not only walk down with them hand in hand, but continue to walk through life together, hand in hand, continuing to talk, continuing to listen, continuing towards the same goals even if on slightly different paths.  On this Rosh Hashanah, may our noble love for the State of Israel allow us to be open and honest about the reasons for our love, as well as the concerns we have for our loved ones. On this Rosh Hashanah, with all its majestic mythical imagery, may we penetrate through the mere semblance of reality and arrive at true meaning we can express, we can share, we can pass on securely to future generations.

May we find the courage to talk honestly.

May we find the strength to listen openly.

May we walk into a wonderful future hand in hand.

May it be our will.

[1] This, the story of the Binding of Isaac, is from Genesis chapter 22.  All translations are my own.

[2] The medieval commentator Bekhor Shor noted Abraham’s answer has two meanings. On one hand, Abraham could be expressing to Isaac an inner hope that—even though they walk towards a sacrifice with nary a sheep—God, Providentially, will provide an animal atop the mountain.  Alternatively, Abraham says what we see: God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, namely you, my son; Issac, you are destined to die.  Abraham’s ambiguity is a literal matter of life and death to Isaac: if Abraham thinks God will provide another animal, Isaac lives; if Abraham tells Isaac he is the sacrifice, Isaac walks up Moriah knowing he will die.  As we will see in the analysis of Rashi’s commentary, Bekhor Shor’s interpretation still leaves us with important questions: What are we to make of this?  But which interpretation should we follow?  How should we understand God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering my son?

See the commentary to Genesis 22 of the 12th century Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor of Orleans.

[3] The commentary to Genesis 22 of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki [1040-1105] of Troyes.

[4] Genesis 22:19.

[5] Genesis 25:9.

[6] I thank my good friend Ted Soloway for many things, including sharing this story, and the actual transcript of the Facebook exchange, from which this citation is literally taken [with only his niece’s name expurgated].

[7] “Do you wonder how Western youth perceive Gaza/the West Bank? Or do you repeat Hasbara talking points?”  Hasbara is the emerging word for PR, specifically used for trying to put a positive spin on the lack of any progress in attaining peace with Israel’s neighbors.  In 2006, I sat in a meeting with Israeli government representatives claiming that all was good with Gaza and the West Bank, but that Israel was losing the hasbara war.  Thus, this government official claimed, Israel was investing in PR firms and the like to help the world see the situation in a better light.

[8] This is not a transcript of a conversation, but a Ted-approved version of the evening.

[9] γενναῖον ψεῦδος.  See Plato, The Republic, III: 414c.

[10] Plato, Republic, III: 414b-c.  In The Republic Plato argues that those most fit to govern should serve as “guardians” of a state; he wonders how the entire populace can be convinced that these men should govern, “Could we somehow contrive one of those lies that comes into being in case of need… some Noble Lie?”

[11] Karl Popper, who is sympathetic in many ways to the Noble Lie, faults Plato in particular for making a fabrication, an invention, the ultimate basis of society.  Karl Popper, Open Society and its Enemies, “6: On Religion as a Noble Lie.”

[12] See Plato, The Republic, Penguin Classics edition, tr. Desmond Lee, p. 177:

Plato has been criticized for his Foundation Myth as if it were a calculated lie. That is partly because the phrase here translated “magnificent myth” (p.414b) has been conventionally mistranslated “noble lie”; and this has been used to support the charge that Plato countenances manipulation by propaganda. But the myth is accepted by all three classes, Guardians included. It is meant to replace the national traditions which any community has, which are intended to express the kind of community it is, or wishes to be, its ideals, rather than to state matters of fact.

[13] Khirbet Khizeh, by S. Yizhar.  Yizhar Smilansky was an intelligence official in the Israeli Army in 1948, and wrote his account of forcible expulsion of an Arab village that same year.  Due to security reasons, he changed the name of the town; “Khirbet Khizeh”, like S. Yizhar, is a pseudonym.  This amazing book was published in Israel in 1948 and remains an official part of the state educational curriculum.  However, it wasn’t translated into English until 2008.  My thanks to Marjorie Susman for sharing that translation with me.

[14] Amazingly, these two luminaries came out against the occupation—although they would not have used that word—in 1967 itself.  For the position of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, see the thoughtful article by Ami Gluska, “What Turned Ben Gurion from a Hawk into a Dove,” HaAretz, June 3, 2011: http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/what-turned-ben-gurion-from-a-hawk-into-a-dove-1.365716 .

I learned of the opposition of Rav Soloveitchik from one of his most remarkable students: my friend, Rabbi Yehiel Poupko.    He can date the Rav’s opposition to a firm date: June 16, 1967.

Current Israelis are also of this opinion, most notable author and activist Amos Oz.  To see the thinking of Amos Oz on this issue, I recommend an article in the English-language edition of Haaretz from March 13, 2015, entitle, “Amos Oz has a Recipe for Saving Israel” [http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.646562].  There you can read this excerpt about how Amos Oz has moved past many Magnificent Myths about Israel:

I will now say something controversial: Since at least the 1967 Six-Day War, we have not won a war. Including the Yom Kippur War in 1973. A war is not a basketball game, in which the side that scores more points wins the trophy and gets a handshake. In a war, even if we burned more tanks than the enemy did, and downed more planes, and conquered enemy territory – that does not mean we won. The victor in a war is the side that achieves its goals, and the loser is the side that does not achieve its goals.

In the Yom Kippur War, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s goal was to break the status quo that was created in 1967, and he succeeded. We were defeated, because we did not achieve our goal, and the reason we did not achieve it was that we did not have a goal, nor could we have had a goal that was attainable by military force.

[15] See the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” from October 2013 as an indicator of the waning commitment to Israel in younger groups of Jewish Americans:

[16] Pirkei Avot 1:11.  The full text reads:

אבטליון אומר חכמים. הזהרו בדבריכם. שמא תחובו חובת גלות ותגלו למקום מים הרעים. וישתו התלמידים הבאים אחריכם וימותו. ונמצא שם שמים מתחלל:

Literally, this reads:

Avtalyon says: Wise Ones, be careful with your words, lest they force you to cast yourself into exile, to a place of evil waters.  [And lest] your students who follow you drink [these evil waters] and die, and thus the Divine Name is profaned.

In a setting of this for song, composer Robert Applebaum and I came up with the following poetic rendering:

Avtalyon says:

Wise ones should ever

Be wary of their words,

Lest they place themselves

Into exile from the world

Lest their actions bring

The Name to be profaned.

[17] This is a somewhat abridged quote taken from footage filmed for Chicago Sinai Congregation’s 5776 Video New Year’s Card.  While, as in TV cop shows, all names are changed to protect the innocent, you can see this video on www.chicagosinai.org.

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