Rosh Hashanah Day 2 2018 - Misplaced Trust

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - 2018-5779
Ayei ha-seh le-olah - Where is the Sheep for the Sacrifice?: Misplaced Trust

It is inspiring to me that a story that has been read for 3,000 years can still impart new and meaningful lessons. The story of the binding of Isaac is central to the High Holiday service and I have spoken about different elements of it over the years. Yet, as with most sections of the Torah, what is happening in the world around us or a book we have just read or a movie we have just seen can lead us to understand new and deeper meanings in the text that we never noticed before.
A few weeks ago I read Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. This excellent and emotionally heart rending and painful book describes Westover’s upbringing. She was one of seven children raised in rural Idaho by parents - especially her father - who were extremely devout and fundamentalist Mormons. She never went to public school and she never saw a doctor because both were viewed as tools of the government that could potentially lead them to sin. Somehow, as Westover describes, she wondered about the outside world. Through the influence of her grandmothers and one of her brothers she slowly became convinced that she needed to learn about the world that her father had rejected. Without giving anything away about the book, Westover slowly and eloquently described her path toward educational enlightenment - achieving a PhD in history from Cambridge University - which at the same time drastically affected her relationship with her parents.
Though the extreme Mormon fundamentalist religion that Westover experienced in her isolated life is a major theme of her book, another equally tragic element is her broken trust in her parents. As any child, Westover trusted her parents and her older siblings to take care of her; to protect her; to nourish her; and to teach her everything she would need to know. As she painfully and eloquently describes that trust slowly and tragically erodes.
Unfortunately Westover’s memoir wasn’t the only artistic presentation of the horrible consequences of misplaced trust that came out this summer. The excellent and troubling documentary Three Identical Strangers tells a similar tale. This remarkably true story describes the events surrounding how triplets Bobby, Eddie and David, who were adopted by three different families, found each other when they were 19 years old. Though that story alone would be worth watching, the real story of this movie is about the study conducted by child psychiatrist Peter Neubauer and funded in part by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City. Neubauer wanted to find out whether our personality and health are shaped by the environment in which we are raised or by our DNA. That nurture vs. nature debate has raged for centuries without a clear unambiguous answer. Back in 1960 Neubauer, a Jewish immigrant from Nazi Europe, proposed studying twins. With the cooperation of the preeminent Jewish adoption agency at the time, the Louise Wise Services (formerly known as the Free Synagogue Child Adoption Committee) he was able to have unfettered access to study twins and at least one set of triplets.
Neubauer’s proposal to study these identical twins and triplets was not so outrageous at the time. Plenty of researchers study identical twins. But Neubauer’s methods were highly questionable. With the adoption agency’s approval he was able to ensure that identical twins would be adopted by separate families and that these families would never know that the baby was an identical twin, and if the twin were to ask about his or her background the twin would never be told. The babies were also placed in homes not based on an appropriate match but based on whether the home was lower, middle or upper class. Such was the case with the triplets. The families never were told that they had adopted one of three siblings, even though they all lived within 100 miles of each other!
The families also agreed to be studied for several years. They thought that it was normal procedure for the agency to carry out routine psychological tests. Researchers came to their homes to film, ask questions and play games with the kids. Yet all along these films and test results were being used for Neubauer’s study without the families’ knowledge.
The tragedy of this case is that Bobby, Eddie and David themselves were used as guinea pigs. They were deprived the knowledge that they each were one of three. They were kept in the dark by a Jewish adoption agency and by a Jewish doctor who escaped Nazi Europe. As these details unfolded during the movie I couldn’t help but hold my head in my hands in shame and revulsion thinking that this was a “shanda” - a perverse miscarriage of justice. Neubauer’s study was never published and the volumes of records and tapes are sealed for another 50 years in archives at Yale University. The triplets will never know the true story behind their adoption and any other medical information that they might need.
These two remarkably true stories alone - Westover’s and the triplets’ - could be a basis for discussing important religious values. These stories respond to the question, what happens when the people you trust most let you down? How do the victims respond and what impact does that misplaced trust have on the rest of their lives? And finally what does it teach us about our responsibilities as parents and as advocates for justice in our society?
But unfortunately those questions are only compounded by the devastating investigation by the attorney general of Pennsylvania of the Catholic Church. The grand jury report that was released last month cited 300 priests over seven decades who committed abusive acts and catalogued over 1,000 children who were the victims. The details are repulsive and what was made clear in the report is that there are undoubtedly thousands of more victims in Pennsylvania alone who did not come forward.  
The crisis facing the Catholic Church is a global one. People around the world send their children to church to be educated. Parents trust the priests and nuns to provide a foundation of a religious, ethical and moral life. They rightly assume that the Church will be a safe haven from whatever health, economic or other adversity that parents face so that their children will grow up with love and support. Imagine then the horror and anger that the parents and the child victims themselves feel when that veneer of love and trust comes crashing down.
Let’s look at those questions again: what happens when the people you trust most let you down? How do the victims respond and what impact does that misplaced trust have on the rest of their lives? And finally what does it teach us about our responsibilities as parents and as advocates for justice in our society?
As I said yesterday, I can’t help but look to our tradition for help and guidance. As I was reading Westover’s book and as I watched the movie, my mind instinctively was thinking of the High Holidays and specifically this morning’s Torah reading. The story of the binding of Isaac is central to the high holiday liturgy. Not only is the story read from the Torah but references are made to it later in the service this morning as well. For the rabbis the story is one of faith and trust in God. But when read more closely and with modern eyes the story reveals much more nuanced and disturbing lessons.
We as moderns have every right, and I believe we are expected, to read the Torah and the prayers in the machzor with scholarly and critical eyes. We can’t help but apply the scientific, academic method of study to the sacred texts of our tradition. Rather than threatening the holiness of the texts this method only enhances and deepens our appreciation of the mystery of God’s nature. Our critical eyes help us understand the context in which the stories were written and help us gain new insights into the personality and motivation of the central figures in the text.
Therefore we can’t just accept the traditional interpretation of the story. We can’t idolize Abraham when he nearly kills his son! The rabbis knew that the story is unusual and dangerous and they knew that we, the readers in every generation, would be challenged by it. Yet they kept the story in the machzor to provoke us and to cause us to reflect deeply on the lessons we can derive from it.
There are two main features of the story that respond to the themes I have raised. Abraham feels as if God has called him on a sacred mission. He feels commanded by God to take his son and offer him as a sacrifice. Though he may know that is wrong and cruel he trusts that God would never lead him astray. His sense of justice, his sense of right and wrong is determined by what he feels God tells him.
Abraham’s perverted justice is confronted by Isaac. Isaac must know what Abraham is planning to do. He implicitly trusts his father and goes with him on the three day journey. Instead of fighting his father, instead of running away, instead of arguing with him Isaac simply asks, “ayei ha-seh le-olah - here are the fire-stone and the wood, where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” In a gentle manner, Isaac was providing an out for his father. Instead of saying “you think I’m going to be the sheep, you’ve got another thing coming,” or something else like that, Isaac says, “I know that God has got a hold over you. I know you think you’re doing the right thing. But let me remind you that the normal thing to do is to sacrifice a sheep, not a human being.”
When Abraham goes through with his task, when Abraham nearly lowers the knife on his son’s throat, it’s only then that he realizes he is misguided. He frees his son and sacrifices a sheep, but by then it is too late. Isaac and Abraham never see each other again. Isaac is devastated by this near death experience at the hands of his father. We might think that he is permanently scarred. But it is a few chapters later when Rebecca is brought to be his wife that he finds comfort in her. Rebecca’s love and compassion save Isaac and enable him to enjoy life once again.
As I read the story again this morning I couldn’t help but read it in light of Tara Westover’s story; in light of the triplets; and in light of the abuse victims of the Catholic Church. In each and every case there was a perverted sense of justice. Like Abraham, Westover’s parents, and especially her father, felt that they had the “true” sense of being Mormon. They felt they were prophets and that God was talking to them and telling them how exactly to lead their lives. Her father preached often and at length at the dinner table and at other times inculcating the children in his religious view. The Jewish adoption agency, the Jewish children services organization and the Jewish research scientist all together thought they had the right view of conducting a medical experiment. They felt it was perfectly reasonable to experiment on human beings and lie to parents, for the sake of their sense of the pursuit of medical science. The Catholic priests who abused the children, as quoted in the investigative report, thought that they were helping cleanse the children of their sin. Their perverted sense of sin and power led them to destroy these children’s lives.
Yet, like Isaac, all these victims innocently expressed love and trust. Like Isaac they couldn’t imagine that adults who hold respected positions in their lives would ever hurt or harm them. Westover, despite the dangerous situations she endured and the lack of public education, thought that her parents loved her. When she tried to raise issues with them and was turned away she felt, because of the trust she had in them, that she was wrong. The triplets expected to receive a reasonable response when they approached the Jewish Board to request their records from the study. The children who were abused by priests knew that something wasn’t right even though their parents always told them to trust their priest. It took courage to tell their parents and it took courage from the parents to keep going up the chain from the priest to the monsignor and on up to bring the priests to justice.
Just as Isaac faced the reality of his father’s perversion he realized that his relationship with him was severed for good. The fact that his father nearly killed him made him realize that he could never see his father again. So too with Westover, the ongoing experiences with her parents coupled with her new life experiences at Cambridge University caused her not only to see her parents in a new moral light, but to irreparably affect their relationship. The triplets’ attempt to gain access to the records and their rejection may have damaged their relationship to the Jewish community. How could institutions that are founded to help those who can’t help themselves have been involved in such calculated harm? And what about the lives of thousands of victims of abuse that have been so damaged? How have those victims survived and where can they turn for support when the very place they would have turned is now seen by them as evil?
We cry for Isaac in our story this morning. How could a father ever think that God would ask him to sacrifice his son? How could Abraham who argued with God about the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah two chapters before not have argued with God for his son’s life? It is remarkable that against all odds, against the force of God as carried out by Abraham, that Isaac was able to survive. It is miraculous that with Rebecca’s care and love that Isaac was able to be rehabilitated and was able to love life again and even to become a father himself.
Though we don’t read of Isaac marrying Rebecca in this morning’s reading, we are introduced to her. The portion ended with a list of relatives showing how Rebecca is related to Abraham and Isaac. That allusion helps remind us of the story yet to unfold. It’s included in the reading this morning to teach us that the only way to survive a miscarriage of justice is through the compassion and love that even one person can show.
In the Tara Westover book she reveals her admiration and respect for a professor at Cambridge. That mentor was able to see that something wasn’t quite right with her and was able to support and encourage her. The triplets had the love and support of their adoptive parents to pursue a relationship with each other and they had each other as well. It is the thousands upon thousands of abuse victims by Catholic priests that deserve even more compassion. Thankfully the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests or SNAP has amazing resources and support for these countless victims. Victims can see that they are not alone and they can begin the process of becoming whole again.
As I read Westover’s book and sat in the theater watching the movie and as I continue to read about the horrific crisis in the Catholic community I recognize how tragic it is that people take God’s name in vain. Such evil has been perpetrated by evoking God’s name and proclaiming to know what God wants. Religious values and teachings have been twisted and manipulated and in the process the lives of so many have been damaged.
It is no wonder that people would be turned away from organized religion. If such power can be placed in the hands of the clergy and be allowed to corrupt in such a gruesome way, then why would anyone want to participate in that religion? That is why my job and the job of all other decent clergy of all religions is to constantly preach love and justice. A religion that states that we are all created in God’s image, that teaches values that raise up the disadvantaged and that highlights education and equality should never be allowed to be corrupted. When we see such gross corruption we need to state clearly and unequivocally the love that our tradition teaches.
We also need to be like Rebecca and provide comfort and compassion. We need to see the plight of such victims and reach out to them. We need to show them that there are people who care and there are people who act as loving caring adults should. We need to let them see that they will not be allowed to suffer anymore.
The Abraham and Isaac story then is a provocative one. We cannot read it as a story of faith. We cannot allow ourselves to praise Abraham’s trust in God. That reading over the centuries only allowed those who read the story literally to preach their perverted sense of fundamentalism. The reading that glorifies Abraham’s actions only serves to glorify the actions of those who claim to hear God’s voice.
Rather we need to read the story as a call to protect Isaac. Isaac needed protection from his father and no one was there to help - only God when it was nearly too late. We need to read the story as call for us to ensure that God’s name not be taken in vain. We need to ensure that religion only stands for love and compassion. This Rosh Hashanah let us reclaim our trust in God and in our religious tradition so that we can always turn to them for the comfort and blessings we so desperately need.
Shanah Tovah.