Revelations of the Other, Face-to-Face
Senior Sermon - Melissa Weintraub
Delivered at JTS, Feb. 18, 2006
Face to face God spoke to you on the mountain, out of the fire (Deut. 5:4).
Revelation at Sinai takes place face-to-face. Or we might say: it is when we look into the face - truly look - that revelation takes place. What do we see when we search the face of another human being? We see a reality that exceeds us, an inscrutable mystery we can neither possess nor disown. The face overflows all our prior conceptions, and urges us on to new understanding.
You - my family, community, teachers, students, and friends - you have been sources of revelation to me. I am so overjoyed to look out into all of your faces. I would like to introduce you to the two faces that introduced me to the world, and who taught me, through their lived example, the subject of the Torah I will share today.
- My mother, who maintained the only kosher home in Bloomington-Normal, IL, the Republican, evangelical stronghold where I grew up-- filling multiple freezers to stockpile the hard-earned kosher meat she had driven hundreds of miles to obtain.
- My father, who patiently swooped into my elementary school, annually it seemed, to explain that "although well-intentioned, it was neither neutral nor inclusive to sing about Christ our savior in the school choir."
- My parents taught me that it is the face of the other that can deliver us to Sinai… For they taught me that offering my own otherness could be a revelatory, if at times destabilizing, gift to the homogenous world around me…
- And they taught me the importance, when I stood in the normative hub, of traveling to the periphery - or even across the border - and listening. And opening myself. And invariably, being transformed.
In this spirit, I would like to invite into our sanctuary some faces - two dear friends that have been sources of revelation to me during my six years of living in Israel.
- These are faces that until I knew them concretely, may have been fearful or threatening depictions of the enemy, the ultimate other for me as a contemporary Jew. I am sharing them because they have expanded the boundaries of my heart, my identity, and my sense of truth.
I am sharing them because they have brought me to Sinai.
Perhaps in one of those chairs over there, Im George Rishmawi
- A woman who has raised four children in a Palestinian village outside of Bethlehem. A woman who sings and ululates her way through each day. The playfulness in her exuberant eyes and smile. How proud she is of the five dresses she embroidered for the weddings of her daughters and daughter-in-law. How she tells me, 'You are my daughter. Whenever you're here, you come stay with me.' How she remembers things I've forgotten - ten years ago, when she carried me on her back to pick olives, five years ago, when we drank too much arak on her front stoop. How she never complains about the political situation, but to say, 'very difficult, very difficult,' before offering me more sage tea and Arabic sweets.
And another seat for -Husam Jubran.
- His salt-and-pepper goatee, his twinkling eyes, his belly-up laugh. The way he puts his hand over his heart whenever he hears something that pleases him. How proud he is of the 30 pounds he shaved off when he went on a "no carbs" diet last year and fasted from pita and baklava. The way he narrowed his eyes when we first met, insisting that he didn't believe in Jewish-Palestinian dialogue. The tautness in his jaw when he recounted the months he spent in Israeli prison and what he experienced there. The sadness in his eyes when he explained that he lives apart from his wife and daughter 5 days of each week because of freedom of movement restrictions. The contagious intensity of his steady smile through all his pain.
These individuals are not representatives. They don't represent the only, or most important, "human face" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they don't represent the scope of my personal sympathies; they don't represent all Palestinians. They are not caricatures. They are not statistics.
They are faces that have opened, moved and challenged me, revealed realities and ruptured myths. They are faces that have initiated me into revelation, at times in fear and trembling, at times in sweetness and delight.
Our parashah this week tells the story of the foundational moment of our collective narrative - the giving of our Torah in thunder and smoke. Immediately before this climactic encounter between the Jewish people and God, the Torah dwells at length on the encounter between Moshe and his Midianite father-in-law Yitro -the man who will become the paradigmatic stranger in the rabbinic imagination.
The Torah itself casts Yitro in an unequivocally positive mold. Yitro welcomes Moshe the fugitive into his home and feeds him bread, and he serves as Moshe's personal advisor in organizing a system for administering justice.
Rabbinic tradition, however, is more ambivalent about Yitro.
- On the one hand, many midrashim present Yitro as the prototypical "righteous gentile" - who stands in solidarity with the Israelites in Egypt - and as the "perfect convert" who left everything he knew to become just like us.
- But other traditions insist that Yitro is a hopeless idolator whose descendents remain a menacing fifth column in our midst. These midrashim construct Yitro's otherness as incorrigible. He and his descendents are bound for relapse, degeneration - they cannot truly become a part of us. They symbolize for the Rabbis the risk of taking the other in, of contamination and betrayal.
- At the root of these disparaging portrayals of Yitro is a kind of nervous question: can the other ever be trusted? While at the root of the celebratory midrashim is, I would submit, an implied answer: the 'other' can only be trusted when he is fully domesticated, when he confirms our identity through total assimilation, when he provides us with a flattering mirror.
Contemporary commentator Aviva Zornberg adopts these rabbinic portrayals of Yitro while turning them on their head.
- In Zornberg's reading, Yitro does not confirm our superiority through assimilation, but rather instructs us, modeling the very disposition we need to stand at Sinai: courage, humility, the willingness to stretch our prior assumptions and conceptions of the world.
- The story of Yitro immediately precedes the story of Sinai because Yitro exemplifies the very destabilization of identity that revelation at Sinai demands.
- Yitro's protean flexibility is to be venerated, not distrusted. The Israelites are called on to be equally available to transformation, to allowing their identities and narratives to be ruptured in the experience of revelation before the Transcendent Other.
- Yitro's very name, as the Mekhilta points out, means overflowing. Yitro is the yeter, that something more that we encounter in the face of the other, which cannot be contained in any system or construction of truth. The revelation of what lies beyond us, and urges us on to new understanding.
The philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas echoes in the background of Zornberg's reading of Yitro as well as my own opening remarks. Levinas, like the Torah before him, figures revelation of the infinite through the image of the human face, for the face presents us with a reality that we cannot circumscribe, appropriate, have our way with, have on our own terms. The face of the other eludes us and draws us forward, beyond the outer limits of our known ideologies and roles. "The dimension of the divine," says Levinas, "opens forth from the human face." The face is the closest approximation of divinity, of revelation, that we as human beings can know.
Perhaps the story of Yitro immediately precedes the story of revelation because Yitro teaches the Israelites, and all of us in turn, that Sinai occurs when we allow our own assumptions to be overflowed through encounter with the other. We ascend Sinai not when we require the other to be our replica, our "yes-man," or our perceived undoing, but rather when we lay ourselves open before the undomesticated face of the other, when we allow him or her to enter us, unravel us, and initiate us into new revelations.
There is no place I have seen the startling, revelatory potential of face-to-face encounter as in Jewish-Palestinian dialogue.
As many of you know, a year ago our shlihat tzibur, my dear friend Miriam Margles and I began a program bringing rabbinical students and Jewish educators from across the political and denominational spectrum to meet with Palestinians in Bethlehem and Hevron. Since March of last year, we have brought more than 150 students - from JTS, HUC, RRC, UJ, YU, Hovevvei Torah and several other Orthodox yeshivot - to listen, witness, observe, and learn; to look into the faces of Palestinian Muslims and Christians, men and women, Sheikhs and school principals; teenage grassroots activists and elderly farmers… and to allow ourselves to be transformed by what we have encountered there.
In our initial trip to Bethlehem, we were already the largest Jewish group to enter into Palestinian areas since before the al Aqsa Intifada. We have been, as far we know, the most religiously diverse Jewish group ever to do this work in the Palestinian Authority. Even the veterans of the good ole days of Oslo don't remember ever before seeing a mehitza minyan, or kosher food for that matter, brought into the heart of Bethlehem. Hundreds of Palestinians in Bethlehem and Hevron have also participated in our programs on some level, most of them never before involved in such initiatives, many of them never before exposed to a friendly and non-violent Jewish presence.
We have not sought to convince participants to adopt any particular point of view, but rather to expose them to Palestinian stories and perspectives - both personal and political - so that they can make up their own minds having had direct contact with Palestinian faces, a wider net of information, and personal witness to realities on the ground.
Almost everyone leaves the program confused about something they thought they knew and committed to learning more. A majority describe the experience as eye-opening, if not life-changing. I have never heard someone regret that they came.
I would like to share a story from one participant, Dave Gorin, a current Dorot Fellow. Dave participated in an activity in which Jews and Palestinians stood together in an outer circle and listened to a series of statements, and then stepped in to form an inner circle if the statement given applied to them. The game began with relatively parve statements like 'I have a sister' or 'I like Britney Spears' - at which point every Palestinian male under 25 jumped into the center of the circle - and then progressed towards more charged statements like, 'I have lost an immediate family member to the conflict' or 'I oppose the separation barrier.'
- Dave describes his ambivalent reaction to this last statement, and he writes: "Because of these complex emotions, I hesitated when I heard the statement, and decided, as a 'beneficiary' of whatever safety the wall affords, to remain in the outside circle. One of the Palestinian boys - he must have been 15 or so, with his short gel-glossed black hair and tightly-fitted jeans - glanced back at me over his shoulder. His eyes looked so tired, at once unhappy and unsurprised. I'll never forget them. I think a lot us do our best to avoid looking into a face like that."
How do we sustain the gaze of the other in the context of violent conflict, while remaining true to ourselves? Can we look into the boys' tired, unhappy eyes without stepping into the circle to join him? Can we remain in the outer circle, staying true to our own positions, without shirking his gaze? Can we, like Yitro, have the courage and humility to allow the gaze to destabilize us and interrogate our own assumptions? Whether we change our positions or not, we are not the same at the end of that gaze. Once we have looked into the face of the boy - especially if we have stood with him in his context, and felt the walls encroaching as he describes them. We may still see the wall as necessary and justified. But we are not the same.
Face-to-face encounter in the context of violent conflict is as challenging as it is revelatory. It pushes us beyond our comfort zones. It can be jarring; it can be painful; it can be scary; it can be profoundly unsettling. It can disrupt our sense both of what "is" and what "should" be.
Rashi, quoting the Mekhilta, imagines that this is exactly what happens to the petrified Israelites at the foot of Sinai at the moment of revelation. 'Vayanu'u, va'yaamdu mei'rahok - 'they moved and stood at a distance.' Says Rashi, va'yaanu'u - they shuddered. Va'yaamdu mei'rahok - they recoiled 12 miles to the rear - the whole length of their camp - and the ministering angels came and helped restore them to their place."
- As Aviva Zornberg explicates this midrash, with every commandment at Sinai the Israelites experience such intense "inner motion" - such strong, internal propulsion to growth - that they lose their bearings, their points of reference, their grip on what "is."
True revelation is often difficult. It disrupts our certainties, our known maps of the world. Like the children of Israel at the foot of Sinai, we may at times shudder and recoil. We may need to avert our gaze, or close our hearts. Our work as Jews and as human beings, seeking God and truth, is to bring ourselves back to the mountain again and again and again, to seek out what we don't yet know, what we don't yet understand.
For us, revelation does not usually happen in thunder and smoke. Most often it happens in simple face-to-face conversation over coffee and cake.
Elias Ghareeb is one of our primary Palestinian partners in the Encounter program. He's the generous soul who volunteers his time to book all the local buses, match participants with local host families, and email us at least twenty times a day before each trip. I've spent a lot of informal, social time with Elias and his extended family in their village, Beit Sahour. When Elias's cousin was a finalist in Superstar - the "American Idol" of the entire Arab world - his family even let me sit with them while they were interviewed on Lebanese T.V… definitely one of my proudest moments of the year.
In my last week in Jerusalem a month and a half ago, Elias obtained a permit to come to Jerusalem, becoming my first Palestinian friend in five years to be able to visit me on my own turf. Elias didn't think he'd be able to relax in West Jerusalem, but he finally agreed to humor me, and to meet me in Tmol Shulshom, a lovely café probably familiar to many of you.
When we'd sat down, Elias confessed that although he had grown up in a village six miles from Jerusalem, he had never before visited a café in West Jerusalem…But soon he was enjoying practicing Hebrew words he'd never had chance to put into use at the checkpoints: pie aguzim (pecan pie), uga shokolad (chocolate cake).
Then a woman walked in whom I probably wouldn't have given a second thought to, if not for Elias being by my side. An ordinary moment in West Jerusalem - a woman in military uniform - carrying an M-16 - walked in and sat down at the table next to us. Elias froze, his eyes widening in fear. I searched his face with concern, a hundred stories flashing through my mind of what this woman's presence might be triggering for him.
Elias had never been in a social situation with a soldier, sitting down at an adjacent table as an equal, ordering cake.
What he said next surprised me. "Melissa, Look at this girl. How nice she looks. I know if we sat down together for an hour we would both understand the consequences of our actions like never before."
As Elias and I left the restaurant, we compared and contrasted the architecture and layout of the streets of West Jerusalem with his village of Beit Sahour six miles away. Then we stopped by Mifal Hapayis - the Israeli lotto - and aggregated all of our spare change, and dreamed about what we'd build together if we won.
- Seeing the soldier with Elias at my side, I experienced a visceral antagonism towards her. She lost her face in my eyes, became only a threat to someone I loved. For the moment, I couldn't handle the dissonance of identifying concomitantly with him and with her.
- But Elias, refused to close to the soldiers' humanity, even in his visible fear. Like Yitro before him, he modeled for me the disposition I need to return to Sinai: courage, humility, and vulnerability, the willingness to seek out the face most unsettling and threatening to him, with compassion, openness, and trust.
Even as the skies forecast a long mood of unilateral separation, I continue to dream of what we might build together: Elias, Im George, and Husam, Miriam and I, their families and our families, their communities and all of us.
- I dream of one of my favorite scenes from our trips to Bethlehem, only bigger and wider, and replayed over and over again. A big tent under the stars, with dumbek and oud, salatim and big houka pipes, babies and grandparents, rabbinical students and teenagers. Dancing, play and conversation. Simple connections, mutual acknowledgement, difficult questions and inner wrestling. Revelation.
I dream of all of us following Yitro into the wilderness, not knowing what we will receive, past our signposts; our scripts; our defenses; and our habituated thinking, to the overflowing and unpredictable encounter with the other.
Revelation at Sinai takes place face-to-face. Or we might say: it is when we look into the face - truly look - that revelation takes place.