Rosh Hashanah Homily by Rev. Jonathan Rogers
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, it means literally “head of the year” in Hebrew, and after the service we will invite folks in the social hall to eat apples dipped in honey, which is a symbol intended to invoke “a sweet new year.” Rosh Hashanah also marks the beginning of the High Holy Days in the Jewish tradition, a period of ten days during which practitioners should meditate on repentance and ask for forgiveness from those they have wronged in the last year. To that end I would like to ask y’all’s forgiveness for all the horrible jokes I have told during service over the last year…and in case I don’t get to preach during the 2017 High Holy Days, please forgive me in advance for next year’s crop of lame pop culture references and mediocre puns!
Scripturally, Rosh Hashanah and the New Year are a time to reflect on the first book of the Torah, Genesis, and specifically some stories of Abraham and Sarah’s family. Traditionally when we think of the stories from this parsha, from this portion of the Torah, probably the one that most readily comes to mind is the male-centered story of Abraham binding Isaac so that he may sacrifice him to God. Abraham gets as far as tying him on an altar before God stays his hand and tells Abraham that God knows Abraham fears God, and that is sufficient, that he does not need to follow through with the sacrifice.
And that’s the story that you will see referenced in the TV show Family Guy and everywhere else in popular culture. But in the book before, at the birth of Isaac, Abraham has a more minimal role. Abraham later gets credit for naming Isaac, but Sarah is the one who makes a pun on laughter, which becomes the basis for Isaac’s name. As Michael Carden writes in The Queer Bible Commentary: “In Rabbinic tradition the birth of Isaac is accompanied by many prodigies- barren women conceive…the sick are healed and blind and deaf regain sight and hearing. But the greatest prodigies are associated with Sarah and Abraham themselves. Sarah is said to have given birth without the pain of childbirth with which Eve was cursed…Her motherhood is both miraculous and a new beginning…” We see, in this emphasis on Sarah’s role, on her wordplay that contributes to Isaac’s naming, on the miraculousness of her painless childbirth, a side of the Genesis family story that we do not typically encounter in popular narrative.
And as much as I would like to talk about how Sarah and Hagar and St. Mary and Khadijah, the “Mother of Believers” in Islam, hold up half the world, I cannot help but feel that a message of mere surface level gender equality is inadequate. I grew up hearing a female UU minister preach, but I think just as important as her gender was her public avowals of feminist mysticism. I am glad that Sarah has a prominent role in the Rosh Hashanah parshah, but moreso because she has childbirth without pain and thereby overcomes the curse put on humanity in Eve’s time for the female-initiated capitulation to the desire for knowledge in the garden of good and evil than because she represents gender balance in the book’s character depictions.
A culture shift to true feminist principles is different from and harder than female representation. The first episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s superb podcast Revisionist History is called “The Lady Vanishes” and is about an artist whose work briefly takes England by storm before she promptly disappears from public view. Gladwell’s point is that, having temporarily demonstrated its “open-mindedness”, the English art world then felt free to return to its previous state of gender exclusion. He punctuates this point by citing a depressingly long list of countries that have had one, and only one, female leader. He reminds those of us who identify as feminists that even if the United States elects a female president this year for the first time, it is our successful commitment to the ideals of justice, equity and compassion that will define whether or not we are, indeed, entering a sweet new year. Peace, salaam, shalom, and may it be so!