Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Parashat Vayera - Welcoming Outsiders...or, musings on Orthodox tolerance.

Parashat Vayera opens with a scene that lies at the heart of Jewish ethic of hospitality. In the heat of the day, three strangers pass by Avraham's tent, and in flurry of activity Avraham welcomes them in , offers them food, slaughters an animal, bakes bread, and serves them a sumptuous meal.

We, the readers (and products of elementary Jewish day school education) all know that these are angels, divine messengers, but Avraham thinks they are merely three strangers. Avraham's hospitality is astounding in its energy, its sincerity and depth. Would we ever beg three homeless individuals to have a huge meal at our home?

I found myself using Avraham as a paradigm of openeness and acceptance in a recent conversation when I remarked how we in the Orthodox Jewish community are frequently inward looking, leaving outsiders - visitors and newly-religious people - feeling unwelcome, whether inadvertantly, or deliberately. The Orthodox world can often be wary and judgmental to Jews from other denominations, as with those whose actions, dress, or body language communicate the fact that they are non-observant. We have subtle codes that help us identify the members of our sub-group, and we frequently do not realise the degree to which our uniformity is off-putting and unwelcoming. When one encounters the rare Orthodox environment which is genuinely welcoming to ALL Jews, one realises how much effort and thoughtfulness needs to be invested to ensure that visitors feel fully comfortable in our communities.
(For an interesting piece about the Orthodox world in this regard, see Allan Nadler's article here.)

So as I said, I was talking about how Avraham just welcomes strangers to his home without any entrance requirements - no kippa, no Shabbat, no dress code - just a warm welcome.

and then I recalled this Rashi:

רש"י בראשית פרק יח
ורחצו רגליכם - כסבור שהם ערביים שמשתחוים לאבק רגליהם והקפיד שלא להכניס עבודה זרה לביתו.
"Wash your feet: He thought that they were arabs who worshipped the dust on their feet. Since he was particular not to admit idolatry to his house ( he asked them to wash off the dust."

In other words, the Midrash inserts that Avraham DOES have entry restrictions and particular standards of conduct for one to be admitted. Idolaters are not welcome unless they divest themselves of their idolatry!

It is amazing that a simple Rashi like this makes a huge difference in perspective. Do we welcome outsiders warmly, without question, or do we insist that in some manner or form, they conform to our modes of behaviour and belief, that they not interupt and obstruct our world, our value system?


Nicole said...

I find that this dialogue is preframed by mentioning Orthodoxy. Is it really true that Orthodox Jews will not accept Mizrahim and Sepharadim because they are unaffected by Orthodoxy? Orthodoxy is a movement that began in Eastern Europe. Somehow, the Orthodox impose the label of this movement on converts and Jews from other nationalities, because they forget that Orthodoxy is not the only way to observe Rabbinic Judaism. Personally, the answer to the question I posed is that there is too much needless discrimination.
As for deal with this commentary, there is a big difference between idolaters and monotheists with other perspectives. According to R. Shelomo ben Yishaq and not that which is implied in the biblical text, Abraham may have imposed a minimal religious standard that one could argue falls under the criteria of the Noahide laws. From a basic reading, he did not impose Israelite commandments upon them, perhaps because it would have been an anachronism to do so. There is no connection between this and religious impositions between denominations in Judaism.
One relevant anecdote is that marriage contracts/ketuboth between Qaraaites and Egytian Jews following Rabbinic Judaism were foundd in the Cairo Geniza. Taking this into perspective, it is clear that much of this discrimination between denominations is unwarranted and not in compliance to any authentic religious tradition.

Alex Israel said...


First, let me say that this was merely a reflection, a "drush" of sorts, and not a scholarly argument.

2nd, Point well taken. Maybe I didn't need to frame this is the context of the "Orthodox" which is a word I rarely use and don't like too much.

However, recently I have become more aware of the fact that whereas the religious sector will not accept the legitimacy of non-Orthodox or non-observant Jews, we do very little to welcome them, and furthermore, when they DO come to our congregations and schools, they frequently feel second rate.

If you ask people in the mod-orth community what they think about the future of the non-orthodox, most will shrug and just have not thought about them. On the one hand, they are beyond the fence and are written off as irreligious. On the other hand, no efforts are made to engage with them.

So that is where this post came from.