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The sermon for week October 18, 2015

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Interfaith Series: Judaism

Genesis 32:22-32

Today we’re talking about Judaism, the faith and tradition Jesus came out of. Jewish tradition honors teachers. One must give the biography of their teacher when talking about who taught them about Judaism. My Rabbi was Rabbi Jack Paskoff, who has served as the teacher of the synagogue in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for 22 years.

It was an early spring day when I first met Jack. I had signed up for a “Jewish Commentary on the Old Testament” class in seminary. Jack started the class with the statement: “Jewish life has 20 different theologies. Many find these frustrating, some find it liberating. But what’s the core belief? That Jews are the children of Israel and Jacob. Jews don’t accept things ‘just because.’ There must be room for debate. We are children of Jacob, who wrestled with the angel or God and demanded a blessing. Jews wrestle at the core of things. Wrestling is intimacy.”

One student spoke up and asked, “Well what about Jesus?”

“What about Jesus? We don’t have much to do with him. Almost all Jews would state that they’re still waiting for the Messiah, and God never became a person,” Jack responded.

The person began to protest, and Jack said, “GIVE IT FIVE MINUTES! You just heard this. This is new information to you. I know your tradition because it’s the majority. You’ve never heard this before, and my tradition is way older than yours. So give it five minutes.”

I loved Jack. He was funny, wise, and he didn’t cut corners. He was direct. His theology was deep, nuanced, and practical. He focused his ministry on the effort to educate people of all ages and on Tikkun Olam (our efforts to repair the world).

If the Jews base their religion on Jacob who was named Israel, then let’s look at him. Not just the story we read today, but the whole narrative arch.

And by the way, I find it weird that the word “Jew” is both the name and the slur for the group of people. I guess it depends on the tone in which it is delivered. And Rabbi Jack spoke about the possibilities of each word, even each letter. Tone matters. Words matter. Even how a word is spelled matters.

Jacob was the second child of Isaac and Rebekah. His older brother Esau, was a man’s man. A hairy hunter who was always outside. Jacob was more meek and mild. A homebody. Esau was Issac’s favorite. He was strong, athletic, and a provider. Even his name in Hebrew means “Earth Red Man.” He’s very raw, there’s no hidden agenda to him. He is what he is.

Yet Jacob is a mama's boy. He’s timid. Mild-mannered. Thus the ideal Jewish male isn’t a cowboy or lumberjack, like Esau. The ideal Jewish male is a scholar. Someone who is inside, reading and studying the Torah. Someone who is clever.

Now Esau is not a very complex person. He comes in and says, “I’m starving to death!” He’s hungry like I was when I was a teenager. FEED ME! I will eat anything! Give me anything! There’s no thought process involved. And Jacob gets Esau to give up his birthright as the first born because of this hunger. Esau does so without thinking. There’s no problem with this. The problem comes later.

The problem comes when Jacob acts on it. He disguises himself as Esau and given that Isaac’s eye sight is failing, this works. Jacob steals the birthright through trickery and then is off and running. He’s in the wilderness and dreams of Jacob’s Ladder. He finds sanctuary with his Uncle Laben and the love of his life in Rachel. But the trickster is tricked and he has to flee again. He wrestles with God and gets the name “Israel” which means "Triumphant with God" or "who prevails with God."

When the two brothers meet again, Esau is at peace and Jacob is the tortured soul. Esau is very prosperous and happy to see Jacob. He kisses his brother and offers to help him. Esau comes off as a lovable lug. A solid guy. Jacob is the tortured scholar. A guy who is always wrestling with something. Yet at the end, both stories are redemptive. Both characters come out in the end.

Jacob is known as a scholar, a survivor, a trickster. One who is put to the test and uses not strength but his mind to find his way. Knowing this, Rabbi Jack told a story toward the end of seminary class.

In Middleburg, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C., there are a lot of horse farms. There are foxhunts in the fall and spring. Yet in recent years, coyotes have moved into the area. So the foxhunters thought they could use their hunts to go after the coyotes. So they got dressed up, gathered their fast and well-bred horses and their expertly trained hounds and went to kill some coyotes. The hounds picked up the scent and were off. It was an exciting chase. Yet after a few minutes, the riders started to notice they were running around in circles. The hounds were as loud as ever, they still had the scent but there was no sign of the coyotes.

It wasn’t until one of the riders looked down that they identified the problem. You see, foxes run away from the thundering hooves and barking hounds. They flee this show of strength, and they are easy to chase. But coyotes are tricksters. When that rider looked down, he noticed that there were coyotes running alongside the hounds. They had tricked the hounds into running after the scent.

That, Rabbi Jack said, is how the Jews survived the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman Empires. It’s how they survived the Holocaust. It’s how they will survive and thrive.

Jacob was a trickster, a scholar, and a survivor. They will wrestle with God, even though they will forever be changed by it. Jacob’s hip was put out of joint and he limped the rest of his life. Because of their faith, they have been wounded, marked, and hunted. Yet they have survived.

Rabbi Jack said, “We are Genesis. For Jews, these words are symbols. They stand for something else, and each word is important and so are the themes because they are alive today. Yet it is our mandate to question it and wrestle with it and explore it until we see how the Torah is living out in our lives.”

That is what Rabbi Jack taught me about Judaism. And I love that tradition. No matter what is thrown at you, wrestle with God. I love the exploration of the minute details of the words as well as the themes of Scriptures. Rabbi Jack taught me that Judaism is so non-literal. Jewish folk understand that God is still speaking in ways we Christians are only starting to understand.

If you want to know how to take Holy Texts seriously and not literally; to know that it is short hand and to make up stories explaining why things shook out the way they do... hang out with the Jews.

I love how they don’t evangelize. They know the truth that following this God of ours is complex and not for everyone. We could learn something from this. The journey of faith is complex, wrought with pain, peril and wrestling, yet also filled with relationships, self-discovery, and blessing.

And if this is new and scary and you’re not sure what to think about it: Give it five minutes.

All references to Rabbi Jack Paskoff and the theology of Jacob and Esau come from my notes from the Jewish Commentary Class starting on 2-12-2008. Any mistakes are mine, not Jack’s. For more information on Judaism, check out

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