Lech LEcha: Conscience and Grit

Three years before the Bill of Rights was written and canonized, a Jewish merchant by the name of Jonas Phillips wrote a letter of petition to the newly convened Constitutional Convention. It was the convention’s only petition from a private citizen. In that letter, Phillips asked the convention to avoid a Christian faith test for holding public office saying:

“I the subscriber being one of the people called Jews of the City of Philadelphia, …-”[A]ll men have a natural and inalienable Right To worship almighty God according to the dictates of their own Conscience and understanding, … Therefore I  solecet [sic] this favour for my Self my Children and posterity and for the benefit of all the Israelites through the 13 united [sic] d States of [A]merica… and that no man  aught [sic] or of Right can be compelled to attend any Religious Worship…against his own free will and Consent… [or] any power what Ever that shall in any Case interfere or in any manner Controul the Right of Conscience in the free Exercise of Religious Worship.”

Phillips, a merchant and veteran of the Revolutionary War, was most famous for his contributions to the war effort by running the British blockade by arranging clandestine shipments of goods from the Netherlands, by writing the orders and time schedules in Yiddish.  Now as the constitution was being finalized he asked the powerful body to ensure religious freedom for himself, and by extension, all faiths, through the avoidance of a Christian faith test to hold public office. 

We might be astonished that a private citizen from a minority culture would speak truth to power, and at the time it was a truly daring move to ask anything of consideration from the political and financial power shaping the country. As revolutionary as America was, that normative daring was not yet seeded into American culture. It took a special kind of courage to stick his neck out and to argue for a cause that was greater than himself.  

Phillips, however, was a Jew, and as such is a descendant and inheritor of one of the values of Jewish culture called chutzpah, or the special kind of courage to dissent and to challenge power. One way I like to think about chutzpah is considering it as a cocktail made of conscience and grit. Chutzpah gives us the strength to speak up and to speak out. It’s why Jews have so many opinions and why our tradition is so discursive, because we are moved by conscience to challenge each other, and to get stiff in the neck when power tries to coerce conformity. 

Sometimes chutzpah can look self centered; in many books of comparative religions, Christianity, Islam and others have always been seen as more universal than Judaism. From Origin, to Spinoza, to Kant and Hegel, to many contemporaries, Judaism is an ethnic group, small and provincial, only concerned with its own believers and well-being, and with no one else. But the truth is far more complex. Jews have always been a small people with big ideas, going back to our founding family. 

We find the first of these big ideas in this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha. Twelve chapters into Genesis we finally meet Abraham and Sarah, the first Jewish couple. The Torah begins in the universal – setting the foundations of the world, both physically and morally, through acts of creation and covenant with Noah. At this moment, the focus of the Torah coalesces around a single family and their story. Abraham is charged by God to leave his homeland and to uproot his assumptions about the world, in order that he become his own person and a blessing to others.(Genesis 12:2) Abraham’s blessing becomes the template for all blessings that is both transitive and transformative, beginning with the self and shooting outwards to eventually encompass all of humanity.  

In fact, five times in Genesis the fathers are told, “Through you all the families, or all the nations, of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12: 2, 18: 18, 22: 18, 26: 4, 28: 14). The Jewish blessing is a responsibility to marry our redemption to others and to become ambassadors for the possibility of blessings for all. Jews are not called to convert others  to Judaism, but we are called upon to live vividly and brightly as an expression of God’s will and blessing to all of humanity. 

We are evangelical by nature, but we are called to be inspirational by covenant.The Torah is the blueprint for Jews to seek holiness, as a particular faith with universal aspirations, one step at a time.The road to redemption is powered by our conscience, inspiring us to get plucky, and speak up when we must. Jonas Phillips knew this in his generation; my teacher Rabbi Schulweis knew this in his generation:

“To be a Jew is to think big. 

To be a Jew is to think globally. 

To be a Jew is to act globally. 

To be a Jew is to love God, who is global.“

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Noah Farkas serves at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California.

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