Dilatato Corde 8:1
January – June, 2018
Avraham Avinu Synagogue, Hebron
Avraham Avinu Synagogue, Hebron

Susan L. Aguilar
Audacious Hospitality: Abraham in the Jewish Tradition

This paper was given at American River College in Sacramento, California, on November 29, 2017, for an interfaith panel discussion entitled "A Bigger Table: What Abraham Can Teach Us about Hospitality.." The panel featured leaders from local Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities. It was hosted by the Muslim Students Association and moderated by ARC humanities and religious studies professor William Zangeneh-Lester.
The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) has adopted the theme of “Audacious Hospitality” as a part of its 2020 vision. As employed by the URJ, this theme seeks to provide active outreach to promote inclusion in congregations throughout the country.[1] Many of the talks and articles about this vision statement reference Abraham and his acts of hospitality at Mamre (Genesis 18) as the prototype of audacious hospitality.
In Judaism, we refer to Abraham as avinu (our father), as our patriarch and the father of the Jewish people. In Torah, God identifies himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the burning bush (Exodus 3:15). To this day, thousands of years later, we preface many of our prayers by restating our lineage: “God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel.”  This restatement serves to remind God of who we are and that we merit attention to our prayers because of our heritage: it is as if we are saying, “Please remember me. I’m a descendent of Abraham.” Our reminder about our lineage also serves to connect us to all the generations who have gone before us.   Many Jews have Hebrew names used for ritual purposes, for example, Yaakov ben David v’ Shoshanah (Jacob, son of David and Shoshanah)showing that we are not only individuals, but we are also tied to our Jewish heritage. A convert to Judaism also receives a Hebrew name, for example, Rivka bat Avraham v’ Sarah (Rivka, daughter of Abraham and Sarah), denoting that no matter how one comes to Judaism, Abraham and Sarah are our original parents. 
Abraham is recognized as a man of supreme faith: with no idea where he was going, who he would meet along the way, what he would do once he arrived, he obeyed God’s command “Lech l’cha,”go forth to a land that I will show you (Genesis 12). In Hebrew, lech l’cha literally means “go for you.”It is only by leaving everything familiar and entering the unknown, with faith in God, that Abraham is able to fulfill his potential. It is with Abraham that God makes an eternal covenant of blessings, promising a wandering, homeless, and childless old man countless descendants and land.
Quite a bit happens to Abraham in Genesis. He wanders to many new places, he has children in his old age, he obeys God’s command to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, and his faith and obedience are rewarded by God intervening to save Isaac. I want to focus on the ways in which Abraham confronts the unknown in offering hospitality.  In Genesis 18, we learn that three strangers (angels or messengers from God) approached Abraham’s tent at Mamre.  Abraham immediately rushed to welcome these strangers, and he washed their feet and let them rest in the shade.  He invited them into his tent. He prepared a wonderful feast for them of roast meat, milk, and bread that his wife, Sarah, baked. After this hospitality, Abraham and Sarah are promised a child in their old age.
This example of unquestioning hospitality—what I term audacious hospitality—becomes a model of righteousness in the Jewish tradition.  We see the stark contrast between Abraham’s unquestioning welcome of strangers and the behavior of the people of Sodom just one chapter later in Torah (Genesis 19). Two angels travel to Sodom and arrive at Lot’s home. Lot is Abraham’s nephew and he welcomes them into his home, like Abraham did with the strangers at Mamre, washing their feet and preparing a feast for them. The townspeople of Sodom hated strangers and they came to Lot’s home to demand that he turn the strangers over to them to be killed. Lot refuses. In the Jewish tradition, it is important to understand that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, which are destroyed completely by God immediately after this incident, is the failure to extend hospitality and to care for the stranger.[2] Lot and his family are spared from the destruction because of his righteousness in dealing with the strangers.[3]
Later, when Abraham wants a wife for his beloved son Isaac, he sends an emissary to his original homeland (Genesis 24). After a long journey, the emissary sees Rebecca at the town wells and asks her for some water. Again, we see a third example of audacious hospitality: Rebecca draws bucket after bucket of water by herself to give water to the emissary and all his camels. And then, she invites him to her family’s home to eat and stay. Rebecca reveals herself as a model of hospitality; she will be a good partner for Isaac.
Because of their acts of hospitality to strangers—not friends, not family, but strangers—Abraham, Lot, and Rebecca are shown to be righteous people.  They model for us what our values towards the stranger are supposed to be. That does not mean that they are perfect people. The stunning thing about Torah and the people who populate its stories is just how remarkably flawed they can be. Each of these three, however, unhesitatingly welcomes the stranger, feeds them, and even takes them into their homes. All three of these accounts take place within  six chapters and two generations in Torah, but throughout Torah the obligation to care for the stranger among us is an unchanging theme.
In Judaism, there is a long tradition of midrashim, stories that are designed to help explain, or amplify, the stories we find in Torah. Torah itself is often cryptic and there are many gaps in its stories. There is a midrash found in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (ca. 8th century CE), that provides a fascinating story about Abraham. In this midrash, Abraham never stops thinking about Hagar and Ishmael, whom he had banished from his camp. About three years after their banishment, he goes to find them. Arriving at their home, he sees a young woman whom he understands to be Ishmael’s wife and asks about Ishmael and Hagar. Upon being told that they are out to gather fruits and dates, Abraham asks her for some water and bread, but she says she has none to offer him. At that point, Abraham tells her to give Ishmael a message: “Say to him that an old man came from the land of Canaan to see you and he said, ‘Change the threshold of your house, which is not good for you.’” She did, and Ishmael understood Abraham’s message to mean that she was not a good person, and he sent his mother to find him a new wife. Another three years go by and Abraham again comes to visit Ishmael. He sees the new wife and asks for Hagar and Ishmael. Again, they are away from home, tending to their herds. Abraham asks Ishmael’s new wife for bread and water, saying, “I am tired from the rigors of journeying through the wilderness,” and she brings him food and water. Abraham then stands in Ishmael’s house and prays, and we are told that Ishmael’s home was filled with blessings. This is a complex midrash, with multiple layers of meaning. Through it, and its inversion of the story at Mamre, with Abraham now the stranger in need of hospitality, we learn again how acts of audacious hospitality reveal a good, righteous person.[4]
What does this mean for us, in the 21st century? Judaism is a religion of actions: we believe that through our actions, we both repair the world and come to a deeper sense of faith.  At Mt. Sinai, the people expressed it clearly: “We will do and we will hear [believe]” (Exodus 24: 3-7). Actions precede and nourish belief. As Jews, we are obligated to care for the stranger among us, and we are reminded of this more than a dozen times in the Torah. Who is the stranger? She is the “other,” anyone we perceive as different from ourselves. In our world, that may mean the refugee, the person whose faith tradition is different from ours, the person who is differently-abled, the person whose sexual identity is not the same as ours.  We are obligated to actively welcome and pursue social justice for everyone, not just the ones we feel comfortable around.
In my congregation, just like many Jewish congregations throughout the world, we are actively involved in social justice efforts. We tutor children in under-achieving schools, we have an active food closet program, we are involved in the sanctuary movement for refugees.  Each year, we host several homeless families at our synagogue, providing them with a safe, warm place to stay, with home-cooked meals and companionship. We have many inter-faith initiatives to build bridges with other faith traditions, among them Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, as a few examples.  We see these, and other efforts, as simply part of what it means to be a committed Jew: to care for the stranger among us. 
During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, Rabbi Abraham Heschel participated in marches to secure equal rights for African Americans. That was a frightening, dangerous time, and he did this at great personal risk. People were being beaten and killed for such activity. Moreover, as a rabbi, he was frequently criticized for publicly involving himself in controversy by people who thought he should confine himself to spiritual matters. His response was that when he marched, it was as if his legs were praying.[5] Like our patriarch Abraham, Rabbi Abraham Heschel understood the need for concrete action
In our current world, I think that caring for the stranger requires a kind of audacious hospitality of the mind, also. It is not sufficient to be social media activists, merely posting angry emojis at the state of the world. It is not sufficient merely to write checks to the causes we support. We need to be willing to open our minds. We need to be willing to listen to, and really make the effort to hear, people whose experiences and ideas are different from our own. We must welcome the diversity we find, because we cannot be afraid to challenge ourselves and to find new ways to communicate and bridge the divides we find in our society.
When Jews say “Shalom,” the word that we use to say hello, goodbye, and peace, we are actually saying much more. Shalom means more than peace, it means “wholeness.” It is the state of wholeness of a world united in peace. As Jews, we recognize that we live in a very broken world. We are commanded to work for tikkun olam, to repair the world. When we engage in audacious hospitality—welcoming the stranger, engaging in honest and open dialogue with the stranger—we are fulfilling the command to repair the world. We are keeping faith with the example set by Abraham avinu, Abraham our father.  

[1] See,  https://urj.org/audacioushospitality and related content.

[2] Ezekiel 16:49; Genesis Rabbah 49:6; B. Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a-b.

[3] There is some disagreement in Jewish scholarship about how to view Lot’s merit as a righteous person. In general, the tension lies in comparisons between Lot and Abraham. See, Jonathan D. Safren. “Hospitality Compared: Abraham and Lot as Hosts,” Universalism and Particularism at Sodom and Gomorrah: Essays in Memory of Ron Pirson, edited by Diana Lipton. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012).

[4] Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 30 can be found online in Hebrew and English at https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_DeRabbi_Eliezer. In the Islamic tradition, there is s closely similar story found in Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari. A History of Prophets and Kings. An English translation can be found in The History of al-Tabiri, translated by William Brinner. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987) 2: 77. 

[5] Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil. “Susannah Heschel on the Legacy of Her Father Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement.” Moment, April 30, 2015.

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